Asher Breuer-Weil (London) contests the lumping together all non-Western genres under one limiting term. He has kindly made us this playlist of songs that might be considered ‘World’ Music. Listen to while you read.
What comes to mind when you hear the term ‘world music?’ I imagine that it’s anything from Malian Kora players to Indian Bhangra to Celtic folk. All of these would be fitting, as all of these are presently categorized within the woefully broad term of ‘world music.’ Yet is there a way to refine the term? Can its horizons be reined in?
I recently went to see Songhoy Blues, one of the biggest Malian Tuareg bands, perform at the O2 forum in Kentish Town, London. Already surprised that they secured such a big venue, I was even more shocked to find the venue at near full capacity. Since when was everyone so into Malian desert rock? Since when was ‘world music’ so popular?
Either way, for about an hour and a half they played a delightfully energetic set filled with swirling blues riffs and pulsating drum beats, mostly from their newest album Résistance, which if you haven’t listened to, you really should. It was exactly what I had come to see.
But just as it felt like they were done for the night, the guitarist, Garba Touré, started to strum the all-too-familiar chords of Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke on the Water.’ The singer, the unrelated Aliou Touré, then began a rather poor rendition of the vocals in English. Despite the Tuareg tinge to it, it was very much a Western conclusion to the concert.
I started to think – what does one classify this as? Was it a world music song? Or a Western song? Does the genre revolve around where the band is from? Or where the song was written? In this context, it isn’t so important – Songhoy Blues are obviously a ‘world music’ band, and so one song played live doesn’t really matter.
But then my thoughts turned to Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee’s all-conquering ‘Despacito’. Fonsi and Daddy Yankee were both born in Puerto Rico, the song is performed in Spanish, and it is obviously a reggaeton song. So, is this ‘world music’? By almost every official definition that I’ve seen, it is not. It is either reggaeton or Latin pop.
What separates desert blues and Latin pop from traditionally Western music? It is the same thing, i.e. that they are foreign to the West. Yet why is desert blues given the branding of ‘world music’, and Latin pop is almost exclusively Latin pop or reggaeton?
Perhaps because music from Puerto Rico can be readily associated with Spain and parts of America, and so becomes more easily ‘Western’? This doesn’t hold, however, because desert blues is easily linked to American blues, and so could be regarded as ‘Western’ in the same light.
Rather, I think that it’s basically a popularity contest. ‘Despacito’ blew up, Justin Bieber hopped on it, and suddenly it becomes impossible for it to be marketed as world music due to the limiting connotations that this carries. Instead, it transcends that tag and becomes the more relatable, and marketable, ‘Latin Pop’.
This is not a complaint as such – of course, the industry is going to try and market what will sell in the way that it sells best.
But the downside of this is that it leaves the market of world music as the residue of foreign music that hasn’t made the mainstream cut. It has become a dark corner of the industry that seeks to mesh huge varieties of musical style and history together into one broad category. When something within this does take the spotlight, rather than world music becoming popular, that one style is filtered out and given its own shiny new coat. The rest remains.
For example, Reggae is an obviously Jamaican genre, yet due to its early integration into Britain and the US, it now is also a standalone genre. K-pop and BTS are the latest foreign music imports to break into the Western market, yet due to their popularity, have also been transitioned seamlessly from world pop into the more specific, K-pop.
It gives off an offensively colonial attitude that what is Western taste is what can stand alone, and anything else is effectively put down. For those trapped within ‘world music’, it is notoriously difficult to play outside of the few festivals and venues that cater to ‘world music.’ Being marketed as a part of the genre leaves little room for you to grow outside of its small and decrepit walls.
It seems relevant to note that the term ‘world music’ was initially coined in a London pub about 25 years ago, as a way of launching foreign bands into the market of Western music. It may have been a great idea at the time, and I suppose has caused someone like me to listen to it 25 years down the line – but we have come a long way since then.
I’ve noticed that Spotify now has no genre option for ‘world music,’ but has instead separated the bands once a part of it into the style of music that they play. Songhoy Blues now appear under ‘Blues’, as they should, whilst K-pop and Latin are separate categories. Equally, British folk groups such as Lau are now no longer considered ‘world music’, but come under ‘Folk & Americana’. It is a welcome acceptance of this music into the general canon, though it still does not solve the problem. All it means is that the music will most probably become lost under the weight of bigger blues, folk and Americana bands.
Some have instead attempted to rename the genre ‘global music’ in the hope of escaping its connotations, though again, I don’t think that this will solve the problem. It will merely become a replica of the name that stood before it.
I do not have the solution, nor am I sure if there even is one. Perhaps the music outside of the Western world is doomed to be only for those keen enough to seek it out. Perhaps it’s audience will forever be limited.
At least on the evidence of the sold-out London venue, however, the issue may be more a matter of principle than practicality.
Asher Breuer-Weil (London)
The author’s suggested further reading, if you’re interested:
The term ‘world music’ is outdated and offensive (The Guardian)
Why Do We Still Have So Many Issues With The Idea Of ‘World Music’? (The ARTery)
Neocolonialism, Authenticity, and the Ethics of World Music (Unfashionably Late)