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Jun 19, 2009

Starting with its early field recordings, Nonesuch has brought world music to a global audience.

By John McAlley

The world wasn’t always this flat. Or small. Or branded down to its last grain of the Gobi. We can be certain that not one of the intrepid mid-20th-century ethnomusicologists who followed their passion to remote outposts like Mali or Tahiti in search of extraordinary indigenous music was wearing a Tommy Bahama shirt.
Those early field recordings, many of them made for Nonesuch’s Explorer Series, were crudely recorded and collected mainly by stoners and anthropologists. They weren’t particularly stylish, just profoundly influential.
In the liner notes to the recent reissue of his hypnotic global-music mash-up My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981), David Byrne says he had “grown up on” those Nonesuch recordings.
“The Explorer Series was the first expansion of the Nonesuch concept,” says label founder Jac Holzman, who priced the records at the same two-and-a-half bucks he was charging for Bach. “The minute we launched the series, we had collectors and ethnomusicologists bringing us their material from around the world, and we would release it. Some of these albums, like Music of the Morning of the World, sold over 100,000 copies. It was one of those rich musical tributaries that had yet to be explored in a critical and directed way, and we were able to do that. Financially, at that point, Nonesuch could afford to do whatever Nonesuch wanted to do.”
Bottom-line pressures had to be a bit more of a concern when, some 20 years after the launch of the Explorer Series, Bob Hurwitz brought the sonorous Brazilian Caetano Veloso to Nonesuch. If that signing of a dynamic, contemporary world-music artist constituted a risk for a label so heavily identified with museum-ready discs from the concert halls of Vienna and jungles of Paraguay, it was a move that matched the mood of the times.
In the 1980s, as technology was leveling boundaries and giving rise to a global village, artists like Byrne, Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel were appropriating exotic musical forms with abandon. With the sudden birth of so-called world-beat music came an expanding and more sophisticated record-buying audience—and a stunning stroke of good fortune for Nonesuch.

Going Back to Mali

Sometime in the early 1990s, as David Bither recalls, “[saxophonist] John Zorn played me a record by a singer from Mali named Oumou Sangare. Extraordinary singer, extraordinary presence. It was a record I came back to and played relatively often. Bob came by my office one day and said, ‘What’s that? That’s special.’”
Bither knew that Sangare was signed to a small label in the U.K. “So I got in touch with some people I knew in London,” he says, “who arranged an introduction with a man named Nick Gold, who runs World Circuit Records.”
Gold flew to New York to negotiate a deal with Nonesuch to distribute World Circuit music in the States, and during that meeting Bither casually asked, “So what do you have coming up?”
“Well,” Gold said, “we were in Cuba last year with Ry Cooder and a bunch of old Cuban musicians.”
The franchise that rose out of the eruptive success of the Buena Vista Social Club, the 2001 signing of the Senegalese legend Youssou N’Dour and the steady flow of gems from World Circuit (discs from Ali Farka Touré, Toumani Diabaté and Oumou Sangare, among others) have made modern-day Nonesuch a virtual United Nations of rhythm and sound.
The label’s latest jubilant and boundary-obliterating success is the second album from the spirit-lifting African couple Amadou & Mariam. It’s called Welcome to Mali.
Right back to where it all began. 

The Song of Brazil

Forty-two years after his first album, Caetano Veloso still rocks.
In a country that defines itself by music—even Brazilian eight-year-olds can dance a mean samba—it could almost be said that Caetano Veloso defines the country. The cultural and political aura of the singer/guitarist is so spectral, in fact, that his name at once summons sounds of amazing beauty and images of revolution.
As a young college student and musician in the late-1960s, Veloso was one of the pioneers of Tropicálismo, a movement that blended two of Brazil’s most abiding obsessions: hedonism and art.
The surge of free-spiritedness and alternative thinking eventually became so threatening to the ruling Brazilian dictatorship that two of the movement’s most charismatic leaders—Veloso and fellow singer Giberto Gil—were exiled in 1969.
Two years later, Veloso returned from London a national hero, with an immense popularity that spread to European and African countries first, then to the States in 1989 after the release of the stunningly lyrical Estrangeiro.
Veloso’s mid-career music—a dreamy and folksy blend of samba, bossa nova and jazz—has, these days, returned to the distinctly Brazilian style of rock that launched his career in collaboration with Os Mutantes, Brazil’s answer to the psychedelic bands of the 1960s.
After over 40 years in the business, Veloso, at age 66, has set his sights on redefining Brazilian rock for a new generation.
For his 2006 album , Veloso and guitarist Pedro Sá recruited two young guns, both in their 20s, to play bass and drums in his band. Why? Because, Veloso says with plausible humility but laughable incredulity, “production by young people creates a kind of excitement that directly appeals to other young people, and production that comes from a veteran [like me], no matter how fresh, innovative or interesting, can’t do that.”

Oumou Sangare

Like all young girls raised in Mali in the ’70s and ’80s, Oumou Sangare saw her future mapped out in the traditional role of Malian women: a life of forced marriage and strict subservience to men.
But by her teens, Sangare had already found her voice—strong, incandescent and fiercely committed to upending social injustices. Her 1989 debut Moussoluo carried the sound of southern Mali’s infectious Wassoulou and a message. It also made the then-21-year-old singer an icon for women’s rights issues, and a global star.

Talking Drums and Talking-Drums

With his blend of Senegalese fusion, Youssou N’Dour has changed the world’s perception of African music.
Every now and then, even the most exotic, unfamiliar and deeply rooted of the world’s diverse musical styles manages to travel well. In the case of mbalax, the propulsive and complex dance music of Senegal, the voice carrying the tune to every corner of the world is Youssou N’Dour.
In blending his country’s traditional beats with Western forms and politically charged pan-African messages sung in Wolof (the native language of Senegal), the singer, composer and percussionist has become not only a spokesman for his own country, but for West Africa and, arguably, African Muslims everywhere.
N’Dour’s reign—2007’s Rokku Mi Rokka is the newest of his 20 studio albums—has not been without its flare-ups and outrages.
Five years ago, the release of Egypt aroused the furor of Muslims for giving voice (and rhythm) to passages from the Koran, igniting a debate over the role of music in worship that led to the album being banned in his native Senegal. N’Dour, and the tumult surrounding Egypt (which earned the superstar his first Grammy Award), are the subject of a just-released documentary titled "I Bring What I Love".
What N’Dour loves spills out of every groove of Rokku Mi Rokka, which features his return to the comparatively unfettered fusion style of early works like Joko and Nothing in Vain. While the minimum of Sufi chanting that dominated Egypt should appease his orthodox detractors, the album is peppered with more of N’Dour’s potent messages.
Opening with a celebration of 44 years of Senegalese independence (“4-4-44”) and closing with a collaboration between N’Dour and American vocalist Neneh Cherry (“Wake Up (It’s Africa Calling)”), Rokku Mi Rokka is meant to promote efforts to bring first-world medicine to West Africa and beyond.
With his iconoclastic musical style and Wolof tongue, N’Dour has often tested the idea that the language of music is, indeed, universal. But as his tremendous popularity and artistry suggest, even the most challenging messages—musical, political or otherwise—will be heard when whispered (or shouted or sung) by a voice that commands our respect and moves our feet.

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