"WE ARE the world," sang America's glossy pop-soul aristocracy in 1985 in a noblesse oblige gesture toward starving Ethiopians. American musicians may still make the same global claim five years later, but surely with less justification. Decline-of-America commentaries frequently point out -- sometimes with alarm, sometimes with pride -- that the only way foreign companies can make movies with worldwide appeal is to buy Hollywood studios. But foreign interests have done more than buy control of most major U.S. recording companies (of the big six, only two are American-owned); they've created "worldbeat," a new internationalist form of pop music colored by Third World rhythms and instrumentation and one that doesn't resonate at all in Los Angeles, New York or Nashville.
Worldbeat is not about to do to Michael Jackson what rock and roll did to Eddie Fisher. Still, as a significant new pop-culture product that is neither produced nor inspired by America, the wellspring of Western popular music since World War II, worldbeat suggests a diminished role for Yankee ingenuity in the invention of international mass culture -- and at the very moment that international doors are unlocking at a quickening pace. The U.S. recording industry, of course, is skeptical that the market for this mongrel music will either expand or endure. But then that's just what another American industry thought about Japanese cars.
With its May 19 edition, the music-and-video trade weekly Billboard introduced a "World Music Albums" chart, a sign that the U.S. music business does at least want to keep track of the phenomenon. According to an article about African pop stars in that same issue, "though substantial radio airplay for them is still lacking, sales figures for these artists have increased dramatically, especially in urban areas." The piece quotes a Tower Records buyer who notes that "our floor space for world music has increased by 33 percent recently."
Despite such bullishness, Billboard's new chart indicates that worldbeat has yet to become an especially volatile commodity in stateside record stores: Included on the 15-slot list are the last two records by the neo-Eurofolk band, the Gipsy Kings; a pair of albums by The Bulgarian State Radio and Television Female Vocal Choir that have charmed some of the New Age audience; a collection of Middle Eastern music compiled by English art-rocker Peter Gabriel while he was composing the score to "The Last Temptation of Christ"; and records by such long-established artists as Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela. Also included is an album by Beausoleil, a Louisiana gumbo-circuit band.
Few of these are recent releases, suggesting that in America worldbeat is still bought and sold like folk, classical or other semi-popular musics. To listeners here, music that is neither American nor British remains either novelty (as in the recent "lambada" hype) or specialty (as in reggae), just as it has been since the days of Desmond Dekker's proto-reggae hit, "Israelites" (which reached No. 12 in 1969) or the Singing Nun's "Dominique" (No. 1 in 1963). The charts are dominated by Americans and by Europeans (most of them British) playing American-style music.
Yankees have heard glimmers of worldbeat, of course. South African "township jive" or "mbaqanga" (literally, a sort of stew) found itself on everything from Top 40 radio to National Public Radio through the mediation of Paul Simon, who set his haute yuppie tales of Upper West Side parties to Soweto's "indestructible" beat (and in the process made South Africa's Ladysmith Black Mambazo mainstream enough to qualify for a gig selling 7 Up on U.S. TV). Longtime cult artist Peter Gabriel, who became a stateside chart-topper with 1986's "So," has also drawn heavily on African music. And that bellwether of trendiness, Talking Heads, recorded its most recent album in Paris.
Paris? Well, yes. The center of worldbeat is not Dakar, Soweto, Algiers or even Kingston, which does maintain a significant recording industry. It's Paris, axis of the Francophone world and presumably a much easier place to get a decent cup of cafe au lait than Abidjan. Just as America sold its musical primitivism to the world -- well, some of it -- as rock and roll, France is merchandising the beats of its former empire. Zouk, rai, soukous, juju and the rest of the trendy Third World music may come from the African diaspora, but it's become the soundtrack for Europe 1992 -- freshly blended music for a newly unified market.
Though it is sometimes sold -- especially in this country, where its commercial viability remains dubious -- by record companies that specialize in folk music, worldbeat is nothing of the sort. Indeed, it could be argued that worldbeat was presaged by Giorgio Moroder, the German-based producer who helped invent disco some 15 years ago.
"Disco" became a bad word quickly, but Moroder's synthbeat didn't die. It can still be heard everywhere from the American hits of teen-pop princess Debbie Gibson to the new album by Yemenite-Israeli singer Ofra Haza. After becoming an English worldbeat sensation -- a digital sample of her voice had been employed in a left-field hip-hop hit, "Pump Up the Volume," so infectious that it even sold in the hidebound United States. Haza's next move was to go to New York and make a Madonna-sounding album. Recorded in English, Hebrew, Arabic and even Aramaic, with such producers as Arif Mardin, Haze's album was probably best-known for producing the "Jive Talking"-era Bee Gees sound (itself a New York take on Moroder's Eurobeat version of Motown soul, written and sung by expatriate Australians). Today, Paris has largely supplanted Munich as the continent's leading pop-music factory, but the beat is much the same: The synthesized pulse known as "Eurodisco" underlies much worldbeat. Traditional styles are often employed merely as exotic spices in a sound designed for European dance clubs from Paris to Ibiza. (The latter's "Balearic Beat," a brief craze transplanted by vacationing Brits to dance halls in the chilly, rainy Midlands where beachwear was de rigueur, is just more disco.) The "lambada," concocted in Paris from a loosely interpreted Brazilian recipe, is merely the most notorious example of French shamelessness in producing ersatz Third-World music.
