One-hit wonders are disappointing occurrences. A new artist breaks onto the scene with a fresh and innovative sound. Much excitement abounds as they capture the zeitgeist for all of five seconds, only to flounder at any attempt to replicate success. It’s doubly deflating when the artist descends from a music tradition that isn’t confined to Europe or the US, only to fizzle away as vanilla tastes continue to dominate. Often, an artist regarded as a one-hit wonder may well be a superstar in the country of his or her birth, which makes it rather galling to then be dismissed as a flash in the pan. One is reminded of the Trinidadian reggae artist Queen Omega who teamed up with Manudigital in 2017 to record the instructive Don’t Call Me Local, in which she laments being sidelined as a ‘local’ artist when performing at music festivals around the world. As she sings it: ‘Don’t call me local. I’m internationally blessed wid my vocal. Don’t call me no local artist.’ Queen Omega will no doubt resonate with our list of musical artists, in no particular order, who created temporary waves in the West. Some of them even managed to create hefty musical legacies in their own countries.
1. ‘Jai Ho’ by A R Rahman
What happens when a legendary Bollywood composer and acclaimed British film director come together to create an international film sensation? The result is a catchy feelgood song that has people shuffling their bodies and miming lyrics all the way from Mumbai to Barcelona. ‘Jai Ho’, which roughly translates as ‘let the victory prevail’, is the perfectly poppy theme tune to Danny Boyle’s 1998 sensation Slumdog Millionaire, and was written and composed by AR Rahman, the genius behind a plethora of unforgettable filmi songs including ‘Chaiyya Chaiyya’ and a mesmerising collaboration with Talvin Singh titled ‘Mumbai Theme Tune’. Such was the mass appeal of ‘Jai Ho’, the song was picked up by The Pussycat Dolls, who recorded their own version that achieved chart success around the world. Keen to pay homage to the song’s origins in the film, The Pussycat Dolls recreated the final scene of Slumdog in the accompanying video of their version ‘Jai Ho (You’re My Destiny)’.
2. ‘Ye Ke Ye Ke’ by Mory Kante
Mory Kante stormed to the top of global pop charts in 1987 with his rousing score ‘Ye Ke Ye Ke’. Of Malian and Guinean heritage, he belongs to a family of griots, a long line of musicians skilled in the playing of intricate traditional instruments. He is a kora harp oficianado, having mastered vocal ranges characteristic of the performance of griots, and receiving formal griot training in Mali from the age of seven. ‘Ye Ke Ye Ke’was taken from his album Akwaba Beach, which also featured the devotional song ‘Inch Allah’, and another track, ‘Tama’, which formed the basis for the Bollywood film Thanedaar’s anthem ‘Tamma Tamma’, and ‘Jumma Chumma’, which featured in Hum.
3. ‘Im Nin’alu’ by Ofra Haza
1987 was obviously a year for a taste of the exotic. But pop music fans in the West were not so discerning that they could differentiate between Arab, Hebrew or Indian songs. So it was that when Ofra Haza’s dulcet tones wafted across radio airwaves, it was assumed that the ‘ethnic’ lyrics she sang were attributable to the language of the homogenous and mystical East. All brown persons were expected to understand and therefore translate the song for their eagerly expectant counterparts. In fact, Ofra was a Yemeni-Israeli artist who was huge in her home country and widely referred to as the Israeli Madonna. The song itself is a seventeenth-century Hebrew poem by Rabbi Shalom Shabazi, which opens with the words: ‘Even if the gates of the rich are closed, the gates of heaven will never be closed’. Ofra’s hypnotic voice was sampled widely by Eric B and Rakim, Public Enemy, Coldcut, Snoop Dogg and Panjabi MC.
4. ‘Mundian To Bach Ke’ by Panjabi MC (Knight Rider Theme Tune)
Talking of Panjabi MC, his pumped up offering ‘Mundian To Bach Ke’, featuring the Knight Rider theme tune, has been lifting floors in clubs around the world for the past couple of decades. One of the best selling singles of all time, it was first released in 1997 by the bhangra DJ from Birmingham. Various remixes later, including a sprinkling of star dust courtesy of Jay-Z, and this track is so recognisable that if you ever catch someone asking you the name of ‘that totally cool Indian song that’s played in all the discos’, you instantly know which song they mean. The title roughly translates to mean ‘Beware of the Boys’ and if you’ve been fortunate enough to witness David Hasselhoff (of Knight Rider fame of course) in his Baywatch days, you’ll know what we mean.
5. ‘7 Seconds’ by Youssou N’Dour and Neneh Cherry
Senegalese artist Youssou N’Dour was described in 2004 by Rolling Stone magazine as ‘perhaps the most famous singer alive’ in Africa. His fame had by then already crossed continents due to his duet with Neneh Cherry, to which listeners swooned in 1994. ‘7 Seconds’exudes a sultry and brooding sound complete with delectable lyrics celebrating the initial tender moments in a newborn baby’s life: innocent and unaware of the tribulations they are set to face in the world. It reached the top of the charts across Europe and stayed at number one in France for a whopping sixteen weeks. N’Dour is not just a singer/songwriter. Born into a Muslim family of the Wolof tribe, he entered politics in his native Senegal, unsuccessfully running for president, before being appointed Minster of Tourism in 2013.
