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Meet 3 artists at the helm of global fusion's cool DIY makeover

Andrea Warner

As a music genre, “global fusion” has been getting significant side-eye since its inception. And, frankly, there’s some merit to its criticisms. Much of its history is rooted in othering (along with its parent genre, world). It’s often used dismissively or derisively as a descriptor. But as lines between genres continue to dissolve, more music becomes available online and through digital media, and more artists carve out their own paths independent of labels and the marketing machine.

Because of this, global fusion is becoming a much more apt and literal description of music that recognizes no borders, boundaries or rigid conformity. The result is a soundscape that's futuristic and traditional — and pretty damn exciting. 

Three of the artists at the helm of global fusion's wild, DIY makeover are also ready to jolt the crowds all weekend at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival. Jojo Abot's "Afrohypnosonic" sound is brilliant and bold and innovative; Ravid Kahalani's Yemen Blues is propulsive and frenetic, joy refracted like a kaleidoscopic prism; and with his project, Mexican Institute of Sound, Camilo Lara has been a groundbreaking electronic music pioneer in his native Mexico City, creating a new world sonic map.

All of them are achieving the here-to-fore unimaginable: making global fusion cool. CBC Music spoke with Abot, Kahalani and Lara about labels, defying boundaries and making music with your whole heart.  

Jojo Abot

What were your musical influences growing up?

At home my family played traditional music, a lot of church music, but on the other hand, at school I’d hear friends, or even sometimes at home, my older cousins, playing ’90s R&B and hip-hop. It was very much a versatile sonic space growing up.

You grew up between Ghana and New York, right?

I grew up between Ghana and the States ... I went back and forth a number of times, but the significant time that I went in terms of that process of discovering myself for the first time, I hadn’t been back for six to eight years. It had been quite a few years, closer to eight.

That return inspired you deeply. How did you make it fit the music you were making already?

I wasn’t really making music already. I went back for family reasons and decided to stay and figure out things. I didn’t have anything defined at all.

Really? Your voice is so gorgeous, I imagined you grew up knowing you were an amazing singer.

No, actually, I grew up knowing that I wasn’t! [Laughs] There were a lot of opportunities where it was reaffirmed to me that I wasn’t. I didn’t grow up with the confidence in the back of my mind that I could sing. At all.

Wow! So in terms of getting the confidence to find your voice, can you tell me a bit about that?

I wouldn’t say that I’ve found my voice. I would just say that I’ve gotten to a point where I’ve allowed it to just be as it is. I think the reason I didn’t grow up with that confidence was because I didn’t sound like a traditional singer, and now I think it’s more about just letting it exist and letting it be, rather than try to make it sound like something that it’s not. So it’s more of an acceptance rather than a discovery of both.

Your debut EP, Fyfya Woto, has been classified as a lot of things: jazz, soul, global fusion. What do you think is the truest description of your sound?

Afrohypnosonic. And that more so applies to a lot of my work in general. But Afrohypnosonic, of course, it’s Afro-based, it’s hypnotic, and it has unique sonic frequencies that resonate on a certain level with the individual. Waves that carry you into whatever space you find yourself in.

I like it. It feels futuristic and traditional, occupying the whole span of time, almost, listening to the EP. Do you see some futuristic element to what you’re doing? Moving the world into a slightly different space?

Fyfya Woto, as a word, or two words, I guess, as I’ve written it, is based on my grandmother’s name. It means new birth, new discovery. I lean towards that title, or that phrase, it was more so to reaffirm that in order to discover something, it must already exist. Am I trying to take the world forward? I don’t know. It’s with that heavy sense of responsibility. I think it’s more so working with elements that already exist. So maybe think of me as the person open to playing with all colours, all textures. I don’t discriminate and I sort of just combine elements that already exist. I don’t think I can take credit for creating — yeah, it’s new energy, but it’s energy that I may just be transforming it. I’m definitely tapping into energies that already exist in other forms.

I was reading a couple interviews with you, and you mentioned the over-arching theme of the songs as ‘a woman’s right to choose.’ Is this an inspiration you’ve taken from your own life?

My grandmother, when she was younger, after having 10 children, converted to Christianity and this was at a time when she was born into a traditional family, and her husband was very much a traditional worshipper, and she had discovered this new religion that inspired her to pretty much move her life and her children over to a different town. At that time, that was a very bold decision. And also, reaffirms a woman’s right to choose. It’s not exclusive to her story, but a woman’s right to decide her own path in life, her own trajectory. Not because it assures happiness, but because a woman is daring enough to risk and discover happiness and peace of mind, you know, this self-evolution. Ultimately, I think it’s anyone’s right to choose, but this EP particularly deals with the woman’s perspective. It’s pretty direct: a woman’s right to choose and learn on her own and come to her own space of wisdom, rather than living a life that’s dictated by society. That’s very formulaic, and I think the evolution of self, oftentimes has to do with surviving and making mistakes and learning and growing from that process.

