TRANSMISSIONSVII_poster70x100_aggiornatoIn 1999, David Byrne wrote an article for the New York Times provocatively entitled I Hate World Music . It isn’t the music itself that the ex-Talking Head hates but the media label that lumps everything which is not English-language pop/rock into the same category.

He wrote that “the use of the term world music is a way of dismissing artists or their music as irrelevant to one’s own life. It’s a way of relegating this “thing” into the realm of something exotic and therefore cute, weird but safe, because exotica is beautiful but irrelevant; they are, by definition, not like us”.

Byrne noted that by virtue of record sales alone some artists escaped such lazy pigeon-holing. No one refers to Ricky Martin or Sigur Ròs as world music artists even though most of their best known songs are sung in Spanish or Icelandic (or Hopelandic!) respectively.

Instead, this genre name is reserved  for the kind of artists who festival curators Jeremy Barnes and Heather Trost (aka A Hawk And A Hacksaw) assembled for a unique concert at Ravenna last night. The performers flown in from Balkan countries are the kind that have most western listeners (myself included) automatically reaching for glib adjectives like ‘authentic’, ‘traditional’ and ‘exotic’.

Balazs Unger

They play instruments that most would need to look up on Wikipedia. For instance, I had never set eyes on a ‘cimbalom‘ let alone seen anyone playing it. The skill of Hungary’s Balázs Unger was therefore something of a revelation. He is a good humor man who bears a striking resemblance to ‘portly’ (i.e. overweight) comedian Johnny Vegas yet the speed and dexterity with which he hammers the 48 chords of this instrument belies his ungainly appearance and had to be seen to be believed.

Nedyalko Nedyalkov

Nedyalko Nedyalkov from Bulgaria is according to a review by a certain Professor Milcho Vasilev “one of the best kaval players of our time”. What, you may ask, is a ‘kaval‘ and a web search will reveal that it’s a chromatic end-blown flute (I looked it up!) that puts humdrum school recorders to shame. This maestro was accompanied by three equally talented musicians on lute, marching drum and mandolin (although in Bulgaria I’m sure these instruments have other names!). Dressed in sombre black, they might have passed for a team of undertakers but while their lilting music is tinged with melancholy, the melodies are actually intended for belly dances and other celebrations.

Zoran Dzorlev , Bajsa Arifovska & Ratko Dautovski.

Bajsa Arifovska was the only woman on stage at the Almagià venue, and an online bio confirms her as a multi-instrumentalist of some standing in her native Macedonia. For this concert she plays violin, clarinet and bagpipes and was joined by another noted violinist Zoran Dzorlev ,who looked every inch the distinguished maestro,  & percussionist Ratko Dautovski. The trio began a little stiffly as though unsure as to whether their role for this show was as educators or entertainers. But encouraged by a noisy contingent of fellow countrymen in the audience they gradually loosened up and ended with a kind of duelling violin piece that brought the house down.

King Naat & the Original Kocani Orkestar

King Naat & the Original Kočani Orkestar, also from Macedonia, closed this show in predictably upbeat fashion. Their brass band tunes, led by beefy bald-headed trumpeter King Naat, may not be as subtle as the music that came before but this is no-nonsense party music that any audience could immediately relate to. They play the kind of tunes you imagine a troupe from New Orleans might compose after consuming plenty of alcohol to get the creative juices flowing. This was dance music for weddings or, better still, funerals and got the audience dancing dervish-like in appreciation.

David Byrne is right when he says that the experience of hearing virtuoso players from another neighborhood is more than simply cultural tourism but can do what all great music should, which is to move, inspire and delight listeners.  I would argue that such musicians are more likely to break down cultural barriers than politicians. Transmissions day two was a reminder that great art and music has the capacity to transcend frontiers and open our eyes and ears to other ways of being.