The all-female African supergroup kickstart 2024 with their infectious new single, ‘Flaws’.
Thu, 11 January 24
All music has a heritage, it all has to come from somewhere; most often that somewhere is the family. But how music across the globe acknowledges its roots reveals some interesting and divergent cultural differences.
Not long after The Doors broke on through into the American charts, Jim Morrison was giving a huddle of journalists the benefit of his shining wisdom. One asked him a standard query about his background— where he came from, who his parents were. Both questions could prove a little thorny for a philosopher king like Jimbo.
“My parents are dead,” he drawled. Not only dead, but also killed at dawn. In a car crash. With a tribe of Indians. This tale resurfaced in Morrison’s poetry, but much of the emotion of the story was surely lost on Jimbo’s father, a naval officer who was still very much alive, as indeed was his mother.
The great shaman was spinning a line, once again. Shock tactics were his preferred method of waging war against the establishment, but other factors were at work. One might guess that, philosophically, Jim needed to be free of the ties that bound him to the merely mortal. One might also, with alarming cynicism, conclude that as parents were uncool in the sixties, a couple of dead ones would be no bad thing for a leader of the youth rebellion. Or maybe he was just drunk.
Whatever the reason, the Lizard King’s termination (with extreme prejudice) of his parents is but on example of the way rock ‘n’ rollers hide their families. Brian Epstein was never keen on Beatle marriages as they destroyed the hold his boys had on young female fans. Even Elvis Costello never let on about his dad singing with the Joe Loss Band until such a heritage ceased to be punishable by social death.
Parents are anathema in western pop, by and large. Rejection of either them and their values, or both is part of the culture. Pop music marks the difference between generations, a means for adolescents to stake out their territory and say “Hands off!”
This ‘us versus them’ attitude is not confined to western pop. Rai music for example, is a rallying point for Algerian youth, a chance to express opinions in a society which has otherwise tried to keep the lid on its expanding younger generation.
Music, and western pop in particular, often highlights a generation gap which parents are unhappy to observe. When a zit-happy fifteen-year-old stumbles home with a guitar (or a DX7) and announces his intention to conquer the world after a warm-up gig in Epping with three like-minded Clearasil addicts, parental hands are ritually raised in horror— or the words “It’s only a phase he’s going through” are silently passed between mother and father.
The reasoning behind this is that music is not ‘a proper job’. Let’s take the example of a teenager who comes from a large family and whose father is a mechanic. Dad, understandably, wanting a bit of job security for his son, points out the regular money that can be made by following in the family business on the one hand, and the irregular pay and blatant rip-offs that are rife in music on the other. In this real life example, we should be glad that the son chose to stick with music— his name is Youssou N’Dour.
But what if the family business is music? Two prime examples come to mind here: Julian Lennon and Ziggy Marley. Both are uncannily like their fathers, in voice and looks, and both have suffered, to varying degrees, because of this. Lennon Jr. is generally viewed as a mere copycat who would never have got very far if people weren’t so forcibly reminded of his father. Ziggy Marley, who is consciously continuing his father’s roots-rocker tradition, gets better press, but will always suffer from the ‘good, but not as good as his dad’ tag.
The dice are loaded against both of them— but why? Had Youssou N’Dour become a mechanic (and he may have a hidden aptitude with wrenches and spanners that we have not been told of) would customers have felt obliged to draw family comparisons? A mended car is after all a mended car.
The problem for offspring of the famous going into music, particularly commercial pop, is that audiences and the press like to feel there is some mystique about the business: that it is an individual one-off creative process. That, at its simplest, it is art, not craft and talent, not diligence, which wins through. And there is clearly a suspicion that musical talent is somehow immune from genetic transfer. That’s the logic which suggests Julian and Ziggy shouldn’t dare to trespass on their respective fathers’ territory. It’s hogwash of course— ask any number of Bachs and Strausses. Or ask Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
The tradition of qawwali music has been in Nusrat’s family for six hundred years— but it was not one that he aspired to follow. Nusrat wanted to be a doctor. His father died in 1964, and he gave the young Nusrat his only musical training, teaching him scales on long evening walks. It was not until seven years after his father’s death that Nusrat finally became the lead voice in his family’s qawwali party. Even then he only stepped into the role when one of his cousins developed a throat illness.
The idea of such a lengthy tradition of family music is still at odds with western pop— partly because it is so young. You’ve got Marty and Kim Wilde, a bevy of Osmonds and Jacksons and the well-connected Womacks (who really hark back to the gospel heritage of the black church, so I guess they don’t count) —but these are still exceptions to the rile. And, given recent revelations about the family life of the Jacksons, one questions whether the family that plays together can stay together when the ultimate goal of their music making is almost entirely commercial.
Superstars in their respective fields they may be, but the early backgrounds of Nusrat and Michael Jackson do show a different attitude to music making. In one it is an intrinsic part of family life, with a spiritual end; in the other, there does seem to be a hollowness, a vacuum of purpose.
A major factor that militates against a family pop tradition, is the basic anti-family attitude which prevails within it. Families are rarely the subject of pop songs, other than when dads are taking T-birds away and stopping those groovy teens from having fun, fun, fun.
And that is bolstered by the breakneck speed at which the music is compelled to change by a business hungry for turnover, new idols, new markets. Pop is constantly revisiting itself, and turning away from older forms. The music of the parents, like the parents themselves, is rejected by the next generation.
I must add that I am not arguing an innate superiority of music that recognises its roots. The entertainment value of pop music is high, its diversity and the pace at which it moves is also a strength. But, with a few rare exceptions, that pace means pop has had to shed some of the functions that music carries elsewhere.
Across the world, music is not just an accessory to life, it is a part of it. It celebrates the changes in the seasons, accompanies the changes of life —puberty, marriage, death— and binds people together.
