Sunday, July 15, 2012

Two Psychedelic Margins: Curating the World

The late 60s were undoubtedly a revolutionary time in Western popular music. The overarching influence of this revolution, however, was not confined to the West. After World War II, Western popular music served a multitude of agendas worldwide, and, as a result, had wide influence on the local music of many cultures. Some might argue that this was unfortunate, because it diluted the traditional styles that were already endangered due to colonialism. On the other hand, some of my favorite “world” music is the kind in which a detectable local flavor seeps into the anonymous gray of globalized Western popular music. Because these styles were marginalized at the time, they existed briefly, and under the threat of extinction. There are, however, an increasing number of devoted curators who expend quite a bit of time and energy restoring and releasing music from this period that would otherwise be lost.

For example, I love a lot of West African popular music, particularly from the late 60s and early 70s.  Ideologically, This region was coming out from under European colonial rule, and artists found James Brown’s “black and proud” message inspiring in their music.  The looming figure of Fela Kuti, the creator of Afrobeat, casts a shadow that eclipses a lot of the other artists from this era, though, so taking the next step in this arena can be somewhat daunting.  I was fortunate in 2005 to have stumbled across a great compilation called World Psychedelic Classics 3: Love's the Real Thing.  This is an excellent document of localized pop styles from the 60s.

Generally speaking, I am not a fan of compilations. Surveys like these can be effective, however, when they are carefully curated and remastered to provide a unified listening experience despite the diversity they represent.  Love's the Real Thing does this pretty well. 

For Christmas in 2010, I got a hold of a similar compilation from an entirely different region, Thailand. The Sound Of Siam : Leftfield Luk Thung, Jazz And Molam From Thailand 1964 – 1975 represents a very interesting syncretism between localized Thai music and Western popular styles.  Be warned - it isn’t always as easy on the ears as Love's the Real Thing. There is one track in particular where the bass guitar is just plain out of tune, and goes further out of tune as the song progresses. Casting aside the interest generated by cultural crossroads, within the first three beats of this track, I have a general feeling of oncoming dread.  The rest of the album, however, paints a vivid and adventurous picture of the popular music in this region during this revolutionary time.

I read somewhere that this style of Thai popular music was on local radio in Vietnam during the war, which obviously I can’t corroborate. It seems possible, though, considering these recordings were most likely printed and broadcast through the increasing influence of what would become the Japanese media machine.  Unfortunately, even the most accessible iterations of Asian and African popular music remained unheard in the West.  It boggles the imagination to consider how much the world would have instantaneously shrunk if just one of these groups appeared at Woodstock, but having their recordings to appreciate today, even out of context, is worth the investment.

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