Head out into Durham on a usual Friday night and the closest thing you’ll find to foreign culture will probably be Labelle’s 1970s hit classic “Lady Marmalade”. Good song, but one we imagine few would feel belonged to the “world music” genre. How then have we come to find ourselves in such a homogeneous music climate? Whilst market principles inevitably hold sway on the industry – there’s more call for Backstreet Boys than Persian Funk – we can’t help but feel that were we exposed to more “non-Western” genres, many of us would find something resonating within them. Surely the “mind-broadening” effects of travel are just as applicable to an exploration of the global music scene?
Now, we’re not here to find fault with Hound or a drunken venture into Klute, but in much the same way that college food starts to taste the same after a year, surely the tang of change should be considered a healthy and welcome alternative to your aural senses. Where world music retains such a niche status in this country, any exposure to these diverse genres should be considered a valuable opportunity. The problem is that most of us simply don’t know where to turn in the search of something different. This is the beauty of Sam Thomas’ Lost Worlds set here in Durham. Playing anything from Maghrebi Rai to Cambodian Surf, Lost Worlds offers the chance to sample and enjoy music from a range of cultures unknown to the vast majority of us. Having kindly spared his time to chat to The Bubble, Sam explains some of his own theories behind the enterprise:
Lost Worlds is far from the run-of-the-mill DJ set; what was your inspiration behind the project?
Wow, where do start? I could tackle the notion of “inspiration” from all kinds of angles, but here are a few straightforward reflections: First of all, I suppose I set up Lost Worlds out of frustration with the so-called “arts scene” in Durham and the micro-managed, antiseptic notion of “diversity” that tends to hold sway in those circles. A question of bringing the mountain to Mohammed in other words! Secondly, I was deeply “inspired” by record labels like Sublime Frequencies, who have gone about their business with such imagination and bravery and integrity. Their focus on “an aesthetic of extra-geography and soulful experience” (see the mission statement on their website) is a template I aspire to and my modest little night is certainly operating in their slipstream. They are pointing the way forward, I think, in terms of how we might begin to properly understand these relatively undocumented musics as both fiercely, intimately local and head-spinningly globalised – as “traditional” and “modern” at the same time. Seeing the likes of Omar Souleyman and Group Doueh in Newcastle, for example, gave me confidence that there is some sort of an audience out there who might be curious about this stuff – and not just for hipster/obscurantist kudos or motivated by some spurious desire for the “exotic”. I’ve also been inspired by bands such as Secret Chiefs 3 and Sun City Girls, who opened my ears to a whole new landscape of soul. Their beautiful and demented music sent me scurrying off into the vaults to look for source materials and reference points. Lastly, and most stupidly and selfishly I suppose, I genuinely love this music and it’s a cheap thrill being able to play it loudly in a space bigger than my tiny flat.
How do you select the music you play? Where can these musicians’ works be accessed or obtained?
Well, I usually have a loose set-list for the first couple of hours before things descend into a kind of free-for-all. I don’t know any DJ tricks and I don’t care about beat matching or mash-ups and so on. I usually start with an emphasis on “atmospherics” (for which slower burning Arabic/Persian material is ideally suited) before unleashing the feel-good forces of the more upbeat stuff I collect (vintage Bollywood, gypsy brass, South East Asian folk-pop and so on). But there aren’t any strict rules I follow. I try to respond to what people appear to be enjoying, to trust my instincts and to build small “narratives”. But nothing more cerebral than that. And I don’t see any contradiction in jumping between genres and geographies (which is not the same thing as putting forward some god-awful new age philosophy about a unifying global consciousness). It feels very natural to me and hopefully that spirit is communicated somehow. As for getting hold of these musics, it’s just a question of knowing where to look. There are great labels to explore like the aforementioned Sublime Frequencies. And the net, inevitably, has had an incalculable impact. There are some genuinely amazing blogs which cater for the intrepid listener, and trawling YouTube can also be very productive (as well as exhausting). Greek New Wave? Balinese funk? Chechen protest folk? It’s all there if you search hard enough. LPs and tapes which have been sitting into cellars getting chewed by rats are now available with a few clicks. But it’s out there nonetheless. I’ve also picked up quite a bit of music on my travels. Lastly, I think it’s worth noting that whilst much of the music I play might be considered “obscure” in the UK, any Iranian will know who Googoosh is (one of the shining lights of pre-79 Farsi soul), just as millions of Indians still cherish the transcendent talents of R. D. Burman, and “Mehbooba, Mehbooba” still gets blasted out at wedding parties from Leicester to Bangalore. These are examples of massive names within their own national (and diasporic) contexts. They are tried and tested, as it were – even if most of the people at Lost Worlds can’t sing along.
Although there’s a clear connotation regarding the discovery of uncharted territories, how far do the “lost worlds” of the title – these largely unfamiliar musical genres – also represent “lost causes”?
