There’s an interesting blurb from Tyler Cowen on why he thinks Desi music isn’t as popular in the West as other types of world music (at least for now… times are always a-changing, of course). Asked by a reader –
Why do the US (a wealthy country) and Africa (a poor continent) put out more influential modern music than Asia (a populated continent of both wealthy and poor extremes)?
Tyler responds –
3. The micro-tonal musics, as we find in India and the Middle East, don’t spread to many countries which do not already have a micro-tonal tradition. Cats wailing, etc., though it is a shame if you haven’t trained your ear by now to like the stuff. It’s some of the world’s finest music.
4. Many Asian musics, such as some of the major styles of China and Japan, emphasize timbre. That makes them a) often too subtle, and b) very hard to translate to disc or to radio. African-derived musics are perfect for radio or for the car.
The comnentors also make some important points. For example, even though we don’t see desi tunes in the West very much, they are all over the rest Asia (outside China/Japan/Korea), the Middle East, Africa, and even some former eastern block countries. Second, most Indian pop music it is driven by the film industry rather than by a separate “music” industry. Another commentor further expands Tyler’s point about the micro-tonal aspects of Indian music –
While there is no contemporary popular style that uses the scalar melodic microtones of the Ancient Greek enharmonic scale, both the Islamicate and Indian (Hindustani and Karnaktic) repertoires use intervals that differ audibly from the Western tempered scale by microtonal intervals, thus the Islamicate scales use both intervals very close to the western semi- and whole tones, but also intervals close to three-quarters of a tone and somewhat wider than a whole tone (with a ratio of around 8:7). A scale approximating a western diatonic scale is possible in both these repertoires, but is only one among 18 or so in wide use in Arabic/Turkisk/Persian music and among significant many more in Indian practice.
I’m going to go way way way out on a limb and toss out another personal, vastly underinformed, pet theory on this question. Instead of musical structure, language barriers, and the like I also wanna toss in some cultural context…
Although I speak / understand basically zero Hindi, I can still readily feel a certain cultural optimism / fantasy in a lot of Indian music. When the singer speaks of love, longing, lost, and the whole lot, it really is coming from a deep, pure place in the heart that’s uncorrupted by the acknowledged Tragedy of the modern world. The world is great as-is or could be just around the corner. Good and Bad are clear. And for both better and worse, there’s a lot of escapism.
By contrast, a LOT (though clearly not all) of today’s Western music is about, well, the Tragedy of the post-modern world. You were fooled by love until your boyfriend / girlfriend went psycho and slept with someone else in the band. A song about parental love is likely to be about the lack of it and that’s the reason young Jeremy started a fight in school. Everything’s screwed up and we’re not gonna take it. He’s only sorry he got caught. Ideals are tools of the Man and the opiate of the people. The real world is cynical, only things you can physically smack are real and everything else is equally good or equally bad. And so on and so on…
So, in that sense, thematically, Indian pop music often has more in common with American Country than globalized Rock and Roll & hip-hop. AND, this invites many of the same judgements from the mass Western cultural market. Don’t they know that “sophisticated” sad music is supposed to be about existential angst rather than love lost? And that “authentic” happy music is about chemical highs, sporting bling, or tonight’s ecstasy rather than looking into her eyes?
I know I’m painting with some very broad brush strokes here and exceptions abound but I really do think that when folks in a Bollywood frame of mind want to listen to some tunes, the last thing they want is sophisticated cynicism. And I think a lot of modern western culture has a tough time with all that sappy naivete (country music again being the massive exception).
So, all these stray thoughts are far outside of my usual blogging comfort zone and I suspect we’ve got some serious Indo- and Western-music philes in the SM cabal. What say you?