“Juicing the Global Jukebox”

Promo shot of the supergroup Pangea.

In the winter 2010 issue of Bidoun, Squares, I published “Juicing the Global Jukebox: An Oral History of the Message-Driven Global Pop Product Known as Pangea.” According to the website of Equus World, a subsidiary of the dry-goods conglomerate Limex Global Industries (maker of Bimbo, Nigeria’s favorite detergent), whose head is Paris-based businessman and “Citizens of the World” financier Bassam Abdallah, Pangea is a supergroup created to “prove through the power and beauty of music, that despite being now separated by oceans, we are still one people.” (“Citizens of the World” is not just a song, but a component of the grander Equus project, which aims to connect the globe through “sensational events” and message-driven products including limited-edition, custom-made American muscle cars, utilizing “the new triangular link existing between Hollywood, Bollywood, and Nollywood.”) Unlike “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” or “We Are the World” or other musical endeavors meant to succor the world’s benighted, suffering populations, “Citizens of the World” aims to purvey a vibe, not save lives.

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The video for “Citizens of the World” begins with a helicopter-mounted camera breaking through the clouds and descending toward the dreary grid of Los Angeles. The spire of the Capitol Records Building comes into view, and a coruscating accordion line beckons. Suddenly, Khaled, Algeria’s King of Raï, appears perched atop the tower; his accordion is mirrored by a metallic guitar, and the camera cuts to Flying Machines’ John Wlaysewski. Then a crashing cymbal cuts off the surging melody, and the trilling, Bollywood-meets-old-India vocalizations of Kailash Kher take over; King Sunny Ade’s Juju guitar begins hammering away at a riff; the wail of Cheng Lin’s ehru slices into the mix. Wlaysewski’s bandmate, William Ryan George — the white one — begins: “In the beginning / When we were children / We saw no colors / Saw only brothers.” The chorus approaches, and the camera zooms out to reveal a perfectly synthesized rainbow of ethnicities, the miasma of globalization repackaged as a rare parfum, the promise of multiculturalism renewed — live from Hollywood. This is Pangea.

Cheng: “We all are human, and love our families / I hope you realize, we’re from the same tree.”

Ade: “So if you see me walking down your street / I hope you’ll greet me…”

Everybody: “…and join in my dream!”

Kher: “The truest religion is love / We can make the world beautiful.”

Cut to the B-roll: Enjoined by Cheng Lin to “Raise your hands up,” a gang of peacoat-clad women hoist champagne glasses in front of some generically iconic domed basilica, then a mother and her children jump for joy in front of the Los Angeles Zoo, then a collection of well-dressed, gleeful African men and women in an anonymous concrete plaza throw their hands in the air as if they do not care. Back to the white guy and the chorus: “I’ve got to let you know” — all together now! — “We are citizens of the world.” White guy: “No matter where we go” — together! — “No borders on our soul.”

Cut to stop-motion footage of pedestrians and cars flowing in and out of claustrophobic urban spaces, portraits of smiling Mongolian yak herders, septuagenarian beachgoers, head-wrapped men surveying Dubai’s towers, two friends of indeterminate (but divergent) ethnicities embracing, and so on.

According to the website of Equus World, a subsidiary of the dry-goods conglomerate Limex Global Industries (maker of Bimbo, Nigeria’s favorite detergent), whose head is Paris-based businessman and “Citizens of the World” financier Bassam Abdallah, Pangea is a supergroup created to “prove through the power and beauty of music, that despite being now separated by oceans, we are still one people.” (“Citizens of the World” is not just a song, but a component of the grander Equus project, which aims to connect the globe through “sensational events” and message-driven products including limited-edition, custom-made American muscle cars, utilizing “the new triangular link existing between Hollywood, Bollywood, and Nollywood.”) Unlike “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” or “We Are the World” or other musical endeavors meant to succor the world’s benighted, suffering populations, “Citizens of the World” aims to purvey a vibe, not save lives. And unlike, say, the United Nations, it is completely apolitical.

