Gilbert Akanno, president and CEO of Olympic International Food Market (photography by Rarah)
From the April 1, 2009 Baltimore City Paper:
Notes From Home
A short tour of non-English-language music for sale in Baltimore
by Ian Nagoski
Ask the man on the street how many music stores there are in Baltimore, and he may be able to name a few of the bigger places–Sound Garden, for example. A minority of passionate music-hunters might name funkier holes-in-the-wall selling mostly used stuff. But the truth is that there are dozens of places with new sounds on offer. The trick is that most of the music isn’t in English. The majority of these places locally are targeted to immigrant groups, people whose music is utterly underrepresented in the U.S. media, or even on the web.
The need for music from the motherland is something that has been consistent among each wave of immigrants to the United States for as long as the country has existed. The Prussian, Slavic, Anglo, and Scandinavian newcomers of the 18th and 19th centuries carried their songs with them in their memories and performed them for one another, often keeping traditions alive in the New World long after they’d faded away in their native lands. The African diaspora has retained essential aspects of the music of the lost homeland. And, as we all know, the styles commingled and transmogrified into “American” music–jazz, gospel, blues, country, rock, hip-hop.
The process of holding on to the songs of the Old World changed when recording came along in the first decades of the 20th century. Starting in the 1910s and ’20s, records were marketed to all of the major immigrant groups: German, Irish, Italian, Bulgarian, Serb, Pole, Arab, Jew, Armenian, Greek, Japanese, Philippine, you name it, the record companies were already going after a share of their earnings by selling immigrants something irresistible–a song from home. For a variety of reasons, including the restructuring of the record business caused by the Depression, the advent of radio, the intermarriage of ethnic groups, and the desire to become capital-A American, by the mid-20th century much of that wave’s imported music remained niche “ethnic” material, kept alive in enclaves or simply abandoned by the immigrants’ descendants.
Over the past 50 years, waves of immigrants from Asia, South and Central America, and Africa have traveled a path to cultural citizenship cleared by earlier immigrants consisting of long hours of work, demands from the predominant culture to adapt linguistically, and marginal representation in the main cultural venues. Latinos may produce hip-hop (Beatnuts) and Armenians may play rock (System of a Down), but they conform to the existing standards of the style, otherwise they remain marginal and “ethnic.” Mainstream America might patronize a Vietnamese restaurant for a taste of the exotic, but no American radio station plays Vietnamese music.
There’s really no reason it should be this way, though. Among every cultural subgroup in the United States, there are beloved sad songs; there are amazing peacock-like displays of virtuosity; there are nostalgic stories about the Old Days; there are special songs for important days of the year or moments in life. These are consistencies among us all, despite any differences in language or sound. Why should it be hard to ask the next guy, “What is this song? What does it say? Who is this singing?” The answers could lead to interesting places–maybe to your new favorite music.
Listening to the music of our neighbors is how many of our greatest cultural achievements have been made. Immigrants do it all the time, and if the descendants of immigrants did it half as much, the country would be richer for it. One place to start is immigrants’ shops.