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Music.. From farmers to prisoners, the Grammy-winning producer Ian Brennan has recorded musicians all over the world who have what it takes to be superstars: “empathy.”

In search of the imperfect beat

To Ian Brennan, art doesn’t change depending upon where the artist was born, and the genre “world music” is meaningless: “We have yet to hear extraterrestrial sounds,” he says. The Grammy-winning music producer travels the globe bringing attention to the professional musicians we might never have heard of otherwise and the street performers and even prisoners whose musical techniques speak to local truths.

Lately, Brennan has gone to Vietnam to break the silence of veterans of the “American War” and traveled Malawi, transforming street performer kids into international stars and sneaking into a prison to retrieve music that ought not be kept behind bars. He’s also promoted conflict resolution in schools and in his most recent book.

But for this pioneer of ethnomusicology and field recordings, the location isn’t really the point. “I have little interest in folklore and ethnomusicology,” he says. “My job is to find the most interesting and unique singers and writers, regardless of where they come from.”

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With artists like the Malawi Mouse Boys or General Paolino you’ve almost created a new genre: “pop” field recordings.

All recordings are ultimately field recordings. The peril is when every studio everywhere stocks the same equipment, and the interiors are built so much like war bunkers — artificial and indistinguishable, regardless of the place. Recordings should bear the DNA of a time and space. Striving for clinical perfection before expression of emotion and humanity is a dead-end, and ultimately limits the contribution to society that music can make spiritually and culturally.

For me, the main demarcation for art is whether it is honest or dishonest. In that way, Nina Simone, Jovanotti, the Sex Pistols, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Missy Elliott, all play the same kind of music — organic and textured. And in an ideal world, they would be played side-by-side on the radio and television, without arbitrary stylistic divisions and linguistic segregation.

Which band or project has given you the most satisfaction so far, and why? And which was the worst experience?

I have learned from every artist that I have worked with — whether I wanted to or not. If we remain open, the harsh truth is that we we usually benefit the most from the meanest critics, as well as our own failures. Hopefully, by learning from each experience regardless of how negative it may seem at the time, in that way, each artist acts as a bridge and a booster to other artists and projects in the future.

Certainly, seeing the changes that have resulted in improving the quality of the Malawi Mouse Boys’ daily lives due to the CDs and tours we’ve made together has been rewarding. Now my primary concern is attempting to make those changes sustainable for them and their families. Also, producing the free show against homeless in San Francisco with Fugazi in 2000 was thrilling. No one had any way of knowing how many people — if anyone at all — would come, but the park was overtaken and swelled with over 10,000 attendees, all of whom conducted themselves peacefully. And that was without the presence of almost any formal security or barricades. It was an amazing moment to experience and behold.

Why have you focused especially on Malawi?

My wife and I, Marilena Delli (an Italian who is an author, and whose photographic and cinematic contributions to our music projects are indispensable), try not to favor any one country or region, but instead to focus on as many underrepresented populations around the globe as possible, which sadly there are far too many of — far more than that are not. We have especially focused on the most impoverished nations among these — places like South Sudan and Rwanda. Malawi does hold a special place sentimentally, though, since Marilena’s father worked in that country as a charitable worker for decades and we have been aided immeasurably by the Montfort community there, where the Bergamasque, Padre Gamba, has been a revolutionary figure in Malawi’s history — establishing the first non-governmental radio station and press, which were critical elements to their overthrowing the previous autocratic leader.

How do you feel regarding to the exploitation of your “street discoveries” by the world music industry?

Since “world” music is such a tiny market, the dangers of exploitation are small. Even “superstars” of the genre have limited opportunities compared to monolithic Western artists like Beyonce or U2. The battle is to keep emphasizing and disseminating the overarching message that each culture is diverse and nuanced in its own right. One band from South Sudan does not equal all of South Sudan or its people, any more than Justin Bieber could be construed as the sole or exemplary representative of Canada, God forbid. Personally, I have little interest in folklore and ethnomusicology. My job is to find the most interesting and unique singers and writers, regardless of where they come from.

There’s a clear inequality in investments in the global music market. And even for those who turn out to be globally successful, “world music” seems to be an unfair, if not infamous, label. What is the opinion of a Grammy-award winner in the “world music” category?

Yes, it is such an odd label, since all music is “world” music. All music comes from somewhere in the world. We have yet to hear extraterrestrial sounds, though maybe someday we will. Even within the “world” music market, certain countries are unfairly favored — usually those with the biggest populace, easiest travel routes, and/or ones that have a French or English colonialistic history, which aids greatly in communication.

For instance, the Grammys this year received over 21,000 records submitted for consideration, but from those only around two dozen countries, just a sliver out of the almost 200 on the planet, were represented. The end result is a passive censorship. My fourth book, How Music Dies (or Lives): Field-Recording and the Battle for Democracy in the Arts, comes out on Feb. 2 and delves into these issues pretty heavily.

