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The term “world music” was first circulated in ethnomusicology (the study of music in or as culture) and entered Western popular culture as a category of musical commodity in the 1980s. It is a packaging of music “from the outside” into popular music primarily intended for Western consumers. In this sense, world music generally connotes non-Western music traditions (e.g., singing-storytelling in Mali, qawwali in Pakistan, and Aboriginal music in Australian); music that combines Western and non-Western elements (e.g., Nigerian juju and Afrobeat, Paul Simon’s collaborations with South African musicians); and non-mainstream music from folk traditions or ethnic groups within Western societies (e.g., Irish folk music, salsa in New York, Indian bhangra—fusion of folk music with Western popular music—in London). The term is intended to exclude other marketing categories (e.g., classical, rock), but its boundaries have never been clearly delineated, and what is considered world music has changed over time, affected by shifting patterns of Western musical interests.
At least since the 1960s, ethnomusicologists have used the term world music to denote all music (e.g., folk, art, popular) of all the world’s peoples. The “world” qualifier stresses the inclusion of non-Western music. In practice, studies of world music have tended not to include Western art (classical) music, so the term, as used in ethnomusicology, tends to refer more to music outside of that tradition.
Music scholar Timothy D. Taylor recounts the entry of world music into popular discourse in Global Pop: World Music, World Markets (1997). In response to growing sales of non-Western music recordings, representatives of independent record companies, broadcasters and concert promoters met in London in 1987 to discuss marketing the music. They determined that record stores were reluctant to stock the music because it was not clear under which heading it should be sold: The existing rubrics of folk, ethnic and international were not clearly defined, differentiated or adequately promoted. Following ethno-musicologists, the group decided to term the emerging niche world music. The term entered the music press and spread internationally. In 1990 Billboard magazine created a world music chart, and in the 1990s catalogues and guidebooks to world music appeared, such as World Music: The Rough Guide.
Whereas ethnomusicologists introduced the term world music as an inclusive term, in music promotion and distribution the term is used to distinguish it from other existing categories such as pop, rock, classical, and jazz. Yet the precise boundaries of the world music category are unclear and somewhat fluid, as the following examples illustrates. Filipina singer Banig sings in a Western pop style with English lyrics, and as Timothy Taylor observes in Global Pop, she is classified as a world music artist. Swedish band Ace of Base, French Canadian Celine Dion, and German singer Nena are all categorized as pop music rather than world music, regardless of which language they use. World music is sometimes defined as “roots music,” meaning that it is perceived as explicitly connecting with or continuing a people’s tradition or heritage. Thus, while Nena and the German band Kraftwerk are not classified as world music, German Heimatmusik (music associated with the countryside) is categorized as world music. In addition, the content of world music racks in stores is shaped more by trends in Western music purchasing than a systematic attempt to represent all the world’s music. The swelling of the Celtic music subcategory within world music in the 1990s was due to North Americans exploring their (vaguely defined) Celtic heritage and not, for example, a change in the overall makeup of the music of the world.
The Popularity Of World Music In Western Cultures
There has been Western interest in world music as far back as Westerners have encountered other cultures. For example, the Middle Eastern santur was a blueprint for the European pianoforte, and the banjo was descended from a Northwest African lute adapted by Africans in the Caribbean. During the twentieth century there was an acceleration of outside influences on music. Examples include the “Latin invasion” of the 1930s and 1940s (audible in the music of Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie); the popularity of calypso in the 1940s and 1950s (the Andrew Sisters and Harry Belafonte); Brazilian bossa nova in the 1950s; and South African vocal music in the 1960s (The Tokens’s “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”).
During the 1960s and 1970s there was a surge in popularity of folk and folk-rock music, stimulating an unprecedented interest in world folk music recordings. Folkways Records and Elektra Records’s Nonesuch Explorer Series began to meet this growing demand. Several British and American popular musicians incorporated world musical elements into their music, for example, George Harrison (Indian sitar and ragas), Led Zeppelin (Arabic melodies) and the Clash (reggae rhythm).
George Harrison, and Paul Simon later (with Graceland), not only incorporated world influences, but “curated” the music like ethnomusicologists. The musicians went into the field (Harrison to India, Simon to Africa), “discovered” the music, and presented it to the Europe and North American market, often performing with world musicians. World music was introduced to listeners by familiar musical personalities with star appeal.
David Byrne, Peter Gabriel, and Mickey Hart followed in this vein. Ethnomusicologist Steven Feld argues that the Western experience of world music in the 1980s was largely shaped by “pop star collaboration and curation” (Feld 2000, p. 149). As world music grew in popularity, an increasing number of record labels started marketing it.
Pop-star collaboration and curation continued into the 1990s; however, other channels of distribution also emerged. In the late 1990s and 2000s the Internet became a leading means of distributing world music. With the Internet, the term world music is perhaps less crucial to marketing because consumers can also search online by country of origin, musician, or instrument. But the category shows no signs of disappearing. The world music category is prominently used in Web sites and sold in the cosmopolitan cities of Europe, North America, Australia, and elsewhere. Also, chain coffee shops increasingly sell recordings of world music, such as the Hear Music CDs in Starbucks.
- Bohlman, Philip V. 2002. World Music: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Broughton, Simon, Mark Ellingham, and Richard Trillo, et al., eds. 1999. World Music: The Rough Guide. London: Rough Guides/Penguin.
- Feld, Steven. 1994. Notes on “World Beat.” In Music Grooves: Essays and Dialogues, eds. Charles Keil and Steven Feld, pp. 238–246. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Feld, Steven. 2000. A Sweet Lullaby for World Music. Public Culture 12(1): 145–71.
- Frith, Simon, ed. 1989. World Music, Politics, and Social Change: Papers from the International Association for the Study of Popular Music. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press.
- Guilbault, Jocelyn. 1997. Interpreting World Music: A Challenge in Theory and Practice. Popular Music 16(1): 31–44.
- Meintjes, Louise. 1990. Paul Simon’s Graceland, South Africa, and the Mediation of Musical Meaning. Ethnomusicology 34 (1): 37–73.
- Mitchell, Tony. 1993. World Music and the Popular Music Industry: An Australian View. Ethnomusicology 37 (3): 309-38.
- Sweeney, Philip. 1992. The Virgin Directory of World Music. New York: Henry Holt.
- Taylor, Timothy D. 1997. Global Pop: World Music, World Markets. New York: Routledge.
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