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Ian Birrell from The Guardian makes a good case that world music is an outdated and offensive term that puts non-western musicians into a sort of musical ghetto in which no person dares to enter.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.


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.


Watch This Pakistani Orchestra Cover Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five”

Pakistan’s Sachal Studios Orchestra, an orchestra based in Lahore, Pakistan, does this wonderful and essential cover of Paul Desmond’s “Take Five”, the jazz standard made famous by the Dave Brubeck Quartet on the essential Time Out (1959). It’s one of those songs that you’ve already heard a million times, yet it sounds so fresh in a different context that it’s like you’re hearing this music for the first time again.

Supposedly Brubeck was a fan of this cover and called it the most interesting version of “Take Five” that he had ever heard.

This orchestra also does equally great covers of R.E.M. and The Beatles.

Thanks Open Culture for this story.

Listen to Brubeck’s original “Take Five” below:

Buffy Sainte-Marie, The Woman Who Won This Year’s Polaris Music Prize


The annual Polaris Music Prize goes to the Canadian artist who made the best album of the year, and this year it went to Buffy Sainte-Marie for her 2015 record Power in the Blood.

Truth be told I never heard of Buffy Sainte-Marie before this week, yet I recognized every other act who was also nominated for this year’s prize (Drake, Tobias Jesso Jr., The New Pornographers, BADBADNOTGOOD & Ghostface Killah, Caribou, and the soon-to-be-renamed Viet Cong). I decided to do some research on her, since Polaris has a pretty great track record of nominations, and I’m sad to report that I’ve been missing out on such a talented artist who has been making great music for 50+ years. But I’m also happy, because now I have a few new albums to check out.


Buffy Sainte-Marie is an electro-acoustic folk musician in the vain of Björk or Kate Bush trying to be more like Bob Dylan, and she was an innovative figure in early psychedelic folk. She does everything from protest anthems, to heart-on-your-sleeve love songs, and to straight up jams with a full band. She is also a visual artist and an activist who focuses on the rights of Native Americans (she herself is a Cree). She also appeared as a musical guest on “Sesame Street” from 1976-81.

Power in the Blood is both a celebration of an influential career and another milestone for an artist who has always gone her own way, and it’s worthy of Canadian music’s highest honor.

Check out “It’s My Way” and her revision version that opens up Power in the Blood below.

“It’s My Way” (1964)

“It’s My Way” (2015 reversion via Power in the Blood)

Gabor Szabo – ‘Bacchanal’


A friend of mine recently introduced me to Hungarian guitarist Gabor Szabo and his 1968 album Bacchanal, and now it’s the only thing that I can listen to. This album’s mix of jazz, pop-rock, and Hungarian style is an interesting blend of many influences, but what’s amazing is how seamlessly he combines everything. You can tell that Szabo is a master of several different styles when he makes it sound this easy.

Szabo was a huge influence on Carlos Santana (apparently he ripped off his “Gypsy Queen” for the second part of “Black Magic Woman”) and he was well respected among international jazz elites. Though his career was influential, Szabo’s personal life took an interesting turn later when his involvement with the church of Scientology derailed his music career. He would eventually sue the church for corrupting and try to get back into music, but the damage was already done and his music would never be the same. He died already known to many people as a man from past. But what a past.

This album’s tracklist is fascinating to me: two of the songs were written by Donovan, one by Burt Bacharach, and a piece by André Previn “Theme from Valley of the Dolls”, a cult classic that inspired Roger Ebert to co-write a parody. There’s no singing on the album, but Szabo’s guitar playing should be enough for anyone.

Tonight put aside some time to listen to this album all the way through (it’s on Spotify) and I guarantee you’ll have a good night.

Alex Cuba


From: Canada via Cuba

Sounds Like: Jason Mraz

Alex Cuba is a Latin-Grammy winning singer-songwriter who has traveled throughout the world, yet Cuba will always be his home. His mix of light Afro-Latin rhythms and easy-going singing will take you to sunny Cuba with an old-fashion sound that still sounds infectious in 2015.

Tipsy Oxcart


From: Brooklyn, NY

Sounds Like: The kind of Eastern European music that Kanye West would sample.

“We want to share what we love. We’ve been digging deep into the Balkan style, but we love a whole range of different music styles, too,” say Connell Thompson, saxophonist and clarinetist of Tipsy Oxcart, a Brooklyn-based group that plays music inspired by the jubilant spirit of Eastern Europe and specifically the Balkan region, “By combining intricate Eastern European melodies with elements of the rock, funk, jazz and reggae we grew up with, we hope to open the minds of those who wouldn’t think to listen to this kind of music. We want as many people to hear and love it as we do.”


Though none of the band members are originally from Eastern Europe, they all grew up loving and performing the Balkan style, and some actually traveled to the region to play with local musicians to hone in on their skills to be as faithful to the aesthetics of the region, both in sound and performance. The band appreciates this musical style for its hospitality and exuberance (even the sad ballads sound festive) and they try to emulate this uplifting mood and mix it in with some of their own western influences, including Kanye West, “Tutti Frutti”, and their own hometown of New York (their song “Sevdah One Eight” is a play on their area code).

The band also makes a point to play in atypical venues – subway stops, your friend’s living room, etc – to make their performances as intimate as possible and to bring joy and dancing to the places where you’d least expect it.

Their latest album ‘Upside Down’ is available now. Check out their Bandcamp here.

World Music Wednesday: Ajoyo


From: Brooklyn, NY

Sounds Like: If Charlie Parker played with Fela Kuti.

Ajoyo is the work of Yacine Boularés, a multi-reed player who seamlessly blends together traditional West African dance music with Arabic and Afrobeat rhythms and American jazz/soul influences.

Originally from Tunisia, a North African country with a large Arabic presence, Boularés moved to Paris to study philosophy and music and now lives in Brooklyn where he has immersed himself in American jazz and soul. Boularés’s blend of African dance rhythms (mostly inspired by West African countries like Cameroon), general Afrobeat, and jazz composition will sound familiar yet totally unexpected and moving.

The rest of Ajoyo consist of Linton Smith (trumpet), Alon Albagli (guitar), Can Olgun (keys), Fred Doumbe (bass), Guilhem Flouzat (drums), and Sarah Elizabeth Charles (vocals). Ajoyo’s self-titled debut will be released April 21st via Ropeadope.