Published: October 21, 2007
SURE, the half-naked acrobat suspended by her ankles from the ceiling was remarkable. So was the battered tuba wrapped in red Christmas lights, played by a musician in a black cocktail dress.
Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
Vampire Weekend sometimes draws on African sounds.
Beirut shows the influences of Balkan brass bands.
Yet the most striking thing about DeVotchKa's circuslike show at the Spiegeltent at the South Street Seaport in Manhattan in August was the music, a quilt of sounds from the international section of the iTunes store. One could hear mariachi ballads, polkas, horas and Gypsy tunes played on accordion, bouzouki, violins. But those sounds informed songs that also echoed the rhythmic bluster and vocal drama of 1980s alternative-rock acts like the Smiths and Talking Heads. The band's cross-cultural recipe was made explicit when the young crowd began sloshing its beers to a bouncy, Balkanized version of the Velvet Underground's "Venus in Furs."
On any given night in an American rock club you can hear bands like Gogol Bordello, Man Man, Beirut and Balkan Beat Box playing odd-metered songs drawing on the rhythms of Eastern European Gypsy music. You might encounter Antibalas or Vampire Weekend riffing on African sounds, Dengue Fever making psychedelic Cambodian pop or a D.J. like Diplo spinning Brazilian funk. On the recent "Kala," a contender for the year's most exciting pop album, the British-Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A., who works from Brooklyn, draws on Indian, African and West Indian sounds. The folk-rocker Devendra Banhart creates fusions with Mexican and Brazilian musicians on his recent CD, "Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon." And the veteran musical adventurer Bjork toured this year with a West African percussion troupe and Chinese pipa virtuoso.
Increasingly the back-to-basics movement that has characterized cutting-edge rock this century, from the blues-based hard rock of the White Stripes to the new wave-postpunk revivalism of Interpol, is giving way to music that looks further afield for its influences. And one result is a clutch of acts, many of them from New York, that are internationalizing rock's Anglo-American vernacular.
This is not the first time. Artists like Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, the Clash and Talking Heads drew polyglot styles into their mix back in the 1980s, often with politics in tow. (Mr. Simon and Mr. Gabriel were exploring African pop during the Apartheid era.) But the impulse has been largely missing from rock's bag of tricks for a while. And in the case of Beirut and Vampire Weekend, it is producing some of the year's most buzzed-about new music — music that often feels less studied and less overtly political than that of these groups' fusion-minded forebears.
Why now? Partly it seems the natural cycle of genres; every back-to-basics art movement dead-ends and requires an infusion of new ideas. And certainly the Internet has made even the most obscure global music easily available.
"Access is key," said Bill Bragin, director of the Manhattan club Joe's Pub, which books a large number of international acts. "A blogger or someone says: 'Check out this cool record by Konono No. 1. It's really bizarre, super loud Congolese thumb piano music.' And suddenly all these people are checking them. Also, bands like Antibalas and Balkan Beat Box and Gogol Bordello and Beirut are very good about positioning themselves in the context of youth culture. They're not pigeonholed as speaking only to the age-30-to-50 world-music crowd."
You might guess that current global politics have also had a role in spurring the trend. And they have, though not always explicitly. M.I.A. and Bjork both address politics directly on their recent albums. Gogol Bordello and Antibalas, two of melting-pot New York's fusion-minded veterans, also make politically charged music. Fronted by the Kiev-born Eugene Hutz, Gogol Bordello mixes Slavic and Balkan music with punk rock and plenty of other styles, peppered with lyrics addressing the immigrant experience and "cultural revolution." Antibalas has revived and advanced Afrobeat, the Africanized funk fusion pioneered by the Nigerian bandleader Fela Kuti, from whom they have also adopted a strong anti-authoritarian demeanor. Both bands have addictively kinetic new records and are beginning to attract wider attention. (Mr. Hutz recently performed with Madonna at the Live Earth festival, and he and his band have contributed to her forthcoming short film, "Filth and Wisdom.")
But a new wave of bands is using ethnic styles in less pointed ways. One of last year's more left-field Internet success stories was the debut by Beirut, a project initiated by Zach Condon, a 21-year-old singer-songwriter who began a love affair with the Balkan brass-band tradition while exploring electronic music at his parents' home in Albuquerque. Mr. Condon played almost everything on that album, "Gulag Orkestar," and its arrangements for trumpet, accordion, ukulele, mandolin, violin and percussion conjure the image of a street-corner Gypsy band somewhere in postwar Europe. For the new Beirut record, "The Flying Club Cup," released this month on the tiny Ba Da Bing label, he employs a full band to play his Eurail rock, which continues to roam.
