FEATURE
The Outernational Condition

The Outernational Condition

1. An economic realm

At a first glance, "international" is just an economic realm, a continental separation between developed and under-developed groups of countries, but the consequences are far-reaching for all aspects of cultural production and artistic trajectories. Regarding the music market, the US, Japan, and the UK dominate in record sales, followed by France, Germany, Canada, Spain, Australia and a few more. One could safely assume that they represent, to a certain extent, the International industry.

Yet for decades now, another shapeless world has been developing at the periphery of the International sphere. Comprised of many diverse countries with complex socio-political histories, this outer domain holds some common features regarding modes of music production, consumption, and proliferation. Today for this outer-world we have diverse names. One of the most (in)famous is “World Music” ("Musique du Monde"); another term less frequently used but randomly appearing is “Outernational”.

Of course it is a blurry map, with lots of intersections, exceptions and indistinct borderlines. Brazil stands out as a particular example within the Outernational sphere, already in the sixties managing to reach out to the world through its cultural production in spite of a harsh dictatorship at home. As stated in Oswald de Andrade's Manifesto Antropófago, the Tropicalia movement cannibalized Western culture and transgressed genres and territories, with Tropicalia records released to great success both in Europe and Brazil. Brazilian musicians set foot in the International history very early on.

The cases of artists like Fela Kuti or Bob Marley add to the fogginess of the International-Outernational distinction. Once arrived in London or New York during the 1960s and 70s, their music influenced Western sounds forever, revealing whole new genres and instantly becoming internationally famous.


“The Outernational domain seems defined by obscurity, grey margins, unequal times of exposure, dark spots, frequent amnesia and violent shifts.”

2. Outernational

From the outset, the Outernational domain seems defined by obscurity, grey margins, unequal times of exposure, dark spots, frequent amnesia and violent shifts. Due to totalitarian regimes, wars (warm or cold), post-colonial lack of autonomy, or just poverty, the Outernational body occupies a space outside of history, sometimes considered an echo of the International core but mostly unknown. Many artists in these peripheral regions were active for a few years in the early 1960s through late 70s, and then disappeared with almost no trace. In some cases, entire music scenes would disappear or radically transform, as in Iran before and after the 1979 revolution, in Romania after Ceausescu's July thesis, and in Turkey between coups d’état. Already we must separate two phases of Outernational production in regard to their specific historical conditions. The first would roughly extend from the 60s to the 80s, the second from the 90s through to the present day.

Unlike the International music scene, the Outernational is an uneven terrain, perforated by numerous holes and discontinuities and marked by lack of memory and archival consciousness. These out-of-history artistic expressions never consolidate; they linger in partial isolation and hard-to-trace genealogies. The spectre of disappearance is always on the horizon. Outernational present-day music is almost nonexistent on SoundCloud, Mixcloud, or online platforms such as Juno Download or Beatport. Thus even today, International and Outernational standards for music production and diffusion are completely different. For instance, Romanian manele – the contemporary Rroma music that has spread around the Balkans with different flavours and modulations – is living off the wedding industry. Musicians release singles and YouTube videos just to ensure the flow of wedding gigs (similar to dabke or halay artists). Sometimes the music is hybridized with pop and dance beats in an attempt at the mainstream, but local manele stars usually earn their main money at mafia bosses’ family events. Manele music never gets aired on radio (a characteristic with clear shades of discrimination towards the Rroma people) while TV stations have embraced it periodically in a tabloid way. Although there are hundreds of manele artists, they all operate through two or three agents, and recording and production is limited to very few studios.

The overlapping of the mainstream and underground is a common contemporary Outernational paradox. The manele case is very telling, being both underground and overground, having millions of listeners but never showing up in local tops. Even if orthodox (Western) market procedures operate in some of these border societies, with states joining the European Union, others maintain an Outernational dynamic with kinship industries, mass piracy, and unfettered copyright infringement.

3. Digging in the netherworld

The International sphere is self-sufficient. It lives out of its own production and consumption. It's hard to penetrate from the outside, although it touches the far corners of the globe. International music and stories will always come to you; it's hard to avoid them. On every channel, through every social network and music platform, International patrimony is shot from a ubiquitous centre in all directions. It's a Shakin' Stevens poster in a Himalayan shack or a Coca-Cola add in a Siberian village. By contrast, the Outernational is always hidden, mazy. Today, one still has to invest a lot of effort and patience to accede to those regions, searching local YouTube channels or Trojan-infested download forums, for phone-recorded Kurdish or Azerbaijan weddings, or through a jungle of pop-up windows. Although CDs are sometimes released, they will almost never be indexed on Discogs or similar Internet archives.