What follows is an account of the genesis of “Citizens of the World,” and a lesson in how to engineer a message-driven global pop product, told through interviews with Flying Machines’ John Wlaysewski and the project’s American masterminds, Spencer Proffer, a veteran music producer who is now the CEO of Meteor 17, and Harry Winer, a producer and director and president of Smash Media. Bassam Abdallah was unavailable for comment.

Harry Winer
Some years ago I was working on a film set in the world of motor sports, and I got to know someone named Dan Panoz, whose passion is creating high-end, hand-built cars. He told me about a project he was working on with a guy named Bassam Abdallah, who had commissioned him to manufacture replicas of classic American muscle cars. Dan introduced me to Bassam one day in early 2009, and it turns out that he’s the Procter & Gamble of Africa: he owns a company called Limex, which essentially takes natural resources and transforms them into usable products like soap and detergent. He lives in Paris now, but he’s from Lebanon, and was raised in the bush in central Africa, where his father had a business. This is very classically Lebanese — it’s a very industrious culture and citizenry, and there’s not enough business within the country, so they go elsewhere to seek their fortune. It’s very much an extension of their historic, nomadic cultures.

When Bassam was a teenager he saw his first American movie, Bullitt, with Steve McQueen. And he saw this car, a 1968 Mustang GT — he’s in a country with all dirt roads, so to even see a paved street, let alone a car that could go that fast, obviously made a big impression on him. Years later Bassam took over his father’s business, which was not very successful, and turned it into Limex. He started collecting 1960s’ muscle cars, and now he has a handsome collection, primarily Mustangs and Chevys. He feels there is something unique about these cars, something that connects with people no matter their culture.

Bassam eventually asked me to create a song that would capture the universal spirit of the car he was building. “Help me find a song that captures the philosophy of how I want to do business,” he said. “And let’s use American rock ’n’ roll, because that’s also highly exportable and is an iconic cultural element that people respond to.”

Spencer Proffer
Harry contacted me to architect the music that was to help propel the launch of his car. I immediately thought of “Desert Rose,” by Sting and Cheb Mami — the video has Sting and Mami driving through the desert in a Jaguar S-Type, and the song was used as a soundtrack for Jaguar commercials.

KW
“Desert Rose” was the prototype, but we wanted to do it in our own way.

SP
Bassam flew over to meet with Harry and me — we liked each other a lot, and I got a sense of his worldview. He agreed to let me have Flying Machines, an emerging band that had just come off a number-one hit on Yahoo consumer response, create the song.

John Wlaysewski
Spencer threw us a bone. Bassam was like, “Are you getting us Coldplay?” And Spencer said, “Let me get my band to take a crack at the song. If you don’t like it, I’ll go and find you a real band, a band you can drop $500,000 on.” Bassam agreed, but said, “I want it to be hybrid music. I don’t want it to be American music. I want it to have an eastern flavor to it — but an American band, so we can have East and West.”

KW
If we had gotten Peter Gabriel, we wouldn’t have been able to control the song. Spencer told me, “With my group we can do whatever we want with the song.” The challenge was that they were used to singing about lost loves and other very America-centric teenage themes that weren’t very worldly in their perspective.

SP
Flying Machines is American, but their music transcends. That’s a good word: transcends. The band has its own lane. Outside of the US, films and records are made with a global audience in mind. We’re hip to that, we’re tapping into that already. Their music travels so well: when you hear it you don’t think it sounds American; you think it sounds global. Queen, Paul McCartney, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins — their music travelled worldwide. My personal blueprint is the international stage, how music bridges cultures, and how cultures and spirits can come together using music as the vehicle. It’s who I am and where I play.

KW
I’ve done a number of international productions. I was first drawn to film because I saw it as a universal language. Little did I realize what was necessary to speak a universal language, or to get everybody to speak the same language. Bassam is trying to find the commonalities in people so that he can build bridges between divergent cultures. If we can find things that remind us of the interests that we share and the beauty that we all appreciate, then instead of being pulled apart by our differences we will be united. So while America is being demonized in many parts of the world, Bassam decides to take his fleet of muscle cars — these vintage Mustangs that are worth a fortune — on a trip through India, on these awful roads. Thousands of people flocked to see Bassam’s automobiles, and that’s what got this notion going in his head.

