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What is World Music, Anyway?

by Michael-Leonard Creditor, Program Coordinator, World Music Radio.com

World Music

Just as Dizzy Gillespie used to get asked "What IS jazz?" I am often asked about this rather new musical genre called World Music.

The term "World Music" is an invented label. It was created in 1987 by some sales executives in London in order to help in the marketing of recordings that didn’t fit into more established classifications, such as "ethnic" or "International." Prior to that, in 1978, Bob Brown of the Center for World Music, used that term rather than the more imposing Ethno-musicology, to portray a then-new academic program at Wesleyan University. And, as early as 1972, when I was playing Balkan music on the radio at KBOO-FM in Portland, Oregon, we had a program of music from around the world that was titled World Music.

The images that accompany thoughts of World Music are usually those of other lands. Folks in Western nations usually picture African drummers, or Balinese Gamelan orchestras, or Ravi Shankar, at the very least. And yes, all of these are World Music. But it’s more than just foreign music. After all, if Americans think of Celtic music as World Music, a British musician might become captivated by the music of Cameroon, and a Senegalese kora player could study and play American Blues.

And, what about people in those other countries. A record buyer in Japan, for example, might really go for American zydeco or bluegrass. In fact, there actually is a growing bluegrass scene in Japan. These classic American folk idioms qualify as World Music, too. More to the point, those "World Music" African drummers have been listening to European harmonies and incorporating these influences into their own music.

So, World Music is also England’s Peter Gabriel, founder of Real World record label, singing right alongside Youssou N’Dour of Senegal. Their composition "Shakin’ the Tree" is a marvelous World Music anthem to both women and the spirit of freedom. So, it could be said that, in its broadest application, any music in the world would be "World Music." After all, we DO live in a world of wonderful music.

What World Music Isn’t

Still, some folks say that it’s easier to define World Music by what it sn’t, than to try to say what it is. World Music is not Western classical music (although many composers integrated folk motifs into their compositions). It isn’t "pop music" either (although in many countries, popular music has incorporated a great deal of folk music into its mix). Generally, most forms of urban popular music also are not World Music.

However, in some cases, elements of urban music have been taken into existing World Music forms. Reggae, for example, has incorporated some elements of rap, but that doesn’t mean rap is World Music, nor is reggae suddenly eliminated from the genre.

Nor is World Music just a convenient catch-all category, like "alternative." Especially, World Music is not "New Age" music. John Tesh isn’t playing World Music, nor is Yanni, even though he is from another country. There is, however, some cross-over here, too. Some of the instrumentation used in "New Age" music can also be found in some World Music. Both genres share a positive philosophy. But, they still aren’t the same thing by a long shot.

World Music and the Origins of Jazz and Blues

More difficult to reconcile, is the World Music origins of both jazz and blues. For many years, jazz has been held up as America’s (that is, United States of America’s) one true original music. But, really, isn’t that just a bit shortsighted? Can anyone truly say they think jazz developed with no outside earlier influences?

The origins of American jazz in the music of Africa, Europe and, more recently, Latin and South America are there for anyone to hear. Same for the blues. Check out the CD on Putumayo World Music label, "From Mali to Memphis," which demonstrates the path taken by the music that was the progenitor of American country blues. American musicians such as Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder have been making music with West African players, thereby taking the blues back home where it began. So, jazz and blues also can be considered part of the genre, even though they developed on their own long before World Music was identified as a separate genre of its own.

As a programmer of World Music, my definition is open, rather than closed; inclusive, rather than exclusive. I define World Music in musical terms, not geographic terms. The one main criterion is that the music has a solid basis in the folk and/or ethnic traditions of whatever culture it comes from. Both traditional and contemporary forms are treated equally and music from all countries goes side-by-side. Therefore, bluegrass and zydeco stand along with Celtic, African and other more traditional examples of World Music. Also included here are some less well-known forms of traditional World Music: klezmer, Rom, and awwali, to name only three.

World Music and Pop

Very modern music by such artists as Jai Uttal, Baka Beyond, and Agricantus are very much in the category of World Music. After all, music is always morphing from the older to the more modern. That doesn’t necessarily change the basic type of the music (remember what Dizzy said). For example, Afro-pop, which was created by Nigerian saxophonist Fela Kuti, and has had radio air-play since the mid-1970s, uses many Western European pop-music elements, but is still very much World Music. This also includes music in the sub-genré called World Fusion Music, typified by groups like Ancient Future (which coined that term in 1978) Euphoria, Ekova and Zuco 103.

Additionally, music which already has developed into a genre of its own, but which is still part of a folkloric tradition, is still considered World Music. This includes ska and reggae, and much blues and jazz, especially Latin jazz.

World Music and the West

All this "foreign music" shouldn’t be strange-sounding to Western ears. Even decades before the genre was named, there were crossovers from various ethnic musical forms to popular music of the respective eras. As early as the 1920s, Hawaiian music was a great fad all throughout the U.S. Every BMOC had to have his ukulele to serenade his flapper sweetie. Western Swing, Italian crooners, Caribbean reggae, Latin-influenced pop and jazz and even African drumming and melodies have all been popular at one time or another in Western Culture.

If today’s World Music, sounds, well, more Global, that’s because access to the music of other peoples and cultures is becoming easier than it was in the 20’s. Recording technologies, the internet and the rapid movement of people from one continent to another have all given us opportunities to listen to each other’s music, and learn. And it’s a wonderful thing, too; music is the universal language and through it, we communicate to each other in a way diplomacy can’t. If you doubt it, just have a listen to Yair Dalal and his group of Israelis and Palestinians play in harmony together.

 

Creditor is a musicologist, folklorist, and musician who has been involved with "International" music since the early 1960s. He has taught all ages, from elementary school to adult, about the music, dance, and culture of other lands; his specialty is the Balkans and Eastern Europe. Creditor is currently Programming Coordinator of WORLDMUSICRADIO.COM an Internet-only radio station.

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