The problem of ‘world music’

One of the largest industries in most developed economies is the music industry, a market constantly expanding and growing with new releases and constantly evolving genres. As audiences increasingly see themselves as ‘citizens of the world’ living in multicultural societies, there has also been a notable increase in the cultures and customs of those whom we consider ‘foreign’. There is an imperative to understand the context of the music we consume, and when music is sold, this necessitates the labelling of music into genre-based categories, such as popular, alternative, and classical. However, such genre-names are highly subjective and deceptive; any music that people like could be described as ‘popular’, ‘alternative’ is self-explanatory, but fails to state what it is an alternative to, and the term ‘classical’, if taken literally, should only apply to music composed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries! The expansion of each of these categories creates an even greater sense of vagueness, not helped by the fact that each of these categories is further sub-divided (death metal, heavy metal, and speed metal, for example), but none more so than the genre that is most commonly referred to as ‘world music’.

This ‘cultural other’ has long been the object of study for those involved in a number of disciplines such as sociology, psychology, and anthropology; however, it is also one of the most important areas of study in the domain of the musicologist. An understanding of the people who create music and the context in which this music exists fosters an understanding, and therefore a greater appreciation, of such music. It is impossible to imagine a discussion of Britten’s War Requiem without mention of the Second World War, just as it is impossible to understand the choice of Coventry Cathedral as the location for the first performance without knowledge of the history of Coventry during the war. Universities offer countless modules addressing the context of particular musical works, such as its political and historical background, and virtually all commentaries on specific works will offer biographical facts about the composer. It is ingrained into the psyche of those receptive to music in any way today that to understand the music, one must understand the music-makers.

Such an approach therefore begs one question, and one question only when it comes to defining what is and is not ‘world music’: ‘to what extent do musical structures and practices reflect, model, or resonate with the identities, experiences, or structural positions of social classes… and ethnic groups?’1 While it could be argued that music is a social construct, and as such all music, to varying extents, reflects the person or people creating it, this approach goes deeper than that. Rather than asking ‘what does this music mean?’ the question is ‘What does this music mean to the people who created it?’ It is thus a genre raised above the aesthetic, centred on the anthropological. The term ‘world music’ should not merely mean music from different parts of the world, but rather, music from different peoples of the world. When approached from this angle, there is less scope for certain types of music to fall within this category; the piano sonata for example. Under this heading, it is necessary for a piece of music to simply contain characteristics and features of a given culture or group of people, but it must contain that which is part of their identity. It is not sufficient for a band like Ladysmith Black Mambazo to perform Amazing Grace in their own style simply because they are performing to an audience familiar with that particular song, there must be a deeper cultural motive before it should be considered ‘world music’.

The great advantage of this approach is that it makes discriminations that other definitions of ‘world music’ do not, yet retains enough flexibility to accommodate individual circumstances. Buena Vista Social Club’s rendition of El Carretero, for example, falls into this form of world music as it is a song about love for one’s country from the perspective of a simple cart driver, and as such is representative of a particular area of the population. The songs of Björk, however, should not be considered as part of this same genre merely because she incorporates an Inuit choir in her work. Laurie Anderson may be considered a composer of ‘world music’ with songs such as New York Social Life, despite this song containing no element of ‘folk’ or ‘traditional’ music that one so often thinks of when discussing ethnically representative music.

Perhaps the issue is a semantic one, and that it’s simply a matter of redefining what we consider to be ‘world music’ or ‘folk music’. Or perhaps it’s about how ‘authentic’ a performance is. This series examines the ways in which the commercialisation of music has led to the development of ‘world music’ as a genre, identifies some of the challenges this poses, and presents a variety of approaches to understand this concept of ‘world music’. The way we learn and experience music has a significant impact on individual and social identities and it is becoming increasingly apparent that ‘cultural othering’ has become invisible to many of us, but that its effects are felt deeply every day. These are pressing considerations for musicians and music educators at any level, and through this series I hope to spark meaningful discussions about this topic.

1John Shepherd. ‘Music and Social Categories’, in The Cultural Study of Music: A Critical Introduction, ed. Martin Clayton, Trevor Herbert and Richard Middleton. Great Britain: Routledge, 2003, 69

Image credit