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There were at least two cultural movements generated by the American war in Vietnam. Your recording of Hanoi Masters seems something like revenge for that neglected side of the story.

For years I had been interested in doing a project with Vietnam veterans from the other side of the war, so the Hanoi Masters’ album on Glitterbeat Records realized a vision that had long been gestating. The emotional trauma that many American veterans suffered was so profound and publicized. Yet the pain of the other country’s soldiers — those from Vietnam — I had never once heard mentioned in the U.S. Yet, it seemed clear that there must be a similar depth of experience for the individuals there.

Growing-up in the San Francisco Bay area, I directly witnessed the Vietnamese refugees arriving in overloaded fishing boats after the war, as well as seeing the American soldiers returning to the states, many of whom ended up homeless and addicted on the streets of the same downtrodden neighborhoods where the majority of the immigrants ended up. The sad irony was that these two populations found themselves once again in direct contact with each other, amid dire circumstances anew, but this time on another continent.

Sadly, Western music has all but decimated local music traditions in Southeast Asia. On a recent visit to Cambodia, 19 of the top 20 songs, were sung in English by American or U.K. artists. Colonialism is alive and well. It has just transitioned into the area of culture.

Could you imagine your techniques of conflict resolution on a bigger scale?

The key is surrendering to the idea that we will never eliminate certain evils. Murder, rape, greed, dishonesty, etc. have always been with us, and always will be. The challenge is to what degree they are present. Rather than striving to “eliminate hunger,” as a recent superstar concert naively, though still admirably, strove to do, we should more realistically work daily to minimize these undesired elements.

A huge part of that is fearlessly asking ourselves “Why?” whenever certain behaviors are disproportionate. If random violence is so much more common in America than most anywhere else, it begs to be investigated further. Particularly since the proof exists right there amid the various other contemporary cultures that that exact type of violence is not inevitable and need not be so prevalent. Teaching people to “think in threes” and rid themselves of primitive and self-defeating binary traps, has massive utility and impact. The structure of three is vital to rid ourselves of false dichotomies — there is the one extreme where we don’t want to be, then the opposite extreme which represents what we desire. But, most importantly, what usually gets left out is where we actually are.

Energy should best be committed not to reaching some idealized place, but instead inching in any way possible toward that more constructive direction. Progress versus perfection is a most effective goal. Striving for perfection, instead, causes people to become exhausted, cynical and to simply throw their hands up in the air and quit as soon as something doesn’t work completely, rather than acknowledging the small ways in which things are working, as well as noting whatever progress — however small and flawed — has been made.

But unfortunately many people are often in the extreme where they don’t want to be.

A stumbling block to progress is striving for perfection. There will always be those at the extremes who remain unhappy with any result other than theirs. But compromise is necessary for coexistence: the acceptance that relationships can be sustainable even when they are imperfect. For nations and cultures, past-orientation must be sacrificed for the benefit of the future, or else we are just doomed to be prisoners of history and repeat, rather than transcend, our fate.

Blues comes from slavery. Many music styles arise from the pain of distance and separation. The songs you recorded from Zomba Prison are an answer to the loss of freedom. Is that a paradigm? No suffering, no good music?

I think that it is an unhealthy myth that art comes from suffering, mental illness and/or addiction. It does us all a great disservice. Great artists create in spite of these obstacles, which in many ways stands as the greatest testament to their individual powers: that they can be bipolar and a raging alcoholic, yet still write better than millions of stone-cold sober, intelligent, disciplined, “sane” and educated folks ever dream to.

Art is not mathematical. What should work on paper — having all of the prescribed elements — can fall flat in reality. And other unlikely pieces inexplicably work, and are undeniably moving to most people who witness them. That is why artistry can rarely be reverse-engineered. Because great art comes from nowhere (and everywhere at the same time).

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What is required of an artist almost always, though — at least on their art — is empathy. And, almost everyone on the planet who lives outside mainstream power — be they a woman, someone of a non-heterosexual orientation, a bearer of any physical restriction, and/or their being the “wrong color” — is an individual that is forced almost daily into confrontation with the “other.” Arrogance is only afforded for long to those who benefit directly from the existing inequality. The oppressed out of necessity are always more aware of and sensitive to their oppressors than the oppressors are to the oppressed — especially if the ruling powers have bought into the lie that we are living in an age of “freedom.” The oppressed, instead, are by default, survivors. They have been tested, and their spirits rise or fall more dramatically as a result. Thus, there is a depth of expression found there that can be mimicked by others, but never genuinely matched or exceeded. They have been forged involuntarily by experience, without a safety net or fallback, Plan B.

Popular culture is the most powerful form to ever originate from the people. To see it increasingly become an aristocracy, whereby only the richest and/or connected are given the primary platforms, is one of the more horrific hijackings in history and bodes poorly for democracy. We must raise our voices before they are silenced entirely, drowned out by the din of corporate communications, cleverly disguised as youthful rebellion (along with generations of superfluous albums by Bob Marley’s offspring’s offspring and the like, ad nauseam).