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The Elms Syndrome

PostPosted: Thu Jul 28, 2005 11:53 am
by howard male
Although I too thoroughly enjoyed the Elms interview with Charlie, part of me was waiting for the inevitable moment that Robert's cultural (or rather subcultural) snobbery would irritate me. Who cares that he once dated Sade, lived in Barcelona, or was the first person in his street to own a buttoned-down-collar shirt?

If he had been an eccentric individual rather than a tribe-follower in his oft-mentioned youth, or if the achievements of which he boasts were more substantial than the 80's music he so adores, then I'd allow for some blowing of his own trumpet, but the guy is so wrapped up in the superficial - the credibly cool - that it's unlikely that he'll ever see beyond the end of his own upturned nose.

But having said all that, he was pretty well behaved during this interview, and to his credit, drew a lot of fascinating stuff out of Charlie. So what did the man say which managed to irritate me?

Was it the fact that although he professes to love London, he still seems to think South London is a characterless hinterland? No, I'm used to that - his pride in his ignorance of all things south of the river, and his astonishment to hear of anything culturally worthwhile happening there, is an often repeated theme.

No, it was something far more pertinent to this forum. Something which fitted perfectly with his personality as I perceive it. It was the fact that although he confessed at one point to a love of Tango, Flamenco, Cuban, Fado, Latin and some African music, he then later, with reference to Sterns record shop said, and I quote -

"I'm no expert on African music or world music at all - it's never quite become my thing."

What does he think Tango, Cuban, and so on, are then?! For that matter, what does he think world music is?

The depressing truth is that he is a living breathing symbol of the image problem world music has. Someone as self-consciously fashionable as Robert Elms could never confess to enjoying 'world music' because world music is firmly placed in the 'unhip' list - as oppose to the 'hip list' - or 'in list' - in his brain. Whereas most of us have our brains subdivided into 'senses, emotions, spatial awareness, and so on, I suspect Robert's brain is cleanly cleaved in two. One side lists what an urbane Londoner can express an interest in, and the other, what is beyond the pale. So he has to exist in a state of self-denial in regard to world music, like an alcoholic who drinks six bottles of wine a day, but still insists they are for medicinal purposes. It would be harder for him to utter the words 'I love world music', than it would for him to wear a Top Shop suit or appear on Celebrity Squares.

Robert is what world music is up against. This is why record companies and world music magazines should have, as a priority, the changing of the image the genre has. We all judge on first impressions, and the first impression most punters get of a world music CD is not hearing it, but seeing it, as they give it a casual glance on the way to less exotic climes in their local HMV.

At a guess I would say that only about one in ten world CDs don't give off a naff vibe with their cover art. Some recent exceptions to the rule are 'Konono No 1', The 'Balkan Beats' compilation and 'London is the Place for Me 2' . All in their own way look exciting, intriguing, cool or edgy.

A bad cover does only one thing - it makes the potential listener think they already know what the CD sounds like. For example Putumayo CDs - tasteful, ineffectual, cute, generic, no rough edges, corporate, and so on.

We have all had our Robert Elms moments - dismissing that which we have predetermined is beneath us, or unacceptably uncool to our judgmental peers. World music has to start addressing this problem if it wants to expand its audience.

The Elms Syndrome

PostPosted: Thu Jul 28, 2005 1:02 pm
by Con Murphy
So, let me get this straight Howard - you think Mr Elms is an inveterate snob, so wrapped up his own superficial fundament that he wouldn't be seen dead south of the river with an unbuttoned collar. A pretentious, pug-nosed pomparse of the first order. And yet you want "world music" to change its image to appeal to the likes of this man? I feel I may have got hold of the wrong end of the stick on this one.

PostPosted: Thu Jul 28, 2005 2:24 pm
by Dominic
Robert Elms could never confess to enjoying 'world music' because world music is firmly placed in the 'unhip' list - as oppose to the 'hip list' - or 'in list' - in his brain.

I'm sure that for a lot of people World Music is not on an 'in list' or an 'out list' but a 'shake it all about list'. Or is that the sort of image that puts buttoned down people off?

