The ancient Greeks used the word barbaros to refer to various groups of peoples – those who spoke Greek badly; those who did not speak Greek (and therefore were incomprehensible and strange to the Greek citizen); the Persians; the Turks; the Huns; etc. Today, the word barbarian has come to mean a person who is not civilised i.e. not from the mainstream.
However, one person’s barbarian was another person’s model citizen. The perspective of the observer was the deciding factor. Who decides what is mainstream? Who decides what is the reference point for being termed a member of a civilised group of people versus a barbarian group of people?
The term World Music was a lazy attempt at defining any thing which was not Western Popular Music. The perspective of the observer was clearly American.
Carl Rahkonen sums it up in his 1994 technical paper when he says world music is more about what it is not rather than what it is:
World music might best be described by what it is not. It is not Western art music, neither is it mainstream Western folk or popular music. World music can be traditional (folk), popular or even art music, but it must have ethnic or foreign elements. It is simply not our music, it is their music, music which belongs to someone else.
So the next time you select world music in your playlist settings, you are essentially saying, hey, let’s listen to their music.
I got hold of Paul Simon’s Graceland cassette quite soon after it was released. Like everyone else outside of South Africa, I got to hear artists from that country for the first time. The opening A Capella by Ladysmith Black Mambazo followed by the opening bars of the guitars in Diamonds on the Soles of the Shoes are to me one of the finest openings in pop music. Later, I learnt that this was fusion music. I also learnt that this music brought hitherto unknown ethnic sounds from South Africa into the mainstream. The commercial success had made Graceland a template for future musical experiments in cross-border music mash ups. To top it all, with record companies coming out with International or Ethnic recordings, World Music got its stamp of credibility when an artist of the stature of Paul Simon immersed in it with considerable artistic and commercial success.
Over the years, I have come across music from many countries and at any given point in time, my smart phone music player has a playlist of songs which cover at least 10 languages and sourced from at least 15 different countries. Each of these songs come from long musical traditions which have their own stories. Appreciating the differences between the music of the Senegalese musicians Baaba Maal and Youssou N’Dour or between Amadou & Mariam and Tinariwen, both from Mali, and acknowledging that they come from completely different traditions should be as natural as discerning the difference between rock & roll and soul or jazz and reggae or electronica and heavy metal. As jazz, soul, R&B or rap tell stories of an entire race liberating themselves from slavery, the music from the world over tell their own stories about their people.
In the coming months, I will revisit all these musical works and explore the home country through the music. I hope to cover all the continents and will mostly avoid using the term World Music. Watch this space. Till then a playlist of six pieces of popular music from six continents which I will cover in the next six posts. I hope to hit at least 30 countries in the next month or so.