Not Quite Traditional Music Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Not Quite Traditional Music

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Not Quite Traditional Music is a heady brew of any musical and cultural tradition which might be found lying around unguarded. It is fashioned by imaginative, and often somewhat unhinged musicians who will usually cultivate the exotic effect by taking names like 'Sun Ra', 'Uncle Patrel Mustapha' or 'Coleridge'. There's often a reference to alien ancestry or acquaintance at some stage - one should ideally originate from Saturn or farther afield to class as a true Not Quite Traditional Musician.

The concept has been around for many years - more recent human attempts at a generic label include World Fusion, Worldbeat, Ambient Jazz or Trip Hop.

Classic Characteristics of a Not Quite Traditional Group

If your one desire is to succeed in this genre, it will be essential to include as many of the following key ingredients as possible:

  • Session-musician-like musical skill - but loose enough to sound like you just picked it up while playing round the campfire with other members of your tribe.

  • Masses of infectious and repetitive rhythms - either electronic, sampled or non-Western. Only as a last resort should a standard drum kit be used.

  • The assumption of a thoroughly exotic name and place of origin, with fully documented history. Only your mother should know that you were born Dave Smith at St George's Hospital, Tooting.

  • Plenty of authentic-sounding traditional instruments - in days gone by this may well have been limited to a sitar, but is now more likely to include a bouzouki, a dumbek, an mbira and a melodeon.

  • Entrancing singing or chanting, preferably of Arabic or Indian origin and, ideally, recorded in the field during your many years of wandering in the wilderness.

  • A selection of sampled radio/film voices, perhaps saying such things as 'It is impossible to achieve the aim without suffering' or 'This is the army of forgotten souls'.

  • A website which looks like it's been put together by Honest Shabaka's Web Design Agency of Timbuktu (and is all the better for it).

The Greats

As with all musical genres, the best is fantastic and the rest can be pretty tiresome really. Here are some of the very purest Not Quite Traditional artists...

  • 3 Mustaphas 3

    The Mustaphas first played together at the Crazy Loquat Club, a trans-continental truck-stop in Szegerely, somewhere in the Balkans. Band members' included Sabah Habas Mustapha, Kemo Mustapha and Hijaz Mustapha.

    It is said that 3 Mustaphas 3 suffered for having taken the humour route and were often labelled as a novelty act, presumably by people who hadn't heard a note of the music which includes songs in Hindi, French, Spanish, KiSwahili, Macedonian, Greek and English (on one album). Exotic insanity at its finest.

  • The Penguin Café Orchestra

    The PCO originated in founder Simon Jeffes' vivid dream of a poem which began: 'I am the proprietor of the Penguin Café. I will tell you things at random'. From this evolved the idea of a surreal eating place named the Penguin Café and the house orchestra who would play a lovely fusion of folk, classical and world music. Although the musicians didn't feel it necessary to change their names in this case, the album artwork, strange instrumentation and generally hypnotic feel of the music fits perfectly into the genre.

    The Penguin Café Orchestra is one of those groups whose music you will definitely recognise, even if you've no idea who was playing it. Their most often heard piece (at the time of writing) must be 'Telephone and Rubber Band' which is used endlessly in Mercury one-to-one telephone adverts in the UK. The trademark rhythm is a fluke combination of a ringing tone and a busy tone which Jeffes apparently kept getting as a fault on the line (when phones used to be faulty all the time) and which he recorded for our future listening pleasure. The PCO's music has also been used as the score for a ballet and, as with a lot of Not Quite Traditional Music, in countless wildlife documentaries (possibly including ones about penguins). Simon Jeffes died in 1997.

  • Transglobal Underground

    TGU tend to place a more Middle Eastern bias onto the Not Quite Traditional sound and may actually be used as an alternative to central heating on a cold night. On hearing 'I, Voyager' and the words 'the wind blows warm from Africa, and we are happy' you will find yourself immediately transported to a hot desert clime. 'Taal Zaman' is the very definition of Not Quite Traditional Music. Transglobal Underground also mix the finer points of dub reggae into some of their stuff, 'Dopi' being a lovely example of this.

