Global Ears: A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Finding World Music on the Road

Global Ears: A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Finding World Music on the Road

By Kristin Johannsen

Photo by Kevin Millham

World Music is everywhere these days, or so it seems. You can buy soca in Cincinnati, didgeridoo in Denver. But the freshest, hottest world music is not to be found at your local megastore. To get it, you have to look in the stalls and pushcarts of the developing worlds outdoor markets. In my travels, I’ve amassed a huge collection of cassettes from Belize to Bali.

Finding something great to listen to isn’t difficult, because people are usually delighted at your interest in their music. Many will offer to write out a list of their favorites. The best shopping technique is to take a local friend to the market with you– which is how I picked up a great collection of Moroccan rai in Rabat.

Even if you don’t know a soul, its possible to compile a shopping list. I often ask waiters or taxi drivers to write down the name of the tape that’s playing, and then take the paper to the market. Or you can simply wait until you hear something interesting playing in a stall, and then ask the vendor for that tape in sign language, if necessary!

World Music cassettes are also the perfect souvenir– lightweight, unbreakable, authentic, and fun. At a couple of dollars apiece, even the most impecunious backpacker can afford to indulge. Listening to them brings back travel memories like nothing else can. And they’re guaranteed to impress your stay-at-home friends. (Uzbek pop songs, anyone?)

Check out Belizean punta, Hindi movie tunes, Nubian pop… there’s music wherever you go.

Here are a few of my happy hunting grounds to get you started:

Cassette shops around Sultanahmet, Istanbul

Kurdish singers like Mahsun Kirmizigul and Ibrahim Tatlises sing some of the most hauntingly sad melodies you’ll ever hear.
The main street in Ubud, Bali

Balinese gamelan is the original trance music, with some wild variations– how about Auld Lang Syne played on the gongs?

Music stalls in any Moroccan market: Tell the vendor (many speak English) you’re interested in rai and he’ll load you down with hot North African dance music. While you’re there, ask to hear some gnaoua (mystical) and andalus (lush classical Arabic music).

Souvenir stands at many sightseeing spots in Hanoi. You’ll find tapes of traditional Vietnamese music with sweet, melodic tunes unlike anything else.

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