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We are not the world

Athens duo Dromedary breathes American life into international flavors


You don't really like world music, and I don't blame you. You and I were at the mall together, and there was some vague pan flute and rain stick thing playing overhead. It followed us as we walked from Del Taco to the Container Store. Everything smelled of hot cinnamon rolls and baby powder. We both hoped we wouldn't run into anyone we recognized.

And there were commercials for air travel. Well-kempt, smiling villagers offered us the colorful fruits and vegetables of their native land. And the world music was deafening, all gleeful tribal chants and talking drums, polished to a waxy gloss. An airborne businessman gently closed his laptop and reclined, his feet exploring the vast legroom below. There was so much legroom.

To you, world music is this expansive legroom and wireless Internet service and tribal council. You are skeptical of contemporary world music, but so too is Athens world music duo Dromedary. Just as Dromedary's multiethnic acoustic style celebrates indigenous musical traditions, it is also wary of the stifling codes and standards of contemporary world music incarnations.

"I don't like the category of 'world music' at all," says Rob McMaken, one half of the multi-instrumental duo. "Like somehow, Canada is not a part of the world, but Mexico is, when you're talking about world music. Or in Australia, it depends on who you are if it's considered a part of the 'world' or not -- if you're an aboriginal person, then it's the world, but if you're an Aussie, it's not the world anymore."

Using native stringed instruments to bring together the traditional musical styles of Bolivia and Chile, Portugal and Spain, North Africa and Eastern Europe, Appalachia and Ireland, McMaken and musical partner Andrew Reissiger don't aspire to some exclusionary standard of authenticity. Rather, the two attempt to filter these traditions through their own contemporary experience. The music, like the group's late-twentysomething personnel, betrays a sense of the fragmentation, cultural sampling and self-awareness characteristic of a more recent Western existence.

"One of the things that I think is relevant to our contemporary audience is that we're trying to take these eclectic styles that comprise our experience, and put it into a form where you can hear it all at once, and it sort of makes sense together," says McMaken. "Andrew and I both have a cosmopolitan or urban background. We've both been a part of that 20th-century alienation that [our culture] experiences. I feel like what we are trying to do is not offer an escape route from that. I personally can't stand New Age music, because it is such a form of escape, which makes it kind of dead. But what our music offers is two people who are realistic, but are willing to slow down and remove all mechanical devices and have a relationship with each other and with the audience."

Indeed, these notions of organic performance and personal connection are the two things you hear most often when you speak to the duo. Where contemporary electronic styles are very literally multicultural -- say, layering sampled reggae toasts over sampled Indian tabla rhythms -- Dromedary's form of multicultural synthesis is more ambiguous and cellular; the music is forced to channel its way through the moods and physicality of the performers. While Dromedary's music might be a product of fragmentation and alienation, it simultaneously seeks to be a balm for this ailment, using music as a vehicle for connection and communion.

"I think the limitation of just two acoustic instruments gives [our music] a really focused quality that can engage people," says McMaken. "Interplay between acoustic instruments is time-tested. There's not much that dates our music. Whereas if you do have drum machines and sampling, it will be harder to listen to down the road. And I think that's part of what motivates us -- the more eternal or enduring quality of acoustic instruments."

It might sound kind of high-minded and theoretical to you, but when you take your place among the captivated ranks of a Dromedary audience, you forget about all this. Dromedary's delicate arrangements and subtle turns of musical phrase pull softly at your attention, sort of like a magnetic hummingbird.

The group's new recording, Live From the Make Believe, hovers lightly and steadily in this way, a collection of ear-stretching melody and dynamic interplay between instruments. If Dromedary has a dominant stylistic trademark, it's in the way they trade off unified, flamenco-like bursts of energy with more technical contrapuntal harmonies. While McMaken and Reissiger shrug off the virtuoso tag, their compositional craft approaches flawlessness, while demonstrating an inventiveness not commonly found in such technically accomplished instrumentalists. Rarely leaning more heavily toward either native passion or academic rigor, Dromedary brings together pre-existing traditions to create something unique -- a world music style that's unapologetically American.

"We have this whole voice -- this world that we've created for ourselves," says McMaken. "Why I feel good about what we do -- why I don't feel like it is exploiting or co-opting these other musical styles -- is that I know why I'm doing it. It's just that I enjoy the music and interplay in general. I feel like anybody from the musical region that we are sort of imitating or referencing would find what we're doing interesting, the way that we have done something to that style."

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