In her native Africa, singer Aster Aweke is so popular that she has been dubbed "Ethiopia's Donna Summer." But Aweke, who grew up listening to Aretha Franklin and Billie Holiday, always dreamed of being a hit in America. Now, nine years after moving to the U.S., she has achieved her goal. Her album Kabu (Columbia Records) reached No. 4 on Billboard's World Music chart. Kabu gets its power from Aweke's vocals, which soar above a lush weave of Ethiopian folk melodies and American jazz and pop, evoking sunny images of love and life in her rural homeland. Yet most fans who buy her records can't understand a word she sings. Says Aweke, who sings in Amharic: "Americans say, 'We don't know what you're talking about, but we can follow; we feel you there.' "
Aweke is not the only non-English singer who is coming through clearly. Salif Keita, an ebullient singer from Djoliba, Mali, whose album Amen stayed at No. 1 on the Billboard World Music chart for 12 weeks, mixes Western guitars and drums with high-tech electronics that mimic such Mandingo instruments as the stringed kora and the xylophone-like balaphon. Brazilian singer Margareth Menezes, the French guitar troupe Gipsy Kings and Zimbabwe's Thomas Mapfumo, among others, also have solid new albums on the U.S. market.
"People are becoming aware there are other musical styles besides Western rock and pop that are just as valid," explains David Byrne, who helped pioneer the fusion of rock and Third World traditions with his band Talking Heads. Byrne's interest in non-European music led him to found his own label, Luaka Bop, which has issued an ambitious series of compilations and samplers.
The appeal of world-music artists lies in their heartfelt intensity -- something that has become rare in the cookie-cutter commercialism of Western rock and pop. "You get tired of turning on the radio, and it sounds like the same producer could have made half the Top 10," says Byrne, who plans to bring out an album by Indian composer Viajaya Anand this year. "You get assaulted by a million different cultures when you walk down the streets of most American cities, and that's not reflected in the music."
World music -- the term was coined by ethnomusicologists as a catchall for non-European, indigenous traditions -- has been seeping into the Western pop mainstream for years through progressive recordings by Byrne, the Beatles, Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon. Simon's Graceland and The Rhythm of the Saints albums, particularly, brought South African and Brazilian folk styles to a mass audience. Now, after decades of borrowing by Western musicians, Third World composers are creating cross-cultural fusions of their own -- and finding a growing audience. Ten years ago, a world-music album was lucky to sell a few thousand copies in the U.S. Today 10,000 to 50,000 copies is more typical, and the number of artists and record companies -- from Luaka Bop to Mango, Real World and Rhythm Safari -- has exploded. This year's Grammy Awards will feature a Best World Music category for the first time.