The world of popular music -- indeed, the world of music in general -- is filled these days with cross-cultural communication. This communication can travel every which way, from Paul Simon's South African township jive to David Byrne's French-African dance music and Brazilian exotica to Youssou N'Dour's electric guitars.
Mr. N'Dour, the Sengalese griot with the wonderful, piercing tenor, appears on two of the tracks on Peter Gabriel's "Passion" album recently released in this country on the Geffen label. This soundtrack for Martin Scorsese's "Last Temptation of Christ" is interesting as film music and as the latest step in Mr. Gabriel's ever-richer career as an art-rocker. But it strikes me as most interesting as a landmark in the synthesis of world music into coherent art.
'Passion" is not path-breaking or epoch-making in that it contains experiments never before attempted. But it is unusual in the sweep of third-world music that it incorporates into one mega-Middle-Eastern suite. And, more subjectively, it is striking for the success with which Mr. Gabriel blends his own English art-rock tradition with his adopted sources.
Those sources are easier to isolate than they might otherwise be. In Great Britain, although regretably not in the United States, Mr. Gabriel has released a companion to "Passion" called "Passion - Sources." It contains more of less pure versions of the music from Pakistan, Senegal, India, Ivory Coast, Bahrain, Ghana, Turkey, Egypt, Ehtiopia, Morocco, Guinea and Armenia that formed the basis of his own compositions. There are also four other releases on Mr. Gabriel's Real World label (distributed by Virgin), most of which are albums by artists who also appeared on "Passion."
The cross-cultural message this huge geographical reach conveys is that despite all the vast differences of culture, language, race and religion, there is a cultural unity here. Musically, that unity expresses itself through a common-mournfulness of scale patterns, a common pungency of instrumental and vocal timbres and an underlying sensuousness of percussive accent.
But here is where Mr. Gabriel enters the picture, not only as a composer but also as a record producer. Even in the "Sources" album, one can't escape his esthetic personality, and in the "Passion" music -- quite rightly -- it colors everything. Which makes for excellent art even as it undermines this dual project's validity as cultural documentation.
The trouble, if that's what it is, with the "Sources" album is that Mr. Gabriel can't leave his field documents alone. "We wanted to enliven the music," Mr. Gabriel writes in a typical note to one selection, "and so added Egyptian percussion and whistle."
Not only did he add them, he mixed them up so high that the original, a raucous and endearingly sloppy "Teibeit Ethiopian Bar Song," recorded on-site in the bar, is reduced to background music to thumping percussion straight out of Led Zepplin's "Kashmir."
The Led Zepplin reference is not accidental, since both Genesis and that band grew out of an English art-rock tradition that still honorably colors Mr. Gabriel's music. If he has tinkered with his "Sources," he has positively cannibalized that same third-world music in the "Passion" score itself -- which is just as it should be; anything less would court charges of cultural appropriation.
Mr. Gabriel's composition is matched by his skill at the studio mixing board. Indeed, as Brian Eno, another sterling product of the English art-rock tradition, once put it in a lecture, the recording studio becomes for Mr. Gabriel a "compositional tool." With it he can modify the sonic essence of his music in the same way that composers of earlier generations would alter their orchestrations, allowing the myriad possibilities of the symphonic ensemble to shape their creative ideas.
Specifically, the balances are so different in the "Passion" album than on the actual film soundtrack that they almost amount to different music. While in accompanying Mr. Scorsese's images, Mr. Gabriel remains mostly deferential in the time-honored cinematic tradition, on record he can grow more assertive, more demanding of his audience's attention (Curiously, the one extended musical number in the film, the church-bell-like anthem that accompanies the film credits, is much pared down and simplified on the album.)
He also inserts and accents his own wordless voice more on the album. That further transforms a semi-ethnic (though artfully conceived) aural background tapestry into what almost counts as a "Peter Gabriel album." His keening baritone, moaning and howling in the mix, ups the cross-cultural ante. Now, instead of "just" a panoply of Middle Eastern musics supported and amplified by Western synthesizers and electronically colored jazz-rock instruments, we have an actual Westerner, wandering through the sonic landscape like Byron's Harold in Italy or Manfred or the Wandering Jew, the ever-aliented observer.
What does all this mean to the larger field of cross-cultural composition? Nothing that one can prescribe, no example on can hold up for others to ignore at their peril. Mr. Gabriel is an individual artist, just like Mr. Simon and Mr. Byrne and Mr. N'Dour and anyone else who travels this path successfully.
Yet there are some tentative lessons, nonetheless. Approach your material with a delicately achieved mixture of fidelity and freedom. Find a personal idiom (in this case, lowering sadness and groaning gloom) that can unite your diverse ehtnic sources. Allow Western technology to transform your sources just as it is transforming the world as a whole. And, maybe, create a subtext (Mr. Simon's inescapable intimations of South African political protest, Mr. Gabriel's easier reliance on Mr. Scorsese's film scenario and its deeply rooted meanings in the West) to link your explorations to a larger, extra-musical ideology.
Above all, make good music. Which in this case, Mr. Gabriel has most certainly done.