When the 12-inch 33 RPM record became more than a novelty in the 1950s, owning a few slabs of wax was a sign of being adventurous. Esoteric was the label given to forbidden realms of music that your phonograph would then bring to life. Suburbia bloomed out of the boom after World War II and LP's like Martin Denny's "Exotica" allowed listeners to scale vistas, descend into jungles and feel the sand of distant beaches all without leaving your sofa.
Within the realm of today's music, we largely listen to the same collection of experiences and sadly most of what is represented by "popular" music (here in quotes not to insult but to separate from the "Pop" music label) serves the purpose of one song leading to another only in a sense of continuing the carnivorous habit of consumerism.
As we have discussed before, you as a valuable listener of music have the world quite literally at your fingertips. Think of your iPhone as a compass ready to point you in a multitude of different directions.
We as humans process a lot of information. Given the amount that is available, any familiarity is honestly quite the welcome sight. However, if I continue to listen to say Folk music. I will stumble upon the same songs. While I enjoy all the varying versions, these will in fact lead my trusty compass and me in a circle.
Esoteric music is the great interconnection. This music is similar to that same passport that those exotic records issued in the ’50s and ’60s with one exception – we are going to be listening to all different music from all over the world. Since music is the universal language, shouldn't that automatically mean that our listening habits should be far from insular?
Think about the realm of Pop music, there are but a handful of pop hits that make it from one country or continent to another. For every Psy or Ylvis, there are charts with about a million other entries. In fact, American music of all stripes is often what strangely unites the selections on charts all over the world. For example, Sam Hunt's megahit "Body Like a Back Road" first broke out of Country radio, then found its way to Pop radio, which then led it to platinum status in Canada, Australia, gold status in New Zealand and chart numbers in European countries.
The point is in a given week there are on average about 700 new releases in the States alone (counting reissues, hits packages, and compilations - but those are a part of the process as well). We are lucky to hear perhaps 3 percent (20 releases) of these in any given time. However, what about the rest?
Spotify has a huge year-end campaign where it allows people to boast how many hours they spent listening to music over the calendar year. While it's fun to say, "I spent 50,000 hours listening to music last year," it is not fun to know that among those Top 5 songs on the list you probably listened to those around 350 times each.
So, let's take ourselves away from the familiar and dive into the world of Esoteric music. Trust me everything is here. If you subtract just a few plays from your list, you could be exposing yourself to German Krautrock, French Disco, Algerian rap, Japanese garage rock and so much more. In addition, this music is derivative of American music - so it will satisfy that familiarity that makes you listen to your favorites an average of once per day for an entire year.
Now, let's move to the unfamiliar. Terra incognita. There is a lot of strange and wonderful music waiting for you out there - and maybe you only listen to it once. But as an avid traveler you may only visit Bali once, so remember that this is an experience. World music, as it is branded, is first and foremost about recapturing the elements of being within the borders of a faraway land (much like those Polynesian Exotica records that inspired years of Tiki parties in the Fifties). Music is an opportunity to learn. You hear a melody. You follow a rhythm that is unfamiliar or better yet you let yourself get tangled in the polyrhythms where cultures are cross-pollinated. For example, the music of Mali is as far as one can get away from Mississippi. However, once you really listen to it – that same hypnotic voodoo feeling of Hill Country Blues is present.
Immerse yourself in the world around you. There are some obscure Swiss electronic artists who are waiting to blow your mind. Take a chance with the most unfamiliar music you can find. Listening to guitar players from Europe do everything with an electric guitar but actually hit notes looks like a headache on paper. However, that separation from seeing and only listening will have you wondering just how they made that instrument you see everywhere sound like it was falling down a flight of stairs. The minimal recordings of Steve Reich may sound exceedingly odd as the rhythms fall in and out of sync - but the same can said for the complex underpinnings of Trap music in today's Hip-Hop.
Music is here for enjoyment, enrichment and entertainment. However, familiarity truly breeds contempt. Too much of one thing, simply makes us want to turn it off. If you are interested in music as an experience, that familiarity is instead welcome. Once you begin to connect the dots between the different styles of music from all these foreign lands, you see the world as a collection of places not entirely different from your home. Each record you experience is like another stamp in your passport, although these dizzying adventures you can take without leaving the couch.
Mik Davis is the record store manager at T-
BONE's Records and Cafe and a GED instructor. At other stations of life, he has been a musician, writer and much more. However, he would much rather talk about music.