The designation "world music" has never been a particularly comfortable fit for the array of styles to which it is generally applied. And that situation has only been complicated by the emergence of new fusions of old traditions with new digital approaches to making music. Luaka Bop, one of the premier world-music labels in the US, has placed itself on the cutting edge of this brave new world with the release of two new compilations. Cuisine Non-Stop: Introduction to the French Nouvelle Generation features bright new voices from what’s being called the "French neo-realist" scene; The Only Blip Hop Record You Will Ever Need, Vol. 1 showcases 21st-century electronica from Northern Europe. Each offers a different way of looking at the idea of world music.
In a 1999 piece for the New York Times, former Talking Head David Byrne — who is also one of the heads of Luaka Bop — wrote that he hated the term "world music" because of the way it ghetto-izes songs not sung in English and reduces them to academic curiosities. Viewing people and cultures as "exotic" creates an artificial distance between "us" and "them." And in the digital world of the Internet and cell phones, the distances between cultures are getting smaller every day.
The elimination of these distances, however, doesn’t have to include the erosion of those differences that embody rich cultural traditions. And the artists compiled on Cuisine Non-Stop are part of a movement determined to reassert their Frenchness by reviving the traditions of the chanson fran¨aise. With its roots in the theatrical and often sexy cabaret-styled songs of Jacques Brel, Serge Gainsbourg, and Edith Piaf, the movement leans heavily on melancholy moods and a world-weary ennui. But Cuisine Non-Stop is much more than just a collection of somber minor-key melodies played on accordion and upright bass in an attempt to recapture France’s romantic cabaret culture. The disc takes traditions, emotions, and signifiers associated with French pop and places them in a melting pot of rock, folk, funk, Arabic, African, Latin, and even American infusions.
A few artists on Cuisine Non-Stop indulge in the kind of stereotypical one-foot-in-the-grave despair you’d expect from Sartre-toting existentialists. But even the deathly singer Mickey 3D, the tortured vocalist Ignatus, and the street musicians in Lo’Jo with their funereal accordion still work West African rhythms, Bulgarian choir vocals, and fiddle into the mix. Elsewhere, Cuisine Non-Stop shows the nouvelle generation embracing sunnier themes. Lo’Jo, who typify the ennui of French cabaret culture in one of their selections ("Br˛lˇ la M¸che"), reveal a very different side of themselves with the Afro-gypsy beat poetry of the more upbeat tune "Baji Larabat." Java’s "Au Banquet des Chasseurs" has the giddy bounce of circus music, and CQMD brighten things up with some funky brass and a Dixieland banjo. It’s easy to see why Byrne likes this stuff — it’s full of the adventurous rhythms he’s always favored. Indeed, there are echoes of the Talking Heads in the quirky rhythms that accompany Arthur H’s breathy vocals on "Na•ve Derviche," and in the syncopated groove of Dupain’s "F¸m Ren," which brings to mind an Arabic-inflected "Life During Wartime."
At first glance, the cold electronica of The Only Blip Hop Record You Will Ever Need, Vol. 1 is a less comfortable fit for Luaka Bop than the warm exotica of Cuisine Non-Stop. The IDM (intelligent dance music) that "blip-hop" refers to certainly isn’t as huggable as French neo-realism. It’s about people interacting with machines rather than with each other. And its roots are stylistic rather than cultural, reaching back to the groundbreaking robotic pop of Kraftwerk, the disco mixes of Giorgio Moroder, the prog rock of Tangerine Dream, and the studio experiments of dub pioneers like Lee "Scratch" Perry.
Byrne may regard IDM as pop’s future, but there are points here — Pole’s scratchy, seven-minute loop "Taxidub," for example — when it seems like little more than a pretentious, futuristic curiosity. Elsewhere, Blip Hop does present a compelling range of electronic tones, textures, rhythms, squiggles, and modulations by usual suspects like Mouse on Mars, Pole, and Tarwater, as well as a couple of surprises, like the pairing of Zap Mama vocalist Marie Daulne and the Roots’ human beatbox Scratch (as Marie + Scratch). But after making your way through 13 tracks of this stuff, you may just feel that it really is the only blip-hop record you will ever need.