Now, this is a huge issue that goes far beyond me playing songs in a nightclub. Being as brief as I can, it’s fair to say that in some cases, the music I play was indeed once “lost” and has subsequently been “rescued” (but not necessarily “found”) by people with the nerve and initiative and heart and dedication that this process requires. Some of that is connected to political turmoil too, like in Cambodia, for example, where fantastic musicians like Ros Sereysothea and Sinn Sisamouth were written out of the story by the Khmer Rouge and are now getting belated (re)exposure thanks to the loving persistence of a certain generation and the enthusiasm of new bands such as Dengue Fever. It’s not always a question of sticking electrodes on a corpse, or collapsing into hopeless nostalgia for some golden age that never was, or archiving a musical culture on the verge of extinction for “ethnographic” or “anthropological” purposes. Or at least it doesn’t have to be. As for that deeper notion of “lost causes” – what can I say? Maybe this is a losing battle and the ferocious march of global monoculture will continue unabated (and with even more catastrophic consequences). But there’s also a genuine sense, I think, that we’re moving into a multi-centred world and popular culture, for better or worse, can play a powerful role in that. Without being too naïve, we shouldn’t underestimate the effects of this. I mean, it’s worth explaining here that I’m not playing Hindustani classical or Arabic Maqam or Persian Dastagh, or any other of those great and venerable traditions. Near enough everything in my set could be described as “popular” in some sense, whilst “lost” in another. And these “popular” songs are often wildly creative and innovative and irreverent and smart. They are also very vivid demonstrations of how globalisation is not always a one-way process. If “lost causes” refers to Slavoj Žižek, by the way, then let’s follow that through – let’s defend the lost cause! Let’s say it’s better to fail spectacularly for good reasons than it is to take some compromised, “rationally” administered, emotionally crippled third way in which we fail whatever happens.
Where music is imbued with specific social values, or allied with customs and ceremonies, can its removal from its place of “origin” ever amount to more than appropriation?
Yes, absolutely. I really think it can. When, say, Omar Souleyman plays in front of dreadlocked techno-hippies at a festival, he’s surely not worried about wrenching dabke music away from its “ancestral home” in the Levant, or the fact that most people dancing in the audience don’t understand a word of the lyrics. Maybe that even gives him a special kind of power. The guy’s a professional and he’s brilliant at what he does and he’s been given the opportunity to present his unique, visceral music in different environments. And I think that should be respected. He’s signed contracts and he knows what he’s doing. He’s got the togetherness and control and dignity that most of the deluded “artistes” who inflict themselves on us could only dream of. What I mean by this is that Western liberal concerns about the “brittleness” of music which has evolved in a very specific cultural context can end up becoming a weird kind of reverse racism. Of course, when you come along to my night, you aren’t going to hear such music in its “original” context. But is that really possible in the first place? How far and how deep do we have to push? Just how many layers of mediation are there? And what right does anyone have to demand that music stays bound to certain set of circumstances? We’re not talking about static entities here. I’m sure there are dabke traditionalists in the Middle East who are horrified by the synths that Omar uses (one of the hallmarks of his sound) and would argue that his music isn’t “authentic”. And I’m sure that the Molam I play, which is rooted in various ethnic folk cultures of Thailand and Laos but also distinctly influenced by Western rock and pop, would be considered heretical by some. Ultimately, however, I think that the music in the set acquires new meanings in the context in which I present it. Something is lost, without doubt, in that “translation” process, but something is gained too. I don’t feel as if I’m violating any kind of sacred tradition by playing this stuff in the context of people drinking and dancing. In fact, that’s what a lot of it was designed for. There’s nothing po-faced about Barış Manço’s Turkish fusion of prog and folk and disco but there is a lot of wonder and wit and compositional skill. As for my knowledge of the music I use for Lost Worlds, it varies from reasonable to very amateurish, backed up by a lot enthusiasm and care… And I’m comfortable enough with that.
How far has globalisation and the export of popular music from the West diluted/adulterated artistic traditions elsewhere? Is this a purely one-sided kind of cultural imperialism?
I guess I’ve already addressed some of this in previous answers. The problem with concerns over “neo-colonialism” and so on is that you can end up becoming paranoid and cynical and defeatist. I share those concerns. Believe me, in my academic work this is something I wrestle with all the time. But I really think that we shouldn’t just cut off the nose to spite the face. And it’s instructive to go further back here too. I mean, gypsy musicians in the Balkans have done some remarkable things with the “imperial” music that flowed into the region from the Hapsburgs and the Ottomans. Is that a “fair trade” when balanced against their suffering? Of course not. But you can still hear the legacy of those interactions and dialogues and borrowings. Western culture has wreaked untold damage (the understatement of the year) and spread fear and ignorance around the world. But, in certain times and certain places, there are also genuinely exciting and dynamic points of crossover. Also, it’s pretty insulting to presume that non-Western peoples are somehow hopelessly enslaved by the siren’s call of Britney or Beyoncé or Iron Maiden and that they can’t make decisions, for good or ill, on their own terms. Personally, I worry a lot more about the thousands of tons of explosive the West drops from jets and predator drones, although I appreciate the issues aren’t unconnected. Back on topic though, if you want to see how all these complex postcolonial debates about “hybridity” and “mimicry” and “fusion” have a vibrant, living presence in the world then go and listen to the sublime madness of an R. D. Burman soundtrack. It might even make you dance.
Lost Worlds runs on the first Friday of every month at Fishtank, from 10.30pm until 2am.