thu 25/07/2024

Opinion: Time to say goodbye to the label 'World Music' | reviews, news & interviews

Opinion: Time to say goodbye to the label 'World Music'

Opinion: Time to say goodbye to the label 'World Music'

These two little words were a marketing tool we no longer need

Nitin Sawhney: Not happy at all with being labelled world music

Although the phrase “world music” was first coined by American ethnomusicologist Robert Brown in the 1960s, it didn’t become a brand, as it were, until 1987, when a bunch of London-based DJs, musicians and record company folk (including the late Charlie Gillett) met in an Islington pub and landed on the idea of putting all this foreign music under one commercially viable umbrella.

So you could say that world music was spawned so that record shops would know where to put world music records.

The name almost immediately became both a blessing and a curse. But today, I would argue, it’s mostly a curse.

Present at that 1987 meeting was fRoots editor Ian Anderson, who amusingly nailed why “world music” was the lesser of quite a few evils that were considered when he wrote the following: “'Worldbeat' (left out anything without drums), 'Tropical' (bye-bye Bulgarians), 'Ethnic' (boring and academic), 'International Pop' (the death-by-Johnny-and-Nana syndrome) and 'Roots' (left out Johnny and Nana). 'World Music' seemed to include the most and omit the least, and got it on a show of hands.”

Unfortunately, despite all this shrewd second-guessing, they failed to anticipate that any all-encompassing name was going to be problematic on more than one level. Firstly, because any single label was still, by definition, going to be inadequate to describe the plethora of musical styles that it would be expected to embrace. And secondly, because there was always going to be something post-colonially dubious about the fact that we divide Western pop into dozens of genres, sub-genres and micro-genres, while the rest of the planet's sounds have to just make do with this one essentially meaningless signpost.

But keeping the pedants, purists, and politically correct happy wasn’t what the label was about. It was about getting all this exciting music before a public that hardly knew it even existed. The label was never meant to describe or contain, only to sell, and in this aspect it did a pretty good job for several decades. The likes of HMV and Virgin were more than happy to take this new category onboard and demarcate some floorspace to it, and World Music became a successful brand.

However, such a neat, streamlined story doesn’t take into account the makers of all this music. Most were more than happy to go with the flow, for the new audience it brought them. But a few, along with many crtics and cultural commentators, predictably objected to what they saw as a ghettoisation of anything that wasn’t “Anglo-Western pop”, to coin David Byrne’s succinct description.

David-ByrneIn fact, Byrne himself (pictured left) put the boot into world music with his 1999 essay, “Why I Hate World Music”. At the time I could see where Byrne was coming from with his idea that exoticising music patronises it, and makes it “safe”. But I still felt that the label’s advantages outweighed its disadvantages: if all this wonderful, surprising, thrilling music wasn’t boxed and labelled, then it simply wasn’t going to get heard in our blinkered consumerist culture in which everyone needs to be led by the hand to new things, particularly if those new things speak in foreign tongues.

Then in 2005, Nitin Sawhney, having just bagged a Radio 3 World Music Award, decided to bite the hand that fed him by proclaiming that the music he produced wasn’t world music. Given that world music isn’t a musical style - in the sense that jazz, folk or even heavy metal are musical styles - it could be argued that no musician or band under the world music umbrella plays world music. But that’s a hard idea to convey in a media-friendly soundbite, so no one stood up for poor old world music, and Sawhney’s cold shoulder did nothing to help the image problem the non-genre had, and continues to have.

My belief is that the average music fan simply fills the vacuum created by their ignorance of what this non-genre is with the crudest and most negative of preconceptions. Either world music is perceived as tasteful ethnic coffee table fodder, or as the irritatingly ineffectual noise made by the kind of omnipresent Peruvian pan pipe band parodied by the likes of The Fast Show and, more recently, South Park. But for me world music has always been the complete antithesis of these damning stereotypes.

For the past couple of decades, all Western pop genres - from rock to R&B, from hip hop to mainstream pop - have simply been recycling the riffs, grooves and melodies of the past half-century. World music was my escape from this tedious state of affairs. Within its blurred, ever-fluctuating parameters were excitingly immersive polyrhythms, strange new instruments with intriguing timbres and vocalists so charismatic that it hardly mattered that I hadn’t a clue what they were singing about. From tough, politically anarchic Afrobeat from Nigeria, to jazz and pop-tinged Fado from Portugal, world music was the first new music that had fully engaged me since Bowie was in Berlin, and The Clash were boldly going where no punk band had gone before.

We all have an enthusiastic appetite for foreign food. But would you be drawn to a restaurant that just called itself World Food?

So it served its purpose for me and for many other music lovers in search of new sounds in the wake of the death of originality in UK and US pop. I am grateful that its very existence as a category distinction opened the floodgates for a vast amount of music that otherwise wouldn’t have reached my ears. However, this awkward, misleading, non-descriptive, post-colonial faux pas of a label has had its day. Decades have been spent discussing whether world music is purely about “authentic” music, “roots” music, or if it also embraces the “otherness” of more experimental studio-based projects by, say, hip DJs from “exotic” locations. Note all the problematic words I’ve put in quote marks because they either have the albatross of political incorrectness or the albatross of ambiguity hovering over them.

Which of course is a problem with “world music” too. Those two little words rarely appear these days without being caged by their apparently necessary parenthesis, which, more than anything, tells us something’s seriously amiss. So it’s time to say, thanks, World Music: you did as good a job as could be expected for a few decades. But in this egalitarian age of digital downloads - and a million ways to hear new stuff at the click of a mouse - you really have become embarrassingly counterproductive.