Meteorites (outsiders) do occasionally breach the International market, but rarely is a whole Outernational scene or genre exposed. Take the case of Omar Souleyman, who surfaced in the West after a few hundred albums already released in his country. It's true that "album" in Outernational jargon often means a recorded live wedding performance. But Souleyman is just one among hundreds of dabke artists that have been moulding this genre for the past twenty years.

4. "I hate World Music" - David Byrne

The "world music" niche has flourished for the past twenty years through dedicated promoters, labels, and festivals. Already heavily criticized, it continues to show music from the "world", but we never see folk music from Europe and North America in these festivals, nor contemporary subjects performing the present-day music hybrids of their "worlds".

"World music" is the rest of the world that the "main world" has accepted ideologically, the profile of the "savage" reshaped and repacked to make it digestible (profitable) inside the International industry. The concept of "world music" seems extracted from a PR debate, the outcome of a marketer’s brainstorming. Under this umbrella, musicians (albeit great ones) and genres are often displayed as exotic-primitive with acoustic instruments, representing the "traditional" felt as lost or artificialized in the West. World Music presents non-Western musicians, usually without technology, from areas apparently totally isolated and unchanged for hundreds of years. The past pulsates in the present, without contextualization or distinction. "World" artists are represented as tamed and harmless indigenous; the former colonies are again infantilized and exhibited as such. The market structures pinpoint the global "surround" sound, measuring and exposing the West/North radius.

For the Western consumer and remorseful former colonialist, "world music" is pure. It resonates with New Age ethos, presenting music cultures as unaltered by the tribulations of civilized, urban, Western developments. The occidental spectator is thus glimpsing himself as a less rational, less developed subject, but more sensitive, overwhelmingly emotional, and real. This is the spectacle of the outside sphere, the exotic vitrine full of "authentic" items that has become a substitute for spiritual experiences.

World music is not international, but is somehow an intensification of International and Outernational divisions. One will never get to hear, in world music festivals, contemporary hybridized and electrified Kurdish halay, Romanian manele, Bulgarian orkestras of chalga, Peruvian chicha, Palestinian dabke, Mexican narcocorrido, or many other genres and styles. The effervescent contemporary music of these netherworlds is truly left outside because of uncontrolled tensions, problematic affinities, and hard-to-frame expressions.

5. The Outernational Scenario

The historic pattern usually goes like this: At some point during the 1960s, (many times even 1965 specifically), there was an "opening". In Romania, Egypt, Iran, Turkey, Thailand, and Brazil, American and European music suddenly pierced through visible or less visible walls. The capitalist media machine was spreading its information faster and faster on all continents, with a profound impact on local pop cultures around the globe. Youngsters in Turkey were listening to American army radio stations based near Izmir, feeding firsthand from the pop culture of the west. In Romania, General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party Nicolae Ceausescu’s brief "enlightenment" period after '65 brought jazz and pop musicians like Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, and Cliff Richards to Bucharest, while English and American music was heavily aired on the radio. US president Richard Nixon visited Romania in ‘69.

All this sudden exposure spawned the first hybrids of the Outernational sphere. In Turkey there was an explosion of psychedelic rock: Bariș Manço, Erkin Koray, Cem Karaca, Moğollar, Üç Hürel. In Romania a beatrock scene emerged: Sincron, Roșu și Negru, Sideral, Phoenix and others.

The "opening" happened to varying degrees and lasted between 10 and 15 years. Usually it was followed by a negative closure, whether through cultural revolutions or returns to social totalitarianism, and a climate of artistic and intellectual regress was reinstated. Western pop culture, once acceptable, became regarded as a soft power weapon. During the 70s and 80s, many countries (especially Romania) restrained the info-flux from the west and steered towards nationalist propaganda.

The pseudo-underground music retreated further in the 80s as isolation increased. Experimental bands disappeared or transformed, releasing only naively utopian, easy listening tunes and albums. But in partial isolation other genres emerged, unexpected mutants like proto-manele, a sort of proletarian party/restaurant music, an Indian-Oriental 8-bit combination. Generic, Azur, Albatros, Tomis Jr., Îngerii Negri are emblematic artists of this genre from the late 80s - early 90s.

6. The Iron Curtain

Behind the Iron Curtain, there was usually one label per country: Electrecord in Romania, Melodya in the Soviet Union (by far the largest in the Eastern bloc), Moiras in Hungary, Balkanton in Bulgaria, Yugoton in Yugoslavia, Amiga in DDR. These labels were not aligned with the laws of local or global markets. Although national popular artists were aired on radio and TV and featured in youth magazines and local pop tops, party politics still typically dictated the artistic production, with decisive power over the number of records pressed and the distribution of licenses for playing live. Labels had clear politics regarding the music of minorities, and were obliged to release a certain number of albums with “traditional” music, as defined by the ideology of the given period. Everything was made according to a plan that had to be regularly re-checked by bureaucracy and censorship.