    TGU's non-permanent singer, Natacha Atlas, is as genuinely exotic as they come, having a Jewish-Egyptian father and English mother and being brought up in the Moroccan Quarter of Brussels. Apparently, her lyrics are quite fruity, and alternative versions are released in countries where they might actually be understood. She has also made a selection of wonderful solo albums and guest appearances with other artists. Live appearances also demonstrate Natacha's stunning belly-dancing skills and add one more gorgeous ingredient to the heady mix. The recent TGU compilation, Backpacking on the Graves of our Ancestors, is heartily recommended.

Honorable Mentions

The following people have certainly got the music right but, having stuck with names like Brian, Peter or David, are presumably far too sensible to be genuine stars of the Not Quite Traditional scene.

  • Brian Eno and David Byrne

    Released in 1981, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts is a fabulous example of rhythm, sampling and general mad experimentation. 'Regiment' has a genuine Lebanese mountain singer being mimicked and doubled-up superbly by Robert Fripp's guitar and sets a standard which has appeared in similar forms many times since. 'The Jezebel Spirit' uses a delightful recording of an exorcist in action over the top of rhythms which can only be described as hypnotic. This album does not sound 20 years old; in fact it sounds 20 years early. Brian Eno should really have a guide entry of his own of course, having been a huge influence on so much of the music scene for the last 30 years.

  • Peter Gabriel

    One of those double albums which now fits on one CD, Passion (the soundtrack to The Last Temptation Of Christ), contains a right old fusion of practically any traditional instrument or singing style available. Unfortunately, some of its tracks have been used to death by every travel programme which goes anywhere near North Africa - an example of the way this kind of music convinces the listener that it's the real traditional sound - but it's still a magnificent album. Peter Gabriel has become a bit of a guru of World Music through his WOMAD and Real World organisations but his own albums rarely live up to hopes and expectations. The latest one, OVO sounds like a load of New Age nonsense (see below), but Passion is a wonderful exception.

  • David Fanshawe

    Released in 1973, African Sanctus is a setting of the Latin Mass to traditional African music. It has some moments of wonderful power - spooky war drums recorded from a distance which just makes them more scary somehow, the mighty Muslim call to prayer and a fellow playing and singing a beautiful song accompanied by a timely tropical downpour. This is a good contrast to the Peter Gabriel album - the source music for both African Sanctus and Passion is also available (but that's real traditional music so it doesn't count and must not be listened to under any circumstances).

  • Tranquility Bass

    Tranquility Bass consists of an American chap named Mike Kandel who is a confirmed hippy and looks like one of the members of the Grateful Dead, but he's definitely got the right idea with the music anyway. It's usually classed as Trip Hop and there's a lot of it about. However, Tranquility Bass is a fine place to start and 'Cantamilla' (1994) is very neat track which will no doubt be snapped up by the advertising world at some stage. It also appears on a 1999 compilation called Arabesque which is full of some lovely Not Quite Traditional stuff including the aforementioned Natacha Atlas.

Not to Be Confused With...

As mentioned earlier, there are also quite regular failed attempts at Not Quite Traditional Music though, to be fair, they're probably not attempting anything of the sort - they just sound like they might be. Examples include:

  • The CDs you get in New Age shops, where someone's plonked about on a synthesizer while a load of whales howl away in the background.

  • That Enigma stuff where someone's plonked about on a synthesizer while a load of monks drone away in the background.

  • Afro-Celt Sound System. A few years ago Irish music did actually sound a bit exotic and Afro-Celt Sound System put together a couple of effective albums which mixed traditional Irish reels with African percussion and singing, but Riverdance has killed that idea stone dead. A-CSS are very good live though.

  • And finally there's the completely barmy (or profoundly insightful, depending on your point of view) Sun Ra, who was one of the original proponents of Not Quite Traditional Music (1950s) and definitely had part of the idea right by proclaiming that he came from Saturn - but he ended up playing the kind of jazz which sends household pets running for the hills. Very popular on Saturn though.

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