Where This Meets That
In 1990, Paul Simon released his Rhythm of the Saints album to follow-up his widely acclaimed 1986 album Graceland. Graceland had brought African music to the forefront of the American music scene, and Rhythm of the Saints heard Simon continuing to expand his musical horizons, this time with strong influence from Latin American music. Rhythm of the Saints failed to become the zeitgeist that its predecessor had, but it touched me deeply as Graceland never did.
Rhythm of the Saints gave me a new appreciation for the range of percussion and for the rich sonic textures that other cultures could weave together with their own musical traditions. It’s one of those albums that I can listen to from start to finish and it always feels fresh, as though I’ve just been introduced to a delightfully unfamiliar part of my soul. The chemistry between the album’s lyrics and melodies always feels very organic and unifying, with several moments that trigger me to think that these are songs that deep forests would write if they only could.
While I’ve always had a special place for Rhythm of the Saints in my rotation, it’s just one album among countless more standard and less . . . ethnic mainstays. My musical tastes have always been diverse (ABBA’s “Dancing Queen”, Ravel’s “Bolero”, and Radiohead’s “The Tourist” are all among my favorites), but over the years I was always satisfied to throw on some old standards, such as The Beatles, Pink Floyd, or the like; this has changed for me over the past couple years. I guess there’s only so many times one can ponder where “Dust in the Wind” will blow “When the Music’s Over”.
Now I’ve grown largely adrift from those old touchstones, and over the past year or so I’ve seized on the inspiration of Rhythm of the Saints and sought out intriguing music from other cultures. Whereas I once placed great importance on the lyrical meaning of songs, I’ve found great enjoyment in my inability to understand the vocals of other languages. Interestingly, it’s even a little liberating to hear the vocals as merely part of the music, as just another instrument. Further, I’ve found that a lot of music feels more open and universal when I have no idea what the “message” is. It often seems to enhance the emotional value of the music and serve as a reminder that some guy playing his kora in Mali is creating music out of the same emotional set as my own. His situation is different, his struggles and salvations, but his emotions are much the same. That, after all, is primarily what bonds us as humans.
For example, Orchéstre Baka de Gbiné’s “Gati Bongo” surrounds me with a feeling of family amidst a great celebration; I see in it smiling faces, and I want to clap along. By contrast, I feel an earnest prayer churning inside Ayub Ogada’s “Kothbiro” as I sit intimately with this persona of a man I’ve never seen and who is otherwise alone. New Ancient Strings is a magical collection of acoustic instrumentals pairing Ballaké Sissoko and Toumani Diabaté that channels a joy of living and of spontaneity that simply couldn’t be effectively captured in words. These are images that emphasize the power of music as a unifier of people.
The beauty of it all is that the world is smaller than it has ever been. Consumer access to music has never been so diverse or convenient as it is today. Artists have never enjoyed such easy access to distribution channels as they do now. Online research tools, like iTunes or Amazon, make musical exploration unbelievably easy simply by guiding you in the natural direction of your tastes. All of this effectively removes boundaries heretofore posed by geography or culture or even record labels and contributes to a world of unprecedented social integration. I was surprised to even hear some of the African music I’d become fond of pop up on our “Little Big Planet” video game, which underscores what I’m trying to say: my kids, tomorrow’s generation, can find a nice little connection with me through some random African song they’ve heard on the PS3.
And I think that’s just fantastic.
Here are a few recommendations for those who are interested:
New Ancient Strings (the whole album) by Ballaké Sissoko and Toumani Diabaté
“Kounandi Déni” by Abdoulaye Diabate
“Nyandolo” and “Kothbiro” by Ayub Ogada
“Webake” by Samite
“Gati Bongo” by Orchéstre Baka de Gbiné
“Tapha Niang” by Toumani Diabate’s Symmetric Orchestra