Fusions for the 21st Century

Melding indigenous folk traditions with Western jazz and high-tech pop, world music forges a vital new sound

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The crossover potential of the new aural hybrids is obvious on Mickey Hart's Planet Drum, a dazzling display of rhythmic virtuosity performed by the Grateful Dead drummer and a super group of percussionists from Nigeria, Brazil and India. Planet Drum, which has been No. 1 on the Billboard World Music chart for the past nine weeks, is a rollicking time machine, at once archaic and up-to-the-second, primal and technologically smart. In songs like Udu Chant, Temple Caves and Dance of the Hunter's Fire, the players coax a torrent of tattoos and flowing rhythms from a battery of drums, synthesizers, Chinese cymbals, rattles and even Mexican donkey jaws.

"Indigenous music is being brought into the digital age," says Hart, who, in conjunction with the Library of Congress, will soon issue a recording of music from the Amazon basin. "This is not a bunch of savages killing chickens and howling at the moon. These are people playing older instruments who are virtuosos in their own right. World music tells us where we have been and where we are going. We are looking for the rhythms of the 21st century."

They seem to be everywhere. The 3 Mustaphas 3, a cutting-edge band from England, incorporates styles from the Balkans, Africa and Latin America -- sometimes in a single song. And Shang Shang Typhoon, a Japanese septet with two albums on the Epic/Sony Japan label, blends Okinawan and traditional Japanese music with salsa, reggae, funk and rock. "There is no pure, unadulterated music anymore," says Hart. "Nor should there be. If music doesn't change, it dies. And when the music dies, the community dies." By that measure, the world's future sounds pretty lively.

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