Thursday 15 November 2018

Every Country is Special

around-the-world-in-575-songs, nick-wall, book, music

Today I have an exciting guest post to share with you all, courtesy of author Nick Wall. His book Around the World in 575 Songs features two of my favourite things (music and travel) so I'm thrilled to be able to welcome Nick to The Writing Greyhound!

My project began as a way of sharing music that I was into. I love compiling music lists, and some of those I’d posted on my blog, such as blues music and protest songs, had hundreds of thousands of hits. It had been in my head for some time to draw up a world music list, and one morning when I was in the shower a plan crystallised: I would collate songs from every country in the world, upload the songs to a stand-alone website, and write about all of them in a book.

around-the-world-in-575-songs, nick-wall, book, music

The key to the success of the project lay in the selection of the songs. I knew that I’d be choosing songs that quite often weren’t anywhere near as popular as the stuff that kids in those countries are listening to today. At the same time, I felt a sense of responsibility. I wanted to make choices that would mean something to people in these countries, that they would recognise and respect as being part of their musical heritage, and that was relevant to today’s musicians.

There were to be no shortcuts to doing this. For each of the 200 countries that I researched, I had to figure out for myself what music was representative and relevant, and why.

In many parts of the world, traditional culture is presented as a package that’s branded and sold to would-be visitors. It’s so easy to buy into the narrative. The danger is though that what we’re buying into is a mythologised idealised past. I happen to believe that reality can very often be more fascinating, more revealing about the true nature of a country and its cultures. 

around-the-world-in-575-songs, nick-wall, book, music

The great thing about hanging my text around actual songs was that it kept me grounded. If the myth wasn’t being reflected in what I was hearing, I soon learned that I had to question the myth. And that’s a great thing, being open to new information, to surprises. I’ve always considered myself to be a champion of multiculturalism, but unconsciously I believed in certain national myths and stereotypes just like anyone else. Now what I was discovering was that every country is a mix of peoples, languages, cultures and traditions, no country is ethnically pure. And traditions themselves are not set in stone, they’re constantly changing, particularly when different cultures come into contact with one another. Looking at all this through the medium of music was very interesting. It taught me that what makes a country great is very often an unlikely coming together of peoples and cultures.

I’d heard some panpipe music when I was younger. And I’d heard Simon and Garfunkel adding their shtick to it on El Condor Pasa. So I carried in my head a hazy image of a long unbroken tradition which the indigenous peoples of the Bolivian Andes were keeping alive to this day. The narrative that actually emerged from my research could not have been more different. The music I’d heard was what’s sometimes described as a reinvented tradition. Those groups who made recordings were typically made up of indigenous university students rather than poor peasants. Several were formed in the 1970s, inspired by Los Jairas, who themselves were formed specifically to play at Peña Naira, La Paz’s new art gallery, and made no claims to be a purely traditional ensemble. 

around-the-world-in-575-songs, nick-wall, book, music

In the 21st century, Bolivia has embraced its indigenous heritage like few other countries. Evo Morales, an indigenous Aymara Bolivian and the son of a poor cocoa farmer, was elected President in 2006 and is currently serving his third term. However, the Andean music of the 1960s and 70s has been left behind as indigenous musicians have moved in other directions.

Indonesia is most famous for gamelan music. Gamelan orchestras are made up mainly of metallic percussion instruments and seeing them is an experience not to be missed. As I explored though I cam to understand that this was just one aspect of an incredibly diverse heritage, and that to do Indonesia any kind of justice, I had to cast my net wider. Indonesia is home to many peoples, many cultures, and a bewildering array of musical forms and musical instruments. Altogether more than 700 languages are spoken. In Bali and western Java, gamelan tradition takes different forms. Betawi people from the Jakarta region have their own kind of orchestra called Gambang Kromong. In Sumatra, gong-chime ensembles perform with male singers. Tembang Sunda is a form of sung poetry from West Java. These are only a few examples of musical genres, and within each genre, there’s a diversity which I was unable to capture in the space of one short chapter.

In the book I discuss an album of tunes from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, quoting the sleeve notes – “When we arrived in Sulawesi, we did not know what we would record… we were expecting flutes. What we found, as you will have gathered, was strings in spades…” The exotic instruments are all described in detail. Unfortunately, I remark, what the sleeve notes don’t tell us is why, on the album cover, one of the string players is standing upside down.

The project website, where you can listen to all 575 selected songs, is now live.

Nick Wall studied English Literature at Cambridge University. Ten years ago he started a music blog which has had over 3 million hits, and from it evolved the Around the World in 575 Songs project. Nick carried out the entire research and writing of these books while working full-time in Liverpool as a civil servant.

What's your favourite song? Let me know in the comments below!

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