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Small Music Company Changing How Americans View World Music


World Music Corner

HuffPost World is launching a regular feature that will highlight interesting musicians and musical trends around the world. Know of a great musician doing ground-breaking work outside the United States? Send us your ideas for bands to profile or up-and-coming musicians to follow at world@huffingtonpost.com. Just put "World Music Corner" in the subject of the email and include your full name and the zip code, city and country where you live.

Here is the first installment of the World Music Corner.

In an office nestled among garment, jewelry and perfume wholesalers a few blocks south of New York City's Herald Square, a small music production and publishing company is making waves as far away as Tehran, Iran, and Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Modiba, a three-person L.L.C., began in 2004 as a one of a kind Afro-centric, social-activist production house without a distribution deal. Now, Modiba Productions has signed top artists from Mali and Sierra Leone, and Modiba Publishing+ represents over 100 musicians from countries that span the globe.

On the label side, Modiba is pouring its resources into an album by Bajah and the Dry Yai Crew, a politically minded hip-hop group that is hugely popular in Sierra Leone. During the civil war in the 90's, Bajah spent two years living between a refugee camp, and his brother's home, both in Guinea. Presently, he and his ensemble are in New York, immersed in the tracking stages of a six-figure project that's sporting a team of A-list musicians and producers from the U.S, and generating buzz back home.

The record - partially funded by outside investors and slated for release in 2009 - is being crafted by the likes of the legendary Rashad Smith, whose other credits include work with The Notorious B.I.G., Busta Rhymes, and Erykah Badu.

The names in Modiba's publishing catalog have similarly powerful stories. Yas, a Persian rapper, is the only artist legally allowed to release hip-hop in Iran. Underground copies of his songs became so popular that Iranian authorities permitted his music to be played to avoid risking social unrest, according to Modiba.

Another musician they represent, Shasha Marley, is the top reggae artist in Ghana. He spent the better part of November touring his country in an effort to reduce tensions and forestall violence leading up to this year's Dec. 7th presidential elections.

In The Beginning

The idea for Modiba started in 2004 when then still-Wesleyan students Eric Herman and Jesse Brenner put together a benefit CD to raise money for humanitarian aid to victims of the Darfur genocide. Herman described it as a "bottom up album" with some lesser-known artists, but "we still managed to get the top players in Afrobeat involved," he said. The album raised over $140,000, and 100% of the proceeds were donated to Save the Children in Darfur .

ASAP's success propelled Modiba forward, but turning that organic burst of energy and goodwill into a viable long-term business model had its challenges. "We knew about music and we knew about Africa. How do you put out a record? How do you publicize it?" Herman said, recalling the early days. "All of that we had to learn on the job. It is was the nitty gritty of putting together a business that was the hardest part."

Still, Herman and Brenner had the drive, enthusiasm, and connections to chase down their dream - using Africa's wealth of music to socially and economically empower its people. After graduating from college in 2005, they dipped into their savings to fund Modiba's startup and worked hard to secure their next big break. It came in the form of a Malian friend of Herman's named Vieux Farka Toure, who is also the son of the late, great guitarist Ali Farka Toure.

On the road with Vieux promoting his epynomous album, Modiba cut its teeth, and found its stride. Herman's telling of the story is distinctly rock and roll, complete with anecdotes about racing through blizzards to the next gig while tending to a band-member's broken leg and juggling five journalists on five phones.

In addition to having produced the record itself, he and Brenner played the parts of booking agent, manager, publicist and translator. Herman was also the bassist in Vieux's band. They sold out a stunning 12 of 14 dates on his first tour. And in keeping with the label's social mission, a 10% cut of all proceeds from album sales went towards fighting malaria in Toure's hometown, Niafunke.

Despite all their hard work, and many successes, now is a hard time for anyone to be in the record business. Physical CD's aren't exactly a tenable business model these days, and Modiba is no exception. "That's the problem - [the record industry] is in the business of selling shiny plastic things that no one wants to buy anymore," Herman said.

Publishing Plus

So what's the solution? For a small outfit with a lot of flexibility like Modiba -- diversify. In January 2008, Herman brought on Eileen O'Neill, an NYU music business graduate, to help develop Modiba Publishing+. Rather than financing, producing and distributing records from Africa for African causes, this arm of Modiba focuses on pursuing the placement of music by artists from around the world in movie, commercial and video game soundtracks. But, like its record label counterpart, the roles it fills exceed those traditionally associated with a publisher. Hence, it's not just publishing, it's "publishing plus."

Of the 100 different artists that Modiba now represents, about 35 are formally in its publishing catalog, but it pitches many more to music supervisors for films and television shows. The music comes from places like France, Cuba and Congo. At the CMJ showcase this past October, the lineup included a Brooklyn dulcimer player who has studied in Senegal, an Iranian rock chanteuse, an Americana/Brazilian Big Beat fusion group, and a dancehall outfit whose M.C. hails from Guyana. Still, "it was cohesive," Herman said. "All that music fit under an umbrella."

Activist Mission

Meanwhile, Modiba is also working to achieve some hefty ideological goals. The expansion of the company into publishing also means a widening of its activist mission. Now they're trying to amplify a range of global musical voices, rather than focus just on African music for African social causes. But the mission, as Herman describes it, isn't just about increasing the presence of international music in the U.S. market. It's about changing how U.S. culture views international music:

"Another one of our ideological missions is to help convince people that this stuff isn't exotica. Cougar [a U.S. band in Modiba's catalog] can fit with a Brazilian artist or a Slavic brass band," said Herman. "The musical underpinnings are so much more connected than people give them credit for."

The magnitude of their mission makes it that much harder to succeed. Asia for example, is underrepresented in their catalog. While covering the globe is "certainly the objective...we have way more artists in Africa, Brazil, South America, than we do in Asia," admits Herman. "But we're starting to develop our Indian catalog and we have room to grow."

They also face an uphill battle in redefining world music in the United States. The Oxford American Dictionary, for example, defines the term "world music" as "traditional music from the developing world" - there's nothing about rap in Farsi or Slavic soul music.

Overall, Modiba's formula of big dreams, flexibility, and a lot of hard work (seasoned with a little bit of luck), seems to be working. Oh, and lest it not be mentioned - the music is also quite good. With more to come from them here and elsewhere, be sure to keep your eyes open and your ears peeled...