Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Finding a niche for ‘world music’ choirs

This is an updated version of a post which first appeared as Fitting into the right musical box in August 2007

I regularly get emails out of the blue from various singing groups scattered across the globe asking for gigs. Recently I had one from a Russian ensemble, and before that one from a women’s group in the US. They all ask if I can help them to set up a tour in the UK.

Bulgarian women's choir

Bulgarian national women's choir by Bruce MacRae

I usually turn down their offer. I’m not a producer, I don’t have any particular connection with any venues, and besides which, I really don’t know whether this kind of stuff goes down well in the UK. It’s all a matter of finding the right ‘musical box’ for these niche choirs, and I don’t think it’s here in the UK.

it’s different across the pond ...

The US has several well-known “world music” singing groups, for instance Kitka, Northern Harmony and Libana. They regularly gig in the US, have a large following and release CDs on a frequent basis.

Northern Harmony has toured the UK several times, but even though their gigs are well-attended, they’re usually off the beaten track, often in churches and small village halls.

I was once told by a local rural touring producer that “acappella just doesn’t sell”. So not only is it hard for groups such as Artisan and Coope, Boyes and Simpson from the folk world to get gigs, but virtually impossible for any groups who sing so-called “world music”.

There may well be audiences in London for specialist groups like the London Bulgarian Choir and Maspindzeli, but elsewhere groups like this are few and far between and seldom seen at gigs or festivals.

I once approached a big summer festival only to be told that they want “music that people can dance to”. i.e. loud and boppy. So is there no room for those gorgeous unaccompanied harmonies from Georgia, Bulgaria, Russia and beyond? Do African songs always need big dances and accompaniment, or can we do the occasional Zimbabwean lullaby?

... or is it?

How come there are more groups in the US and they get regular audiences? Is it because they have a bigger immigrant populations from harmony singing countries like Croatia and Macedonia, for example?

In a comment on the original of this post, Allen H. Simon reckoned that there are more world music groups in the US because:

“Americans are suspicious of high culture and have no loyalty to a centuries-old choral tradition such as you have in the UK. Choirs which offer something exotic are more appealing than those which require any kind of intellectual commitment.”

Putting aside for the moment the fact that being ‘exotic’ does not preclude having any kind of ‘intellectual’ challenge, I’m not sure that things are that different on this side of the pond!

what is ‘world music’ any way?

I always used to think that the sort of choirs that I run are unique in their repertoire, and hence something special and different. That may well be the case, but instead of that being a unique selling point, it seems to be a drawback because nobody knows exactly which ‘box’ we fit into.

I use the tag “world music choir”, but either people don’t know what the phrase “world music” is or think it has to involve guitar playing from Mali.

I get loads of requests from people wanting a choir for their wedding and I think we offer a really interesting alternative: South African wedding songs, church songs from Georgia – all to make your day special and unique. But when I write back, I never get a reply because most people want the standard Ave Maria or the gospel singers that they saw in the movie Sister Act.

So I tell these groups from abroad looking for gigs that I can’t help. I simply don’t know who to approach, which venues or producers may be interested.

It took both WorldSong and Woven Chords 10 long years to build up a half-way decent following in their own back yard. I just hope that there are enough similar groups out there that we can build awareness across the whole UK and get to see more “world music” singing. Spread the word!

Of course, this presupposes that we can clearly describe exactly what it is that we do do. Many people just aren't familiar with terms such as “world music” or “roots music”. This was the subject of an earlier post: Finding an audience 1: identifying what your choir does.


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Chris Rowbury


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