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The world is next door

Atlanta makes strides toward becoming a truly international city, but the music scene struggles to keep up

It's a warm, Sunday afternoon, and Adams Stadium is positively buzzing. Excitable merchants ply their wares to a crowd of thousands, who shuffle around the stadium's football field, mingling amongst friends and neighbors, stopping perhaps to munch on frijoles or to throw back a cold drink. Boisterous greetings rise up over the sounds of a lively band knocking out a more-than-passable mariachi tune around in the end zone. Later, other bands will take their place; some will also offer up mariachi, while others will mix contemporary rock and pop with a host of south-of-the-border sounds, everything from ranchera and norteo to merenge and salsa.
The "Grito de Independencia," as the festival is called, is an annual event for Atlanta's Mexican-American community. It means, "Cry of Independence" and honors the day in 1810 when a priest in the small Mexican town of Dolores freed prisoners and locked up the ruling Spanish authorities, effectively overthrowing the local government.
According to the festival's press release, it's also an opportunity for "English-speaking Atlanta to experience one of the local Mexican community's most important cultural events." No doubt, a commendable goal, but walking the grassy grounds, looking at the festival-goers faces and listening to their voices, it was clear there was a problem: I was the only gringo in the house.
The reasons behind this are perhaps not as straightforward as they might seem. In fact, uncovering those reasons is a voyage riddled with social landmines, deep-seated opinions and linguistic barriers.
The national music media has for years trumpeted that "world music," — an ambiguous catch-all phrase for anything non-Western — will one day breach the barrier and slip permanently into the mainstream of American popular culture. Some believe the success of acts like the Buena Vista Social Club, and even Ricky Martin and Marc Anthony, is a positive omen for the future of world music both nationally and locally. Others aren't convinced.
"It's all smoke and mirrors," says Milton Jones, a local world-music presenter who's also been an assistant manager at Wax N Facts, a hip, independent record store in Little Five Points, for over a decade. "I have found that if there's any kind of indigenous bubble in the music, most local audiences just tune it out completely. They don't like foreign vocals, bizarre instruments, wailing guitars and all that. They like to have English lyrics they can hang their hat on."
Jones should know. As the driving force behind Euphonic Productions, a non-profit, world-music promotion company, he's organized concerts by artists from South Anerica, the Middle East, Africa and beyond. As an "anglo," born and raised in the South, he's also one of the few outside Atlanta's ethnic communities making an effort to bring their sounds across cultural barriers.
"I just thought it would be a cool idea," he says with an unassuming shrug. "I had already been producing some free-jazz shows around town, [then] I saw these Algerian musicians at the [Moroccan restaurant] Casbah and thought, 'Man! Let's do a show with these guys. We produced our first concert with them in 1998."
Of course, it's not as if exotic sounds had never been heard in Atlanta before 1998. In fact, the city's sprawling, ethnically diverse suburbs are fertile breeding grounds for the development of lesser-known musical forms.
On a recent Saturday night at Georgia Tech's Ferst Center for the Performing Arts, the fruits of that diversity were readily apparent. Elegant women in fine silk gowns seemed to float around the large theater, the scent of exotic perfume trailing behind them. Drums and tablas mixed with electronic beats, providing a dizzying soundtrack for the scores of Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Indian, Nepalese, Bangladeshi, and Bhutanian youth filling the dance floor. Huge posters of Hindi pop stars looked down from the walls smiling cheeky grins, as a band ripped through old and new chatpati songs and the latest dhamaka scores.
The event, "Ek Shaam Raksha Ke Naam," was a gathering of Atlanta's South Asian community, which numbers nearly 80,000 strong. But exotic sounds and bustling parties are hardly exclusive to Atlanta's South Asian or, for that matter, Mexican communities. As Atlanta's immigrant population has swelled dramatically over the past decade, once-tiny pockets of immigrant culture have swelled with it.
"I've been a band leader in Atlanta for 15 years and the music scene has changed a lot," explains Quique Meraco, a member of the Cuban dance group Orchestra Lyrica. "There's much more acceptance [of Latin music] now." He points to the dance floor. "I can remember years back seeing Americans, whether they were white, black, Asian, whatever, who were kind of shabby when it came to dancing. The dancing's better now, more consistent with the music."
Carola C. Reuben, a longtime agent for local and national Mexican bands has also noticed the growth: "There's more places to work than bands. There used to be only three Mexican music clubs here, and now there's easily 30 or more."
