28 October 2005

The Man Who Discovered World Music

In an article published today, the Mercury News takes a big leap, calling Yusef Latif "the man who discovered world music." This seems to be a generous extrapolation of the comments of percussionist Adam Rudolph:
Yusef is so important in what people now call world music. In the 1950s, he felt that, if he was going to have a long journey, he wanted to know as much as he could about all phenomena. He set a tone for a lot of what happened in Detroit, showing by example that being a student of music is an important part of being a jazz musician. He'll say to me, 'Brother Adam, we're just evolutionists.' Some musicians find a language and direction, and it serves them throughout their life. It's not to say one is better than an other. It's just a different inclination.'
Detroit? Jazz? Where's the "world" in this music? I won't dispute that Latif had an influence "on what people now call world music," but what does it mean to "discover" it? If you mean someone who recorded and brought the ethnic musics of the world to Western attention, one thinks of Alan Lomax, or Hugh Tracy. If you mean Western musicians/collaborators who brought (and continue to bring) popular attention to ethnic music forms, perhaps Bob Brozman, Mickey Hart, David Byrne, or Paul Simon.

My point? The musics of the world have always existed, and have always been known to some. Other people have created, recorded, collaborated on, publicized, exploited and profited from world music projects. It's all just too big to be personified in one man, and the newspaper's headline writer should know this. Call Latif a pioneer, if you wish. The "discovery" of world music is ongoing, and the work of many.

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