“Is it possible that my first exposure to world music was through The Lion King?” This is the thought I was toying with while watching the Broadway production that came to town recently. I remembered being obsessed with African music in my teens, but the first time I heard those tribal sounds, outside of a Paul Simon or Toto song, may have just been courtesy of the Disney classic. Then again, I also remember my brother and I watching The Gods Must Be Crazy over and over again, so that might count. Otherwise, my worldly culture was still tied to Elton John.
I’ve never been the biggest fan of what we generically call world music for the same reason why I’ve never been the biggest fan of classical music; I like hooks. I like to sing along. It’s not that I don’t appreciate it and it’s not that I don’t have favorite songs in those genres. It’s just not what I turn to when I’m looking for something to clean the house to. I’ll throw on Madonna and Robyn or a whole day of nothing but Pearl Jam. I’ll pop in the new Death Cab or go deeper into Kendrick Lamar’s latest. Even when I don’t know the words, it’s still familiar territory and no matter how much I’d like to project about culture, when it all comes down to it, I’m comfortable in verse-chorus-verse traditions.
Still, there was a time when those rhythmic yelps are all I wanted to listen to. I was around 16, reading a lot of Daniel Quinn, and getting that post-adolescent urge to see the world. Music became the natural extension of that. I was a broke kid with no car, let alone a ticket on any jet airliner. Finding compilations of sounds from sun-parched lands a million miles away from me became my passport. What I couldn’t find in Leitchfield or Mt. Washington, I could always find on the CD player. In that sense, it’s an excellent example of just how important music can be to a kid, among the many examples of why we need music in schools. What I couldn’t get from a history book, I could easily get in the I Dreamed of Africa soundtrack and it caused me to want to know everything I could about the area. Was it romanticized? Absolutely. But as far as teenage phases go, this was one of the more beneficial ones.
Not that I’m apologizing. I was lucky to hear those songs. They gave me a better sense of the world, even the ones from The Lion King. They gave me something to dream about far outside of my small town’s borders. And as I sat there at the Kentucky Center For the Arts, watching the amazing production, going back to those bedroom daydreams, I started to get a little teary. “What if I never get to go to any of the places that I use to be so sure I’d be personally ‘discovering’ one day?” It was a moment where my adult self was suddenly forced to stand face to face with my younger version. Like I had to explain to him that life had happened, that it was all going pretty damn well, but that yeah, we haven’t made it to the motherland just yet. Instead our days have familiar routine and structure, but they’ve also got family and love and plenty of travel to festivals. And we’ve still got the music.
As I was writing that last sentence, I decided to put on an African Tribal Orchestra album; Those sounds so identifiable, distinct and strong. All these years later it only takes a moment of them playing before I’m running through a land I’ve never been to. I write about the power of music a lot in this series, but that power can still sneak up and surprise even me. I may not be the globetrotter I wish I were, but thanks to some outstanding recordings, I can get pretty close. And now that I have a son, it’s a pretty fun game to see his eyes wonder at the sound of those pounding drums; dancing and telling me what he’ll do in the great jungles. Circle of Life. Gee, thanks Elton. •
Kyle Meredith is the music director of WFPK and host of the nationally syndicated “The Weekly Feed.” Hunting bears was never his strong point.