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January 11, 2010

From Bob Tarte, "Technobeat" columnist, 1988-

The End of Beat Days

My final writing assignment for The Beat is the most difficult one that CC Smith has given me. My subject is the magazine I’ve written for since 1988, and because it has affected my life on so many levels, I hardly know what to say in just a few paragraphs.

I actually have mixed feelings about The Beat’s demise. It’s not that I won’t miss the magazine terribly. I feel as if a favorite eccentric relative has died. But much of the pleasure has trickled out of the reviewing process over the last few years due to my waning interest in world music releases these days. It’s primarily a supply problem. I’ve gone from getting far too many good cds to review in my column to scraping to find a handful of titles that I want to write about. The quality just doesn’t seem to be there any longer.

When I started writing for The Beat, the term ‘world music’ had just been coined by record label execs eager to boost the sales of what had formerly been called international music. World music arrived at exactly the right time. Rock had stagnated, reggae still hadn’t recovered from Bob Marley’s loss, and punk rock and its variants had long since sputtered out. Spearheaded by Youssou N’Dour, Salif Keita, Baaba Maal, and other mainly West African artists, world music took off, at least in terms of giving music writers something new to salivate over.

As one label attempted to copy the success of another, waves of unlikely genres would hit the shore, including Bulgarian female choir, pygmy vocals, Tuvan throat singing, Colombian cumbia, Andean panpipe, and qawwali. Amid these obscurities, there were also surges of Brazilian, Cuban, flamenco, calypso, klezmer, East European gypsy, and other better-known styles. Through all of this, the single constant was the flood of incredible music from West Africa and the Congo. But as this flood began drying up over the last 10 years, it was indicative of the decline of the music industry as a whole. Rather than looking to new releases by new artists for my world music fix, I found myself basking in retrospectives of classic African artists instead: Franco, Rochereau, King Sunny Ade, and others who had made their best music three or more decades ago.

I married Linda within a year of starting my world music review column, Technobeat, in 1989, and the lp and cds that I reviewed have formed the soundtrack to our marriage. I associate specific artists with pivotal events in my life. I still can’t hear Habib Koite’s soft voice without thinking of my parrot Stanley Sue, who died five years to the day after I lost my father, and my father’s loss is forever intermingled with Siberian folk music.

If I creeped anyone out here by mentioning my bird ahead of my dad, it’s because world music has been so intimately interwoven with the demands of caring for our 50-some animals, that pets began wriggling into my Technobeat columns in the mid-1990s. I ended up writing two books about our feathered and furred gang (“Enslaved by Ducks” and “Fowl Weather”). Without the experience and discipline of writing for The Beat, I never could have written these books.

My editor CC Smith always welcomed and encouraged my creativity. Well, almost always, excluding the time when my friend Bill Holm, who occasionally appeared in my column in his obnoxious alter ego known as The Whale, guest-edited Dave Hucker’s "Hey Mr Music" column. Bill’s additions to Dave’s columns were so over the top, that even though CC had prevented his worst comments from ever appearing in print, two readers wrote in and threatened to cancel their subscriptions if The Whale ever appeared in The Beat again. (Read about the whole sorry saga at http://www.technobeat.com/NONSENSE/WHALE.html)

Just knowing the long-suffering and endlessly entertaining CC Smith has been one of the benefits of writing for The Beat. I’ve also become close friends with other Beat writers past and present, including Beat columnist and Cuban music authority Dave Hucker, Congolese music expert Gary Stewart (author of “Rumba on the River”), and Worldisc publicist Mark Gorney. Through the magazine I’ve also made the acquaintance of the great Ken Braun from the Stern’s record label, plus ethnomusicologist and founder of the Original Music label John Storm Roberts, who died this past December. (Love ya, John.)

Much thanks to CC Smith for all of this. And while I hope that she enjoys her post-Beat life, part of me can’t help hoping that her retirement is miserable. Although she insists that she doesn’t want to turn The Beat into an online magazine, I’m nurturing a glimmer of a hope that she ends up missing the whole happy mess to such a degree that an online version of The Beat, complete with blogs, podcasts, videos, and lots of advertising from record labels who decided that they, too, still need The Beat, happens anyway.

(For nearly two decades of my "Technobeat" columns and Dave Hucker’s "Hey Mr.Music" columns since 1997, please visit Technobeat.com.)

-Bob Tarte, January 2010

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