JW
Bassam has a vision. He feels like these are beautiful things, especially since they’re made by hand, they’re someone’s passion. If it were just a car rolling off a factory, I don’t think he would feel the same. Maybe it’s not so much the car that brings people together, but the idea that someone has a passion for something. Driving across India in this classic American car somehow means something about how every culture — it comes back to the feeling of the song.

We had trouble getting it right at first. We were sending Spencer songs that had full bridges, stuff going on everywhere, and he was like, “This is great! But we can’t use it. Picture an Indian guy: Is he going to listen to this? He would never be able to follow it. Less!” We got to the point where it was just two chords. “The simpler we make this,” I thought, “the more people from different places will be able to comprehend it without feeling like it’s an American song.”

Another stumbling block was that we had been told the whole time that the song was for a car. We wrote a song called “Driver, Please.” I turned it in, and Spencer’s like, “You’re not getting it.” I’m like, “What is this song for? Does it exist outside of selling a product?” And he was like, “It does.” And I’m like, “Well, I wish that we hadn’t been talking about the car this whole time.” That was the eureka moment.

Finally, we wrote the song in my basement at two in the morning, after failing to get it right for a week. I emailed a really crappy demo of “Citizens of the World,” with English lyrics, to Spencer, and he was like, “I think this is the one.” When he hears it, he knows. Then he asked, “Does it have a title?” I told him I wanted to show that, in the end, we’re all citizens of the world. “That’s the title!” he said.

SP
John is really a citizen of the world. He’s a Vietnamese orphan raised by a Polish father and an Irish mother.

JW
I almost feel like the title is too strong, from an artist’s point of view. But the point is that it’s a simple, even innocent, totally un-cynical title — there’s no irony, nothing idiomatic, nothing to mark it as American. People in America might think it’s simple-minded, but for people who don’t speak English as their first language — particularly Bassam — it’s a concept that’s easy to understand.

KW
As soon as I heard the song I said, “Yeah, that’s spot on. That captures the spirit of what Bassam wants.” You could see people dancing to it in clubs around the world. So I flew to Paris with the song. Bassam flipped. Spencer had mixed the whole thing, so it wasn’t just an idea — it was a song, and it really rocked. We drove all over Paris in Bassam’s car, playing the song over and over again, picking up his colleagues so they could drive around with us and listen to it. It was the first time in ages that it had snowed in Paris, and we were driving by the Eiffel Tower in the snow, singing along. Bassam was envisioning people all around the world singing the song.

JW
I got an email from Bassam that said, “You know, I’ve been listening to this song for eight hours. I’ve heard it thirty-two times. And I can’t find anything wrong with it.”

SP
Bassam and his staff believed that the statement was much bigger than the car and that the song could have a reach beyond being a propeller for a commercial. And Bassam, to his credit, wanted to make that statement. So I said, “Why not take the Sting model, which was fantastic, which had Sting’s voice married to the voice of a foreign language?” I asked Bassam where his business interests were most significant, and he said Africa, China, the Arab states, and India.

JW
Once that happened it started becoming something that wasn’t just about a car.

KW
Though at the level of the project’s DNA, it was always what it became.

JW
Spencer thought to bring people together on this and actually do what the song says rather than it just being, once again, another American act writing a song about people who they’re never going to meet. You know, so that it’s not like, “This goes out to my gardener,” or “This is about the guy I buy mangos from — this is his story.”

SP
I took about a month to do some homework. I’d worked with Stevie Wonder in the ’80s, and I remembered how he’d raved about collaborating with King Sunny Ade. I thought it would be quite interesting for this rainbow of artists to include a classic/legacy/timeless artist like Sunny. He was a wonderful, wonderful talent and human being to interface with, just a pure delight. And when I called my friends at EMI India — I have a global relationship with the company — I spoke to the managing director, who turned me on to what he said was one of the hottest voices in all of India, Kailash Kher. I listened to his music and really got pumped. I thought, “Boy, that’s the other side of the coin of Sunny: one guy is legacy, one guy is emerging but major.” And then we got Cheng Lin, who’s been a star in China since she was thirteen and has sold over twenty-five million albums. She plays that instrument, the erhu — it’s like five hundred years old. I thought, “What a great adjunct to this team.” Last was Khaled, “the king of raï,” who’s sold forty-three million units — he’s based in Luxembourg but is selling throughout the Arab states. He’s a classic voice. I thought that would be a really interesting potpourri.

