Those examples are by no means isolated, and the concept goes back a while — check out the Middle Eastern flavor of “Caravan,” done by Duke Ellington’s band in 1937. We could go back even further, but you probably get the point: Not only is there a rich tradition of blending musical cultures, the results can be very successful.
Want to expand your recording horizons? Let’s explore.
LISTEN TO THE WORLD
Step one: Listen to some of the music being made outside the standard U.S. pop mainstream. A great place to start is the Internet radio über-station Live365.com, at www.live365.com/cgi-bin/directory.cgi?genre. You’ll find 394 international stations including hardcore soca, mandarin pop, Pakistani bhangra, Lebanese trance, retro Haitian music, Arabic pop, J-pop, and a whole lot more. Even AOL, the Rodney Dangerfield of online services, offers 21 international radio stations.
Also, seek out CD stores with listening stations that let you audition CDs, and spend some time in the international section. If listening to all this musical diversity doesn’t get you at least somewhat inspired, you may be clinically dead; stop reading this article, and see a doctor.
ADDING EXOTIC SPICES TO THE MIX
You need to exercise some taste while exploring the world, lest your experiments scream “gimmick!” You have three basic options; we’ll start with the simplest.
--Use ethnic instrumental sounds in place of traditional ones. For example, you might play a lead line using a sitar or erhu sound instead of a synthesizer or guitar. Another possibility is to adopt a different tonality, such as the trebly, semi-clean guitar sound associated with African hi-life music in place of a standard Western pop guitar sound. This technique can add interest and variation without having to stray too far off the beaten path.
--Adopt selected rhythms and phrasings from world music. Here, you incorporate certain world elements — the call-and-response vocals of African tribal music, or the complex polyrhythms of Brazilian percussion — in a way that makes musical sense. A good example is how the Police wove the traditional Balinese “monkey chant” into “Voices Inside My Head,” or built “Canary in a Coal Mine” on top of a ska rhythm; both are from the Zenyatta Mondatta album, which reflected their experiences touring in exotic places.
-Write and create in a totally different musical style. This is the hardest to pull off, because unless you’re, say, Haitian, you probably don’t have Haitian music in your blood. But Paul Simon stayed pretty true to hi-life in “Graceland,” no doubt partly due to using musicians from that genre, but also because that type of music must have resonated on some level with him — as it obviously did with millions of listeners.
WORLD TOOLS, PART 1: SAMPLE CDS
Sample CDs — either those with exotic instrument sounds, or with loops suitable for dropping into your music — can provide a fine springboard for experimentation. I’ve used a lot of these over the years; here are a few favorites.
Electro-World Percussion, Alex Spurkel (Sony). This loop CD of Acidized WAV files emphasizes Middle Eastern percussion with djembes, doumbeks, bendir, and the like. The performances are tight, appropriate, and loaded with vibe.
Roots of South America (Big Fish Audio). More loops, with a great ethnic feel, lots of energy, and a “construction kit” approach so you can take individual elements of a mix or just go for the full mix. Versatile? You bet: I used these in a mash-up with the Neville Brothers’ “Hey Pocky Way” during a live performance.
EarthBeat, Greg Morrow and Eric Darken (Discrete Drums). These multitracked drum/percussion loops are more like “impressionistic ethnic” than something to thrill a musicologist with their authenticity, but as such, they make a good bridge between world and pop music.
Heart of Africa, produced by Eric Persing (Spectrasonics). This is a musicologist’s dream, with one CD of instrument samples and another with phrases and loops, thus covering a couple different bases. These are so authentic they need to be incorporated in music with great care, lest they sound like a fish out of water.
Latin Element, produced by James Galvez (M-Audio). When you want to add a little Latin salsa to your tunes, this is great — the construction kit approach means you can grab full loops or individual elements.
Planet Earth X (E-mu). This works only with E-mu’s Proteus or Emulator software instruments, but provides the soundset from E-mu’s Planet Earth sound module.
Ethno World Library, Marcel Barsotti (Best Service). If you’re looking for lots of ethnic instrument samples, this Gigasampler-compatible library (a separate version is EXS24- and HALion-compatible) has almost 3GB of samples of both ethnic and historical instruments. It also has plenty of idiomatically-played loops and licks.
WORLD TOOLS, PART 2: VIRTUAL INSTRUMENTS
The sample library-meets-software-instrument trend has also touched world music. My two current favorites are East West’s Ra (Figure 1), and MOTU’s Ethno Instrument (Figure 2). Both contain a wide selection of instruments and loops; MOTU’s offering has 4GB of samples and 4GB of loops (to me, the instrument’s real standout), whereas Ra (with a 14GB library, but also a much heftier price tag) has instruments and lots of sampled articulations, making it easy to get highly “authentic” sounds. Between the two of them, you can cover a whole lot of bases. Those with tight budgets will be well-served by Ethno Instrument, which is extremely cost-effective — down to including an on-board convolution reverb.
Two other exceptional virtual instruments are Latigo (Latin percussion) and Darbuka (Middle Eastern percussion), both by Wizoo and sold through M-Audio. What makes these unique is that you have serious control over complexity, timing, variations, and swing. So while you can’t create original beats — you can use only the ones included in the programs — you can get a lot of mileage out of them. Of the two I find Darbuka the more intriguing, but either will get you where you want to go in terms of adding interesting percussion to your tunes.
Of course, these descriptions are quite superficial, but all of the above instruments were reviewed previously (and favorably) in EQ — they’ve definitely passed the “test of time” in my studio.
ARE YOU READY TO WORLD YOUR ROCK?
You bet you are! Why be normal? There’s a whole world of great sounds ready to open up your sonic horizons. Whether you go for adding a subtle percussion track or become a total convert to a whole new type of music, there’s an interesting voyage ahead of you.