The world is next door 

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

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Diversity is the name of the game at WRFG-FM 89.3, a community-owned and operated station based out of Inman Park.

"WRFG is a smorgasbord of eclectic programming," says operations manager Wanique Shabazz. "We make it available to all those who aren't in mainstream media."

According to Jason Walker, producer of WRFG's Caribbean and World music show, "reggae and underground hip-hop have historically received the strongest response" from the WRFG audience, but Latin music has gained considerable momentum in the past year. "It's caught on big-time, and it may overstep hip-hop next year in popularity," he says. "The Latin community in Atlanta is amazing."

At the same time, it's no secret that WRFG and other international music mediums are not exactly burning up the Arbitrons. Atlanta's most popular music stations -- 99X, V-103, Hot 97, 96 Rock, Star 94 -- have virtually no non-Western stars on their regular playlists -- unless you count Ricky Martin's wagging butt as a nod towards diversity.

"A lot of the programming is due to availability," explains Steve Craig, a DJ at 99X and a major supporter of local music through his "Locals Only" show. "I mean, I used to get Caribbean stuff and some other things, but that's it. No major label sends us anything else unless they think it will kind of fit the format."

As for considering local, independently-released world music acts for "Locals Only," Craig says he's open and willing to give just about anything that's "good, interesting, and palatable" a chance. He points to the local Latin salsa/rock group Mandorico as evidence. "They're great. They're like the Fred Durst of salsa music. They get airplay on the 'Locals' show."

Spins on "specialty" shows though, are, by their very nature, few and far between. Craig admits even Mandorico would be lucky to get played once a month.

But to expect huge commercial radio stations -- which are owned by even bigger corporate conglomerates -- to open their arms to world music overnight is simply unrealistic. The real key, it would seem, lies in small steps that will gradually introduce a diverse range of international music to mainstream music fans. The mere existence of stations such as WRFG, and some of their neighbors on the left of the dial, like WCLK and WREK, is just such a step.

Another step is finding new venues where world music artists can be exposed to audiences they wouldn't normally reach.

"We get great audiences at Borders," Mauricio Amaya, the leader of the group, Vientos del Pueblo (translated: "Winds for the People"), says of their regular gigs at the bookstore chain around Atlanta. Performing the ancient traditional music of the Andean Indians to folks sipping on cappuccino and leafing through the latest selection from Oprah's book club may seem a little incongruous, but Amaya has found an open-minded crowd at the bookstores.

"I think most [international] artists in Atlanta try to perform in front of the largest audiences possible," he says. "But [for us], the Borders crowds are usually intellectual, into the arts and are world travelers."

Amaya's not the only enterprising artist who's found an unorthodox solution to a complex problem. Local Nigerian drummer Bisi Adeleke sets up camp Saturday afternoons at Zoo Atlanta, where he seems to entertain two-legged and four-legged creatures alike.

"People don't know what the talking drum can do," Bisi explains, referring to the traditional, West African drum that can emote variable pitches similar to a human voice. "I can teach people about [my] language and culture through drumming, and [any] song you hear on the organ, piano, etc., can be played on the talking drum."

Bisi also plays private, relatively unpublicized events within the Nigerian community, but the mood there is obviously quite different. "[The Nigerian community] really comes together when someone is having a house party, or a wedding, and there's lots to eat and drink. We professional musicians get together and play for hours.

"But it's not limited to Nigerians you know," he adds. "It's open to all people."

Despite the inherent appeal of beats from other nations, Milton Jones' Euphonics Productions has had very limited success turning on the city's musical hipsters -- many of whom are in and out of Jones' door at Wax N Facts a few times a week -- to the exotic sounds he loves.

"I just can't figure out why people aren't more interested in alternative forms of music than they are," he muses. "I mean, do you actually listen to music you bought when you were in high school? Hell no. But a number of my friends do. I guess that's why classic rock is still so popular. But, good Lord, how many times can you possibly listen to 'Stairway to Heaven' or 'Smoke on the Water?' I don't necessarily have anything against it. I just know that there's so much more out there."


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