While entertainment is surely the prime function of western pop, it contains some of these roles in small doses. It can acts as an instrument of social change, a chronicle of the times, a living reminder of history, a significant part of ritual and ceremony. In Scotland, as in eastern Europe, musicians are well to the fore in the independence movement, writing and performing songs that capture the mood of a nation.
But in other cultures, these roles are more prevalent. Youssou N’Dour, on his mother’s side, comes from a griot family. The word is a French corruption of the Wolof word gewel, a professional hereditary musician. The griots have long held a strange, paradoxical position in West African society.
Traditionally, they are attached to wealthy families and able to recite family history back through the generations. They collect and spread the news from the village and market-places. Their music is a vital part of religious functions, of funerals and births.
We can find equivalents in the court jester and minstrels of medieval England. King Lear’s Fool, like the griot, was looked down upon by all, but was the only one who could speak his mind with impunity.
Such functions have devolved from the hereditary musician, partly because of changes in technology. The griot, the jester and their equivalents operated in primarily oral cultures, without access to print or recording devices.
In such cultures, music dance and poetry have to ‘live’: they communicate at the very moment of performance, directly to a nearby audience. In print, and now in electronic-based mediums, access does not have to be at the time or place of performance. Music and dance in modern cultures are no longer vital in passing on information. That direct function has been superseded by papers, by TV, phone and email.
The change in the medium must change the nature of the message. Robin Hood may have had an Alan O’Dell to record his triumphs in song and verse; today he’d want a spin doctor and a press agent. As technology changes across the world, and more people have access to it, it is likely that we will see traditional roles, like that of the griot, adapt and mutate to new circumstances.
What one can say is that in technologically advanced societies, the family tends to have a less important role. The daily fabric of life becomes less centred around it; the ties that bind generations are looser. This is not without its advantages but it can leave music free from its moorings, bobbing along first this way, now that, without a real direction. In this country, as music becomes an almost permanent background noise, less and less of it seems to have any real impact, to spring from the heart. It’s just a diversion from, rather than a part of, the rest of our lives.
WOMAD has brought a wide range of musical styles to the fore and has fostered an environment in which different musical backgrounds can come together to create new fusions. These are great achievements and should be applauded and celebrated, but there are certain dangers which must be taken into account. When, as in the late sixties, James Brown and Hendrix influenced musicians across Africa and when, as in the Real World Recording Week last summer, artists of different cultures played together on different projects, the advantages of the musical melting pot became clear. But this cannot be the best way forward for all. There is no reason why Asian percussion troupes should be forced to adapt to a western culture.
This is rather dangerous ground. So it must be said that the corollary of the above does not hold. There is no reason to keep music of any kind in a ghetto, to limit its appeal by geography or by allowing only fully paid-up members of some association of the culturally aware enjoy it. Let us have open access; but let us not get to the position where musicians feel a need to change just to satisfy the perceived needs of another market. Much that is valuable can be lost en route.
There is one role in which we have not considered the family— and that is the audience.
The Colombian singer Totó la Momposina continues to perform her traditional music in villages across the country, fostering an enthusiasm for music and music-making which helps to forge a distinct cultural identity. And her two daughters, son and grand-daughter also sing and play with her. There is no barrier here to anyone attending. Look at the difference between this and the way most people encounter live music in Britain.
If you want to see a new band, your best and usually only chance of doing so is at a pub or club. Because of the licensing laws, those under eighteen can’t get in— although most of us in our youth have tried to wangle our way in, with carrying degrees of success.
And quite often, with a late licence, such shows are too much hassle for young parents to get to— babysitter troubles and the dreadful foreboding that you’ll get back at two am to spend the next three hours comforting a fractious baby.
This all conspires to make a lot of live music the province of a restricted age group. And anyone above or below that group is left with big-name acts in the less than ideal settings of some of our major seated venues.
It doesn’t have to be that way. In Tanzania, Remmy Ongala will play bar shows late at night. But on a Sunday afternoon, whole families can gather to watch, and the entrance to clubs will be besieged by youngsters hoping to get in.
It is also one of the great achievements of WOMAD that it helped to make festival-going feasible for families. While, too many years ago, I had a fine but very long day waiting to see The Rolling Stones at Knebworth, I’d have been less happy to try and keep toddlers amused for twelve hours in a huge crowd with three-quarter hour queues for a hot dog. WOMAD, on the other hand, has often chosen child-friendly sites with plenty of activities on offer. It’s an attitude that cuts through the family exclusion zone set up around music, and has happily been taken up by some other festivals.
In the song ‘Kocc Barma’ on his album The Lion, Youssou N’Dour sings “Listen well to the things the ancestors tell you”. It’s an acknowledgement that the past is there to be learned from. And access to that past is often through music.
Some of the finest UK and American music is now coming from hip-hop acts, who pay respect to the apst and know their roots. In my own town of Bristol, reggae, for so long a main strand of the city’s music, has been fused with funk and other dance beats by Massive Attack, Snmith and Mighty and others. It’s a sound that belongs on the streets here, but which works anywhere. And it has depth because it clearly comes out of a community. You can find that depth on the streets of Kinshasa, Dakar and New York as well.
Whether it’s through a physical link with the past —as with the griots or the long traditions of qawwali singers— or just through listening to records, musicians are opening up their future by understanding their past. I hope there’s a shared sense of community returning to this country after long years of absence. It will give a direction and purpose to music that other countries have retained, and that we seemed in great danger of losing. Jim Morrison wanted to kill off his parents, in song if nowhere else: now it seems like an act as crazy as a diver cutting off his own oxygen supply.
Originally published in Worldwide: Ten Years of WOMAD, 1992.
Released 25 June 2015
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