The Shock of Misrecognition
ON WORLD MUSIC’S POPULARITY Follow anything back as far as you can and you’ll find bastardization. Even the Bible, the alleged founding text of Western Civilization, is a mélange of ancient traditions, woven into Jewish and Greek forms. And today, when many of us have only the vaguest idea of what’s in the Bible, there’s a freshly alien thrill in hearing The Gravediggaz rap, “Words like proverbs/Splendid, braided/So on like a storm or song of King David.” Though The Gravediggaz are thoroughly American, their reference to King David colors the song with an almost foreign exoticism. King David’s songs might as well be in Panjabi for all we recognize of them.
Rap’s reach into the distant past mirrors a much larger trend. As a recent ad put it, “The rhythms of the world are hipper than hip-hop.” Even Salon has cited the boom in pan-global tunes as “proof that pop music, like capitalism, will only grow stronger as it continues to plunder foreign lands.” Really?
Are the scratchy beats and slinky noises on Spin‘s pick for 1997 record of the year, Cornershop’s When I Was Born for the 7th Time (Luaka Bop, 1997), a symbol of multinational capitalism’s charm? That would turn world music into some cultural El Niño—haphazardly lifting from all over—and the London-based Cornershop is firmly rooted in an Indo-Anglo heritage. The album’s centerpiece, “Brimful of Asha,” is a tribute to the queen of Indian film music, Asha Bhosle, who ruled in the ’70s over a form of pop so bastardized that the government restricted it in the ’50s for its hedonistic Latin jazz beats. (Listeners simply glued their dials to film-music-friendly Radio Ceylon instead, and the government relented in 1957.)
Yet compared to actual Indian film music, the remarkable thing about Cornershop’s album is how accessible it is, even if darker tones of history glimmer through the songs: “Funky Days Are Back Again” contains a reference to Gurkhas, the Nepalese soldiers who kept order in India, and thus to the ability of large imperial forces to play divided ethnic groups against each other.
That Cornershop’s ’90s multiculturalism is both the most significant thing about them and what matters least to their music is clear from their take on “Norwegian Wood.” They cover the Beatles straight; the only difference is that they sing in Panjabi. But do we know it’s Panjabi? I can’t tell if the words are actually Prakrit or even Tamil, but that’s not the point: We know that the words are foreign, and that Cornershop has thus reclaimed the first English pop song to use a sitar. The difference only stands out because most of the record is in (surprise!) English.
Contrast it with another “Norwegian Wood,” a duet by Milton Nascimento and Beto Guedes, members of the Brazilian tropicalismo movement, which embraced both South American cliché and Western pop to make politically loaded art under Brazil’s brutal government. Their version starts so slow and languid you could lose your bearings entirely; nothing of the Beatles’ phrasing remains, only a Brazilian tidal surge around their English lyrics. You probably haven’t heard this version because it’s on the hard-to-find Sol de Primavera, and the rest of the songs are in Portuguese.
When world music brings us the world, we may not be able to understand it: Foreign countries and old cultures have different languages, use customs that take time to learn, have their own histories. Instead, we import signs of difference, short passages of foreign words layered on familiar beats or a few neat references to another world. Cornershop’s music is so instantly appealing because it has little legible Indian content, only a few challengingly foreign edges. Ironically, lines from The Gravediggaz provide a starker cultural clash: Their black blend of American horror and comedy claims to be “Potentially vital/Only as the Bible”—at once more foreign and closer to home.
A Personal Matter By Kenzaburo Oe, translated by John Nathan. New York: Grove Press, 1969. 165 pages. $10. American-ness is a cultural trait that doesn’t just belong to Americans. Our unique influence is visible— for better, for worse, or both—in tellingly distorted examples nearly everywhere we look. The Nobel Prize-winning Japanese novelist Kenzaburo Oe is among the most intriguing observers of U.S. influence; for Oe, who experienced postwar American occupation as a child, its effect is deeply personal. An admirer of Norman Mailer and Jean-Paul Sartre, Oe focuses on the marginal, on the deviant, and on hopeless misunderstandings. In this astonishing novel, a father reacts to the birth of his disfigured child with an intellectualized, arm’s-length desire to bring about the infant’s death. His mistress—his wife is still in the hospital—is appalled only by his equivocation. This father’s dilemma, the highly nuanced story suggests, could never have grown from purely Japanese roots. [C.B.]
Conglomerates and the Media Edited by Erik Barnouw et al. New York: New Press, 1997. 189 pages. $23. This slim volume is filled with excellent work on the creeping global reach of mass media, particularly their transformation from mere means of conveying content into ever more purposeful means of purveying lifestyle and overall brand image. As the contributors readily demonstrate, media conglomerates have a global reach, yet do little to inform us about world issues. The one drawback to this book is its lack of timeliness, in that it brings together a series of lectures delivered at New York University way back in October 1996. Some of the lectures were even broadcast on C-SPAN last spring, thus highlighting a seemingly intractable problem for left-of-center media critics: How can they improve the time-to-market for their badly needed ideas? [T.D.]
Articulating the Global and the Local: Globalization and Cultural Studies Edited by Ann Cvetkovich and Douglas Kellner. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1997. 248 pages. $22. Not since Wahneema Lubiano’s terrific work on the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings has anyone navigated so well the wildly uneven terrain of what academics call “cultural studies.” The global is shot through with the local and vice versa, of course, but to have the theoretical and practical implications spelled out so well by Cvetkovich and Kellner in their introduction makes this book a real pleasure. An essay about the National Basketball Association as a “visual commodity” and another about teaching in the midst of a war are also outstanding. [T.D.]
