Artists, record labels and even this months Womad festival agree that the term is outdated. Is there a better way to market music from across the globe?
Ask most musicians what genre they play and youll likely get a prickly response. As one well-known, and slightly tipsy, jazz musician once told me: If you all stopped obsessing about me playing jazz, maybe I would be playing festival stages rather than tiny clubs by now. But while there have been meandering debates about jazz during its long history, another genre has become far more contentious in recent years: world music.
Dreamed up in a London pub in 1987 by DJs, record producers and music writers, it was conceived as a marketing term for the greater visibility of newly popularised African bands, following the success of Paul Simons Johannesburg-recorded Graceland the year before. It was all geared to record shops. That was the only thing we were thinking about, DJ Charlie Gillett, one of the pub-goers, told the Guardian in 2004. The group raised 3,500 from 11 independent labels to begin marketing world musicto record stores. It was the most cost-effective thing you could imagine, said record producer Joe Boyd. 3,500 and you get a whole genre and a whole section of record stores today.
Founders of the term provided vague justifications for lumping together anything that wasnt deemed to be from a European or American tradition looking at what artists do rather than what they sound like, as editor of fRoots magazine Ian Anderson said. The World of Music, Arts and Dance Festival, AKA Womad, which was founded seven years before the term gained prominence, similarly used it as a catch-all for its roster of international artists. There were no other festivals like ours at the time, artistic programmer Paula Henderson says. We werent pop or rock, so we were happy to advertise it as world when we began.
But the term soon faced opposition. Talking Heads frontman David Byrne founded the label Luaka Bop, which has released artists who might be placed in the world category, including William Onyeabor and Susana Baca. In 1999, he wrote a scathing op-ed in the New York Times called I Hate World Music in which he argued that listening to music from other cultures, letting it in, allows for it to change our world view and to reduce what was once exotic into part of ourselves. World music meant the opposite: a distancing between us and them: Its a none too subtle way of reasserting the hegemony of western pop culture, Byrne wrote. It ghettoises most of the worlds music. A bold and audacious move, White Man!
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