‘World music’: useful gateway term or controversial stereotype?

Angelique Kidjo’s storming interpretation of Talking Heads' Remain in Light album played the East Plaza in 2018

There really is no ‘world music’. It’s a marketing term created by the music industry to help sell non-Western music to Western buyers. In that respect, it’s proved a useful way of introducing artists from elsewhere to consumers in the major music markets. But is it sensible or fair to put all non-Western music into the same grab bag? World Music Day is coming up on 21 June; and while it’s a worldwide festival of music rather than a celebration of ‘world music’ as a genre, Bill Bragin from The Arts Center at NYUAD took the opportunity to argue that ‘world music’ does give us an opportunity to engage properly with cultures different from ours …

‘World music’ as a genre was born in an incongruous venue. It was 1987 and a group of music industry representatives had gathered in a London pub to hatch a plan to make the non-Western music they were trying to promote more accessible to consumers. After much discussion they agreed on the now ubiquitous phrase as a catch-all marketing term that might help their cause.

In many ways it turned out to be a phenomenally successful tactic that did indeed help to bring many global artists to the attention of audiences over the ensuing decades. But it has also proved to be continually problematic as perspectives evolved. Does the trade-off of guiding listeners to music they might not otherwise discover outweigh the hugely reductive step of placing the entirety of non-western music into a single category?

The cultural appreciation/appropriation dilemma is a conversation I have been hearing for my entire career, as a lover and often as a curator of genre-spanning music . I remember several decades ago moderating a music seminar panel with the Benin-born New Yorker Angelique Kidjo (known to UAE audiences for memorable shows at Expo 2020 and The Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi). She talked about accusations of selling out in order to ‘cross-over’; and she pointed out that since she was a child in Benin she listened to her older brother’s record collection, which included musicians from all over the world, including Jimi Hendrix, Billie Holiday and Miriam Makeba. Why, she asked, would an artist not want to use all the influences that shaped them?

Two-way street

Kidjo has sometimes faced criticism for the sheer breadth of her eclecticism, but she continues to be a fine example of an artist who combines different genres in a way that is true to her experience and passions. Her work also reminds us that ‘world music’ is not a one-way street of Westerners incorporating music from other cultures but rather a multidirectional, ongoing global dialogue.

Much of this debate comes down to intention, and having the sensitivity to understand what is appropriate for artists to draw from outside their own cultures. For example, the UK-based Balimaya Project group, who fuse West African folk music with jazz and the sounds of Black London, performed at The Arts Center earlier this year. Their leader Yahael Camara-Onono noted in a Q&A session that certain rhythms and songs from the Mandé culture of his parents require permission from the community’s elders to perform. So the sensitivity of those from outside the culture, as to their ability to perform this music, becomes even more important and raises questions that go way beyond music: Do we have the right to plant a flag anywhere we want? Or do we acknowledge that it is somebody else’s territory, and we should ask for permission to enter?

Ethics, knowledge, and generosity are at the heart of this debate. Is the interaction being conducted in a way that is reciprocal, with respect and authenticity, or is it just a means of self-enrichment? How does cultural exchange help further the creation of a cohesive society where people not only respect differences, but value those differences as a means of bringing cultures closer together without diluting their individual identities? When done right, music is a powerful tool for furthering these ideals.

Everything everywhere

When Angeliique Kidjo was growing up, her exposure to international sounds may have relied on her brother’s record collection. But today on-demand streaming has made the process of discovery much easier, and the high-quality production that home recording software can achieve has provided artists everywhere with greater access to the international marketplace.

All this accessibility is making itself felt. West African Afrobeat is now one of the primary styles of global pop music, and so is Latino and so is K-pop. The Global South has spent a lot of time listening to English-language music from the Global North; there’s now a willingness for this to happen the other way round. The result is that young people, especially, are far more open to different styles of music and can synthesise the differences more readily.

That feels optimistic, of course, and it reminds me of the questions I asked myself after moving to the UAE in 2014: what does ‘world music’ mean when you’re not doing it from the standpoint of a Western country, and where the population is already so diverse? I’ve noticed that whatever we show at The Arts Center is received by a section of the audience as theirs; it’s not foreign. And for other audiences, it’s Elvis Presley and The Beatles who count as ‘world music’.

The combination of audiences who share the performer’s cultural references, along with the those encountering the music for the first time, creates a bond that has depth and emotion. That interplay can help push culture forward and help us be a part of this country’s evolving transnational story, creating touchstones and markers for who we are, where we come from, and where we are going together.

As a co-founding co-curator of globalFEST in the US over the past 20 years, and in my work here at The Arts Center presenting an eclectic array of artists from all over the world, I have always tried to answer the question of how to present music that audiences recognise as ‘world music’ without ignoring its specificities.

At globalFEST, we include American regional music in the roster of international artists. We do that to ensure it is not about ‘othering’, but about recognising music that is rooted in a specific culture or geography.

And it’s also why I don’t use the phrase ‘world music’ to describe the annual Barzakh Festival that we hold at The Arts Center, even though most people would view it as such. The word ‘Barzakh’ refers, among other meanings, to the place in the sea where freshwater and the saltwater meet and coexist without diluting each other. And that’s my idea for the music – it is a meeting point between very locally rooted sounds, along with international musical languages, a convergence of the hyperlocal and hyper global that strengthens each other, and allows multiple identities to exist simultaneously.

So while the term ‘world music is rightly debated, the conversation around it invites us to consider our engagement with cultures different from ours. If we engage with this music by respecting the rich cultural tapestry it represents, and as an invitation to learn more and dig deeper, then we honour rather than trivialise it. Understanding this delicate balance can guide us towards a more respectful and conscious global cultural exchange. And it will open our eyes and ears to some fabulous, and possibly life changing, music.

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