Very pleased with Charlie's comments about Stern's. I hope Robert Elms does visit us - I'll do my best to not be austere.

Hope to see some of you at Womad - I'll be helping out in their CD marquee as usual, but hope to be able catch Chango, Lura et al playing for Charlie.

PostPosted: Thu Jul 28, 2005 2:46 pm
by howard male
You austere, Dominic - perish the thought!

And no, you've not got hold of the wrong end of the stick Con, it's just that Mr Elms is at the extreme end of the category of consumer I refer to.

As I say towards the end of my rant - we all have a bit of the Robert in us. What I was trying to express was that promoters of world music need to start trying to address different kinds of consumers- the self-conscious hipster who buys Konono No 1 because he/she perceives it's for them - being just one type.

I'm convinced a lot of people don't think world music is for them because of the way it looks. I mentioned 'London is the Place for Me 2' because it turned up in the post today. Honest Jons clearly know what they are doing. Rather than make the packaging a patronisingly colourful, 'festivally' thing, they've gone for a simple almost stark image of a mixed-race couple - black guy/white girl. It's a beautiful portrait of two people resolute and confident in their love. Part of its resonance lies in the knowledge that they probably faced some hard times in the half century that has passed since the photo was taken. But such deeper meanings are really by the by. Bottom line: It looks like a cool CD!

The digipak packaging turns out to be a small book with some forty pages of more great black and white photos, original record sleeve art work, first hand accounts by first generation black musicians arriving in London in the 1940's and 50's, notes on all the tracks and artists, and an informative and passionate introduction by Paul Gilroy. In effect it's a text book example of how a CD can - just by its appearance and care of presentation - be in invitation to many different demographics before they've even heard the music, which, by the way, is great too.

Never mind awards for music books, there should be awards for CD packaging - this would get my vote as this year's winner.


PostPosted: Thu Jul 28, 2005 2:59 pm
by Adam Blake
I hate Robert Elms because... he hates The Beatles!! No... Sorry... That wasn't what I meant to say. It just slipped out. I love World Music but I HATE the genre title. Are we really stuck with it? Can't we stop using it? It's so unutterably specious, crappy and godawful. No wonder self-consciously hip types can't be seen to profess an interest (which, of course, is their loss). I mean, isn't it blindingly obvious that ALL music is in the world therefore ALL music is World music. What I think WE are talking about is ORGANIC music, which although still growing and evolving (unlike rock), still has deep and clearly identifiable cultural roots and traditions tied to the places it comes from.

I think, for what it's worth, that the genre title World Music has given rise to too many "World Music Crossover" projects which have had a long term negative effect of homogenization where, in the worst case scenario, everything vital and engaging -all the rough edges - are smoothed over and given a hideous "mainstream music biz" gloss by virtue of some lackey's idea of a "contempoary" production.

Pah! Fie! A pox on such things, say I. Of course, Charlie's a musical missionary - he has always has been, bless him. But most people, if you asked them, 99% of them would say they LIKED music, but very few are really INTERESTED in music. Robert Elms is interested in music, he likes The Faces and The Clash and lots of high quality black American soul music. So do I. I also like lots of African music, Latin American music, Indian Classical music, Arabic music, British folk music (yes! and I'm not ashamed!) as well as all the rock'n'roll and blues and jazz I grew up and still listen to and enjoy. But if you call it all World Music then I get very itchy and uncomfortable and I'm not surprised that the likes of "Elmsy" does too.

Let's go round again - the "World Music" debate

PostPosted: Thu Jul 28, 2005 3:36 pm
by Con Murphy
Adam, I couldn't agree with you more - I hate the term "World Music". You see? I can't even type it without wrapping it in inverted commas. We had this debate when the forum first launched, so I won't repeat myself other than to say that I think the work Charlie and Ian et al did in the 80s was tremendous for getting certain stuff into shops in a place where people could find it. But as a genre? It's a non-starter, in my very humble opinion.

Oh, and Dominic - can you make sure you've got a spare Ballake Sissoko CD set aside for me on Saturday?

