Seattle becomes the heart of NPR’s ‘Immigrant Songs’

It wasn’t too long ago that world music was limited to stylistic dalliances by Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon, or that hard-to-find section in a…

KEXP is Seattle is producing “Immigrant Songs.” The show is dedicated to the immigrant experience in the U.S. and the music it has inspired. (Photo Courtesty: Eric Gonzalez Alfaro)

It wasn’t too long ago that world music was limited to stylistic dalliances by Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon, or that hard-to-find section in a record store. Thanks to the Internet and changing times, this is no longer the case.

America’s melting pot nature has resulted in creative and innovate sounds and styles coming from colliding cultures. With this in mind, Seattle radio station KEXP is exploring the unique soundscape with the launch of “Immigrant Songs,” a new online series highlighting the music emanating from the red, white and blue’s vibrant immigrant communities.

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“I’ve been doing a show focusing on international music since 1993,” KEXP disc jockey Darek Mazzone told VOXXI. “I’ve seen the transition of what is considered world music to incorporate a lot more complexity and depth to the music. One of the things that really struck me is that so many of these artists are immigrants.

“They come to the states, as an example, and the immigrant experience allows them to actually – more often than not – to really open up to other things. Like their experience is very traumatic and with change in general, you get to explore different parts of yourself that you might not have been able to when you’re in your own home country or region.”

“Immigrant Songs” features in-studio performances, interviews with local and national artists and written content. Mazzone said the music often delves into two areas: The immigrant experience in America, as well as holding onto homeland cultures.

However, it’s the latter that often reshapes traditional music into something new with hints of something old.

“The thing that’s amazing about music and especially artists, they work together,” Mazzone said. “That melting pot is even more pronounced in musicians because musicians play together. That’s what they do and music is one of those things you inherently absorb into your style and you put together.

KEPX’s Derek Mazzone is the DJ behing “Immigrant Songs.” (Photo Courtesy: Darek Mazzone)

“So, it’s holding onto it but also the changing of it, which is compelling.”

One example is Seattle’s Chimurenga Renaissance [], which features Tendai Maraire (Shabazz Palaces) and Hussein Kalonji. Both are offspring of talented African musicians taking hip-hip into a different and new direction by combining traditional instrumentation (Zimbabwe and Congolese rhythm structures) with a modern sensibility.

“It’s like they’re creating their own interpretation, and whether it’s world music or not really doesn’t matter anymore,” Mazzone said. “It’s no longer in that frame.”

“Immigrant Songs,” which will also be highlighted on KEXP shows “Wo’Pop” and “El Sonido,” is partially funded by the Vilcek Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness of immigrant contributions to the arts and sciences.

“We were drawn to KEXP’s legacy of discovering the best new artists in all genres of music, and bringing them to a worldwide audience,” said Rick Kinsel, executive director of the Vilcek Foundation. “Through the ‘Immigrant Songs’ series, we are excited to meet the next wave of foreign-born musicians. We will be watching and listening to the ways these artists reshape the boundaries of American music.”

Ethiopian born singer-songwriter Meklit Hadero is the inaugural artist spotlighted on “Immigrant Songs.” Mazzone, who hosts “El Sonido,” said Hadero is reframing the image of her native land not as a place of hunger and despair but as a complex, compelling and really intriguing culture.

“She has done some really fabulous work with music and the culture,” Mazzone said.

It would appear the next step in the immigrant experience is the assimilation of the music into the mainstream; however, Mazzone points out it’s already taking place.

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“A band like Vampire Weekend is basically African Hi-Life sung in English,” Mazzone said. “You have his audience who can sense authenticity. Like Buena Vista Social Club blowing up. It’s Cuban but it doesn’t really matter to artists who are like coming up right now.

“There’s something about this music that speaks to us all.”