‘World Music’ – An Outdated or Necessary Term?

Posted on March 28th, 2012 in Recent posts by .

Last week, Ian Birrell, former deputy editor of The Independent, revisited the debate on the term ‘world music’ in his piece for The Guardian.

It is 25 years since the concept of world music was created by enthusiasts in a north London pub. Perhaps it made sense then, as a marketing device to promote the sounds of the world that were lost in record shops and on the radio. But not now.‘ 

As you can probably imagine, this prompted a great deal of debate, both online and in the Songlines office. While many people view the term as a catch-all phrase that seems to have, in recent years, lost some of its meaning, others see it a ‘necessary evil.’ So on this occasion, we decided to delve a little bit deeper into the discussion and see what some of our regular contributors think… Here are some of their thoughts.

Rose Skelton: As long as music that is not mainstream popular music retains a relatively small share of the market, it’s useful to have some kind of category for it so that people know where to put the records in the shop. But the term ‘world music’ has collected too many connotations that are no longer valid or useful, which people like Nneka, Baloji, Carlou D, Daara J Family, are perfect examples of.  I write about pop, jazz, hip-hop, slam, disco, and funk made in West Africa, and the sooner the music business gets its head around the fact that Africans make and buy all these kinds of music and stop referring to anything coming out of Africa as ‘world’, the better.

Cerys Matthews: Most genre names seem outdated these days when we have such access to so many different types of music. But it is only a way of opening the door and then keeping order to your massive music collection. Natch! And while we are on the subject, indie music always seemed misnamed to me. If you were white and played electric guitar, regardless of your chord changes or home label you were deemed indie. But hey, we’d get in a committee soup if we started from scratch so on to the article… I may have wondered about the term ‘world music’ before, but I’m not at all worried now, because what’s interesting is this, if you have been listening to music at all of late you will know that the most influential, and exciting music that’s being played, recorded and released at the moment is coming from studios outside of Britain and America. This is where you’ll find some of the brightest stars of music, Vieux Farka Touré, Fatoumata Diawara, Toumani Diabaté, Amadou & Mariam and their influences are reaching way beyond the confines of their labels and genre name and genre itself. You now hear different rhythms and instruments and cultural sounds in the music of  ‘indie’ bands like Vampire Weekend, pop artists like Jonquil and cutting edge singles like Santigold and if this continues, it will indeed be ‘world music.’ 

Jane Cornwell: Of course the term ‘world music’ is outdated. Offensive? Only as offensive as a bunch of middle class, middle aged white blokes being unfeasibly pleased with themselves (and a tad colonialist), a la the smug Birrell and his Africa Express crew. Oh, and Damon Albarn’s ubiquitous melodica.


What are your opinions? We’ll be posting more of our contributors’ thoughts tomorrow, but would love to hear what you think. Either leave us comment below or send an email to letters@songlines.co.uk. 

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    10 Responses to “‘World Music’ – An Outdated or Necessary Term?”

    1. Rod Lawson Says:

      I’m split on this. Makes no intellectual sense, but in the debate everyone immediately knew what they were talking about. It’s difficult to think of other terms; local music? Regional music? Traditionally inspired music?

    2. Eva Says:

      I agree with Rose. It is convenient; I just head for the racks labelled ‘World’ in a record store, instead of having to browse the entire store. But the principle in itself is slightly ridiculous.
      If folk from the UK is classified as Folk, why would folk from anywhere except US & UK be classified as World Music? Why does it matter where (just an example) Tinariwen are from – the Rock category harbours so many differents sounds, Tinariwen (and Vieux Farka Touré, for that matter) fit perfectly!

    3. Georgios Says:

      Hi there! I think that the term “World Music” was weak right from the begining, even for the commercial reasons that it was invented for! It has never had any significant analytical or other value, and even it hasn’t been able to deliver the job it was meant to. Without being some kind of marxian fanatic i trully believe that the only thing it actually did was merely a reproduction of white – western dominant discourse over non-western musics imposing a value hierarchy that has intensified orientalist stereotypes and visions of the “Other”. Being ‘World” is more closely to be from “another world” or even as if there hasn’t be any rock or pop production in countries other than USA or northern Europe! After all “world music” has never been as popular or comercially succesfull as other genres and in my opinion this is partly because it was always a label empty of meaning, even of an imaginary one!