KW
It’s no small feat to get people from these different countries together to sing a song: first of all, they have to like the song and be willing to stop their lives; secondly, we were looking for huge stars, because if they already had fan bases we would reach millions of people just by virtue of having their names on the song.

SP
I found superstars who have sold seventy-three million units around the world, and who nobody in America knows, and I surrounded them with this band that is a voice for the next gen of world music. To their credit, Bassam and Harry approved the artists, and then it was my drill to get them all to embrace it. I sent out the song and, to a person, each one got it. They embraced it because they embraced the music, the feel, and because it’s pretty hip — it’s not corny, it’s very contemporary, it’s music that can travel worldwide.

KW
We did the whole thing the second week of February, in Los Angeles. The artists arrived on a Monday afternoon. Our game plan was to record the song in three days and film the video on Thursday and Friday. We were going to film it on the roof of the Capitol Records building — there’s never been a video filmed there before. I thought, “Okay, that sounds easy enough.” Except that these people had never met one another, they all spoke different languages, and one of the five didn’t speak a word of English. And as in every creative endeavor, when you bring in more than one person you have to establish trust between them. Every artist feels that their career is riding on each action they take, and they want to make sure that the quality others have come to associate with them will permeate this new venture. If it doesn’t, there will be hell to pay.

JW
At first it was really scary. We got there and they threw us a great party, with all this champagne and food, and everyone’s walking around, shaking hands. I’m meeting all these people and their entourages, and I don’t know who’s who, and nobody could tell me because nobody speaks English. We had all these people from different cultures, speaking however many languages.

KW
They all wanted to sing the song in their own language. But the concept of “citizen” isn’t universal; it came out of the American and French Revolutions. So the concepts have to be translated, too.

JW
There was a lady there who was wrangling the stars, Dawn Elder, and she and Bassam both speak Arabic. Khalid would be talking about his parts in Arabic and she would translate. Then Bassam, who speaks English and French, too, would be upset that her translation was off. Khalid might have said something like, “You know I really don’t like this part, could we change it?” And her translation would be, “He’s really unhappy.” Then Khalid started speaking French, and someone else was translating into English. You had all these languages flying around, with broken English in the middle. We would get stuck on a melody line, try to talk about it, and all we’re getting is, “He’s not happy.”

KW
It was like a United Nations negotiation, except we had to produce results in three days. Poor Spencer is trying to deal with all these personalities and listen to what they’re saying, but knowing that the clock is ticking.

JW
The first day or two, when I was putting tracks down myself, I was thinking, “This sounds like an American song with a bunch of people kinda going ‘la, la, la’ over it.” At some point Spencer, Bassam, and Harry decided that everyone should translate the lyrics or write their own words for the different parts. So all of the artists sat down and had the lyrics translated, then they all stood together and sang the entire song, one at a time, until they got it right.

SP
I recorded the song in Hindi —I did it in, you know, one of the African dialects, in Chinese, and in Arabic. And then I sat with the artists, and with Bassam and Harry, and we cut-and-pasted everything together.

JW
The last couple of days was all mixing, making sure the artists weren’t like, “Why does that guy have a line that’s two seconds longer than mine?” Because there’s a political thing going on there, too. You end up with this difficult balancing act, trying to make sure that everyone is equally represented. It was always on the line of becoming contentious. But everyone kept the big picture in mind: “Wait a minute — this is a song. It’s supposed to inspire people to feel like we are all one, like the human race has to put aside its differences.”

KW
At the end of Wednesday, Spencer plays the mix for us. It’s almost all Flying Machines. Everything is in English. I said, “Wait a second, where are the other artists? This is supposed to be a universal song. We’re doing something new here.” He says, “You’re never going to sell a song in the United States if it’s not in English.” He’s working in the mold that’s familiar to him and that he’s mastered. But I know Bassam is not thinking about the United States — he’s thinking about the world market.

