The Problem with World Music


I don't know how often I'm going to make blog posts here as I do want to keep the focus on the musicians and the music, not me. So we'll see how this goes.

In the years I've been covering what is reluctantly-called "world music," the problems with this term often comes up -- as in feeling I had to type "reluctantly-called 'world music'." And it comes up very often with the artists I'm interviewing for this audio series.  

The problem is, as musician and founder of Luaka Bop Records David Byrne wrote in a piece for the New York Times way back in 1999, entitled "Crossing Music's Borders In Search Of Identity; 'I Hate World Music:'"

The term is a catchall that commonly refers to non-Western music of any and all sorts, popular music, traditional music and even classical music. It's a marketing as well as a pseudomusical term -- and a name for a bin in the record store signifying stuff that doesn't belong anywhere else in the store.....

In my experience, the use of the term world music is a way of dismissing artists or their music as irrelevant to one's own life. It's a way of relegating this ''thing'' into the realm of something exotic and therefore cute, weird but safe, because exotica is beautiful but irrelevant; they are, by definition, not like us. Maybe that's why I hate the term. It groups everything and anything that isn't ''us'' into ''them.'' This grouping is a convenient way of not seeing a band or artist as a creative individual, albeit from a culture somewhat different from that seen on American television. It's a label for anything at all that is not sung in English or anything that doesn't fit into the Anglo-Western pop universe this year.

And it's not just a bin in a record store, or a genre to checkbox on your streaming service, this ghetto-izing happens at festivals as well. Almost every festival has a "world music" stage. It's where you'll find everything and anything from Cambodian psych pop to Colombian hip hop. And hundreds of these bands are vying for ridiculously small number of slots on this one stage, even though their music is often very much of the same vein as the music on all the other festival stages, except maybe just not that they're singing in English, or playing an instrument not usually seen on one of the bigger main stages.

As Cheo of Los Amigos Invisibles told me for an interview I did in 2012: 

At some point, when you're so segregated, some of the people will never pass by that stage, because 'oh, it's Latino.' So the best festival experiences we've had is when nobody tells them where we are from.... Sometimes, we've been in like Australia, and since their mainstream is like from all over the world, they don't really qualify bands with tags like Arabian or Iraqi or British, they're just bands. And that's awesome.

And in the Hyphenated episode with the Aleph Quintet, Akram Ben Romdhane notes:

When we did this first album, there's a lot of journalists, and also when you play in the venues and festivals, people like to categorize this music as world music or fusion or jazz. We think that it is just music.

I can't tell you how often I've heard this lament from artists, but it's been a lot. And I agree. I wish there was no need to classify music as anything else than music you happen to like and music you don't happen to like. Yet no one seems to have figured out a solution for this problem. As with most things, often beginning to find the way out is to look back on how we got into the problem.

In 2004, The Guardian did just that in a piece entitled "We Created World Music." The term was birthed in a London pub in 1987. Journalist and DJ Charlie Gillet recalled in the article:

We had a very simple, small ambition. It was all geared to record shops. That was the only thing we were thinking about. In America, King Sunny Ade [from Nigeria] was being filed under reggae. That was the only place shops could think of to put him. In Britain they didn’t know where to put this music - I think Ade was just lost in the alphabet, next to Abba. In 1985 Paul Simon did Graceland and that burst everything wide open, because he created an interest in South African music. People were going into shops saying: “I want some of that stuff” and there wasn’t anywhere for them to look.....

My reservation about the term “world music” has always been that all the great terms - like jazz, reggae, rock’n’roll - sound musical. They come up in songs. Nobody is ever going to have a song title with that phrase “world music” in it. If you took the word “music” away, and just called it “world”, that would be better.

And so here we are in 2024 and we are still stuck with the term that remains a "catchall" and that ghetto-izes musicians, record labels, and the audiences that gravitate towards it. But the larger question that remains unanswered is what to do with "world music" artists who want to avoid this label and be known as a rock band, or hip hop artist, or refuse to be classified and want to just be a musician who makes music. What's to be done?

I personally worry that this series will not find a larger audience because some people will avoid it because "Oh, it's about world music." Like it's a gluten-free quinoa and kale slab disguised as a candy bar. However, I do believe the internet, for all its faults, is opening up opportunities for listeners to just discover and appreciate music as just music, and not be so focused on where it's from or who's making it.

How can you possibly classify a band like Monsieur Periné, a group of musicians from Bogota, Colombia who discovered and fell in love with Django Reinhardt and Jaques Brel after hearing them on the internet? Sure, they were named Best New Artist at the 2015 Latin Grammy Awards. But if you just heard them, would you guess they were Latin Grammy winners from Colombia?

So I don't have an answer to this problem. Of course, maybe there is no real problem. The term does serve many musicians, promoters, labels, and music lovers well for the most part. And while the term does feel antiquated, just renaming it to something newer doesn't make the problem go away.  The future is always a mystery. It'll be interesting to see what happens.

Anyways, that's about all I'll say here.

Ron Deutsch
Ron Deutsch