"I'm going for a style that's really outdated: 1940s French chanson," Mr. Condon said over Korean barbecue and beer at a restaurant in his neighborhood in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. "I'm really obsessed with Jacques Brel, Charles Aznavour and early Serge Gainsbourg." Mr. Condon, waifish and blue-eyed, was dressed in an old T-shirt with a bedhead hairdo, and it was easy to imagine him ministering to swooning jeunesse back in the day. Yet his dramatic, warbly vocal style also conjures '80s rock crooners like Morrissey and the Cure's Robert Smith.
While Mr. Condon, whose ethnic heritage is primarily Irish-English, has been spending time in Paris of late, he admits his approach to international styles is more instinctive than studied. Nick Urata, lead singer of the Denver band DeVotchKa, operates similarly. Speaking from a tour stop in Germany, he noted that while some of his band mates were schooled in Eastern European music, he was not, and in any case stylistic accuracy was not the point. "The 'authentic' Gypsy brass-band stuff is great, but it's better to leave it to the masters," he said. "We figured we were never going to nail it exactly, so why not just take it into our own realm?"
Vampire Weekend, which came together while its members were students at Columbia and has a debut CD slated for January on the independent label XL, makes its music in the same spirit. It's noted for using African-flavored rhythms and guitar phrases in its upbeat pop-rock, notably on its signature "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" (
"I was always a big rap fan," said Ezra Koenig, 23, the group's singer and guitarist. "I'd go to that Web site The-Breaks.com to find the sample source for a song, and I was always excited when the music came from some weird place."
Mr. Koenig also noted his affection for older rock acts that experimented with reggae and/or world music. Records like "Remain in Light" by Talking Heads and "Sandinista!" by the Clash were cited as touchstones by nearly all the artists interviewed. Which makes sense: Just as those bands were reacting to punk rock's creative cul-de-sac in the 1970s and '80s, many of the current bands are reacting to a modern retro-rock trend that has grown stale. "That was definitely something we didn't want to do," Mr. Koenig said. "And one way to do something new was to look at different sources."
Some groups have gone to greater lengths to tap these sources. Ian Eagleson and Alex Minoff, who played together in the indie-rock band Golden in the late 1990s, formed Extra Golden with local musicians in Kenya, where Mr. Eagleson was working on a doctoral dissertation in ethnomusicology. Their experience has been more challenging than that of many of their peers. For instance there was the time Nairobi police showed up at a party at Mr. Eagleson's apartment and discovered an uninvited guest had some marijuana cigarettes, an incident that cost the band roughly $10,000 to keep the members out of jail.
Then there was the problem of getting the band's Kenyan members, some of whom lacked passports, to the United States for a debut tour last year. The process took months and was not complete until an 11th-hour intervention by staff members for Senator Barack Obama, Democrat of Illinois, who were assisting promoters of the Chicago World Music Festival, where the group was scheduled to play. By way of a thank-you, one of the standouts on the group's spirited new album, "Hera Ma Nono" — a fluid mix of American rock, New Orleans funk and the guitar-based Kenyan benga style on the indie-rock label Thrill Jockey — is a traditional-style African praise song titled "Obama."
American pop musicians adopting styles of other nations have often been accused of cultural colonialism or dismissed as dilettantes. In the Web magazine PopMatters (
Yet in an age when an Anglo-Sri Lankan pop act like M.I.A. raps over samples of Brazilian dance music that reshapes American electro-funk, ideas of authenticity and cultural ownership are slippery. And there is something encouraging in the way younger acts like Beirut and Vampire Weekend can draw on world music styles without needing to turn the act into a political statement, an imperative that doesn't always serve the art in question. It's also worth noting, as Mr. Bragin points out, that musicians outside the Anglo-American axis of indie rock, like Nação Zumbi and DJ Dolores from Brazil, are busy making cutting-edge fusions. "There's a lot more dialogue lately," he said.
A result, in some cases, is a new breed of fusion that keeps its politics implicit and exists in a nether region between genres. That's a place Jeremy Barnes is happy to be. A former member of the influential '90s indie-rock band Neutral Milk Hotel (which he notes was strongly influenced by Bulgarian traditional music) and briefly a participant in Beirut, Mr. Barnes now lives in Hungary, where he records neo-traditional music with local musicians and his collaborator, Heather Trost, under the name a Hawk and a Hacksaw.
"Aesthetically I love indie rock," he said by cellphone from Tura, a small town where he was collaborating with the cymbalon player Unger Balazs. "And I find the world-music industry nauseating. There's a lot of bad recordings and bad artwork. But when people define us in either of those categories, I cringe."
"We love Hungarian music and think it's beautiful, so how can we ignore it?" he added. "You can't lie to yourself."