It's not just the number of clubs that's grown, though. It's practically every aspect of the burgeoning multicultural scene. There are six AM radio stations and one FM station — WAZX-FM 101.9, the relative powerhouse of the bunch — devoted to Spanish-language programming. There's a growing number of local community-oriented newspapers, including Atlanta Chinese News, The Korea Times and Mundo Hispanico, devoted to covering the culture, and even websites like Atlanta Latino, the Atlanta Indian American Community, the Indian Classical Music Association, the Filipino-American Association that do the same.
This Sunday, Oct. 1, many of the disparate scenes will come together as the DeKalb Council for the Arts throws "World Party 2000" at the Plaza Fiesta on Buford Highway. Performers will include Andean music groups, Romanian and Chinese dance companies and a band from the Sudan.
"The idea is to get people together in a relaxed, informal setting so they can enjoy each other's culture: A community-building exercise, if you will," explains organizer Roger French.
But while this cross-pollination between immigrant cultures is not completely without precedent, it seems rare that these immigrant cultures — particularly their vibrant musical components — filter into Atlanta's mainstream. There's little evidence, for example, of a blurring of lines between, say, Atlanta's Mexican-American music community and the local indie-rock crowd who might spend their weekends at the Echo Lounge or the Earl. The music scenes that have sprung up from Atlanta's ethnic communities have largely become self-contained enclaves in which perfor-mers, promoters, fans, media and venues are not only drawn from the same community, they're unlikely to stray far from it.
"Audiences at most of the shows I produce are people from that particular ethnic community," Milton Jones says of his Euphonics Productions shows, "whether it's Indian, African or some other group."
Even on a national level, Jones is skeptical about what the mild commercial success of groups like the Gipsy Kings and the Buena Vista Social Club really means to the rest of the music world.
"I think Buena Vista is an exception to the rule," he says. "I think the music just has an exotic appeal for some people. The average American needs cultural enrichment in their life. But most consumers, in my opinion, are lazy and only pay attention to what they see or hear on MTV or other commercial outlets."
Despite the vibrancy and diversity of world music, it's clearly a cultural asset that has gone virtually untapped by the mainstream. The real challenge, it seems, is for world music to seep out of insular immigrant communities and break into the broader culture of Atlanta at large. That challenge is made all the more difficult when you consider the unique obstacles world musicians face. Because they've had a difficult time reaching a wider audience, the artists are hard-pressed to survive on the income they can drum up within their own communities.
"It's a money issue," notes Alicia Rangel, leader of the 10-member group, Rumbabrava. "Most of what we do is word-of-mouth. But you know, it's like any business. If you cut corners it shows. You can't play salsa music with less than eight [musicians]."
So resources are allocated for only the most necessary of expenses. For promoter, Carola Reuben, that means knowing who her primary audience is and speaking directly to them. "I've never bothered [promoting artists] with local mainstream media," she explains. "Most Mexicans [in Atlanta] don't read or speak English [and] I don't think [Mexican bands] have much appeal to anyone outside the Mexican community. It makes no sense to publicize them in mainstream media. I just don't see why they'd be interested."
Yet many musicians themselves would jump at the chance to bring their music to more mainstream ears, and even bristle over the fact that the English-speaking media seems to ignore them.
"All the time I hear about the lack of publicity for their music," says Alberto Brown, longtime music editor for the Spanish-language newspaper, Mundo Hispanico. "There's simply not a lot of exposure in the mainstream, Anglo community. [Plus] they don't have money for publicists [and] promotion that others would have."
Even at local Latin radio stations, Atlanta-based artists face an uphill battle when it comes to garnering spins, according to Brown. "The people who own the [Latin] radio stations here don't support the artists [and] play their music."
It's even more daunting for Latin and other world musicians to break on to predominantly English-speaking stations. The few exceptions can be found at the far left of the FM dial.
Diversity is the name of the game at WRFG-FM 89.3, a community-owned and operated station based out of Inman Park.
"WRFG is a smorgasbord of eclectic programming," says operations manager Wanique Shabazz. "We make it available to all those who aren't in mainstream media."
According to Jason Walker, producer of WRFG's Caribbean and World music show, "reggae and underground hip-hop have historically received the strongest response" from the WRFG audience, but Latin music has gained considerable momentum in the past year. "It's caught on big-time, and it may overstep hip-hop next year in popularity," he says. "The Latin community in Atlanta is amazing."