Do you feel like you come from a long line of women who really operate with this kind of agency?

I think I have been exposed to a lot of women who operate with this mentality. I don’t know so much about my family line historically, but more so in my life now, and those are the experiences I can and do talk about, the ones that I know. Yeah, I’ve met a lot of women.

How do you feel about the term "global fusion?" Does it mean anything to you?

Global fusion can mean something to me if it wasn’t a derogatory term [laughs]. It comes off with a derogatory tone and I think it’s the same with the word "Black." It comes with a hint of that. If we can celebrate global fusion as innovation and authentic, respectable music, then I think we can rely on ourselves. Global fusion is a beautiful idea. In culture, it’s a beautiful thing, that’s what I try to do with my work. Sometimes terms get tainted and it’s not the word’s fault, but it’s the examples and the conditions attached to it and it’s unfortunate.

Ravid Kahalani, Yemen Blues

What was the first song you wrote?

When I was 15, my father bought me my first guitar. He saw that I liked music so much, he decided to get me a guitar for my birthday. A neighbour from Peru taught me to play a few chords. I think that was the only guitar lessons I ever took. And then I started to play my own songs really quick. I don’t remember the specifics, but it was in Hebrew and I was reading a lot of philosophy back then, so it was very hard lyrics, I think. I don’t know how to describe it, but I had fun, that was the most important thing.

In interviews you’ve talked about your journey through music, from cultural and traditional music to rock to African. Did you seek out commonalities between different types of music or did they coalesce as soon as you heard them?

I had this moment when I started to listen to African music, because I grew up on very strict Yemeni culture and we had to pray three times a day, we had to sing songs on the weekend, on Friday night, on Shabbat dinner, and read a lot of stuff, pray for the food, before and after. It’s part of your every-hour, every-minute life. I grew up as a religious boy, so that was connected to music 100 per cent because every prayer, every blessing, everything that I did as a religious Yemeni kid, the way that Yemeni do that, it’s always connected to a very specific melody and a kind of a soul, blues-y way to do that because it’s coming from the Arabic world, but it’s kind of a Jewish melody into it. This was my childhood, and then when I discovered Pink Floyd and Bob Marley, they were the two artists, I think, that I discovered first. Then I moved to the big city and I started to listen to blues and funk and other stuff, a lot of cool stuff, mainly Afro-American stuff. I had a classic period, that was later, but I listened to it, sitting for hours at home in front of the speakers, just listening. This moment happened to me when my friend made me listen to African music and then I had the connection between my culture and all the Afro-American things I was into or I was listening to. That was the moment I connected all in my mind, because I understood that a lot of the music came from Africa, West Africa in particular.

Were there geographic or cultural boundaries you had to work through with music?

Well, as a child, I had a lot because we were religious. We didn’t have TV or anything like that. It was very limited. Only religious and Yemeni music, but when I grew up, I listened to anything. Basically I left home when I was around 15, so I pretty much did whatever I wanted after that.

How do you feel about the term ‘global fusion’ with regards to your music?

I find it hard to put a frame on a word or two to describe the music, but for me, developing cultural music — for me to see people creating music and mixing all kinds of culture, in Yemen Blues, we don’t have any borders or rules how to make the music in terms of we never say, "Let’s combine African with Latin or Yemeni with jazz," we just play and each of us brings his own influences, his own music journey into the music, and if it works for the song and if it serves the song the right way, it’s going to be there. Sometimes we think if it’s going to be better in some other language or to make it longer or shorter, but basically there are no rules for the creation of the music, and that’s the magical thing about it.

Camilo Lara, Mexico Institute of Sound (Instituto Mexicano del Sonido)

What role did electronic music have in Mexico City's music scene when you started MIS?

I come from that culture. I started as DJ and electronic music in Mexico City was boiling. It was very exciting to see something new being created.

What music did you listen to growing up? How diverse were your tastes?

From one side, I loved punk rock and new wave. The Clash, XTC, De La Soul and Tribe Called Quest had a big impact on me. Also the beginning of rock electronic, the Manchester sound, Bristol, krautrock. From the other side, I was discovering the soundtrack of Mexico City barrio: mambo, danzon, cumbia, cha cha cha. You listen to music and it is either good or bad. I personally don’t care if is English or Mexican. So it was very natural to have influences from all over the place.

How do you contend with barriers between music genres? Do you see them as a real thing or do you see them as a tool of marketing? 

It is a real thing! I’ve been an outsider all my life. I never played football, have no religion — in Mexico if you don’t do that you are part of the five per cent of the population. I was into reading, into music that no one was listening to it. For cumbia purists I don’t do cumbia. For rock festivals, I don’t do rock. For electronic gigs, I don’t DJ electronica. Those music genres can’t get more real! [Laughs] 

How do you feel about the term ‘global fusion’ and what does it mean to you? 

I used to be scared of it. But lately I’ve been giving it a chance. Global is always good. Local is even better. I like local things, not global things. Like handcrafts, not products. 

Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner

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