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March 07, 2005

Ban World Music

I spent a little time recently ripping CDs from my collection to put on the iPod, and came up against the limitations of the CD Database (CDDB), that online resource that keeps you from having to manually enter all the track names from your Celine Spears Diddy records. Since I don't generally listen to the two hundred officially sanctioned albums of the moment, I find myself typing track names into iTunes fairly often. (What, Tuna Universitaria San Cristóbal de Huamanga's three-volume set of Peruvian vernacular music isn't mainstream enough for you, you stupid database?)

But typing is fine. What bugs me is some of the stuff I listen to that is in the CDDB. At last count, CDDB included three and a half million CDs, with genres and subgenres as varied as bebop, ska, gothpunk, baroque and classical and devotional and altcountry, and you may have noticed that all of these genres are played by bands in the US and UK.

But stick a Simon Shaheen CD in your computer, and CDDB's database comes up and labels it "World." I just last week got a package from Peru containing Centro Artistico Cultural De Puno's CD " Rosendo Huirse Con Las Hermanas Echarri"; CDDB genreizes that as "World" as well. Same with King Sunny Ade and Dangdut and Indonesian guitar music. Tuvan throat singing? 'World." I'm a bit surprised to see that Uzbeki chanteuse Mokhira's album Galing Galing bears the genre "unclassifiable," as she fuses middle Eastern and East Asian and hip-hop themes well enough that she deserves the genre "World" if anyone does. I wonder if they listened to it before classifying it.

How hard is it to at least put the name of the country or region of origin into the Genre field? I'm not asking the bright folks at Gracenote to understand the difference between huayno and marinera, or juju, highlife and palm wine music, though if they can grok the boundaries between Cajun and Creole in Louisiana they're certainly capable of it.

I'd just like to see a little less blithe blindness to the fact that US culture - and its wholly owned subsidiary, British culture - is not the bright spot at the center of the universe. There is not a single US popular musician currently recording who can unambiguously best Regis Gizavo, and Regis Gizavo isn't even the best musician from Madagascar. And yet he's lumped into a trashbin taxonomic category meaning, essentially, "Wog," while a host of largely indistinguishable dilettantes from North America each get their own category based on whether they wear plaid flannel or black NuBuck Vinyl when they whine. During the height (so to speak) of the 1990s alt rock era, Gina Arnold, the local free weekly's music columnist, spent column after column on the latest band from a five square block area in Seattle, and proudly claimed that she had no idea, nor did she care, where Madagascar was. She and George "We Don't Need Old Europe" Bush might be at opposite ends of the spectrum... but they're on the same spectrum.


Eliza from Raised By Cats sent me a very thoughtful email the other day to let me know about The Smithsonian's Global Sound music site. If you're anything like me, hide your credit card before clicking that link. The entire Smithsonian Folkways catalog, it seems, is downloadable there, as well as stuff from subsidiary labels such as the late, lamented Paleo-Bolshevist Paredon records, run for a time by Barbara Dane before she sold the catalog to the SI. If you were looking for your chance to score a new copy of The Force of Life by Berkeley's own The Red Star Singers, now''s your chance. I listened to some of the samples from that album, and was magically transported back to a fabled time, the mid-1970s, and a late night listening to side one of that album over and over again as we cranked out the Buffalo Community Calendar on a creaky offset press owned by Marxist Leninists, who argued with us about including a Margaret Mead talk because anthropology was subjectivist rather than objectivist, and the turntable was set to "play over and over again" because we all had wet ink on our hands. Good times.


Advantages of the Smithsonian site over the iTunes store:
- The Smithsonian site has music I actually want to listen to.
- They sell it to you in mp3 format rather than Apple's copy-protected "buy a copy for each machine you want to play it on because we sold out to the RIAA" AAC format: you can archive the Smithsonain stuff on CD-Roms if you want to.

- They really need a "download entire shopping cart now" button. I spent a half hour clicking links to download one song at a time.

And the Smithsonian doesn't fill in the Genre ID3 tag at all. Is that a feature or a bug? I don't know.

