What is ‘world music’ anyway?

I’m not going to use the term ‘world music’ to describe the stuff I post about on here, for a couple of reasons – mostly because it allows me to cover whatever music I like. But isn’t that strange – that the label ‘world music’ should exclude certain things, given that it is apparently a label just to conveniently encompass lots of wildly different types of music? What exactly is ‘world music’?

‘World’ is pretty useless as a way of describing what music actually sounds like. Musical genre labels, like ‘country’ or ‘metal’ or ‘rock and roll’ give us some idea of what the band sound like thanks to similar stylistic features which make up the genre. This obviously isn’t true for ‘world’; Columbian cumbia and Chinese qin music sound massively different and yet they’re both ‘world’. It’s easy to see then that ‘world’ is just a label applied to lump together a wide range of music that wouldn’t fit anywhere else in a record shop. Treating ‘world’ as if it’s a genre in the way, say, hip-hop is would be ridiculous, but there’s nothing wrong with HMV putting Ravi Shankar and Youssou N’Dour together in a section labelled ‘world’ – it demarcates the music found there from the various genres within ‘Western’ music, including the various post-rock’n’roll styles (everything from metal to hip-hop), jazz and European classical music. ‘World’ is a way of saying the different stuff, the stuff that doesn’t fit into these Anglophone categories (slightly different genres boundaries exist in France, for example, thanks to things like chanson). It would be easy to get on a political high horse about this seemingly exclusionary definition of music, but in purely practical terms, it’s not really very problematic. Very little of the music classed as ‘world’ is anything like as popular as music from the rock/pop, jazz or European classical genres, so it makes sense for big record shops to pay less attention to it. As for grouping it all together as ‘world’, it’s not uncommon for someone with an interest in one type of music described as ‘world’ to want to explore other, very different musical styles that are also filed under ‘world’ – hence the existence of things like The Rough Guide to World Music, and Songlines magazine.

So that seems to settle it – “world” isn’t a real genre in the way that rock or hip-hop are, but as a label of convenience, it’s fine. But once we start looking at exactly what is considered ‘world’ or not, we can see the difficulties and political dodginess of such an ill-defined label.

‘World’ encompasses musical styles that are not common in mainstream Anglophone culture. So it seems easy to label, say, gamelan music as ‘world’ – it’s very different from anything in the worlds of rock/pop, jazz or European classical. But musical difference from mainstream Anglophone culture is not the only deciding factor. Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, the fantastically successful Aborigine singer, is a good example of this.

Gurrumul is included in the Rough Guide to World Music, is covered in Songlines magazine (deservedly having been on the cover), and I would imagine that most record shops would include his albums in the ‘world’ section. But what makes this ‘world’ music? Gurrumul plays an acoustic guitar, which is hardly an exotic instrument for an Anglophone audience. His music is not really a great deal different from plenty of other acoustic singers who would be grouped as ‘singer-songwriters’ – everyone from Cat Stevens to Damien Rice. The only major difference between the style of music Gurrumul plays, and ‘singer-songwriter’ music, is the fact that this song, ‘Djarimirri’, is not sung in English.

Can it really be the case that the only thing that makes Gurrumul’s records ‘world music’ is the fact that he doesn’t sing in English? If so,  this causes problems for various reasons. Is French rap like IAM or NTM ‘world music’, just because they rap in French rather than English? The absurdity and near-jingoism of classing everything not in English as ‘other/world’ hardly needs to be stated, but thankfully that’s not even the case: there are hundreds of examples of groups that happen to use languages other than English that would never be classed as ‘world’ – Kraftwerk, to choose an obvious example, or the legions of metal bands from Japan. So there must be something about Gurrumul or his music, beyond the purely linguistic, that makes it ‘world’. To prove that point, have a listen to this Frank Yamma song – similar in style to Gurrumul, but see if you can spot the difference:

Of course, Yamma is singing in English. Acoustic guitar, English lyrics – what’s ‘world music’ about that? And yet there Yamma is in the same places as Gurrumul, the Rough Guide, Songlines and the ‘world music’ section of HMV. Why?

As horrendous as it seems to have to point it out, I can’t come up with any answer other than that Gurrumul and Yamma both happen to be Aboriginal Australians. What makes their music ‘world’  is their race – not even their country of birth, as Australia is a predominantly Anglophone country and could easily be included in the term ‘Western’. Nick Cave, another musical Australian, has made albums of low-key acoustic music not entirely unlike the two above songs, but it’s unthinkable that he would be described as ‘world music’. There is nothing especially ‘Aboriginal’ in the musical style of the two above songs. Tthe language used (as it so happens, my examples are just examples – both Gurrumul and Yamma have songs in both English and other languages) and even the country of origin of the singer are apparently irrelevant too: both these singers are classed as ‘world’ simply because of their race, the fact that they are Aboriginal Australians rather than Australians of European descent.

It’s difficult to not feel a bit more uneasy, then, about the usefulness of the term ‘world music’ if this is how we judge it – purely due to the singer’s race! An interesting counterpoint to the above examples might be bhangra – the high-octane, British-Panjabi version, rather than the traditional Panjabi folk music it is derived from.

