Further to Society and soundscape, I’ve long been resistant to the glossy World Music bandwagon, but just as I thought I was being broad-minded by creating a sidebar category for it (subheaded, to boot), I find it’s been abolished. Typical!
Both Anglo-American pop and WAM (for which, despite my best efforts, the term “classical music” remains entrenched) pretend to a blinkered hegemony, barely acknowledging each other. This is more realistic for the former, but the latter still lays impotent claim to a fictive prestige.
Defining “music” itself turns out to be a tricky business. For a global view, I admire the stirring opening of Christopher Small’s book Musicking. Among the endless taxonomies for music (both emic and etic), terms like “folk” and “traditional” are flawed.
The term “world music” was used in the Music faculty of Wesleyan University by Robert E. Brown from 1960; but as a marketing label in wider currency it dates only from a 1987 meeting in a London pub—and its African basis has proved enduring.
But now I’m amused to read a recent Guardian article noting that promoters are already finding the term outdated. Indeed, in 1999 David Byrne wrote a piece entitled “I hate world music”; concerned about ghettoising, he commented:
It’s a way of relegating this ”thing” into the realm of something exotic and therefore cute, weird but safe, because exotica is beautiful but irrelevant; they are, by definition, not like us.
He also noted that the messy fusion of such genres belies the “myth of the authentic”:
White folks needed to see Leadbelly in prison garb to feel they were getting the real thing. They need to be assured that rappers are ”keeping it real,” they need their Cuban musicians old and sweet, their Eastern and Asian artists ”spiritual.” The myths and cliches of national and cultural traits flourish in the marketing of music. There is the myth of the untutored, innocent savant whose rhymes contain funky Zen-like pearls of wisdom—the myth that exotic ”traditional” music is more honest, more soulful and more in touch with a people’s real and true feelings than the kid wearing jeans and the latest sports gear on Mexican television.
This is a fair point, even if the world music market is dominated by “ethno-lite” fusion pop, largely Afro-Cuban; and even if its commercial basis tends to marginalize less marketable traditions studied by ethnomusicologists. Meanwhile the Guardian‘s worthy switch from “world album of the month” to “global album of the month” doesn’t seem to butter many parsnips.
Along with world music, in the parallel academic world the definition of ethnomusicology has long been the subject of laborious debate. As ever Bruno Nettl gives a fine overview. In the opening chapter of Ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions, he notes changing emphases from comparative musicology to ethnomusicology, with “primitive” and “traditional” biting the dust, and occasional subtleties like “ethno-musicology” and even “(ethno)musicology” creeping in.
Nettl continues to ponder definitions in Chapter 2, as well as in his Chapter 1 of Philip Bohlmann, The Cambridge history of world music (2013). Bohlmann, in chapter 7 of his World music: a very short introduction (2002), astutely discusses the Rough Guides phenomenon and world music festivals, noting how ethnomusicologists can’t remain aloof from the world music scene. And he observes:
If indeed we share world music globally through our encounter with it, we nonetheless experience it in very different worlds, which in turn are shaped in distinctly different ways because of economic, ethnic and racial, political and historical disparities. There are today more different technologies that enable us to encounter more world music than ever before, but the question arises as to whether these faciliate or complicate encounter. More to the point, pronouncements by media experts about the ubiquity of CDs, Internet, and the transnational recording industry notwithstanding, not everyone in the world has equal access to the technologies of world music, and most people in the world have no access.
If you’re so inclined, there’s a wealth of theoretical discussion to digest; but here I just wanted to make the drôle point that I yet again find myself living in the past. Of course, society is slow to take on board the pronouncements of pundits, so the label seems unlikely to disappear any time soon. Perhaps we could coin the rubric “Folk/world/traditional”, just for the pleasure of using the acronymn FWT, or FuckWiT (for some mischievous airline acronyms, see here).
One looks forward to the day when world music means all the musickings of all the peoples of the world (including pop and WAM), so we can simply call it “music”—“all music, everywhere, and everything about it”, as Nettl says. No-one ever said classifications were going to be watertight; but for the time being I guess we still need some kind of catch-all rubric for the didgeridoos, mariachi bands, and Balkan–Malian fusion gigs, along with more hardcore traditions…