Where Did The Term “World Music” Come From (and Should We Still Use It)?

music-notes-map-of-the-world-map-michael-tompsettImage: Michael Tompsett

“World Music” is one giant dump of a genre. Anything that sounds foreign or speaks in a different language can be shrugged off as world music. You can also define world music by what it’s not; it’s not mainstream or popular music, or it’s not music that belongs to you. World music is always someone else’s tradition.

My favorite description of world music comes from a fRoots magazine quote that I read a long time ago: “local music from out there.” It’s accurate, but it’s not right. Should we reduce an entire culture and history to just a place “from out there”?

Ian Birrell from The Guardian makes a good case that world music is an outdated and offensive term that puts non-western musicians into a sort of musical ghetto in which no person dares to enter. David Byrne, probably one of new wave’s most prominent ambassadors of world music, hates the phrase. Many people feel this way.

I understand that some people don’t care about where music comes from – I actually talk about it here – but I think we should all be aware of how the phrase “world music” causes confusion.

Many non-Americans consider Appalachian music and bluegrass to be “World Music”, yet we just call it “folk” or “Americana”. Is folk music world music? Was Bob Dylan a world music artist? What happens if you’re from South Africa but you sound like TV On The Radio (like BJK JKS)? Is that considered world music? I don’t think so.

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So where did the actual term “World Music” come from?

The best answer I know of comes from this Guardian piece: in 1987 Ben Mandelson and Roger Armstrong of Ace Records imprint GlobeStyle were meeting in a London pub trying to sell their current stock of records from around the world that weren’t selling. They came up with and coined the term “World Music” as a marketing tool to round up all the music that didn’t fit into the typical genre names. Having all this music titled under one description made it more appealing for record stores to stock those albums; it was a convenient short term solution that turned into a long term point of reference that we still use today.

I’m sure Mandelson and Armstrong didn’t mean any harm when they began using this phrase to make their records more accessible, but is it time that we move on from “world music”? What should we say instead? I have questions and only observations:

Trying to lump such diverse music under one umbrella hurts these musicians and what they represent. “Rock music” has plenty of variety, but very few people will complain about having the rock tag because it’s associated with sex, drugs, and, maybe once upon a time ago, profit. But to lump a bunch of music together that only has its non-Americanness (that’s a word right?) in common is lazy and, more importantly, disrespectful. For example, it’s easy to lump any music that comes from Africa and just say that it’s “African music”, but Africa is a diverse continent (and not a country) that has many different cultures and music. North African is not the same as West African, and the music reflects that. Even just “West African music” is a stretch.

I don’t have a fancy new phrase to coin here, but I think whatever replaces the term “world music” should put an emphasis on its place within a community or how much ties it has with the culture that it’s from. Maybe that’s the true meaning of world music.

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Brady is the founder of Headphone Nation. He’s responsible for all this mess. Sorry about that. He’s also on Twitter @BradyWGerber

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