Eastern promise

Exotica: Fabricated Soundscapes in a Real World

David Toop <em>Serpent's Tail, 272pp £12.99</em>

Exotica was written by the music journalist David Toop in the aftermath of his wife's suicide, and one wonders if his dissection of the west's long-standing fascination with exoticism in popular music was a cathartic exercise. Toop certainly describes the writing of the book as "a matter of survival, then, and fuck anybody who failed to see the point". Charming.

The result is an intensely personal memoir that reads simultaneously as a sober study and as if written on acid. Toop constructs a complex collage of fact and fiction held together by some vivid travelogues from places such as Tangiers, Miami and Lahore. He indulges his twin obsessions with the little-known 1960s US composer Les Baxter and (somewhat bizarrely) the television dog Lassie, who is the subject of some surreal dreams that he shares with us.

Womad-goers should be warned, however: apart from the notable exception of the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who is interviewed, the huge amorphous blob that passes for "world music" is largely ignored. The lengthy accompanying discography features no Ravi Shankar, Bhundu Boys or even the George Harrison and Paul Simon crossover ethno-musical collaborations which were such commercial successes. Some of the artists discussed command popular recognition, including the Beach Boys, Bo Diddley and Burt Bacharach. But these, along with the numerous Les Baxter works and other curiosities listed, hardly justify the dust-jacket boast that the author "leaves no tone unheard".

The bibliography is suitably eclectic, too, encompassing as it does Greil Marcus, Eric Hobsbawm and the anthropologist James Clifford. Meditations on Joseph Conrad and Edgar Allan Poe remind us of the depth of Toop's reading compared with, say, your average rock scribes, whose books, if indeed there are books at all, are of the flimsy, soon-to-be-remaindered, all-pictures-and-no-words type on the artists du jour.

Toop is anything but "average", as is demonstrated in the idiosyncratic self-confessional passages, the most memorable elements of the book. "The ultimate goal of the true exotic is to erase history, stop time, manufacture memories; by force of will to fabricate an identity based on ethnic and cultural characteristics that have never existed," he writes. Recent critically acclaimed album releases by the east London Bengali post-bhangra meisters, Joi, their fellow East-Ender, the tabla player, Talvin Singh, and Nathacha Atlas, the belly-dancing Egypto-Northamptonite, exemplify the pertinence of this prescription to second-generation ex-colonial subjects: a fascinating, arguably deracinated musical constituency too conveniently overlooked by Toop's wilfully obscure approach.

The derision recently directed at Crispian Mills of Kula Shaker, the white-boys-with-guitars-'n'-sitars outfit, for appearing on stage flanked by swastikas - even if they were of the inverted variety integral to Hindu symbolism - reminds us how problematic messing with exoticism in pop can be. Yet David Toop's Exotica, for all its absences, is an unusual and surprisingly rewarding book.

Rupa Huq is researching issues of youth and dissaffection at the Post 16 Studies at the University of Manchester Education Faculty, and is a sometime DJ and music journalist

This article first appeared in the 31 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Between two mental universes