I recently attended a screening at the Center for Italian Modern Art (CIMA) of the 1949 neo-realist film Bitter Rice (Riso amaro), directed by Giuseppe De Santis. This extraordinary tale tracks a season among seasonal female workers in northern Italy, doing the back-breaking work of rice planting and processing. One of the centerpiece moments in this story is a nighttime gathering of workers, many of them clustered around the alluring figure of Silvana Mangaro, dancing to American boogie-woogie on the phonograph. As CIMA director Nicola Lucchi helpfully pointed out in a pre-screening introduction, this moment had a special resonance that spoke to a kind of revolution: the emergence and dominance of American music in places far from its origins, upending and often displacing regional traditions.
The scene develops as a kind of metaphor for cultural imperialism. The swing is so strong (and powerfully embodied by Mangaro) that it wipes out virtually everything in its path. This music stands in stark contrast to the folk-based songs women sing together in the rice fields, adapting the lyrics to convey the gossip and other information of the day. Seeing this, I thought about the often tragic ways that pop music, its ubiquity driven by its huge commercial value, eclipses diverse forms of expression from artists around the world. Of course, this happens within the United States as well; many jazz musicians ruefully recall when pop music hit big in the early ’60s and their contracts and careers were instantly devalued.
Artists have reacted to this hegemony in a variety of ways. Some stay close to their native forms, and cultivate mostly local audiences, though their work occasionally crosses over without being diluted or damaged beyond recognition. Others successfully integrate diverse influences, even adding layers of meaning along the way, as in the Talking Heads and Celia Cruz projects undertaken by the mighty Angélique Kidjo. It is heartening to see a general move away from the impulse to translate everything, making it more palatable to an American audience: what in movies might be likened to dubbing. The more successful versions allow us to hear the artist’s voice, to let its particularities come through, even while syncretizing all that the world provides and America imposes.
Fatoumata Diawara is a singer, guitarist, and songwriter, as well as actress, who spent most of her childhood in Mali. She sings mostly in Bambara, and her songs often address issues in her homeland, such as the harshness of life for women, particularly in a patriarchal society. Her voice is arresting, and her playing is both delicate and insistent. Since her first recording, Fatou (2011), she has developed an audience around the world, performing as part of the “Half the Sky” project along with Damon Albarn, Baaba Maal, and others. She also acted in the acclaimed film Timbuktu.
On a recent NPR Tiny Desk Concert, her vocals were accompanied by subtitles translating songs about the difficulty of marriage between different castes, the pain of exile, as well as a more light-hearted call to celebration. Her songs have a rolling fluency, and she conveys them with ample charisma. Diawara’s new digital album Maliba is the soundtrack to a project created in association with Google Arts and Culture; it is dedicated to the preservation of centuries-old historical manuscripts in Mali, some of which have been destroyed in recent years by militant Islamists in the country. With her art, she encompasses concepts as large as the preservation of culture, and as intimate as the will to love. Diawara is an exuberant presence, with a brilliant smile and her own special way with a Gibson SG. I saw her just before the pandemic at Town Hall, and she was mesmerizing.
Also at Town Hall, post-pandemic, was Brazilian superstar Marisa Monte, a beloved, even iconic figure among her compatriots since she burst onto the scene at the age of twenty. She has somehow retained her elevated status for more than three decades. Her two sold-out shows were an event, complete with screaming fans singing along with nearly every word. Hers is a very difficult feat to pull off; she has to take in all this adoration and knowledge people have of her work, then come out and deliver. The expectation of charisma, of truly owning the material, was high, and she met it head on.
It was something of an occasion even getting to see Monte, since she doesn’t tour often. She seems quite content to record the occasional album, especially since her collaborators are such revered Brazilian figures as Nelson Motta and Seu Jorge, as well as American admirers like David Byrne and Laurie Anderson. But seeing her perform offered the particular pleasure of witnessing a legend live up to the billing. Monte is a true star, regal and on point. She worked in four ingenious onstage costume changes, all while carrying the audience through a huge range of material, moving through Brazilian pop and samba, much of it in the form of songs they felt they had grown up with. The encores kept coming: she closed the evening with a lovely a cappella rendition of her early hit, “Bem Que Se Quis.” Walking out afterwards, it felt right to be in a venue on the edge of the Theater District. This was more than just a concert. This was a show.
There also seemed to be a very loving acceptance of the gratitude of the audience, which she kept returning with benediction-like bows. All the while, though, beyond the evening’s spectacular capacity to entertain, Monte seemed on a higher mission: to preserve an important strand of Brazilian music, and with it, a profound integration with the very particular cadence and softness of the Portuguese language.
Guatemala-born, LA-based singer-songwriter Gaby Moreno has also managed to live up to all the critical hype she has been receiving for years. I saw Moreno both at Town Hall and at BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival in recent years, and she held the audience rapt on both occasions. Alternating between Spanish and English, both in language and in style, she has put out a number of passionate, well-crafted recordings. On a 2019 collaboration with the composer and conductor Van Dyke Parks, she sang a duet with Jackson Browne for her composition “Across the Borderline,” a heartbreaking song about people losing everything in search of a would-be better life in America. Though the floral Parks arrangement makes a fascinating complement to her salty, almost old-timey voice, the stripped-down acoustic version she delivered in concert was even more affecting.
Moreno is an artist who incorporates and cross-pollinates elements, never fully settling into a single style. She shifts around from early jazz to Spanish ballads to a kind of folk-soul. But this eclectic approach suits her, and she is expressive no matter what the context. Something Moreno shares with Diawara and Monte is that all found their métier far from the American pop charts, and without needing to homogenize their sound. Theirs is music that reminds us that it’s a big world out there, and the cultural collisions it engenders have the capacity to broaden our awareness—not through exclusion or displacement, but via integration and expansion.