A few days ago I heard a BBC News report on the local NPR affiliate that a British DJ named Charlie Gillett had just died. I’m not British and I never heard his radio show, but I quickly realized that I owed Gillett a huge debt of gratitude. So do a lot of others around the world, whether they know it or not. Gillett and three other music enthusiasts were the ones who came up with the term, “world music.” It seems trivial until you think about the implications. Lots of wonderful music would remain virtually unknown without the term.
Every so often I get into arguments with people over “world music” – one of the many types of music I love. Isn’t it Anglo-centric? Isn’t it insulting? Aren’t America and England part of the world too? Shouldn’t music be designated according to style, no matter what country it comes from? All very good questions, but in the end pretty much irrelevant. It might be overgeneralized and imprecise, but the concept of world music was created for a reason, and I’m grateful to the people who came up with it.
What does it mean exactly? To me it means basically “stuff that’s based on different folk traditions than those I’m most familiar with.” I think it’s a way for people who don’t want to be quite so anglocentric to open their minds and explore. It isn’t really a genre, per se. It’s a marketing term. A way to reach – and help create – people with a “generalized sense of musical xenophilia.”
When I walk into Waterloo Records in Austin, they have a specific section for World Music (I think they call it International), where the music is in turn divided up based on countries and regions. I might go through that section and see a country I hadn’t even thought about and pick up a CD out of curiosity. I like being able to do that. If all the music got split up into its various genres, I might not be able to find it. It would get lost among the more familiar American and British groups.
I first got into World Music through the Luaka Bop label, founded by David Byrne – which has a lot of authentic folk-based music from primarily Latin countries; Peter Gabriel’s Real World label, which has African and Asian artists, which put out some great albums by Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan; the Hannibal Label, which has released a lot of African pop, Celtic music, and Eastern European folk-based stuff; and Bill Laswell’s Axiom label, which combines “world music” with genres like hip hop, dub, rock, jazz and funk. Rough Guide and Putumayo have also put out some great World Music compilations, all mixed up and broken down by region. I’ve never heard one of those I didn’t like. I’ve also discovered a lot of good stuff through a World Music show on 90.5 KUT, the local NPR radio affiliate.
World music did something else for me: It opened my ears to the traditions I grew up with. Even though I grew up around it, I never gave country, folk, or anything remotely like that a chance, until after several years of listening to “world music.” It also taught me to appreciate the conjunto music I had heard all my life before that–as I tuned past on the radio–but never liked.
This Guardian article from 2004 explains how the concept of world music came about and why: We created world music.