    4. Joshua Cheek Says:

      For those of us who were listening to and collecting non-Western music prior to 1987, the launch of the “World Music” marketing concept seemed little more than a hip, “politically correct “ makeover of the old “International” category. At that time, you could still find Belly Dance Music rubbing shoulders with German Oktoberfest Brass Bands, field recordings from the Nonesuch Explorer Series and Shiela Chandra’s Indiapop classic, “The Struggle” packing the bins cheek by jowl.
      Yes, the “World Music” rubric was a marketing scheme, it was also tainted with a certain paternalism, (and colonialism, as Jane Cornwell rightly observes) but it succeeded brilliantly and transformed the dusty “International” section into a fairly high-profile commodity – its very simplicity and generality permitted it to become a concept easy for the public to grasp. There are certainly more accurate terms for the “specialist”: Tribal, Traditional, Ethnic, Folk (though this is also weighted term for those of us from an Anglo-American frame of reference) and my personal favorite, “Ethno-Chaos” (thanks, DakhaBrakha…) but with the abundance of stylistic cross-pollinations and hybridizations, it become increasingly difficult to precisely peg each and every musical style. As commercial and inaccurate, and even offensive (to some) that the term “World Music” may be, it is still the most immediately recognizable category for the average consumer.

    5. Stephanie Says:

      I think World Music is a fantastic description – it implies music of any type from anywhere and I think it is completely exciting, interesting, liberating and opens up the mind like nothing else………………..

      Maybe a bit more marketing/publicity/radio play is required so that ordinary people (as opposed to those already converted)are more aware of whats out there. More TV versions of the music planet programs would be fantastic – shown on eg BBC2 at eg 9.00pm (not against some other popular program) so many would watch. (If a weekday – don’t forget these things get discussed at work the next day if they were good so the effect of ‘word of mouth’ would come into play

    6. Graham Says:

      I’ve always been uneasy about the WM label, for all the reasons well-aired over the years. Nevertheless, it was an easy way of directing customers to the relevent section of the record shop. But, now that most music is bought on-line is the term still necessary?.

    7. pieter Says:

      I’ve always opted for the term global music, it’s a bit more hip than worldmusic i think, because it refers to the world as a global village these days with the web as a means to go and have access anywhere on the globe within seconds. To me worldmusic is oldfashioned and yes, i agree with Jane, colonial. But i’m sure there will be a bright mind coming up soon with another genial word.

    8. Will Says:

      Categories are always insufficient – after all, what exactly is ‘pop’ music, what is ‘folk’ and what is ‘world’ … there are items in Songlines I think ‘hey what’s that in here for’ and items not in there (like the wonderful Nneka who is definitely world music – is she?) … hey, let’s not get our heads in a twist over this, just enjoy the music (and appreciate the ‘world’ category does at least mean it is easier to find than if no categories and it was all mixed in with Pop Idol and Beethoven stuff;-)

    9. Alan Eder Says:

      We here at California Institute of the Arts have had a “World Music” program since our inception over forty years ago. The curriculum has focused on traditional musics of West Africa, India and Indonesia, with ensembles lead by some of the most highly respected exponents of musical cultures from these areas. Some of the most interesting musical developments to emerge from the great soup pot that is the Herb Alpert School of Music at CalArts have been inspired by the experiences of students deeply immersed in these undiluted traditions. We ourselves have struggled with the term World Music as one might when trying to wear well clothes that are, at the end of the day, somewhat ill-fitting. But, as is the case with democracy in action, dissatisfied as we have been with what we’ve got, we have yet to come up with a better alternative. Glad to see that other minds are still grappling with this riddle! And if no one comes up with something to supercede the term World Music (in it’s various applications), at least we will have collectively benefited from the mental exercise of hunting for one.