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The world is next door

Atlanta makes strides toward becoming a truly international city, but the music scene struggles to keep up


It's a warm, Sunday afternoon, and Adams Stadium is positively buzzing. Excitable merchants ply their wares to a crowd of thousands, who shuffle around the stadium's football field, mingling amongst friends and neighbors, stopping perhaps to munch on frijoles or to throw back a cold drink. Boisterous greetings rise up over the sounds of a lively band knocking out a more-than-passable mariachi tune around in the end zone. Later, other bands will take their place; some will also offer up mariachi, while others will mix contemporary rock and pop with a host of south-of-the-border sounds, everything from ranchera and norteo to merenge and salsa.

The "Grito de Independencia," as the festival is called, is an annual event for Atlanta's Mexican-American community. It means, "Cry of Independence" and honors the day in 1810 when a priest in the small Mexican town of Dolores freed prisoners and locked up the ruling Spanish authorities, effectively overthrowing the local government.

According to the festival's press release, it's also an opportunity for "English-speaking Atlanta to experience one of the local Mexican community's most important cultural events." No doubt, a commendable goal, but walking the grassy grounds, looking at the festival-goers faces and listening to their voices, it was clear there was a problem: I was the only gringo in the house.

The reasons behind this are perhaps not as straightforward as they might seem. In fact, uncovering those reasons is a voyage riddled with social landmines, deep-seated opinions and linguistic barriers.

The national music media has for years trumpeted that "world music," -- an ambiguous catch-all phrase for anything non-Western -- will one day breach the barrier and slip permanently into the mainstream of American popular culture. Some believe the success of acts like the Buena Vista Social Club, and even Ricky Martin and Marc Anthony, is a positive omen for the future of world music both nationally and locally. Others aren't convinced.

"It's all smoke and mirrors," says Milton Jones, a local world-music presenter who's also been an assistant manager at Wax N Facts, a hip, independent record store in Little Five Points, for over a decade. "I have found that if there's any kind of indigenous bubble in the music, most local audiences just tune it out completely. They don't like foreign vocals, bizarre instruments, wailing guitars and all that. They like to have English lyrics they can hang their hat on."

Jones should know. As the driving force behind Euphonic Productions, a non-profit, world-music promotion company, he's organized concerts by artists from South Anerica, the Middle East, Africa and beyond. As an "anglo," born and raised in the South, he's also one of the few outside Atlanta's ethnic communities making an effort to bring their sounds across cultural barriers.

"I just thought it would be a cool idea," he says with an unassuming shrug. "I had already been producing some free-jazz shows around town, [then] I saw these Algerian musicians at the [Moroccan restaurant] Casbah and thought, 'Man! Let's do a show with these guys. We produced our first concert with them in 1998."

Of course, it's not as if exotic sounds had never been heard in Atlanta before 1998. In fact, the city's sprawling, ethnically diverse suburbs are fertile breeding grounds for the development of lesser-known musical forms.

On a recent Saturday night at Georgia Tech's Ferst Center for the Performing Arts, the fruits of that diversity were readily apparent. Elegant women in fine silk gowns seemed to float around the large theater, the scent of exotic perfume trailing behind them. Drums and tablas mixed with electronic beats, providing a dizzying soundtrack for the scores of Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Indian, Nepalese, Bangladeshi, and Bhutanian youth filling the dance floor. Huge posters of Hindi pop stars looked down from the walls smiling cheeky grins, as a band ripped through old and new chatpati songs and the latest dhamaka scores.

The event, "Ek Shaam Raksha Ke Naam," was a gathering of Atlanta's South Asian community, which numbers nearly 80,000 strong. But exotic sounds and bustling parties are hardly exclusive to Atlanta's South Asian or, for that matter, Mexican communities. As Atlanta's immigrant population has swelled dramatically over the past decade, once-tiny pockets of immigrant culture have swelled with it.

"I've been a band leader in Atlanta for 15 years and the music scene has changed a lot," explains Quique Meraco, a member of the Cuban dance group Orchestra Lyrica. "There's much more acceptance [of Latin music] now." He points to the dance floor. "I can remember years back seeing Americans, whether they were white, black, Asian, whatever, who were kind of shabby when it came to dancing. The dancing's better now, more consistent with the music."

Carola C. Reuben, a longtime agent for local and national Mexican bands has also noticed the growth: "There's more places to work than bands. There used to be only three Mexican music clubs here, and now there's easily 30 or more."

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