A Distant Episode: The Selected Stories By Paul Bowles. Hopewell, N.J.: Ecco Press, 1988. 352 pages. $17. At the beginning of Paul Bowles’ 1949 novel The Sheltering Sky (which Ecco Press will reprint in the spring), three Americans arrive in North Africa. Two identify themselves as “travelers”; the third, they decide, is a mere “tourist.” By the end of the book, the travelers are lost: one to death, one to insanity. The tourist never really tunes in to his surroundings deeply enough to be destroyed. Though Bowles, an American writer who spent most of his adult life in another culture, might have arrived at some sort of definitive understanding about how Americans live among people who aren’t us—who aren’t U.S.—he stays far away from pat answers to such questions. In A Distant Episode, a collection of 24 perfectly written stories, Americans abroad (and the occasional Canadian) can’t hear or see their surroundings—sometimes literally, as with the astigmatic Pastor Dowe—and continually get themselves into deep trouble that they can’t begin to understand. If his writer’s vision is accurate, we might as well stay home. [C.B.]
The Guinness Book of World Records Stamford, Conn.: Guinness Media, 1997. 303 pages. $24.95. This edition of the Book rides a surge of interest in animal, vegetable, and mineral superlatives—from the McCaughey septuplets to Elton John’s best-selling “Candle in the Wind ’97” (sure contenders for the ’99 edition). How did a fine Irish brewery become the arbiter of the world’s most arcane trivia? Sir Hugh Beaver, managing director of Guinness Brewing in the ’50s, was asked to settle an argument at a party. He was chagrined to find the host’s library lacking in elementary research materials. “It occurred to Beaver,” the jacket reads, “that there must be numerous such ‘friendly arguments’ going on nightly in pubs and inns throughout the British Isles, while patrons partook of Guinness stout.” He went on to create what is, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the best-selling copyrighted book of all time (the Bible and Koran are in the public domain). Which seems kind of circular, but we’re inclined to believe ’em, if it means another round of stout and one less barroom brawl. [H.E.]
AltaVista Translation Service http://babelfish.altavista.digital.com The story goes: Human beings originally had one language and one purpose, and they were focused on building a tower that would reach heaven. The Lord, concerned about his job security, scuttled the project by “confusing their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” It’s taken almost 4,000 years, but it looks like we may be back on track. The folks at AltaVista (the Web search engine) have teamed up with software company Systran to build a nifty automatic translator. While the translations are often hilariously clumsy (“Ich bin ein Berliner” translates as “I am Berlin”; “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?” is rendered “Want lie down with me?”), there’s no question that this is a useful little virtual gadget. The fact that Portuguese poesy translates with all the sophistication of a license plate will undoubtedly have naysayers clucking into the 21st century. Still, even the most worthless tools can make terrific toys. [H.E.]
five ways of looking at globalization
Only a vaguely defined post-Cold War concept a few years ago, “globalization” has become publishing’s favorite bedtime story. From boilerplate such as Kenichi Ohmae’s The End of the Nation State (Free Press, 1995), to Lester Thurow’s competitivist tomes, to Building a Win-Win World (Berrett- Koehler, 1996) by “independent futurist” Hazel Henderson, the problem isn’t so much finding a book on globalization, as finding one worth reading. For the stouthearted, here’s a survey of works with something to say about the world economy.
The Post-Cold War Trading System: Who’s on First By Sylvia Ostry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. 296 pages. $17.95. Canada’s ambassador to the Uruguay Round of the GATT negotiations has produced a work of brilliantly wonkish density. Still, if you want to talk big about the world economy, finding out how the negotiators got us here is one way to pay your dues. That many of the GATT nations, the U.S. included, seem bent on treating the agreements like so much toilet paper is a point Ostry mostly works around.
Jihad vs. McWorld By Benjamin R. Barber. New York: Ballantine Books, 1995. 370 pages. $12.95. The dialectical framework is fairly clear: Jihad (generically defined) is the struggle, often nationalist or tribalist, against cultural and economic entropy, and McWorld…well, we all know what that is (in case we don’t, the phrase is repeated and explicated ad nauseam throughout the book). Barber’s dichotomy is too programmatic for most real-world applications—the book’s strongest suit is its sympathy for the jihad, not as a pathology but as a struggle for dignity.
The Big Ten By Jeffrey E. Garten. New York: Basic Books, 1997. 223 pages. $24. As undersecretary of commerce for international trade during the first Clinton administration, Garten helped craft and promote a compelling trade doctrine—that the course of America’s trading future will be shaped by how we deal, individually and together, with the 10 Big Emerging Markets. This book argues the case with intermittent persuasiveness, but it’s a surprisingly easy read, and as you watch your tax dollars being sent to South Korean bankers, Garten may help you understand why the Commerce Department considered it a necessary expenditure.
One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism By William Greider. New York: Touchstone, 1998. 528 pages. $15. Whether you think Greider’s brand of popular economics is conscientious common sense or Chicken Little hysteria, he presents an affecting catalog of the human costs of the global economy. In a few paragraphs, Greider details the 1993 fire at the Kader Industrial Toy Company’s Bangkok factory—which killed more people than 1911’s infamous Triangle Shirtwaist fire—and notes that the incident met with a resounding silence on the part of boycotters, buyers, and the American press. At its best, this book (now out in paperback) moves beyond parochial arguments about competition to make the argument that workers’ rights are an international concern.
Pop Internationalism By Paul Krugman. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996. 214 pages. $10. Krugman sticks pins in the balloons of popular economics with the relish of a true math geek. If the tone is often that of a schoolmarm scolding pupils for not doing their cyphers, some of the essays here, such as a thorough dismantling of the seemingly universal conceit of “national competitiveness,” are long overdue. A genuine economist who is also genuinely popular is a rare bird. Krugman’s success here lies in his use of the ivory tower for its excellent view of the world and its economy.
Reviews by Chris Bray, Tom Dowe, and Hans Eisenbeis