A riff on World music

Zehra Eekhout

There’s usually a prompt, intuitive understanding of the notion of world music. World music encompasses all the different styles of music from around the globe, with the connotation of music where different cultural traditions intermingle. It likely contains aspects of the familiar and the unfamiliar, a guitar lick akin to Eric Clapton, a woman chanting in a language you’ve never since heard. As to why this is, is both a cultural and economic phenomenon, and is the enterprise of ethnomusicology.

So what is World music exactly? To answer this, we have to look at globalization and notions of cultural imperialism. "A clue to its links to Western hegemony can be seen in the standard binary between Western and non-western music. Music enthusiasts have lamented the complex network of genres and sub-genres for Western music, but only one overarching term for music so diverse and disparate that their only similarity is their non-westernness"[1]. Beware the linear argument! How non-western is World music anyway? What exactly do we mean when we say, ‘World music’? Before the internet and file sharing created new avenues for the commodification of music, a handful of major record companies retained a monopoly on the production and marketing of music; Warner, Sony and Polygram, to name a few. At the time, circa the 1980’s and 90’s, their exports included artists such as Phil Collins, Elton John, etc. These names were known globally and there were few cultures that hadn’t, even then, produced their own versions of rock, country music, western style pop, etc. Whereas there appears to be some truth to the cultural imperialist view, the idea of a passive listener and a hegemony of major record labels is an oversimplification [2].

The problem with the cultural imperialist view is that it ignores two main details, namely hybridization, and re-appropriation in music [3]. “Anglo-American Pop and Rock music has always incorporated a variety of African and Latin elements, meaning that its musical effects, when returned to African and Latin American communities have been complex and varied”[4]. A cultural imperialist view here doesn’t account for migration, and the spreading of musical stylistic elements that is its effect. The music of any migrating people becomes isolated in their new community, homogenizing over time with local music. Interactions with their community of origin introduce aspects of music from their host culture, which are often enjoyed and incorporated. It is fair to say that most, if not all contemporary western pop is derived from the interaction between ethnic Western Europeans and people from other parts of the world. The introduction of African stylistic elements Western folk songs produced the genres of Jazz, Blues and Rock and roll. Latin American and Afro percussive rhythms are at the foundation of most Western Electronic music. Every element of a hybridized style is a collage of previous encounters, assimilations and blending.[5] This can be seen too at an individual level, as exemplified by street musicians, prone to travel, and often exposed to different cultures. “The crucial point is not that these street musicians are both world musicians and traditional folk musicians, but rather that they have collapsed the differences between the two.”[6]

World music, in terms of the commercial genre, is normally a mix of several different non-western musical stylistic elements played according to the standard of Western musical structures. It is commodified, and must thereby be commercially viable. What we consider to be music is learned via culture and often the ethnic music of other cultures may be too ‘foreign’ to be evocative and warrant purchasing or endorsement. The world music markets are mostly dictated by Western commercial economies, and as such, the music is composed according to what these relatively homogenous cultures consider musical[7]. But this isnt to say that there’s no market for less westernized music. Some non-western music has become renowned internationally, such as the folk music of India and Mali, boasting artists like Ali Farka Touré and Ravi Shankar.

World music is a term hard to define, it is complex and intertwined with the concept of globalization. It is a merger of cultures and musical traditional styles from around the world, that through globalization become something new and unique. An ideal view of World music can be seen as “an attempt to reconfigure music itself as a means of remapping the world without boundaries, thereby charting a utopian world in which local, ethnic, racial, and religious difference dissolve”[8]. World music in its ideal state is denied to no one. However, the reality of world music is not as utopian. It is predominantly influenced and controlled by the West, and the production of world music is spurred by profit. World music can be too foreign, too estranged to the vast population to be profitable. Even though World music is still somewhat prominent in the music industry, it is limited by commercial markets.


Further thoughts

Can cultural boundaries be bridged through World music?

How representative of non western cultures can World music really get?



[1] Stokes, M. (2012). Globalization and the Politics of World Music. In M. Clayton, T. Herbert, & R. Middleton (Eds.), The Cultural Study of Music : a critical introduction (2nd ed., Vol. N/A, pp. 108). London: Routledge.

[2] Stokes, M. (2012), pp. 108.

[3] Stokes, M. (2012), pp. 109.

[4] Stokes, M. (2012), pp. 109.

[5] Stokes, M. (2012), pp. 111.

[6] Bohlman, P. (2002). Global Musics, Post-Colonial Worlds, and the Globalization of World Music. In World Music : A Very Short Introduction (pp. 132). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[7] Stokes, M. (2012), pp. 113.

[8] Bohlman, P. (2002), pp. 149.