6. ‘Awaara Hoon’ by Mukesh
Who would have thought that the Soviet Union would have such an enduring affection for one of Bollywood’s giants, the inimitable Raj Kapoor. In 1960s Russia, he was indeed, bigger than the Beatles and decades later is idolised by young and old alike who will on request reel off all his greatest hits. Recently, the president of former Soviet Union republic, Uzbekistan, gladdened the hearts of devotees of retro Indian cinema by apparently regaling an audience at a cultural event with the classic Kapoor anthem ‘Awaara Hoon’ (‘I am a vagabond’) in a YouTube video that went viral. It is the title track of the 1951 film, directed by and starring Raj Kapoor. The song is actually sung by the legendry Bollywood playback singer, Mukesh; and written by the noted Bahari Dalit lyricist and long-standing collaborator of Kapoor, Shailendra. But it has become associated with the persona of Raj Kapoor. One story now mythologised in the Kapoor-Russian love affair occurred during one of Kapoor’s many visits to Moscow. He was getting into a taxi outside the airport and was soon quickly recognised by star-struck fans. Before he knew it a crowd had gathered and lifted his taxi off the ground, carrying him off to beat the traffic!
7. ‘Woh Humsafar Tha’ by Qurat-ul-Ain Balouch
Qurat-ul-Ain Balouch, also known as QB, rose not just to national acclaim, but even became a familiar voice to the ears of the world over, with the theme song to the highly acclaimed 2011 Pakistani television series, Hamsafar (Fellow Traveller). The drama revolves around a battered wife, abused by the mother-in-law and neglected and mistrusted by the husband. The song is in fact a ghazl, written in 1971 by Naseer Turabi, and first performed by the legendry Abida Parveen. It is a lament about the succession of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) from Pakistan. In the Hum TV drama, the song portrays the parting of ways between husband and wife: Woh Humsafar Tha, He Was My Fellow Traveller. QB’s version became a global hit and made her an international star. Without any formal education, QB developed her voice listening to Sufi and Sindhi Pakistani vocalists. In fact, doing covers was how she began her singing career and was eventually signed to Coke Studio Pakistan. QB most recently took to the world stage being featured in Jason Derulo’s 2018 FIFA World Cup theme song ‘Colors’.
8. ‘Gangnam Style’ by Psy
Emulated in prisons, in hospitals, in schools, in supermarkets and even government chambers, this insanely catchy pop smash dominated the music scene of 2012. What’s more it left everyone seemingly possessed with the need to flail their arms around and dance like a waddling duck –we all know the moves even if we can’t quite manage them. ‘Gangnam Style’ was the genius K-pop offering from diminutive South Korean rapper and music producer Psy. The song topped the charts in over thirty countries around the world and was the first YouTube video ever to ratchet up one billion views. A commentary on the Gangnam District of Seoul, the song parodies the rich, self-consciously cool and hyper hip inhabitants of the neighbourhood. Psy’s attempt to subvert the concept of Gangnam ‘class’ left him rich enough to snap a penthouse in that exclusive area of Seoul and thus become a living parody of himself.
9. ‘Mustt Mustt’ by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the renowned Pakistani vocalist and musician, has rightly been described as the greatest voice ever recorded. He was an exponent of Qawwali, the Sufi devotional music performed at shrines throughout South Asia. Nusrat brought Qawwali, essentially classical mystical poetry sung in the love and longing for the Divine, to the West. Before he became an international star, Nusrat sung ‘Mustt Mustt’ without musical accompaniment at various shrines and festivals. In 1990, he collaborated with producer Michael Brook and rock musician Peter Gabriel to produce a fusion version and ‘Mustt Mustt’ became a sensation during the 1990s, voted the Top 100 albums of the decade. Numerous versions of ‘Mustt Mustt’ followed, each draining the Qawwali of its spiritual content: a decent enough remix by the British band Massive Attack, a string of Pakistani pop variations, a number of Bollywood versions, and the final insult – a version for a Coca-Cola advertisement. The sublime was eventually reduced to the ridiculous.
10. ‘Now We Are Free’ by Lisa Gerrard
Now wait a minute, you might be thinking, yes Lisa Gerrard is an Australian which, while geographically is about as far from West as it gets, cultural-politically it is the most Western nation in the world, perhaps the galaxy. But hear us out! The child of Irish immigrants living just outside Melbourne, Gerrard grew up listening to traditional Mediterranean music and gained her footing in the post-punk Melbourne experimental music scene. She is also a specialist in the Chinese instrument the yangqin. She broke onto the world stage when she collaborated with famed composer Hans Zimmer to produce the score for the 2000 film, Gladiator. From this film came the song ‘Now We Are Free’ that not only gained global appeal and popularity, but was commonly mistaken for having lyrics from what popular opinion figured was some non-Western language. In fact, the lyrics were written in an idioglossia. An idioglossia is an invented language used by one or a few people. Idioglossias are common amongst young children, evidenced frequently with identical twins, who make up languages amongst themselves to communicate with a bit more privacy. Children exposed to multiple languages at a young age are more likely to create idioglossias. Lisa Gerrard calls her idioglossia the ‘language of the heart’. Perhaps her claims are not so hyperbolic as music itself is a language more common amongst humans and fit for such creations. No doubt, the bravado and timbre of Gerrard’s music in Gladiator won her awards and the acclaim of audiences in both the East and the West, despite no one having a clue what she was singing about.