Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Is There a World Music?

I originally posted the following short essay on my main blog (Robert Philen's Blog) back in July. Since I showed the video documentary, Kienes?, which I discuss below, in class the other day, I thought I'd repost the essay here as well:

Kienes? (a variation on “Quién es?” – “Who are you?”) is a short documentary of Algerian-French singer Rachid Taha’s tour of Mexico from 2004. (A DVD copy is included with Taha’s album Tékitoi.) At one point in the video, Taha responds to a question from a Mexican journalist about World Music. Taha argues that “World Music” is simply a convenience for shopkeepers. He also says that “World Music” is a short hand for music from “there” rather than “here,” and that for a Mexican audience, U2, as an Irish band, is a band from “there” and hence “World Music.”

Part of Taha’s comment is straightforwardly true. World Music is a catch-all label that serves as a marketing tool and a convenience for music shops and customers. Another part of his comment is playful and facetious, though making a serious point. World Music is music from “there,” but where “here” and “there” have become fixed locations (“here” is the U.S., the U.K., and sometimes the rest of northern and western Europe – “there” is everywhere else) rather than deictic shifters. To the extent “World Music” exists, and largely as a marketing tool, U2 doesn’t fit (though some other bands from Ireland, like Clannad, might).

World Music as a Marketing Tool

There are many types of music with very real histories and traditions, some quite old, some more recent, that are often today lumped together (at least in the U.S. and some other parts of the world) as “World Music.” “World Music” as this catch-all category would not exist were it not convenient for the recording industry and record dealers (whether conventional stores or online). As I began to argue above, world music is largely the music of there, with here defined largely from a North American or European and mainly English-speaking perspective.

What defines this catch-all category? What’s included? The most important criteria seem to be culture, geography, language, and modernity.

Culture, geography, and language are separate criteria, but in the marketing of World Music, they’re inextricably intertwined. Much of the marketing of World Music plays on the tropes of purity, authentic linkage between voice and place (which links culture, language, and place), primitiveness as sign of purity, authenticity, and autochthony – it’s the marketing of “natives,” and as Arjun Appadurai has pointed out, one of the qualities of “the native” in many genres of discourse, including a lot of ethnographic writing, is the intertwining of culture and place, such as to imprison the (non-modern) native in contrast to the world wandering (and modern) Westerner.

The music of all non-western cultures and places is included in the “World Music” category, whether the musics of Sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa and the Middle East, Asia, or the Pacific.

Most music not sung in English is World Music. The major exception to this is that rock and pop genre music performed in languages of Northern and Western Europe that are perceived as modern (i.e. a language like Gaelic is typically perceived and marketed as “traditional) are generally not marketed as “World” (though I’ve seen plenty of record stores market French and German pop music as varieties of World Music, too). Rock and pop “en español” are more ambiguous. They are typically marketed as “Latin” music, which might or might not be marketed as World Music, marking, I think, English speakers’ ambiguous sense of Latin America’s place as part of “Western Culture.”

Some Western musics are included also. Some North American and Northern European musical traditions are at least sometimes marketed as varieties of World Music. The key is that they’re not the traditions of populations that are or were historically mainly English-speaking, and simultaneously, they’re musics associated with tradition rather than modernity. So, North American genres like blues, country, bluegrass, or folk might be seen as rural, or traditional, or even quaint,” musics, but they’re not generally “World Music,” while zydeco (associated with both tradition and French-speaking Cajuns) sometimes is. “Irish” or “Celtic” music (which doesn’t include all the music of Ireland, e.g. U2 are not “Irish” in the “traditional music” sense), with its association with a Gaelic speaking population (even if many if not most of the musicians are now English speakers), has an ambiguous relationship to World Music like that of zydeco – sometimes it’s included in the category and sometimes not.

Looking at what’s included in the category of “World Music” provides an interesting, if not all that surprising, window into how culture is marketed and how many North American and European English speakers view their relation to the world. English-speaking Europe and North America is definitively “here.” Northern/Western Europe is pretty clearly “here.” Cajuns, Celts, and Spanish speakers are ambiguously “here/there,” and everyone/everyplace else is definitively “there.”

There is a real World Music

“World Music” is a marketing tool. There’s not a lot of commonality to much of the music included within it, e.g. not a lot in common between Tuvan throat singing, Hawaiian slack-key guitar, Mexican ranchero, or Native American flute music.

There is within the catch-all category, though, and growing largely out of the success of the marketing of world music, a subset that has developed into a meaningfully coherent genre in its own right. It is a hybrid genre, generally mixing the rhythms of western pop and rock music with musical elements from a wide variety of non-western musics. A typical result is western electric bass, drum kit, and/or synthesizers and drum machines providing rhythms recognizable to the average western listener surrounded by other “exotic” sounds, i.e. producing at once music that is familiar and different.

Much of this is done cynically, a way to cash in on the “exotic,” often at the same time watering down non-western musical traditions with not much compensation (economic or aesthetic) for the musicians. Some of this World Music, though, is done quite creatively – and it’s not always a matter of westerners appropriating non-western exotic material, but in some cases of musicians incorporating western musical elements (or simply elements from other places) into their own music, such as with Rachid Taha’s “Rock El Casbah,” Sheila Chandra’s “Love is a Killing Thing,” Sekouba Bambino’s version of the James Brown classic “It’s a Man’s, Man’s World,” or the incorporation of electronic beats into Issa Bagayogo’s music.

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