On October 3rd, 1999, ex-Talking Heads frontman and inscrutable delight David Byrne wrote an article for the New York Times called “I Hate World Music”. This would be a bold statement from anyone–we all hate something, but few of us get published in the Times for it–and it was particularly bold coming from David Byrne.
After all, it was Byrne’s band that introduced the polyrhythmic stylings of afrobeat to a new audience with the landmark Remain in Light. It was Byrne who, along with Ryuichi Sakamoto and Cong Su, won an Oscar for scoring The Last Emperor. And it was Byrne who had recently founded a record label in order to curate and distribute music from all around the globe. David Byrne didn’t just love world music, he spent the better part of his life championing it.
Of course, the title was a sort of bait-and-switch (today, we’d call it “clickbait”, but back then there was nothing to click on). Byrne’s quarrel was not with the music but with the name: “world music”. He argued that the so-called “genre” was actually an enormous array of musical genres and traditions pigeonholed into one section of the record store. Dance or classical, Westernized or traditional, commercial or avant-garde: they were lumped together all the same, just because they weren’t part of the narrow Western musical tradition. “When we talk about world music,” wrote Byrne, “we’re talking about 99% of the music on this planet.”
I kept thinking about that as I listened to “Évanouie”, a sparse, arresting song by the Moroccan artist Meryem Aboulouafa. It’s a graceful, meditative art-pop song, with a great sense of pacing and an expert use of space. And yet I know some music listeners, normally adventurous and open-minded, who would pass it by without a second thought because “world music isn’t their thing”. Do they realize what they’re missing?
“Évanouie” isn’t even particularly alien to Western ears, not that it would be a problem if it was. It’s an elegant, glasslike art-pop song, the kind that Julia Holter or Susanne Sundfor would sing and get a Best New Track rating from Pitchfork. At the start of the song, it’s just Meryem’s voice and a humming electric organ, the kind that manages to sound warm and cold at the same time. The melodies that Meryem sings are sweet, and they wouldn’t sound out of place coming from the mouth of a Disney princess, but there’s also an intriguing flatness to her vocals that works well with the song. It brushes some of the sugar off and adds a bit more uncertainty.
“Évanouie” builds from that opening, but it never rushes to some grand unearned climax. Meryem takes the time to flesh out the sonic elements, adding a drum machine here or some stained-glass harmonies there, carefully pacing herself throughout the song’s duration. It never reaches an earth-shaking conclusion, but it doesn’t need to. Meryem knows that the way to pull off a slow build is to add depth, not just volume.
“I feel something that I’ve never felt before,” Meryem sings at the start of the song, and “Évanouie” is a great opportunity for a sheltered listener to feel the same. If you’ve avoided “world music” (sorry, David) up until now, I’m not judging you or calling you xenophobic. However, I encourage you to question yourself. What’s holding you back? What’s standing between you and excellent music like this?