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Durham's fledgling world-music label takes flight

If Chapel Hill has a signature sound, it's indie rock. For Durham, it could be the blues of Blind Boy Fuller, the gravity-defying gospel of Shirley Caesar or Mexican norteña music. And if decades have their own music, the 1990s might just claim world music. It was only in 1990 that Billboard magazine introduced its World Music chart, and one year later, the National Academy of Record Arts and Sciences (NARAS) added a world-music category to the Grammys.

The term "world music" originated in 1987 when a group of British music enthusiasts convened in London. The term was suggested as a panacea for retailers who simply didn't know how to classify diverse international products in stores. Thirteen years later, the definition debate continues. Is world music simply styles from the Third World? Is it only folk music? And does being placed in such a genre ghettoize artists who seek mainstream recognition?

Durham's Alula Records, an independent world-music label, locates itself somewhere in the middle of the great debate. The label was founded in 1996 and has since put out 22 releases. A sampler from the label, called Absolute World, includes performers from Mali, Bulgaria, Japan, Ireland and Morocco.

Co-owner Angel Romero says that the term is clearly "a convenient marketing tool." For the label, based in a nondescript building on the corners of Broad Street and Club Boulevard, it's not a simple matter of geography, or tradition vs. modernity. Romero, who was born in Spain, says, "When you go to Europe, you can see a lot of American roots music--like blues--at world-music exhibitions. But in the United States, flamenco is considered world music."

While he cites summers listening to Algerian and Moroccan music as the genesis of his love affair with world music, Romero has clear ideas of what Alula should put on the market. And it's not pop from another country.

"A Hungarian rock group is just a Hungarian rock group. Alula has a tendency to be more on the traditional side. But we like it when artists are a little adventurous."

And a Nov. 2 performance by one of the label's artists illustrates the Alula blend. Mali native Habib Koité performed with his band, Bamada, and countrywoman Oumou Sangare at Duke's Reynolds Theater. Koité and his band members deftly played acoustic guitars, bass, harmonicas, violins, and a shiny drum set straight from The Partridge Family--as well as balafons and a variety of drums indigenous to Africa. Toward the end of the set, Koité launched into a rap-like song that showed the interchange between Africa and America.

The "Voices of Mali" concert was the second of two local performances by Alula acts. Nass Marrakech, showcasing the West African-influenced Gnawa music of Morocco, also played at Duke as part of the "Living Traditions" series.

The response to that show, Romero says, was outstanding.

"The venue was packed. They began with a traditional Gnawa song, then trance music. And they left a space for dancers down front," an invitation that got audience members out of their seats.

The Triangle seems an unlikely area to have a world-music label, and Romero admits that it's sometimes challenging. The company doesn't have a studio and must record at other facilities, often in New York, where co-owner Akira Satake lives.

But Romero also says, "It's an obvious place; it's more multicultural than the rest of the state. In the last few years, we've seen the influx from Latin America.

"Also, RTP brings professionals from all around the world and a high degree of educated people who became interested in other music because the traditional genres stagnated and commercial radio got conservative."

Jessie Cannon, a member of Friends of World Music, says that things have certainly changed. Cannon once DJed a world-music show on WAHD and later joined the nonprofit group, which incorporated in 1991. The organization has done educational programming about world music and sponsored shows, such as the one by Cape Verdean artist Fantcha at Carrboro's ArtsCenter.

"When we first started out, you never saw anything in the record stores. Now it's everywhere." Cannon says that the group initially hoped that local ethnic artists would form a base for the group's membership, for which she declines to give figures.

But it turned out that the interest was wider--people who traveled abroad, teachers, and those who connect with the music.

She still complains, though, that area radio stations and newspapers don't play or cover the scene. "I called The News & Observer to promote some concerts, and they said 'we don't have anybody qualified to cover that.' And WUNC dropped its Afropop show. I was told that 'our listeners don't like percussive music.'"

Mike Arnold, WUNC's program director, says that the station has revamped its music programming extensively since 1995. The Afropop show was dropped several years ago, as was the exclusively world-music rotation on Friday night. The station, he says, wanted to spread out different types of music throughout the weekend.

In terms of the Afropop show, he says, "I am reluctant to bring it back because we wanted to do shows with a more local angle." He notes that the popular Back Porch Music has been heavy on Appalachian artists, but incorporates back-porch music from all over the world and is "the most unformulaic show on our roster."

Like Arnold at WUNC, George Holt, programming director for the N.C. Museum of Art, is always looking for ways to diversify the museum's offerings. He says that the growing popularity of world music has helped the institution offer more interesting choices for patrons. In August 1999, the museum sponsored Africa Fete, a tra-veling showcase of musicians from the continent. According to the show's agent, the Raleigh venue sold more tickets--3,009--than any of the other 15 arenas nationwide.

With the response to Cuban artist Compay Segundo and a number of French acts affiliated with the Rodin exhibit, Holt says, "I would be tempted to say we have one of the strongest markets for world music in the country."

Even with the friendly environment, Alula sometimes wrestles with the business side. The company has three regular employees: Romero, a publicity director, and another staffer who handles sales and marketing. Though Alula wasn't conceived as a booking agency, it sometimes ends up scheduling shows and tours--a lot of work for a company with so few personnel.

And while, as Cannon says, the music is more accessible for consumers, Alula and other small independent labels may not necessarily be represented in the stores. Even when CDs sell out, retailers don't readily restock, forcing labels to focus on new releases, rather than building an artist's listenership.

"And what most people don't realize," says Romero, "is that the listening posts in the stores are often paid for. There are some that are discretionary, where the stores can put up what they want. But most of them are bought, and unaffordable for labels like us."

Independent labels, he continues, haven't raised prices; Alula's CDs generally sell for $12. And although Alula has distributors worldwide, in places as far-flung as Iceland and Lebanon, when Alula's French distributor went bankrupt, it left the company holding the bag for thousands of dollars. Because of that financial hit, Alula has had to delay releases, put off payments to suppliers and consider other ways to cover the distributor's territory.

Competing with the big labels, like Putamayo and Peter Gabriel's Real World, is not feasible. But little Alula has made its name in the burgeoning industry. Irish singer Susan McKeown was formerly an Alula artist and got lured away by Green Linnet Records. Alula also makes money when other labels license their songs for compilations, something that commercial giant Putamayo has done on several occasions.

Major labels even call Alula for samples. "We know what they're up to," says Romero.

Even with the pitfalls of the business, Alula will go on seeking new talent and following hot trends: African music, the post-Buena Vista Social Club Cuban fad, Afro-Spanish selections and rhythms from Eastern Europe.

But, Romero says, the future playlist of Alula will come down to "what we like." On the rarest of occasions, Alula has stumbled onto a new artist through unsolicited mail. Discovering things unexpectedly seems to be an Alula trademark. After failing to find a label name not already claimed, the founding fathers turned to the dictionary. The world "alula"--meaning a section of a bird's wing--popped out. Afterward, Romero and company found out that "Alula" is a common name in Ethiopia. EndBlock

  • Alula Records brings world music to Durham, and Durham to the world.

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