Listening to the Music of the World

Listening to the Music of the World
▪ 1998

by Chris Heim

"World Music"—What Is It?
      The dawning of a new musical "global village" or an unfocused, unsuccessful marketing ploy? The revitalization of time-honoured cultural traditions or cynical pop exploitation and New Age natterings? Old field recordings or brave new electronic blends? It may, in fact, be all those things, none of them, and perhaps even something more. In the most general and accepted sense, "world music" expresses the new interest on the part of the West in musical styles and traditions outside its own mainstream and from other countries and cultures. Since its emergence in about 1983, world music has come to embrace everything from field recordings of isolated peoples to new urban styles, traditional revivals to New Age explorations, 1950s "exotica" reissues to 1990s "ethnotechno" recordings.

      Among the styles that have attracted attention in recent years under the banner of world music are a variety of African urban dance musics (including Congolese soukous, Nigerian juju, north African rai, and South African mbaqanga); contemporary pop flamenco (for example, the Gipsy Kings); a tango revival (aided by the 1996 film Evita and reissues of albums by nuevo tango master Astor Piazzolla); the growing boom in Latin-American rock, pop, and salsa ( Celia Cruz (Cruz, Celia )); a strong new Celtic scene spurred by the success of theatrical productions such as Riverdance and Lord of the Dance ( Michael Flatley (Flatley, Michael )) and featuring a new generation of traditional and Celtic-rock bands; a host of traditional revivals such as klezmer (music of the Eastern European Jews) and qawwali (the songs of the Sufi mystics; Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (Khan, Nusrat Fateh Ali )); various Scandinavian folk musics; Cajun and zydeco from Louisiana; Afro-Peruvian; Hawaiian slack-key guitar; and even the banned prewar Berlin cabaret music ( Ute Lemper (Lemper, Ute )). Influenced by world music, New Age and smooth jazz artists have introduced world-music instruments and simplified rhythms into their work. In jazz, Afro-Cuban and Brazilian influences have seen a powerful resurgence in recent years. Fueled by the success of the Deep Forest project, which mixed dance music with Pygmy song, a new wave of "ethnotechno" bands have scored hits on the dance music charts with tunes that combine synthesizer and heavy-rhythm tracks with samplings of voices and styles from around the world.

World Music Emerges.
      Western interest in music from other cultures is not new. Art music (in works by such composers as Edvard Grieg, Claude Debussy, Antonin Dvorak, Bela Bartok, and Louis Moreau Gottschalk) has a long history of incorporating folk influences. Moreover, rock, jazz, blues, and even country music arose from the fusion of African and European forms. The 1950s witnessed the golden age of the mambo, with origins in Cuba, followed by other Latin-American dance crazes. Performers such as Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman, and Esquivel beckoned listeners to ersatz musical holidays with "exotica," a giddy pop that simulated, supposedly, the sounds of faraway, enchanting places. Still later, the folk music boom focused attention on more authentic traditional musics from around the world. Also in the early 1960s, the world was captivated by the melding of jazz and Brazilian music into bossa nova. When the Beatles traveled to India later in the decade, ragas were the rage.

      A number of trends began to converge in the 1980s to stimulate the modern world music movement. These included an expanding global communications system, growing interest in diversity and multiculturalism, and improvements in technology that made it easier to make and distribute high-quality audio recordings anywhere in the world. New impetus came from some of rock's more adventurous artists, such as David Byrne, Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno, and Ry Cooder, who helped bring styles, rhythms, and musicians from other parts of the world to Western pop audiences. The most popular and commercially successful such effort was surely Paul Simon's 1986 Graceland album. Inspired by and employing South African musicians, including the vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, this award-winning project opened the door to a host of new musics and musicians.

Passing Fad or Underground Phenomenon?
      Almost as soon as Graceland piqued audience interest, some pundits were declaring world music dead. Indeed, few records or performers have attracted a mass audience, racked up platinum record sales, or won broad-based media interest. For every declaration about the death of world music, however, there are other signs that point to its slow rise and steady growth.

      First, world music had little in the way of industry structure to support it a decade ago. Musicians now have a variety of options for live performance: clubs that specialize in world music; package tours such as the WOMAD (World of Music, Arts and Dance) Festival, Africa Fête, and Reggae Sunsplash; and such major international festivals as the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and similar conclaves in Istanbul; Montreux, Switz.; Montreal; Toronto; and Vancouver, B.C.—to name but a few. Second, all manner of books, magazines, and guides to world music have become available. Radio (usually noncommercial community and public radio in the U.S.) offers local and syndicated world and ethnic music programming. The syndicated radio show Afropop Worldwide, for example, was by 1997 heard on 120 stations in the U.S. as well as stations in Europe and Africa.

      Third, the music itself has become easier to find and own. A decade ago only a handful of U.S. and European labels offered world titles. Scores of labels with names such as Shanachie, Stern's Africa, Tinder, Rounder, Island, Xenophile, Qbadisc, Hemisphere, Earthworks, Luaka Bop, Nonesuch, World Circuit, Ellipsis Arts . . . , GlobeStyle, Putumayo, Music of the World, Mesa, and Earthbeat have popped up. New distribution channels include catalog and Internet outlets and such nontraditional retail outlets as bookstores, museum shops, arts and crafts stores, coffeehouses, and gourmet cooking shops. World music seems to be establishing itself as a small but sturdy niche music. By way of comparison, jazz and classical music each account for only about 2-4% of annual record sales in the U.S.; folk music and blues are somewhat smaller slices of the market—but they are not considered failures for lack of mass acceptance.

Brave New World Music.
      Looking to the future of world music, some fear that this melange of styles is the harbinger of an impending global cultural disaster, a multinational megamedia tsunami that will wipe out all "authentic" musical forms and replace them with one slick, all-encompassing, hideous musical blob. Even while frothy international pop is the lingua franca of music around the world and artists such as Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Mariah Carey regularly top sales charts in many countries, local artists and musics remain a strong force. A number of ethnomusicological studies suggest that every culture deals with new musical influences, encounters, and even invasions in different ways, and the results are different and very distinctive musical syntheses. As has been seen, many of today's most treasured musical expressions are themselves the result of previous cultural interactions. Still, traditional musical revivals all across the globe suggest an enduring resistance to global cultural homogenization.

Chris Heim is Music Director of WBEZ, the National Public Radio station in Chicago.

* * *

Universalium. 2010.

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