PostPosted: Thu Jul 28, 2005 4:20 pm
by howard male
As Con says, we have been through all this before, but it is worth remembering that many labels in art and music began as terms of derision. 'World music' happened to begin as a term of market necessity, but I think we should at least try and take it on board so that we don't have to say it under our breaths (or beneath a clearing of the throat) when someone asks us at a social gathering what kind of music we like. The alternative is to respond by listing about 30 countries along with the styles of music from each country we have a particular soft spot for - they'd wish they hadn't asked.

We must try to come to terms with its absurdities, and to proudly proclaim our love for all it embraces! Enjoy its overblown, post colonial pomp, its indefensible vagueness. Because we're stuck with it, just as I'm stuck with the name Howard - after 46 years I still don't like it much, but it serves to separate me from all the Daves, Steves and Johns of this world, so I put up with it.

It seems to me that the human brain is essentially a very conservative and inflexible thing. Once a word or phrase has been logged and defined, we find it near impossible to make changes to that definition, just as we find it hard to change our views of an individual once first impressions have been formed. And so it is with 'world music'. Yes it's a far from perfect label, easily interpreted as patronising, obviously, if taken literally - totally meaningless, but it's here to stay - until such a day as every record shop simply has a separate section for every country and its various types of music. Which is surely a day that will never come.

I think we should be embracing 'world music' as a label - enjoying its intrinsic looseness, loving its mind-boggling vagueness, and getting excited about its rapidly expanding horizons, as ever more portable recording equipment makes it easier for us all to spice our sonic DNA in lands near and far!

And no, Adam, when we talk of world music, we are not just talking about what you describe as 'organic music' - for me the most interesting part of the 'growing and evolving' of world music happens in the 'crossover' projects which seem to distress you so. Perhaps you could elaborate on what your problem is here. Are you really - as to my astonishment some world music purists seem to be - insisting on racial purity in music!! As you've always seemed such a reasonable, intelligent and sensible chap in the past, I find this hard to believe.

The threat of the homogenisation of music is an absurd and non-existent one, (takes a deep breath), there is good music and bad music, good producers and bad producers, and so on, and so on. 'Fusion' for me is a worse label than 'world music' but the fact is, potentially and historically, the most exiting music we produce comes from crossovers - go listen to any of Think of One's Marrakech albums, or Suba's Sao Paolo Confessions, or The Beatles (!!) once they had virtually cross-pollinated with Ravi Shankar, The Stones with the influence of the Master Musicians of Jajouka - I could go on - but I'm sure you could give me more examples than I could give you. So what are you talking about maaaan!

Again I think perhaps you have a fixed concept (logged in your head) of what 'world music crossover' is, which has prevented you from considering what an astonishing body of work has been produced by such liaisons before they were cursed with such a meaningless sub-genre description.


CD sleeves

PostPosted: Thu Jul 28, 2005 7:50 pm
by garth cartwright
not wanting to get into the debate on world music or Elms but just adding a reality check to Howard's gushing praise on the new HJ's CD: yes it is very nicely packaged. Why don't most world music labels do this? Because they are not funded by EMI. HJ's only exists cos damon Albarn makes so much money for EMI that they let him have his own vanity label which they are willing to take a bath on so to ensure he delivers a Blur album in the near future. What were the sales of Volume 1 of London ITPFM? I have no idea but doubt they ran beyond ten thousand (at max). Your average world music label simply can't afford such packaging - OK, World Circuit can do whatever they fancy after BVSC shifted multiple millions but even Crammed told me that the success of Bebel Gilberto's debut only carried the company for 18 months and then it was back to counting every euro. Most world music CDs simply don't sell enough to warrant extensive packaging and design. I designed the cover for Princes Amongst Men cos the designer kept coming up with naff covers - not cos he was an idiot but simply cos he was busy with many assignments and the fee from the publishers was so low he couldn't spend days on it. And I'd say this is the same for most world music labels - unless u have the luxury of time (like me) to sit down and do the damn thing you'll accept whatever is delivered. Anyway, the London album is good as nostalgia - in sound and packaging - but what we are really talking about is contemporary artists and these are much more difficult beasts to market than stuff that can be served up in sepia.

