MP3 Scavengers Know No Borders

A host of world music blogs to expand your playlist

MP3 Scavengers

image courtesy of Frank Gossner

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Meet the new breed of world music experts.

John Beadle, by day a machinist at Harley-Davidson, posts streaming MP3s of little-known African pop music on his Likembe blog (likembe.blogspot.com).

Brian Shimkovitz traveled through Ghana on a Fulbright scholarship, exploring the country’s obscure music and sharing his finds in a distinctly nonacademic style at Awesome Tapes from Africa (awesometapesfromafrica.blogspot.com).

Stuart Ellis, a punk rocker turned world music freak, posts a weekly single on Radiodiffusion Internasionaal (www.radiodiffusion.net), where the playlist has ranged from the North Korean orchestral number “We Always Look Up to the Central Committee of the Party” to the fuzz-toned garage-soul raver “Morning Train” by ’60s Israeli band Uzi and the Styles.

It’s an amazing time for music listeners with adventurous ears, as MP3 bloggers ferret out music previously available only to crate-digging record collectors and their close friends. A new breed of digital-savvy amateur ethnomusicologist is scouring the planet for weird, wonderful, and forgotten records, and then posting them for all the world to hear on streaming websites.

“In a relatively short time, the blogger has absorbed an array of occupational functions, from journalist to novelist to diarist to teacher,” music writer Ross Simonini notes in the Village Voice  (Aug. 20, 2008). “The recent spate of international music blogs has introduced the roles of ethno­musicologist and archaeologist.”

While Shimkovitz had the backing of a scholarship, many of his self-trained peers are no less dedicated—in fact, they’re willing to suffer for their art. Frank Gossner, a.k.a. Frank Conakry, recently spent three years crate-digging in West Africa in pursuit of “Afrobeat, jerk, and soul” records for his Voodoo Funk blog (voodoofunk.blogspot.com). During his search, Simonini reports, Gossner was robbed at knifepoint, found scorpions inside record sleeves, and got respiratory infections from mold.

If Voodoo Funk’s rich Africana is any indication, his hardships were well worth the trouble. Gossner assembles his finds into hourlong mixes, each collection a strange and captivating trip through forgotten corners of music. A recent “extra funky” mix called “Everybody Get Down” featured the off-kilter psychedelic jam “More Bread to the People” by Action 13, the burbling dance workout “Metalik Funk” by the Mighty Flames, and the spooky breakdown “If You Love Your Neighbour You No Go Die” by Rock Town Express.

Not exactly the fare you’re likely to hear on the typical world music compilation, mass-marketed to go down smooth with that three-dollar cup of java and to appeal to your sense of perceived authenticity.

 “In general, these blogs (and the bloggers themselves) challenge the accepted terrain of ‘world music,’ a term that has come to connote a very limited number of instantly palatable foreign sounds,” writes Simonini. “Australian Aboriginal music, for instance, would probably be too experimental for most lazy-Sunday world music enthusiasts, while Angola’s kuduru music would lean too far toward hard-core urban sounds.”

Nick Storring makes a similar point in the Canadian magazine Musicworks (Winter 2008; article not available online) in an article that celebrates both the best of international blogging and small, scrappy world music labels such as Sublime Frequencies, Yaala Yaala, Terp, and Crammed Discs, which have more in common with the indie-rock world than with bigger, slicker world music labels.

These smaller, nimbler platforms, he writes, are examples of “emerging alternative modes of marketing and curating non-Western sounds” and are a welcome counter to an “over-emphasis on authenticity [that] continues to drive the world music industry.”

While Africa is a fertile ground for many MP3 bloggers, it’s far from the only repository of great forgotten music.

Matt Yanchyshyn started Benn Loxo du Taccu (bennloxo.com) as a forum for Nigerian-made, American-influenced pop-rock from the 1960s and 1970s. Now he’s all over the map, from China to Syria to Denmark, and a recent post delved into Italian versions of U.S. pop hits, starting with the Who’s “Can’t Explain” rendered as “Con Quella Voce” by the exuberantly throaty singer of the band Gli Uragani.

Stuart Ellis at Radiodiffusion Internasionaal sums up the spirit of discovery that drives his peers:

“With compilations like The Roots of Chicha: Psychedelic Cumbias from Peru and 1970’s Algerian Proto-Raï Underground popping up, and bands like Konono No. 1 coming to light after being in existence for a quarter-century, it makes you wonder: What else is out there? What have I missed?

“Maybe there were some kids in a basement somewhere with an electric guitar, or a keyboard, or even some kind of electrified gayageum [a Korean zitherlike instrument] making some unholy racket. And maybe, just maybe, there’s reel-to-reel, cassette recordings, or possibly even some bootleg X-ray records floating around with those unimaginable sounds. That is what keeps me, and other obsessive types like me, constantly searching.”