Ruth Saxelby wonders if this is the year we finally listen to music without borders
Above: International music businesses meet at a "speeddate" session at Ghent's Glimps festival
When I was a kid growing up in Britain's rural midlands in the 80s, I read a book called The Silver Sword. Published in 1956 and based on true events, it told the story of three Polish children who travelled alone from their hometown of Warsaw to Switzerland in the dying days of World War II to be reunited with their parents. That book gave me a glimpse of Poland, a land beyond my lived experience, one that stayed with me as the years went by. When I took a year out before university it was Poland I headed to first - Warsaw then Krakow - where I ate obwarzanki from little stalls and licked the walls of an ancient cathedral hand-carved from rock salt in a 13th century salt mine, just to check. Poland was the first place that lived in my head long before I had any real air-and-atoms experience of it, yet my fictional idea of it had drew me to it like a magnet.
In mid-December I travelled to the crisply gothic city of Ghent in Belgium to attend Glimps, a new music festival in its second year that promised “the best music that Europe has to offer.” I was taking part in a panel about music blogs or, more specifically, how European bands and artists could get heard outside of their home countries. It made me think of The Silver Sword and about how formidable our familiar line of sight is, how over-powering, and what it takes to disturb it and open our ears to somewhere new.
While the means we have for listening have changed radically over the past decade, what we’re listening for and where we’re listening to has trailed behind. The internet purports to be a borderless realm yet some places still shine brighter, are more visible and therefore more listened to. America, for obvious example. The pervading allure and influence of music from the US is due in part to its vivid place in our mind’s eye. New York, Chicago, Detroit, LA: the music of these places are like pins in a map - their past is known and their future is therefore knowable.
Of course, new music stars place a halo around their hometown. The world’s current it city is surely Montreal, thanks to Grimes. Suddenly there’s an influx of “new” artists from Montreal but it’s not that they weren’t there before, it’s just we weren’t listening out for them. But things are changing, you can feel it; hear it. As the lines drawn by genre blur, geography is coming back into focus. There’s a sense of revived curiosity in music outside of our own experience or mapped imaginative space. Our world that got smaller as we became more connected is growing once again.
For wildly different reasons, Korean pop and Russian punk hit the headlines in 2012 but there were new currents in the underground too. South Africa’s Petite Noir emerged as an exciting new voice in pop, blending new wave melancholy and intricate guitar rhythms. From Chennai, India, there was the dense, dubby funk of Shah Marg; from Coimbra, Portugal, the sweet vibrations of JCCG; and from Vienna, Austria, the free jazz evoking techno of Cid Rim. There was word of Romania’s inspiring reggae scene, musical tales from fraught Tel Aviv and weekly transmissions of everything from West Africa groove to Norwegian gospel via Thristian’s Dark ‘N’ Lovely Global Roots show on NTS.
Back in Ghent I was captivated by Belgian singer/pianist An Pierlé, an artist of such singular merit that I couldn’t believe she was 15 years into her career. Where is her presence in the UK? Poland’s Microexpressions, fusing metal and beats to uneven but occasionally thrilling effect, also caught my imagination. Then chatting in the street after the panel I met Hakan from Istanbul who gave me a CD of his music project TSU! A few weeks later at home I finally played it: a beautiful collection of cinematic, guitar-led melodies in part influenced by traditional Turkish music. “Not particular names,” Hakan told me over email, “but songs you hear all your life in the street, in taxis, on TV.” What will the songs on the streets of tomorrow sound like? Here's to listening beyond the usual borders.