No matter how stricken with poverty or prone to disease an area may be, solace can be found in music. An area may lack Internet, television, or a movie theater, but there’s likely someone with a tune to sing.
That’s precisely why Cyrus Moussavi started the documentary series Raw Music International: to explore the power of music all over the world. For the first episode, Moussavi explores the music of Kenya. He talked to The A.V. Club about reggae, world music, and what’s next for the series.
The A.V. Club: When did you first become interested in world music? What’s your favorite region for music?
Cyrus Moussavi: I’m not a fan of world music in the traditional sense. I don’t listen to ethno-fusion music on NPR, own zero Mongolian throat singing albums, and have never heard Graceland (a capital sin in some circles). I’m just interested in rap and reggae and guitars and unique sounds and modes of expression I’ve never heard, and it happens that some of the best and most innovative of these sounds are made outside of the U.S. or the U.K. It’s great music that happens to be from other parts of the world, rather than “world music.”
Cultural background and location are important features of music and all other art, but they shouldn’t be the defining features. And that’s one of the goals of Raw Music: to present the amazing music people are making all over the world on equal footing with our own. This isn’t world music. It’s just music, and it’s an alternative to the tired sounds of the American Top 10.
All that being said, I love the traditional music of Mali, as well as some of the more modern, electric guitar-based sounds coming out of the Sahel like Khaira Arby, Group Doueh, and Tartit.
AVC: Why did you kick off the series with Kenya? What is it about that country’s music that drew you in?
CM: As a sophomore in college, I spent a summer working for the U.N. in a thoroughly destroyed corner of Kenya. I ended up moving into the village and getting to know people well. During the day, I interviewed villagers about the hardships of subsistence farming, and at night I drank homebrewed booze and watched the same people perform music more authentic and powerful than anything I’d seen in New York. When I played some of the songs I recorded for my friends back home, it made them look at these Kenyans in a different light. Suddenly they weren’t just hungry villagers to be pitied; they became complex people, talented artists to be interested in on a human level.
And while this beautiful shit was happening in the villages, the clubs in Kisumu and Nairobi were on fire with amazing music, heavy dancing, and people partying until morning. Taken together—this combination of deep traditional music in the villages and exhilarating, ruthless partying in the urban clubs—you get a more complex and human picture of Kenya, a place I love, and I wanted to show that to people back home.
AVC: Was it difficult getting funds for this project?
CM: I was lucky that my godfather, Chicago poet Barry Lorberbaum, believed in the project enough to put up the funds for the first episode as an investment. A buddy I met in Amsterdam, [Netherlands]—the extremely talented photographer Angela Shoemaker—agreed to come along to film, and for most of the trip I lived with the amazing Rasta couple Ozzy and Emma in the Kondele slum, so my living expenses were really low. And that’s part of what I want to do on future episodes: not just record the music, but live with the musicians, get an understanding of what life is like in each country we visit.
AVC: Your style of filmmaking is very hands on, in that you include yourself in a lot of the scenes. Why did you choose to be so involved with the musicians on camera?
CM: It’s easier to follow when you have a host taking you along. (Think Anthony Bourdain.) Also, a big part of the show is this experiment. What happens when a kid from Iowa ends up totally out of his element with a camera and a vague mission to record music and get to know people? And since we were filming in places foreigners normally don’t go, our very presence was a big deal, and it would seem disingenuous not to include that fact in the final product. But yeah, Raw Music is all about people from extremely different backgrounds meeting and connecting through music, and that’s why I’m on camera.
AVC: In Part Two, you focus on reggae and how it resonates with the poor communities of Kenya. Why do you think that is? And how is it different from America’s perception of reggae as laid-back music for stoners?
CM: I spoke with a lot of the Rastas about that, and their answer made a lot of sense. Reggae is music made by the downtrodden in a very poor and unequal society—Jamaica—but it’s all about empowerment, standing up to the man, revolution. It’s music that is uplifting yet serious, and it comes from a background to which many Kenyans can relate.
And the music is powerful. When reggae first showed up in Kenya in the late ’80s, the old government saw it as a serious threat. “These musicians are telling the urban poor to do what? And they’re smoking what? Get these guys behind bars!” So the first Rastas faced serious discrimination for their hair and lifestyle. Now the music has caught on; it’s the soundtrack of the ghetto, but everyone is aware of its revolutionary history. Reggae doesn’t have that kind of background in the United States. It’s just what the hairy guys playing hacky sack down the street listen to when it’s sunny out. It doesn’t have the same impact here, but I learned to appreciate it in a whole new way by talking to the Rastas in Kenya.
A similar thing is happening with rap today. The third and final part of the episode is about rap. The young rappers in Kenya can relate to what young rappers in Brooklyn or Queens are talking about. They face similar hardships. Biggie and Tupac are huge in Kisumu. So the Kenyan kids take American rap and add their own unique twists to tales of ghetto life taken to sub-Saharan extremes, familiar hip-hop sounds with distinctly Kenyan rhythms and rhyme styles. It’s these beautiful combinations that really interest me, and by learning a bit about the music—reggae, rap, whatever—you end up inadvertently learning a lot about the society you couldn’t learn about otherwise.
AVC: What’s next for Raw Music International? Is there a specific region you’d like to explore?
CM: For sure! I’m working with a few people to get the series broadcast on TV and to secure funding to film more episodes. We may be traveling to Mali to record the legendary Festival In The Desert a few hours outside of Timbuktu. Other places on the immediate itinerary include Quito, Ecuador; Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia; Hong Kong; Cairo, Egypt. Each of these stories will have an ethnographic focus and also feature great music. We’re going to look at class in Quito, urbanization in Ulanbaatar, globalization in Hong Kong, and the Arab Spring in Egypt. Plus, half the episodes will feature unique music scenes [from] here at home. We have some amazing music in hidden pockets of this country, and I’d like to learn more about them. I’m also working on a way to sell the music we record and return the profits to the artists.
Note: Raw Music International just put out a 17-track mixtape for download. It can be found here.