Searching for clues in the library of a drama college, I recently stumbled upon an unloved book from 1989 on “world music, politics and social change”, edited by Simon Frith, featuring papers from the International Association for the Study of Popular Music, and published by the Manchester University Press. Flicking through it out of curiosity I was struck by its totally topical opening sentence: “We live, we are often told, in a museum culture, clinging on to the artefacts of the past because we cannot invent appropriate ones ourselves.”
The general editors’ preface continued, pretty much capturing what I feel at the moment: “Yet even if this is true, it is also true that more people than ever before are interested in and enjoy some form of music: people who attend concerts of some or other kind and people who play music themselves, as well as the countless millions who buy records and tapes (themselves the products of a major industry) or simply experience the pervasive effects of music on radio and television and in films. Though heterogeneous, this public is enormous, including both those who are professionally involved in the production of masterworks and those who just ‘know what they like’ when they chance to hear it. For despite another of the claims often made about contemporary societies – that their rationalistic and utilitarian values have all but erased the spiritual, the emotional, in a word the distinctively human qualities of life – it is evident that the clamour for music not only survives but indeed is intensified, in such societies. In short, music matters ...”
While much of the book reeks of academia there is a prevailing sense of genuinely wanting to learn and share information about popular music and culture from around the world. I can understand that. It’s what I thrive on. It’s the opposite of nostalgia. And it’s what motivates me. There is no escaping the fact that I am ridiculously excited about discovering new information and new areas of music I know next-to-nothing about. But with the thrill of discovery there comes an ever-increasing sense that ‘the more you learn, the more there is to learn’. That’s why the thrill of the chase will never end.
Let me give an example: by chance on YouTube I chanced upon a whole cache of wonderful clips of Afghan pop music, predominantly I presume from the late ‘70s or very early ‘80s. There is an incredible number of these great videos, salvaged from the archives of RTA, the Afghan radio and TV station, posted by various people, featuring some incredible music and charming performances. But I would have to put my hands up and admit to knowing pretty much nothing at all about Afghan pop music, and to be honest I know very little more now.
You can see some of these clips for yourself over at the Anywhere Else But Here Today project. They are, I think, fantastic. The music is brilliant, the singers mesmerising. It’s tempting to draw comparisons with the Persian clips posted previously as part of that project. There are certainly similarities in the way traditional elements are fused with a more worldly pop approach. It’s tempting too to wonder what might have transpired in both Iran and Afghanistan if history hadn’t taken such ridiculous turnings. Certainly the sophisticated stylings captured in these videos could have had a similar impact on the pop music world as a whole in the way, say, Algerian rai music did in the 1980s.
I am assuming that many of the Afghan pop singers and players went into exile or gave up performing when such a horrible sequence of events followed the Soviet invasion. I have frequently fallen into despair while working on the Anywhere Else But Here Today project, angry at the way the world has turned out. Progress is not really what’s been achieved is it? One of the persistent themes in the book on world music, politics and social change is how pop music remains a democratising or civilising force. Well, compared to religion or nationalism that’s certainly true. It’s also a unifying force. And if you want a symbol of that you could choose an early portable Roland synth or electronic keyboard or an equivalent brand which was utilised by musicians pretty much everywhere by the start of the 1980s. Look at or listen to the clips on the Anywhere Else But Here Today site, from Iran to Afghanistan, from the Eritrean freedom fighters to the Algerian rai producers, from Ethiopia to Pakistan to the USSR, the keyboard’s there and it’s been part of some pretty incredible music.
There’s another great passage in that book, in a paper by Alenka Barber-Kersovan on “tradition and acculturation as polarities of Slovenian popular music” where in the context of The Beatles being replaced by Saturday Night Fever or disco as the prime shaping force she writes: “Since it is continually present in the media, pop has lost its exclusive character. It is not the Leitmotiv of a generation any more, but simply ‘pop music’, suitable for any situation and a medicine for every single disease. Pop music no longer has only one central value; it is multifunctional. It can be background noise, a possibility for enjoyment, a fashionable attitude, a means to self-realisation, identification and communication as well as a way to express discomfort when everyday life puts too much pressure on”.
Pressure? Pleasure? When you consider the damage done to the world in the name of religion and nationalism then the idea of disco music, itself an amorphous concept, taking hold without regard for frontiers seems incredibly appealing. And there are times when it would seem tempting to listen solely to vintage disco sounds and be set adrift on disco bliss (to borrow a title from the excellent Maria Minerva). Disco’s preoccupation with cosmic concerns is well documented, but its participants also had a healthy interest in globetrotting. So to celebrate the worldwide disco impulse we will, in the words, of Mexican model turned New York diva Martina “disco around the world” with a series of irregular stops for refuelling along the way. Come on let’s go ...