Musicians in black and white walk across an illustrated globe

World Music Develops an American Accent

“The first song,” Gabriel Alegria says early in a July set performed by his Afro-Peruvian Sextet at Manhattan’s Club Bonafide, “was written by Jorge Gershwin.” Clever, yet telling.

Alegria, a trumpeter from Peru who has led this sextet for 11 years with tenor and soprano saxophonist Laura Andrea Leguia, arranged “Summertime” to a lando rhythm, a very specific 12/8 Peruvian beat that wholly reinforced the group’s name. As they played through the night, each up-tempo song started with a head influenced by hard bop, and after a few choruses, the charismatic percussionist, Freddy Lobaton, and Nigerian bassist, Essiet Essiet, would forcefully push the music toward West Africa and South America.

“Fusion became a bad word, but it’s not wrong,” Alegria says in trying to define the New York-based band that calls Lima “its spiritual home.”

In many ways, this type of fusion is the face of contemporary world music. It is also its future as first- and second-generation Americans start to collaborate with musicians from outside and within their own culture. It’s being promoted at universities and performing arts centers, bubbling up from scenes in American cities and seeing inroads on sales and streaming charts. The genre is expanding beyond the discoveries that defined it in the 1980s and 1990s, though, by and large, it’s performance- rather than record-based.

The concept of world music is undergoing a dramatic change as labels, performing arts centers and festivals gravitate toward collaborations.

“We’re in a transition period,” says Tristra Yeager, a St. Louis native who sang in a Bosnian rock band, played gamelan at Wesleyan and went to work at the World Music Institute in the 1990s before joining the world music PR/marketing/event company Rock Paper Scissors a decade ago. “While we’re seeing an upsurge in people who can make a living playing Tuareg music [similar to Tinariwen], there are cross-cultural music scenes slowly building in L.A., Chicago and New York. In some cases, it’s an emigré and some Anglo folks – we’re seeing more and more of that – and in the next 10 years those first- and second-generation Americans will be finding ways to play together. That’s a really positive development.”

Part of the driving force is easy access to traditional music from around the globe. Streaming services are putting entire catalogs online and, in some cases, videos show masters at work decades ago. The opportunity for young musicians to learn about traditions has exploded in just the last 10 years. 

Students in David Wallace’s string program at Berklee College of Music are encouraged to seek out the sort of experimentation that takes them out of the traditional classical and jazz curriculum and gets them exposed to styles indigenous to Appalachia, India, the Arab world and beyond. 

Among many examples that Wallace lists off the top of his head is a student group centered on two violinists and a banjoist who plays the instrument clawhammer style. They work with Arabic modes and rhythms, Celtic fiddle music and complex jazz harmonies.

“We have no idea what to call them now,” says Wallace, who took over the string department in 2014, which had a record enrollment of 218 students in the fall. “There’s the generic label of new acoustic music, but that doesn’t quite work. They’re discovering and working in a vocabulary unlike anything in [their past studies]. To me that’s exciting.”

The concept of world music is undergoing a dramatic change as labels, performing arts centers and festivals gravitate toward collaborations, such as Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road work, Abigail Washburn performing with Chinese musicians and French cellist Vincent Segal joining forces with Malian kora player Ballaké Sissoko; the latter’s album Chamber Music won the French equivalent of a Grammy and led to 200 concert bookings.

“Unless you’re a duo, the financial outlay for a four- or five-piece band can be $10,000 in visa fees.”

Multiple reasons are behind the shift away from directly importing international acts the way it was done in the 1980s and ’90s: the decline in recorded music income, the lack of centralized publicity and marketing, the lack of a second wave of stars from countries such as Cuba, Senegal and Brazil – but the most important reason is the cost of touring.

“Unless you’re a duo, the financial outlay for a four- or five-piece band can be $10,000 in visa fees,” says Yeager, who notes that rules for the granting of visas for performers continue to toughen, which has resulted in multiple canceled tours recently. “The other bureaucratic hurdle is visa offices are managed by local embassies. [Getting visas] depends on the staff and the offices and the vibe they get from the musicians.”

A little over a decade ago, Alegria entered a world with little infrastructure, but with a belief that by calling performing arts centers – an opportunity, he says, that doesn’t exist in other countries – and by presenting the concept, people would take a chance on his group. Five albums, multiple tours and workshops later, “it’s still a lot of hard work. [Early on], you do the work and turn it into material you can build on” – live recordings, videos for the Internet, information on your website.

“We’re grateful that we can stay on the road, but I don’t feel like it’s any easier,” he says, referring back to ’05 and ’06. Most of the Afro-Peruvian Sextet’s CD and vinyl sales are at shows, but even those sales have fallen off by as much as 50 percent. They have a booking agent who lands them anchor gigs, from which Alegria then sets up tours; in October and December they’ll be spending a fair amount of time in the Midwest, mostly in Ohio.

One of Alegria’s unique solutions to staying in business is Tour Peru, in which he and the Afro-Peruvian Sextet take about 30 people from the U.S. to Peru for seven to 11 days of musical immersion. “It’s a big moneymaker,” he says.

The visitors attend workshops and performances, and get indoctrinated into the country’s musical culture. “We kind of informally audition people for the tour,” he says, noting the eighth edition runs from June 28 – July 4, 2017. “The primary interest has to be about learning about music.”

In the states, Yeager’s company is part of globalFEST, a January symposium in New York City for the world music community. The group – led by former Lincoln Center programmer Bill Bragin, Live Sounds’ Isabel Soffer and Joe’s Pub’s Shanta Thake – supports artists as they develop new markets, funds tours and guest curates portions of festivals. 

“It’s trying to become an incubator and advocacy group as well,” says Yeager. “They’re helping to change the old models at a time when creatively, we’re in a very fertile period.”

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Phil Gallo

Journalist and author Phil Gallo has written about music and the entertainment industry for three decades. Co-author of the book Record Store Days (Sterling), …more 

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