Get those shoulders moving!

It’s a good question as to whether or not bhangra counts as ‘world’. I would imagine that most record shops put bhangra compilations in the ‘world’ section rather than the dance & electronic music section, but why should this be so? Although bhangra is usually primarily sung in Panjabi and is derived from traditional music from the Panjab, in its modern form it’s particularly British (see DJ Ritu’s excellent chapter on bhangra/’Asian Underground’ in Vol. 2 of the Rough Guide for an explanation of how bhangra as we know it now grew up in the Midlands in the ‘70s and ‘80s), and indeed often features English lyrics too, particularly for rap parts. It’d be difficult to argue that it’s completely alien to mainstream culture, too; I would guess that a lot of British people have at least some idea of what bhangra sounds like, and depending of where you live in the UK you may hear it fairly often! Although bhangra has sadly never quite taken to the pop charts in the way that other British genres like drum&bass, garage or even grime did, it’s worth remembering that Panjabi MC managed to get ‘Mundian To Bach Ke’ to number 3 in the Top 40. Bhangra is just as British as grime or D&B, and in spite of its lack of presence in the pop charts, it’s about as prevalent in mainstream culture – perhaps even more so. So again, is the only issue one of race? If bhangra music did regularly make it into the Top 40, would that change our opinion of whether or not it counts as ‘world’?

I’m not so sure it would, if we look at America for a comparison. The ethnically ‘Latin’ (what a stupid phrase, eh?) population of the US is on the up, and the Spanish language is becoming more and more prevalent in the US. Even back in the 70s, the Fania All-Stars – the ultimate salsa supergroup – managed to sell out the Yankee Stadium, twice! Reggaeton – basically dancehall-reggae, but with Spanish lyrics – has some mainstream prevalence too. But salsa and reggaeton are both still ‘world music’, in spite of real mainstream success, the language being one that many people living in the US can understand, and the fact that reggaeton is a completely ‘modern’ style like hip-hop, rather than being anything ‘authentic’ or ‘exotic’.

See, Hispanic kids are just as clueless about good music as British kids!

The French singer Camille said in a recent interview that ‘world music’ is “such a colonialist term. In France world music starts in Africa. To you in England, world music starts in France.” She’s got some sort of a point, as the above examples have shown, but I don’t think she’s entirely right, as the final two examples will demonstrate.

Reggae has had a bit of an ambiguous position since it first started becoming popular with international audiences in the ‘70s. Despite the fact that most people still seem not to quite get it (“it all sounds the same, doesn’t it?”), at least everyone knows what reggae is and what it sounds like. I think this popularity – and the worldwide mega-success of Bob Marley and the Wailers – is the only thing that stops reggae being seen as ‘world music’. It’s music that is definitely rooted in a non-‘Western’ culture, both musically (Niyabinghi drumming) and ideologically, to use a lofty word (Rastafari). It’s difficult to see how other Caribbean musics like merengue, or particularly salsa, which is also known worldwide, should count as ‘world’, whereas reggae doesn’t. The fact that people know reggae as a genre in itself – everyone knows what reggae is, whereas your average British person probably wouldn’t recognise merengue – seems to be the only thing stopping it being lumped under ‘world’. Perhaps if Celia Cruz or Youssou N’Dour had managed to become as internationally well-known as Bob Marley did, then salsa and mbalax would also have sections of record shops to themselves, rather than being just part of ‘world’.

As a last example, let’s look at English folk. The debate as to whether or not English folk music counts as ‘world’ shows that what is or isn’t ‘world’ is not really arbitrary, but rooted in a particularly Anglophone cultural superiority. What does that mean? That means that arguing that traditional English music doesn’t count as ‘world’ is being like the English ladies on a cruise down the Rhine who heard some Germans discussing “the foreigners”, who promptly corrected the Germans, “No, we are English; it is you who are the foreigners.” If there is one type of music that can easily be agreed upon as ‘world’, it’s traditional music (side-stepping the incredibly complex debate as to what counts as ‘traditional’!). If folk music from Okinawa, the Mande tradition or Hungary counts as ‘world’, then why shouldn’t English music? Unless you have so little sense of relativism that you can’t see that English music is just as foreign to a Japanese person as Japanese folk is to a Brit, there’s very little grounds for excluding English folk from ‘world’, as if it’s unique and somehow different from other traditional music from anywhere else in the world.

Isn’t this just as interesting as Pygmy or Corsican polyphony?

‘World’, then, is a label of convenience, just a way of grouping together lots of disparate types of music – a necessary ill, created for the ease of record shops and magazines. Thus, it’s necessarily a nebulous term that’s defined in very broad strokes. However, if we look more closely at what usually counts as ‘world’, it seems that any definition cannot help but be political when it comes to what’s included, and what’s not. We should carry on using the term, by all means – but advisedly.

Posted on December 23, 2011, in Soapbox and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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