Friday, January 21, 2005

Red State sounds, international beats

Yesterday I went looking for CDs at the public library. In most public libraries, the approach to the collection seems based on what is inexpensive, more so than what would be good for the collection. This means that you might or not be able to find, say, some Duke Ellington. But you can probably find The Nylons.

I checked out STRICTLY THE BEST 19 which is a reggae collection, similar to those NOW THAT'S WHAT I CALL MUSIC collections I see in stores and on TV. There's some good stuff and some peculiar stuff...I'm particularly fond of "Big Man, Little Youth" by Red Rat and Goofy. The whole song is two guys going back and forth about how a woman really prefers him, one because he is a big muscle guy, the other because he's skinny and cute.

However, the strangest is "Bush Wacked" by Josey Wales. The songs on here are all copyright 1997 so it's safe to think that it isn't about W. The song is a country and western song. It's not a bad fake-country song either. Growing up in East Tennessee I remember learning that hillbilly recordings by The Carter Family were played on radio stations whose signals reached Jamaica, therefore 1920s country music had an influence on Jamaican music.

I don't know enough about music to vouch for that. "Bush Wacked", however, is not influenced by country, it is country. Or at least it is country as much as Jimmy Buffet truly is calypso or whatever.

Every once in a while David Byrne or Paul Simon or Sting or (fill in your own list here) record something influenced by a non-North American culture. These don't get fully absorbed into the culture, they are novelty songs even if some of them are especially thoughtful novelty songs.

Somehow it hadn't occurred to me that this could happen in reverse. "Bush Wacked" is every bit as good a country song as Paul Simon's "Mother and Child Reunion" is a good reggae song.

As a white, American, guy I tend to forget that my culture isn't the main dish of the world. Sometimes my main dish is someone else's condiment.


Jason B said...

Drew, I gotta say, I'm a bit confused by your take on this. Are you saying it's weird that someone would imitate America? This happens all the time. A quick onr of the top of my head is Jamaica pre-Ska. As you say, they picked up coastal American radio stations early on. You can hear the vibe of the Doo-Wop and southern soul sound in their first recordings. Check out Bob Marley's first album and compare to Ben E King or Billy Stewart's "Sitting in the Park." Then compare Marley to his predecessors in Mento. Like different countries really.

The best and worst example of this is Asian pop. Walk into a local Pho or Teriyaki joint around here, and you're bombarded by string swells and Celine Dion - except that she's singing in Cantonese. I could name others like Fela Kuti or DJ Krush.

You're right though that the appropriation is happening both directions, and the confusion that creates for us self-conscious Westerners. The colonists have as much right to be the exploited natives when radio gets involved. So who are we to hate Paul Simon's or Damon Albarn's lack of cred when they do "African" albums? Did you like "Bush Wacked?" Did it matter whether Wales was from just outside Knoxville?

Drew said...

Hmmmm, fair enough.

I think there are some musical forms, like rock or jazz that circle the globe and everyone absorbs it and makes their own version of it.

There are other things that don't travel so widely or so well. I'm thinking of polkas, for instance. You can hear polkas in a lot of Mexican music. Perhaps due to the Germans who settled in Texas back in the day and brought that kind of sound to a different group of people.

A kid in Seoul hears Hip Hop, he might want to find a turntable. I'm guessing that this same kid, upon hearing Polka does not try to get his hands on a tuba.

I was thinking that country and western with its twangs and yodels was more like polka than like hip hop. I'm not surprised that there are musicians in Jamaica who play country but I'm surprised that they scored what was apparently a hit single.