Spencer was, understandably, quite upset. But since he had recorded the other artists singing the song in their own languages, that night he was able to redo it. On Thursday morning, literally an hour before the cameras were scheduled to start rolling, he finished the final mix. Then the artists had to approve of the song and learn their parts for the video. They really responded when they heard it; they realized it was something new and unique.

JW
After I heard the final mix of the music, I thought back to seventh-grade earth science, when I learned that the seven continents were once a single connected supercontinent called Pangea. I thought this was poetic and was happy everyone liked the name.

KW
Since it was released, the song has gotten unbelievable traction. There was a Wall Street Journal article, Yahoo got behind it, and the documentary has been airing on PBS stations around the country. For a single song to make that kind of inroad in the media space could only have happened because the idea is so interesting.

JW
Some people have a cynical reaction to the song. They think that all these people got together and they auto-tuned the whole thing, and now it’s this American product that has other languages, or that it’s just a cash cow, when in fact there’s actually no way to make money off it. Or they think it sounds commercial. I mean, you don’t listen to it and think, “Wow, this African music is amazing.” It’s not authentic per se. But I think everyone involved did stuff that was authentic to them. I think it’s authentic to global culture.

KW
This touched a chord in a lot of people, and Bassam sees that it’s a viable concept. But I don’t know what his plans are for rolling out the song worldwide.

JW
You know, there were five artists, twenty lawyers, five management teams, and dozens of agents involved. Even just getting us all in the room together was an achievement. Right now all you can do is purchase the ninety-nine-cent song. It’s still kind of abstract; it’s like we’re selling an idea. Apparently they can’t actually sell the car yet — there was an issue with the engine or something like that, and it stopped production. I think Bassam is holding back a little bit because he still sees the song as connected to his other venture with Equus. He doesn’t want to have it all come out now, and then not have it be connected with the car he’s trying to sell. Because he’s not going to make his money back selling a ninety-nine-cent song. And he dropped a lot of cash on this.

SP
There is hope that sometime in the future we can, with Bassam’s blessing, get one, two, or more of these artists to work on new tracks written by Flying Machines, because they are the propeller of the vision, musically — they have that global vision. As a result of “Citizens,” people are now aware that Flying Machines should be architecting world music, and that I should be producing it. My goal as Flying Machines’ partner and mentor is to break them on the world stage, not just to have a hit in America. Our favorite artists are Peter Gabriel, Sting, and Elton John — artists who have a world sensibility. There are very few emerging bands that have that reach with their music, their lyrics, and their style. I want to pitch John as the next gen’s new Peter Gabriel-guitar-player-Clapton-type guy. He’s that good. But clearly my goal is to get me to — I don’t want to say that I want to be the next gen, but my hero’s Quincy Jones, who produced “We Are the World.” I think I can occupy a very interesting lane, because I’m rooted in rock ’n’ roll — I’ve produced a lot of big records, like Quiet Riot’s “Bang Your Head” — but I have a real global, charitable sensibility.

JW
“We Are the World” was always in the back of our minds. I actually have the whole five-disc set at home. I watched it before we wrote the song. And I thought about the Simpsons episode where they’re going to save the boy who fell down the well, and they bring everyone together — including Sting — to sing a song about it: “Though we can’t get him out, we’ll do the next best thing, we’ll go on TV and sing, sing, sing!”

KW
One thing I learned from “Citizens of the World” is that when you try to bring people together you realize how differently we all see things, and why there’s so much conflict in the world that comes from misunderstandings and cultural differences. We often don’t realize how profoundly different the points of view of people who were raised in different ways, with different belief systems, are. We have the expectation that we can change things overnight, but it’s more like the Ice Age: things move at a glacial speed, but they move. You create little threads of hope that inspire new ways of looking at the world — not in everybody, but maybe in a couple minds out there, who will then reach four other minds, and then eight minds. We know that bringing people together to create something of beauty is a concept that resonates universally; if we continually play that note, eventually it will become the norm, eventually it will become the mainstream.


October 11, 2012