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Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Arts & Letters

Music’s New World Order


In what kind of environment does the US-based world-music industry exist today? That was the question posed by organizers at this year’s CMJ (College Music Journal) conference, which took place in New York on October 14. As a world-music critic, I was invited to moderate a discussion on this subject with several other New York-based world-music professionals: Fabian Alsultany, events manager for the Putumayo World Music label, who formerly served as manager for such artists as Hassan Hakmoun and Karsh Kale and is also the founder and CEO of GlobeSonic Entertainment, a three-DJ collective that frequently appears in New York and around the world; Bill Bragin, director of Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater (which hosts events from nearly every imaginable musical genre) and another GlobeSonic DJ; Ben Herson, a professional drummer and founder of Nomadic Wax, a label specializing in African and Middle Eastern hip-hop, who has produced recordings from more than 50 artists; Cindy Byram, an independent, world-music publicist with her own agency, whose current clients include Ojos de Brujo, Anouar Brahem, the Masters of Persian Music, Flook, Tania Libertad, and the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music; and Yusuf Gandhi, president of Times Square Records/Four Square Entertainment, a label whose roster includes Mariza, Eva Allyon, Emeline Michel, Plena Libre, and Peru Negro.

Given the nature of CMJ and its attendees (mostly college students who are either programmers at their schools’ radio stations or aspiring musicians), our conversation ranged over many pragmatic and logistical issues, such as attracting touring artists to perform at universities and colleges and finding contacts within the world-music community. Even so, the panel discussion largely focused on the issues and challenges of presenting world-music artists in today’s America.

Bill Bragin said that, since his venue is part of a larger, not-for-profit organization, he finds himself aligning as much with the not-for-profit sector as with the music business. Because of this, he noted, “I think that, after September 11, a lot of presenters saw an outburst of xenophobia and anti-Islamic sentiment. Because many of these other arts presenters are working from a mission-driven [rather than profit-driven] business, or are specifically associated with educational institutions, a lot of presenters felt a heightened sense of responsibility in making sure that, as borders were closing, and as a lot of prejudices were becoming much more overt, it was especially important to continue to present artists from Arab, Middle Eastern, and Muslim backgrounds.” Bragin also observed that, “Many educational-based initiatives have emerged after 9/11, such as Arts International’s very extensive call for proposals for multilayered programs that presented artists in a larger cultural context. Another example is the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where the University Musical Society there has created a huge, year-long Arab World Music Festival that begins this month.”

Bragin concluded, “I think, in general, interest in world music has been growing anyway, even despite the lack of mass-media outlets and very little radio support outside of college radio and a few syndicated and public-radio outlets. After 9/11, there was an added curiosity: What does music from Afghanistan sound like? What does the music from Iraq sound like? At the same time, though, obstacles increased drastically, in terms of border access for artists.”

Yusuf Gandhi agreed with Bragin’s assessment, pointing to the success of Putumayo’s Arabic Groove CD, which was released in June 2001 and went on to become one of the label’s most successful titles. Gandhi added, “Successes like these may also come from second- and later-generation Arab and Muslim Americans wanting to know about their culture, because they were feeling threatened; they were being looked at in another way by the larger society.” Certainly, I interjected, the publishing world was successful after September 11 with titles related to Islam and Middle Eastern studies. At the same time, however, I noted that a book can stand by itself in the marketplace, whereas touring is essential to building excitement about and engagement with a musical style, not to mention being a crucial lynchpin in establishing an artist’s career.

Ben Herson commented, “I think you have two things going on simultaneously: on the one hand, it’s much harder for many artists to come to the US to perform; on the other hand, there’s a demand from both within and outside of the relevant ethnic and religious communities. I was speaking with Ray Rashid of Rashid Music [a Brooklyn-based company that is the largest and oldest Arabic music distributor in the US] a while after 9/11. I was expecting him to say that sales had dropped significantly. What he said instead is that there was a little dip just after September 11, but, soon after, sales just shot up.”

Fabian Alsultany’s professional experience mirrored Rashid’s observations. “In the summer of 2002,” he noted, “the artists I was representing at the time—specifically Hassan Hakmoun, a Moroccan artist based in California—were getting tons of offers. He [Hakmoun] had a new album at the time, but the interest mainly stemmed from the fact that he was one of the only Arab or North African artists based in North America, which meant no visa hassles. Around the exact same time, you had Miles Copeland’s label, Ark 21 Records, launching major initiatives with such superstars as the Algerian rai singer Khaled and the Egyptian singer Hakim…. Ark 21 did a big tour not long after 9/11. The package of artists was strong, but there was a lot of mainstream news interest generated because of the background of the artists touring, which took the publicity to a whole other level.”