Afterthought: Credit where due, of course. I tossed the Cui Jean CD (which my lovely sister-in-law bought me in Beijing 10 years ago) into the box, and CDDB correctly identified the CD's title as "?????".

Posted by Chris Clarke at March 7, 2005 12:38 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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Perhaps a feature.

I was laughing as I read this, as I am currently going through the process of uploading all my CDs to the sleek white beast, and have been finding the pre-existing categories to be woefully inadequate.

Like "Celtic" is not a bad catch-all, but I've had to add things like "Celtic - Breton" because they are not quite the same! And there should perhaps be a category for modern Celtic as opposed to more traditional stuff. Ditto for "Pop" -- I've had to create subcategories like "Pop - European - Spanish" to distinguish Ella Baila Sola from, say, Sting.

But that's small potatoes. My taxonomy skills have been severely challenged by things like French accordian swing music (resting uncomfortably in "Dance" until I can think of something better), medieval Arabic/Spanish music ("Medieval"? "Middle-Eastern"? What?), novelty songs about Gumby, beautiful tinkly stuff from "Oscar and Lucinda," and other odd stuff. (I have too much of this to want to resort to the unhelpful "Unclassified" genre. Which is a stupid genre anyway -- why not just use a blank?)

What I desperately want is (a) a button to click to distinguish between instrumental, vocal with musical backing, and a cappella, and (b) the ability to list more than one genre per song.

Posted by: Rana at March 7, 2005 01:38 PM
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"...he's lumped into a trashbin taxonomic category meaning, essentially, "Wog," while a host of largely indistinguishable dilettantes from North America each get their own category based on whether they wear plaid flannel or black NuBuck Vinyl when they whine."

I deprecate the genre of the rant, in my old age, Chris, and I don't really want to see you doing more of it, but -- I've never seen anyone do it so well. That's magnificent. Scalding.

Posted by: dale at March 7, 2005 01:56 PM
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Probably appropriate to bring up Marxist-Leninists in a post about the balkanization of musical genre. Trying to discern the differences between, say, screamcore and post-hardcore (both relatively recent outgrowths of emo, from hardcore punk, from metal and punk, on and on and on) is a bit like David Horowitz trying to decide if Senator Obama is a Moderate-Leftist or a Leftist. The tendency in what remains of American Rock 'n' Roll is to be as exclusionary as possible, to form sects as a handy subsitute for community.

Me, I can never figure out if Hedningarna count as "Folk." I never bother to classify genre in iTunes.

Posted by: Alex at March 7, 2005 02:10 PM
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to distinguish Ella Baila Sola from, say, Sting.

Easy for me. I've never accidentallly spent twenty minutes looking at photos of Sting.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at March 7, 2005 02:35 PM
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Use the FreeDB instead of the CDDB.

The CDDB was created by millions of people contributing by typing in the names of tracks, etc. Then what did GraceNotes do after they fired the guy who came up with the idea? They declared ownership over the data, said they have copyright on it, and started thinking of ways to extract license fees. The creator of the CDDB was disgusted.
(what a great business plan - I'm thinking of declaring ownership of the US GDP.)

So anyway the people who started CDDB started FreeDB as an open version to compete against what thhey saw as the "stolen" CDDB. If you're gonna type stuff in, submit it there instead.

Posted by: Craig at March 7, 2005 04:03 PM
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Hey thanks, Chris. Without this post, I'd never have known that Regis Philbin has a CD out! Who knew? I did find Regis Gisavo at in a few compilations - sounds nice.

I dropped out of the U.S. music scene a few years ago when I started listening to a lot of rock music from Central and South America (American/Brit rock having become so boring). It made me decide to learn Spanish (what the hell am I mumbling along to anyway?). Ya know, it's a slippery slope - expose 'em to world music and next thing ya know they'll wanna know about the world...

Posted by: leslee at March 7, 2005 04:32 PM
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Ironically, I had never had this problem until tonight, when iTunes made my Greekpop into World. Sigh. Poor, unidimensional iTunes.

Posted by: Allison at March 7, 2005 11:31 PM
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