Consequently, bands and artists concerned with rock, jazz, and some other Western-influenced pop had a hard time playing and, most of all, recording. But the cultural production plans of the state were not always so effective. Before Ceausescu's mini-cultural revolution of '71, Western contaminations started to give rise to new sounds, bands, and student festivals and venues for this new music. Then briefly musicians developed autonomously, slowly fading in the terrible 80s.

In the first stage of the mythical post-1989 transition, State-owned labels disappeared in a few years leaving a no-man's land where piracy, DIY cassette reproduction, and black market behaviour ruled. By the late 90s, the vinyl warehouse of Electrecord in Romania was randomly emptied, the catalogue discontinued, and finally the warehouse itself dismantled, with the remaining records being (literally) dropped by tip lorry at the dump.

Music lovers and doers adapted yet again, employing new modes of music proliferation, crummy local production, and unsophisticated replication technologies.

7. Recuperation

The present-day music of the Outernational sphere is almost non-existent on SoundCloud, Mixcloud, or online platforms such as Juno or Beatport. If one wanted to map the musical landscape of Eastern Europe in detail, one would have to undergo totally different procedures of digging. Excavating in this nether-sphere has never been easy, in cities with few record stores and an atrophied culture of archiving. Digging or researching in Romania is done within dead pre-‘89 institutions or ghost archives, on the Internet on YouTube and local eBay-type platforms (trilulilu.ro, okazii.ro), in people’s homes, and at flea markets. It is based on rumours and lost and found tapes.

After decades, Outernational regional history has been partially or fully "re-scanned", and fragmented histories have come to light. Following the collapse of the Communist bloc, Western European institutions progressively recuperated many of the visual artists and musicians of the 60s and 70s. Recuperation, re-construction, re-enactment, and digging have been the buzzwords of the last fifteen years. Thus a wide range of fringe expressions, sounds, and music has been discovered in the former socialist countries, and connections, common backgrounds, or endemic crossbreeds have been made visible and contextualized.

But even today, entire contemporary sonic realms are inaccessible to the Western/Northern hemisphere. Musical masters of the first period of Outernationalism have remained exterior to rock, jazz, electronica, and pop history. To name a few: Kourosh Yaghmaei, Ahmad Zahir, Rodion G.A., FSB, Sven Grünberg's Mess, Simo Lazarov, Czeslaw Niemen, Erkin Koray, Krzysztof Komeda, Mini, Mehrpouya, Aris San, Oko, Charanit Singh, Farid El Atrache, Orhan Gencebay, Tempano, San Ul Lim, William Onyeabor. The process of resurfacing the giants of the first period of the Outernational is still ongoing, through passionate Western labels like Grey Past Records, Strut Records, Finders Keepers, Sublime Frequencies, and Pharaway Sounds.

8. Rodion G.A.

A typical case of Outernational destiny behind the Iron Curtain is that of Rodion G.A. Rodion Roșca began making music during the Romanian cultural open period between 1965 and 1972, collecting records at home and in neighbouring Hungary and experimenting with making his own recordings. He developed his own DIY techniques of recording and editing, becoming, by the late 70s, a proto-bedroom producer. He was a pioneer by making his own echo generators out of Tesla reel-to-reel machines, sampling parts from previously recorded tracks with Rodion G.A. at Radio Cluj in order to manufacture new tracks. He also managed primitive multi-track recording by switching and merging left and right channels, adding guitar, synths, beats, and FX. After finishing a new track he would send the tape to Radio Cluj to air.

All tracks featured on last year’s historic release The Lost Tapes (Strut, Future Nuggets, Ambassador's Reception) were made like this, in Rodion Roșca's apartment. His totally unique production methods are one of the reasons his sound is hard to trace. Although one might recognize shades of krautrock or other familiar cosmic synth textures, the genealogy between his creative output and that of the West is broken. Due to the particular circumstances and unique means of production, his musical imprint seems fabricated on another planet. Weird prolet-galactic skins with visceral fuzzy frequencies dominate his sound universe, along with a focus on classic melody. Between 1979 and 1987, Rodion G.A.’s songs reached number 1 in charts across Romania, but the band rarely performed live. Only two of their tracks ever saw release, both appearing on the Electrecord rock compilation Formații Rock 5.

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