THIEVERY CORPORATION at the Opera House (735 Queen East), Saturday (November 16). $30. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
Writing about a band with a name like Thievery Corporation, you can't help but ponder the issue of cultural appropriation.
The Corporation are known for their pan-cultural fusions of reggae, downtempo, Middle Eastern, bossa nova, pop and soul jazz. Add to that the fact that the band is two DJs and a rotating cast of musicians and it's tempting to dismiss them as culture thieves creating watered-down world music of the corporate variety.
Strip away the critical rhetoric about the need for authenticity, though, and the problem becomes much more complicated. Although they do use samplers in the creation of their music, Eric Hilton and Rob Garza don't just plunder the vaults for easy inspiration.
Is it theft if the sitar is played by an Indian and not faked from a sampling keyboard? Is it appropriation if the Jamaican MCs participated in the project and weren't just lifted from an old Studio One record?
"On the new album (The Richest Man In Babylon), 90 per cent of the music is live. We usually sit down together and hammer out a little groove on the keyboards and bass between the two of us, then bring in everybody else to flesh it out," Hilton explains from his Washington, DC, home.
"For the live show, we have five vocalists, two percussion players, a sitar and guitar player and Rob and myself triggering the samples of instruments we can't bring."
Hilton says they're not inspired by much contemporary music and mainly listen to old reggae, bossa nova and jazz. He co-owns a DC club called the 18th Street Lounge -- where he and Garza met -- that features a similarly eclectic and rootsy palette of musics. So in a way, the pan-cultural fusion of Thievery Corporation is an authentic extension of the (multi-) culture they're involved with in their day-to-day lives. Actually, very few 20th-century musicians grew up in truly isolated homogenous cultures; appropriation and cross-pollination are the building blocks of all contemporary music, from rock and roll to hiphop and pop.
One influence that isn't often noticed by critics is the early 90s Madchester scene that gave birth to rock/dance crossover acts like the Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses.
"I really like a lot of that stuff even though lots it sounds a little less impressive now. I think many of those bands were struggling with some of the same things we are -- how to combine the elements of music that make people want to dance with those that make them feel something. If you listen to Fool's Gold (Stone Roses) today it still sounds refreshing."
Thievery Corporation are sometimes criticized for making music that fades into the background too easily, bland, exotica-infused wallpaper designed primarily to be inoffensive. If safety is the strategy, it isn't a very good one. Even vaguely electronic music is still only marginally popular in North America and benefits from no mainstream radio support. Triphop may have been a big thing in the mid-90s, but chill-out music hasn't been very big even in Europe for some time.
Nevertheless, Thievery Corporation have a fairly dedicated fan base beyond trendy restaurant owners looking for progressive muzak.