I have to hand it to the Putumayo label. Since it started as a soundtrack-provider to a clothing store in the early '90s, the operation has placed racks of CDs with friendly-primitivist art by Nicola Heindl into Starbucks and Whole Foods everywhere. Putumayo is as responsible as anything for making music buyers ask "Where's the world music section?" in shops or online.
In 1968, Hugh Masekela was not quite 30 years old and though he was in exile from his homeland of South Africa, he seemed ready to become at home on the American jazz and pop markets. That summer, he had scored a number one single, "Grazing in the Grass." A year earlier, he'd been one of the few international performers at the 1967 Monterrey International Pop Festival and had appeared in its D.A. Pennebaker documentary. Yet strangely enough, over the next 45 years Masekela never quite found his sweet spot.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but the history of world music proves that unfamiliar instruments and rhythms cross borders much more readily than vocal styles. There's no question that, starting in the late '60s, soul and then funk became very popular in sub-Saharan Africa. Decades of reissues show that a lot of players found their way into electric guitar, and that enriching the big beat of the West was a cinch for African percussionists.
Before Led Zeppelin, there was Iron Butterfly — these days, a very misremembered band from Los Angeles. Maybe it was the movie industry all around, but '60s garage-rock in L.A. had an expansive, almost cinematic streak. Iron Butterfly was not the most inventive band on that scene, but it became the most famous because of a single, durable, out-of-nowhere hit, "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida." The song was 17 minutes long, and the proper thing to do on underground radio stations was the play the whole thing.
The relentless quest to reissue every decent piece of rock 'n' roll from the '60s and '70s long ago exhausted the U.S. and U.K. warehouses. The new trend for the past couple years is to dig up all sorts of so-called "funk" and "garage rock" from countries around the world. This has worked fine in Africa and South America, though few potent new performers have come to light. The surprise has been Turkey, forever underestimated and overlooked in the Western market.
The anti-pop element in rock 'n' roll began in the late '60s with groups like Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Henry Cow and continued right through the '90s with the likes of Nick Cave and Nine Inch Nails. All were compelled to make rock more noisy and intricate rather than catchy or sensual. The results have been mixed at best — far too many albums that appeal to true believers but feel distant, even alienating, to everyone else.