Honest Jon's

PostPosted: Thu Jul 28, 2005 9:28 pm
by David Godwin
.., I don't think that Honest Jon's works quite in the way that Garth suggests. I thought that their "Lif up yuh legs 'n trample" had great packaging too. In fact, HJ's were selling this album in both vinyl and CD at the same time and price. But I liked the pictures so much, I bought the vinyl, as it had much larger black and white shots of the area - the album was brought out, in part, to mark the 40th anniversary of the Notting Hill festival

PostPosted: Fri Jul 29, 2005 12:42 am
by Adam Blake
Thanks Howard, I'll try and give you a reasonable, intelligent and sensible response! No of course I'm not advocating racial purity in music - after all, as you know, I'm a white middle-class Englishman who plays black working-class American and Jamaican music in public for love and money. Also your points about The Beatles and Ravi Shankar and The Stones and the Morrocans are well made. The Beatles (or specifically George Harrison) could well be held responsible for re-introducing the West to the East - no mean feat - and they (or he) used the connection to make that contradiction in terms, THOUGHTFUL pop music. The Stones (or Brian Jones) smoked too much kif to make much of their connection but at least they had a go. I suppose what it really amounts to is WHAT YOU LIKE. I tend to think that, with a few honourable exceptions, eclecticism compromises its sources and ends up being somewhat less than the sum of its parts. For example, I loved that record Ry Cooder made with that Indian musician, "Down By The River", (sorry it's in a box somewhere and I can't locate it to verify names but I'm sure you know the one I mean) but if push comes to shove, I'd infinitely prefer to listen to either Blind Willie Johnson or Ustad Vilayat Khan. Similarly with classical attempts at "Fusion": Ravi Shankar made a couple of records with Yehudi Menuhin which are very pleasant and all that, but I'd rather listen to Menuhin bash out some J.S Bach or Shankar getting to grips with a proper Raga. And I won't mention Nigel Kennedy's Hendrix fixation (ooops, I just did).

I guess I'm just a musical conservative. I DO like purity. But it doesn't have to be racial! I always try to go to the source, wherever possible. I agree with Duke Ellington's sentiment: If it sounds good, it IS good. And if people are foolish enough to ask me what kind of music I like (and believe me, it happens less and less these days!) I always say I like anything that comes from the heart. Which may be hopelessly romantic but is nevertheless true... I suppose what it is that I rail against is the "Cocktail Lounge Dinner Jazz Compilation" cd approach to "World Music" whereby the music of entire continents are neatly compartmentalised and effectively marketed in Starbucks as "Chillout" music to have on in the background whilst you make your all-important mobile phone calls and tap on your laptop. You see? It's just snobbery. I care so much about music that I hate to see the magnificence of (say) traditional Senegalese music reduced to the status of hip muzak, or worse, combined with "beats" to conform to some hack producer's notion of what is palatable to the western youth market. It's hard enough for real music to survive being put through the sausage machine of modern digital production techniques (and THAT'S a whole 'nother discussion) without having to suffer the indignities of present day music biz marketing methods as well.

Hey-ho. You begin to see (I hope) why I spend my money on scratchy old vinyls rather than shiny new cd's. But I'm just a musician. Since when did the music business cater for people like me?!

Hope that clears things up a bit. I do tend to sound off, yes, but that's what I perceive this forum is for!

PostPosted: Fri Jul 29, 2005 2:20 am
by Tom McPhillips
as much as I cringe at the "World" monicker it does serve an essential purpose.

Try the following and you'll see what I mean...

go to, yes, the US site

now go to browse music

"World" isn't on that list.

"International" is the only category that comes close..

Ok go there...

select "Far East" and then "Japan"

and you're presented with the very most banal and teeny-crass J-Pop!

see what I mean?

my rest cases!

PostPosted: Fri Jul 29, 2005 10:18 am
by howard male
Keep on keeping on, sounding off Adam!

For me the things worth reading on this forum are when people are 'sounding off' and I think, like me you are on some level being deliberately provocative in order to spark debate, which is great. Reading through your considered response to my (tough in cheek) accusation of racism, I realise that we mostly agree.

What you really object to is a certain type of whirled music - some 'tasteful' concoction which has been frappuccinoed into existence by a cynical production company to function as 'exotic' soundtrack material to someone's shallow but aspirational existence.

