If we’re to believe the cynics, pop music — for want of a better expression — is going through the cultural equivalent of the Dark Ages. A cursory glance through the mainstream charts these days tends to be a depressing exercise, at least for those of us old-fashioned enough to like their music with some elements of melody and originality, and perhaps even a little staying power; something you can identify from the opening notes, immediately, and without a shadow of a doubt, 20 or 30 years later.
More than a quarter century after it rang through London’s venerable Lyceum Ballroom, I’ve only got to listen to a single note of Tyrone Downey’s majestic opening organ riff on No Woman No Cry, to know I’m about to hear the song that catapulted Bob Marley from stardom to superstardom. I fear today’s younger music fans won’t have such delicious musical memories to savour in their later years, unless there’s something with a real tune in the charts that I haven’t heard about.
Today’s Top Twenty, sadly, has been hijacked by a motley assortment of corporately cloned boy groups (Backstreet Boys, ‘N’Sync etc.), the show-’em-your-belly-button-and-they-won’t notice-your-voice-brigade (Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez and Mariah Carey spring to mind), the get-a-funky-image-and-you’ll-fool-the-critics gang (led by Erykah Badu and Alycia Keyes) and the great-dancers-pity-about-the-pipes performers (Janet Jackson and Destiny’s Child spring to mind).
It’s all very depressing, this production-line pop.
But look beyond the charts and there are people out there making exceptional music. New faces with new things to say and a new way of saying them, with personalities of their own and voices of their own; with words that make you think and tunes that buzz around in your head for days.
Here’s a thumbnail guide to three singer-songwriters who belong in the charts, and whose talent, I believe, would have made them exceptional in any musical era. First, for no better reason than he’s the only one of the three from the Caribbean, and he happens to come from the island I’m proud to call home, let me introduce you to Masud Sadiki.
Never heard of him? Nor had I, until he made his biggest breakthrough — so far — at the 2001 St Kitts Music Festival. Broadly speaking, Sadiki’s a reggae singer-songwriter. But he’s equally at home with mid-tempo roots, pulsating dancehall or gorgeous, Rasta-infused ballads. At 26, Sadiki has only one CD to his name, the recently released Blast Off. I haven’t heard a better reggae album since Culture’s One Stone about five years ago, which is about as big a compliment as I can pay.
Second, for no better reason than he’s the only one of the three from Montreal, the city I was proud to call home for 12 years, meet Adam Chaki. Like Sadiki, Chaki has only one CD to his credit. And like Sadiki, it’s a CD that heralds the arrival of a major new artist. Chaki’s musical background is varied, to say the least. Early in his career he played guitar with the veteran Montreal reggae band led by Jah Cuttah. Then, when he was 22, he headed to Paris, where he played with musicians from Senegal, Jamaica, Cap Verde, Madagascar, South Africa, Congo, Kenya, the Ivory Coast, Algeria and Mali — influences all apparent on his brilliant CD, No One Knows Where the Hell We Are.
Thirdly, for no better reason than he comes from a city I’ve never set foot in — San Francisco — there’s Michael Franti. If you’re a hip hop fan, you may well be familiar with him from his days with Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy in the early ‘90s. If you’re not into hip hop but simply love good music, you should hear of him.
Franti and his band, Spearhead, have made the big breakthrough with a CD that’s been hailed as an instant classic. It’s called Stay Human, and it’s a delectable smorgasbord of hip hop, soul and funk, with a few Motown and Latin grooves thrown in for good measure. Add some of the most powerful lyrics I’ve heard since Bob was at his peak, and you’ve got pop music that would stand up with the best of any era.
Finally, my sincere apologies to all the talented new artists I didn’t mention here. Keep on making great music, even if you never make those charts.