At the same time, it's no secret that WRFG and other international music mediums are not exactly burning up the Arbitrons. Atlanta's most popular music stations — 99X, V-103, Hot 97, 96 Rock, Star 94 — have virtually no non-Western stars on their regular playlists — unless you count Ricky Martin's wagging butt as a nod towards diversity.
"A lot of the programming is due to availability," explains Steve Craig, a DJ at 99X and a major supporter of local music through his "Locals Only" show. "I mean, I used to get Caribbean stuff and some other things, but that's it. No major label sends us anything else unless they think it will kind of fit the format."
As for considering local, independently-released world music acts for "Locals Only," Craig says he's open and willing to give just about anything that's "good, interesting, and palatable" a chance. He points to the local Latin salsa/rock group Mandorico as evidence. "They're great. They're like the Fred Durst of salsa music. They get airplay on the 'Locals' show."
Spins on "specialty" shows though, are, by their very nature, few and far between. Craig admits even Mandorico would be lucky to get played once a month.
But to expect huge commercial radio stations — which are owned by even bigger corporate conglomerates — to open their arms to world music overnight is simply unrealistic. The real key, it would seem, lies in small steps that will gradually introduce a diverse range of international music to mainstream music fans. The mere existence of stations such as WRFG, and some of their neighbors on the left of the dial, like WCLK and WREK, is just such a step.
Another step is finding new venues where world music artists can be exposed to audiences they wouldn't normally reach.
"We get great audiences at Borders," Mauricio Amaya, the leader of the group, Vientos del Pueblo (translated: "Winds for the People"), says of their regular gigs at the bookstore chain around Atlanta. Performing the ancient traditional music of the Andean Indians to folks sipping on cappuccino and leafing through the latest selection from Oprah's book club may seem a little incongruous, but Amaya has found an open-minded crowd at the bookstores.
"I think most [international] artists in Atlanta try to perform in front of the largest audiences possible," he says. "But [for us], the Borders crowds are usually intellectual, into the arts and are world travelers."
Amaya's not the only enterprising artist who's found an unorthodox solution to a complex problem. Local Nigerian drummer Bisi Adeleke sets up camp Saturday afternoons at Zoo Atlanta, where he seems to entertain two-legged and four-legged creatures alike.
"People don't know what the talking drum can do," Bisi explains, referring to the traditional, West African drum that can emote variable pitches similar to a human voice. "I can teach people about [my] language and culture through drumming, and [any] song you hear on the organ, piano, etc., can be played on the talking drum."
Bisi also plays private, relatively unpublicized events within the Nigerian community, but the mood there is obviously quite different. "[The Nigerian community] really comes together when someone is having a house party, or a wedding, and there's lots to eat and drink. We professional musicians get together and play for hours.
"But it's not limited to Nigerians you know," he adds. "It's open to all people."
Despite the inherent appeal of beats from other nations, Milton Jones' Euphonics Productions has had very limited success turning on the city's musical hipsters — many of whom are in and out of Jones' door at Wax N Facts a few times a week — to the exotic sounds he loves.
"I just can't figure out why people aren't more interested in alternative forms of music than they are," he muses. "I mean, do you actually listen to music you bought when you were in high school? Hell no. But a number of my friends do. I guess that's why classic rock is still so popular. But, good Lord, how many times can you possibly listen to 'Stairway to Heaven' or 'Smoke on the Water?' I don't necessarily have anything against it. I just know that there's so much more out there."
An awareness of lazy listening habits begs the question then as to why Jones even goes to the trouble of putting on world-music shows.
"I know it sounds quaint, but I really want to expose people to different art forms," he explains. "I always get great feedback from every show, people coming up to me and thanking me. And if that means just one or two people, so be it. [Euphonic] is the only group here that promotes world music outside of the communities themselves, 'cause no one else has the nerve. Other promoters are afraid of taking a bath."
Jones adds that there's more at stake in world music's battle to infiltrate the mainstream than just money. Buried in the constant lip-service given to multiculturalism is a very real sense of understanding and a rich, untapped wealth of ideas that musicians from any corner of the world can bring to mainstream listeners.
"The thing is," Jones says, "I think Americans need them more than they need Americans."
World Party 2000 runs 5 p.m.-9 p.m. at the Plaza Fiesta, Buford Highway, Sun., Oct. 1