I asked the panelists about securing visas for artists hoping to tour the US. After having written about this for more than three years, I commented that perhaps concert promoters and artist managers might be more afraid than they need to be. While arranging tours can be tricky, difficult, time-consuming, and (certainly) expensive, it is still doable. It’s unfortunate when promoters get spooked by the idea of trying to enter the labyrinth, and are so intimidated that they don’t even try to start the process. Artists face a maze of regulations in applying for US visas, including both applying for visas with the United States Citizen and Immigration Services bureau and passing security clearance after the initial visa application is approved. The second step of this process demands that all applicants go through an in-person interview at the nearest US consulate in their countries of origin. While the entire process can be quite time-consuming and expensive, the requirement for this interview has emerged as a major stumbling block: consulate schedules are backed up for months. Moreover, application costs can prove prohibitive, especially for artists coming from poorer nations whose sponsors are often operations run on shoestring budgets.

Bill Bragin enumerated some of the details. “In general, a process which used to take one, two, or maybe three months has, as a matter of course, become a five- to six-month process. But you can’t apply for these visas more than six months in advance, so there are systematic structural problems. The only way to get the applications processed within a shorter timeframe is to pay a $1,000 fee for expedited processing. It’s really best to hire immigration lawyers who specialize in this area, so that’s another $1,500 or $2,000. Applicants often don’t live in a city with a US consulate, so, of course, they’re also responsible for the travel and lodging expenses associated with the in-person interviews, which gets really hard when you have a big band with eight or 10 or 12 members. If applicants live outside their countries of birth—which is common, especially, for example, with African artists living in Paris and so forth—they must return to their countries of birth for their interviews, which really compounds costs. We had an Irish artist play in the Pub last week; she said, for her, coming from Ireland, it cost her $2,500 to get one visa. I think that, increasingly, there are a lot of international artists who are responding to the xenophobia of the US, and are saying, ‘I don’t need to play the United States. I’m not going to make much money there anyway.’ Until they’ve reached a really high level, most international artists who come to the US are touring at a loss. And there is a point at which the hassle—the feeling when you go to the airport and you’re treated as a potential terrorist as opposed to being given the respect [due] an artist—becomes a real disincentive. To one degree or other, a lot of artists are starting to write off the US, and those opportunities just become lost.”

I asked Cindy Byram if, after September 11, the mainstream press coverage of these artists was focused on culture or more on current events. “The focus seems to be on the headline, as opposed to the actual music,” Byram quickly responded. “If they can connect artists to the headlines in the rest of the paper, it’s an easier sell to editors. And, unfortunately, many writers like to feel that they don’t have to know too much about the topic to write about it. This also means that there has been a great deal of attention…[on] some very mediocre artists, because they happen to come from a part of the world that’s in the headlines. It’s almost as if the country an artist comes from drives the story, and not the actual merit of the musician.” Byram also cautioned that, “Often, artists in this situation are asked to speak about the politics of their home countries, which many of them are very uncomfortable doing. They don’t want politics to be their calling card. And they see themselves as individuals, not as spokespersons for a given culture.”

Bill Bragin added, “Cindy’s last point is a problem for world music overall, not just for Arab or Muslim or North African artists. We just did a show a week and a half ago with one of Yusuf’s artists, Emeline Michele. Because she’s a Haitian artist, she has become a de facto spokesperson for hurricane and flood relief issues. She’s always had a strong social conscience, and that’s part of her art, but, at the same time, she had just gone through rounds and rounds of interviews asking her only about the floods in Haiti, while she wanted to talk about aspects of her own work as well. I think for Muslim and Arab artists, that effect is really heightened.”

In the current environment of heightened fear and suspicion, artists who have spent their lives carving out individual identities—even if socially conscious ones—are finding themselves political pawns in a much larger game. Only time will tell where today’s isolationism is headed. Meanwhile, industry professionals such as the ones gathered for this CMJ panel are fighting to keep the music coming.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a columnist for Billboard and also writes about music for publications such as the San Francisco Chronicle, Gramophone, and Jazz Times. She can be heard regularly on NPR’s Weekend America and WNYC’s Soundcheck. More of her work is available at www.anastasiat.com.
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