One world music album I reviewed a few years ago even had the words “This is not a world music album” printed on its sleeve, and then used the euphemism “open-minded music from 15 different countries” instead. At the time I found this infuriating, thinking it just made the struggle to make world music credible even harder, and said so in my review. Now I have the more sober view that Crammed Discs knew they had a good product, and just wanted it to reach people they knew were turned off by the w-word. And what’s so wrong with that?

Charlie_GillettFollowing the death last March of the much-mourned Charlie Gillett (pictured right), arguably world music’s most credible and influential champion, the BBC axed both its BBC London and World Service world music show (both of which were at one time helmed by Gillett). And so now any non-Anglo-Western music gets even less exposure on the airwaves.

The add-on effect of this is that visiting international musicians get even fewer opportunities to let the public know about their gigs, and London and the rest of the country have become even more musically impoverished and insular. If you consider also that there has never been a programme solely devoted to world music on either Radio 1 or Radio 2 (where, in my opinion, the biggest potential audience for the kind of global music I enjoy resides) you’ve got a pretty sorry state of affairs.

Is the label “world music” to blame for all this? Of course not. But words are powerful things. And the fewer words you use to describe something, the more chances there are for misunderstandings and misinterpretations. We all have an enthusiastic appetite for foreign food, foreign travel and foreign cinema, and therefore one would think the enlightened and groovy amongst us should be equally keen to fill their iPods with foreign music. But would you be drawn to a restaurant that just called itself World Food? We’ve now been informed all this great music is out there, we know whether it's Balkan global fusion or busy Brazilian sambas that most get our feet tapping, so perhaps it’s time to take the sign down, and leave us to our own personal (listening) devices.


Hi Howard, Great article and points well made. Ironically, it might seem, I just directed the "all-star galas" for Womadelaide and Womad New Zealand, which were both very enjoyable experiences but it's interesting that I thankfully never heard anyone refer to "world music" at either festival. It was all just about looking for common bonds and shared expression through harmony, melody and rhythm... Hopefully the days of sign-posting music have given way to freedom of choice based on individual taste. Best. Nitin Sawhney.

'm a minuscule bit disappointed that you declined - as I asked you - to use the whole quote that you got from ... c_history/ which continues "Nobody thought of defining it or pretending there was such a beast: it was just to be a box, like jazz, classical or rock..." in situ rather than introducing this notion in passing further on as if it were original thought.. Otherwise I'm just annoyed that you got the title of fRoots magazine wrong. Apart from that I don't have anything to add to the long-winded piece that I linked above which, I'm startled to see, I wrote 11 years ago. Nothing's actually changed other than that I care less so probably wouldn't be bothered to write it now - and that, as there aren't record shops any more, nobody else probably cares either about what name goes on catch-all boxes like jazz, classical or rock (or world music, whatever that might be.)

Ian. As I said in my email when asking permission to use the quote – I felt it would have been too clumsily long to use the whole thing, and I do think I’ve represented this angle in the piece, particularly in the sentence: ‘The label was never meant to describe or contain, only to sell, and in this aspect it did a pretty good job for several decades.’ As for your magazine’s name, believe it or not it was correct when I put the piece to bed last night. But clearly some other artsdesk journalist who hadn’t heard of the magazine fRoots, saw that peculiar little arrangement of letters and quite reasonably assumed that lower-case ‘f’ at its front-end was a slip-of-the-fingers typo. After all, ‘Roots’ seems like a far more likely title. But anyway, it's corrected, and I've also linked your quote to your original essay so readers can see it in context if they wish. As for nothing having changed since you wrote the original piece 11 years ago, I’d say the development of music on the Internet and therefore people’s relationship to how they hear music on the Internet has been quite a momentous change. I certainly think it justifies going over this old ground again.

Actually, as I was munching on my Marmite soldiers, I did have a further thought: one really good reason for avoiding the term is that we'd then not have to suffer all the bands who do claim to play world music, or say they've just made a 'world music album'. This usually involves endless charmless sub-jazz noodling with muso excesses (e.g. 5 string bass guitars), sitars, samples of chanting, whooshy synthesisers, didjeridoos, djembes, pseud's corner lyrics and worse (plus members wearing Womad-bought hats). Or if it's a band from a third world country then also dressing up in tourist national costume tat, adding a drum machine and singing cringeworthy stuff partly in English, listing all the countries in Africa and involving phrases like 'jambo bwana' in a futile attempt at crossover. The fRoots first rule of 'world music': anything which consciously labels itself as such is deeply, deeply suspect and best ignored.

Good rule of thumb, Ian - although I'm still going to think hard of an exception... since I'm sure it can't be the case that those foibles have axiomatic musical consequences... Often I might be half-listening to a record I've been sent and think - hey, that's pretty smart. Then I see the cover-art, band name etc, and think... nah. Still thinking...

The tag at the bottom of the article for "world music" still seems to work in linking to an interesting range of articles about . . . world music. Like it or not, outside the navel-gazing, self-induced awkwardness and constrains of the UK music industry, world music means something cultural — a world waking up to itself and the lowering of barriers between cultures. It's much bigger than just something to sell records in the UK.

I don't think an discussion of this subject can ignore the crucial part played by Paul Simon. If it hadn't been for 'Graceland', the record shops wouldn't have opened their shelves to such a diversity of artists under any heading.

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