Of course this stuff is execrable, and unfortunately it makes up a high percentage of cross-cultural music. But every genre is 90% bollocks, so one just has to keep listening until the next exciting more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts collaboration sparks the synapses.

It's also worth pointing out that cross-cultural music can, and often does, take place in a single musician. I can listen to a song by Abdullar Ibrahim and hear gospel, jazz and township music joyfully and playfully jostelling to be the main reference point in the music. Its like that optical illution where you either see the vase or the two silhouetted profiles, but you can't see both at the same time.

This is one reason I love crossovers as oppose to music clearly defined by genre or nationality. Another is the possibilities of creating a new form, something I've simply not heard before. I would argue (just as I would if you were a racial supremacist!) that most of the music you listen to is not as pure as you think, just as there is no such thing as a racially pure human being.

Your precious blues is a blend of American folk, gospel and African influences ( I know you know all this, but I can't resist reminding you) and from there, most rock, funk, soul, hip hop music, where further multicultural elements get added to the mix. I therefore think this list of 'a few honourable acceptions' is a lot longer than you might at first think it is!

And Garth. I take your points about Honest Jons and poorer world music labels, but does it really cost anymore money to, for example, put a CD in a nice cardboard digipak as oppose to a nasty plastic tray? As for imaginative design - if you visit art and design students final year degree shows there will be a ton of talent who'd jump at the chance of designing a CD cover for a few beer and half an ounce of tobacco, if it's going to potentially be their first step into commercial work.

Also a CD doesn't have to contain a forty page book, just a few informative notes and a cover which suggest at least a modicum of aesthetic suss.

Note to any small label personnel who might be reading this:

Good packaging and interesting sleeve notes can genuinely make a difference between whether someone just burns their friends copy of a CD or decides they would like to own the thing. I know, because I have been that person and his/her friend!

PostPosted: Fri Jul 29, 2005 11:35 am
by Adam Blake
"Whirled Music" !!! That's fabulous, Howard. Thank you for that one. That was worth the whole argument.

I take your point about "purity", actually I think it's very very rare if it exists at all: Munir Bachir, Sabicas, yer actual Tibetan singing bowls (when played by someone with a bit of skill and sensitivity), British parish church bells (likewise), the didgeridu (again) - but then again one could argue that musical purity is ANY musical expression that exists for no reason other than to help the person making it and the persons listening to it (if there are any) feel better about their lives. And that includes singing in the shower! What it DOESN'T include is any music that has been made for no reason other than to make money. And yet... You and I are a pair of old glam-rockers. I can't help having a soft spot for pop kitsch if it's done with a bit of wit and style, eg, Joan Jett's "I Love Rock'n'Roll" which is PURE PRODUCT and which I wouldn't be without. But Britney Spears did a straight copy of it which was also pure product and I disdain it accordingly. Why? She's got no style. And I don't believe her. Anyway. Nice talkin' to ya. I'm sure we'll be at it again before long!

PostPosted: Fri Jul 29, 2005 11:37 am
by howard male
By chance a CD turned up in the post this morning which reminded me of exactly why I like uncategorisable crossover music. The CD was 'Achadados e Perdidos' by Curumin. Some artists are literally born to fuse - after all, what kind of music are you going to make if you're half Brazilian and half Japanese and grew up on a diet of Devo, Milton Nascimento, the B52's and Run DMC? The answer to that question is apparent thirty seconds into the first track on the album, as the crude futuristic burps of a vintage synth deftly trample all over the traditional elements of a samba rhythm.

It's these kinds of curious disjunctures, when they are executed with wit and panache, that I live for - where two or more forms don't quite fit together, but in their not fitting, they magically produce a new music - a new life force.

Obviously such musical meetings backfire more often than they spark into life, but I've always liked a spanner in the works, a dissonant or discordant infiltration into the generic or the formula.

PostPosted: Wed Dec 07, 2005 6:18 pm
by Dominic
The new Time Out lists 100 of London's "movers, shakers & opinion makers". Robert Elms features - not in the main list, but a list of "10 who think they run London".