French rock and roll was long known as the world's lamest -- the French know how to sneer all right, but only at tourists, not at microphones. (French rock's reputation is finally being challenged by the rote rock of the Soviet Union, where bands are now free to copy the most banal of Anglo-American sounds.) French musicians seem ideal, though, for the flagrantly upbeat sound of worldbeat, which sounds impossibly cheerful even when its message is dour. (Witness Zimbabwean Thomas Mapfumo's recent "Corruption," which non-Shona-speakers would likely take for joyous if not for the clue offered by its title.)
Somewhat disturbingly, worldbeat seems to appeal both to France's vestigial imperial notions (this is a country, after all, that keeps a Japanese flag in St. Louis-de-Invalidies as a token of its proxy victory over Japan in World War II) and its historic tendency toward "exotisme" -- a willingness to see Third World inhabitants in this case as happy darkies. Imagine the American Revolutions being marked -- as was the French one last year -- by a parade in London or Washington in which dancing, drumming Africans were surrounded by Great White Hunter-types in pith hats.
African and Caribbean musicians are important to worldbeat, but not essential. Also in vogue in Europe is a polyglot pop that draws on everything from Parisian cafe music to Islamic chants to Gypsy ballads to American rap. Among its more straightforward practitioners are Les Negresses Vertes (who are neither black nor green) and the Gipsy Kings, but the movement also includes such self-consciously bizarre acts as 3 Mustaphas 3, a group of British-accented musicians who claim to be from "the Balkans"; Mano Negra, a rowdy France-based outfit influenced both by punk and ska (the good-timey predecessor to reggae) that sings in Spanish, English, French and Arabic; Nasa, an English hard-rock duo that draws heavily on Middle Eastern sounds and imagery; and Dissidenten, a German quartet that layers Moroccan protest poetry (sung in Arabic) over Eurodisco rhythms.
In one sense, it's difficult to generalize about this music. Yet, from the somberly traditional to the flamboyantly goofy, one thing is certain: It's not American.
The decline of American rock's European appeal, thus far more obvious among various avant gardes than with mainstream music consumers, could be a simple matter of oversaturation -- of both the music and the culture. Last year, Joe Strummer explained in a Washington Post interview why the anti-American anthem he co-wrote for the Clash in 1977, "I'm So Bored With the U.S.A.," no longer has any power: "Now a song like that is superfluous," he says. "There's a 7-Eleven or McDonald's on every corner in London. It's kind of boring to complain about those things now. It's kind of the province of people who write to the newspapers, you know? 'Why is there a McDonald's on every corner?' "
If American popular culture is no longer sufficiently exotic to Western Europeans to engender even gripes, neither is its subtext: affluence. American pop was not just a token of a freewheeling style that appealed to European youth constrained by traditional cultures and rigid class systems; it was also an advertisement for a bountiful consumer culture. Today, London, which was still under food-rationing when Elvis first went to Sun Studios, has 7-Elevens, Taco Bells, Pizza Huts, enormous American-style supermarkets and Londoners who can afford to patronize them. If shopping has become a "drama of consumption," as some contemporary sociologists put it, the stage is now erected in Bonn, Manchester and Lyon as surely as in Cincinnati or Tucson. The Warsaw Pact market may have opened up just in time, and not just for the sake of burger chains that have colonized every likely location from Van Nuys Boulevard to the Champs L'Eysees. Those Bon Jovi records gathering dust in Dusseldorf can just be loaded on freight trains heading east.
There's also another demographic at work here, one that bodes well for worldbeat's eventual success in this country. The aging rock generation has not abandoned pop music, but it betrays a declining interest in the teen-angst and young-lust that drives today's heavy metal bands and neo-disco divas. The search for a music that's upbeat and danceable without being angry or mechanical has created a market for zydeco, norteno, Tex-Mex, Cajun and other native exotics. Their good-natured energy does correspond to that of African highlife and Brazilian samba, so perhaps Billboard knew what it was doing when it included Beausoleil on the same chart with the interracial South African band, Johnny Clegg & Savuka. Certainly the magazine was correct in grouping the "World Music" chart together with the New Age chart under the joint heading, "Top Adult Alternative Albums." If Zaire's Kanda Bongo Man does become a bestseller in this country, it will probably be the responsibility of the same generation that made chart-toppers out of such unlikely pop stars as Bob Dylan.
Toure Kunda, a Paris-based Senegalese trio, or Algerian Chaba Zahouania may never rival Michael Jackson's skill at moving "units," as the record industry sentimentally labels tapes, CDs and records. Certainly Arabic and Zulu are less well understood in Europe -- let alone America -- than English. Nor is worldbeat completely un-American: Soul and rock are staples in the worldbeat ragout. N'Dour's "Nelson Mandela" album, for example, interrupts its politics for a cover of the Spinners' "The Rubberband Man."
Still, Kunda, Zahouania and N'Dour portend a world in which American popular culture has no particular claim to primacy. In the pop-music marketplace as in so many others, the United States may have to get used to being just another country.
Mark Jenkins reviews pop music regularly for The Washington Post.