The term irks me like a pebble in the shoe. If it’s in the world and it’s music, literally all music is world music. Or, maybe the term applies to anything non-Western. As David Byrne says, “Western pop is the fast food of music,” so perhaps if music is complicated or has substance it’s “world.” But what about vapid French pop? World. If it comes from somewhere you’ve never been, or it’s in a language you don’t understand, world.
Brushing my irritation aside, however, I began to wonder if the term means something different to those who are lumped under it. As it turns out, it’s a great conversation starter with some of this year’s ¡Globalquerque! festival guests, assembled from across the globe. Once you’ve read their thoughts (collected via email and phone interview), you can show up, listen and create your own categories for their music.
What, if anything, does the term “world music” mean to you?
Composer, drummer, electronicist
Band: Burkina Electric
Sound: African electronica
Origins: Burkina Faso / Germany
“It can mean several things. ‘World music’ as a commercial category (i.e. musical cubbyhole) was created arbitrarily in 1986 by some British music executives who met at a pub in London to discuss how to file some of the newly released records that were coming onto the market but didn't fit into any of the established categories. In many ways it has been equated with a kind of folk-inspired pop and has become a ‘least common denominator’ music, so I guess as someone who makes music, the term doesn't have great significance for me.
“But it can also (somewhat paradoxically) mean any kind of music inspired by a local tradition around the world, regardless of whether it remains in the same location. My personal interest is in creating music that is inspired by such local traditions but uses approaches and ways of thinking about music found in these traditions to go someplace new—not only geographically, but mainly conceptually. I think world music, whatever it is—let's say music built on the openness to foreign sounds—can contribute greatly to intercultural understanding. I like to respect differences and build on similarities. People in different parts of the world have much more in common than not, but it is also naive to think of music as one big universal language. That would be to capitalize on the worst aspects of globalization.”
Upright bass, fiddle
Sound: A wall of fiddle sound—traditional reels with stomping and hollerin’, backed by guitar and bass
“For us the term world music means a way to easily throw various kinds of music—with an idea of an ethnic background—into one huge category. It is easy but not maybe as descriptive as lots of the musical content under this category would deserve. But it also gives an open-minded chance to present all kinds of traditional ingredients and musical approaches together. Music of the world.”
Didgeridoo, shakers, guitar
Band: Baraka Moon
Sound: Sufi dance trance with Australian Aboriginal, African and Middle Eastern influences
“I would say music of this planet, for sure, and that could include almost anything. ... You can speak of Americana and someone knows more or less the kind of music you’re talking about, or you can speak about Tuvan throat singing and know the kind of thing you’re going to hear, but if you talk about African music, for example, what are you talking about? ... There’re more than 50 different countries in Africa and even those are, as in many parts of the world, constructions or impositions of the colonial mindset. So within each of those countries in Africa may be dozens and dozens of different types of music. World music really is a phenomenally all-embracing term if you actually want to go into it. I think most people would define world music, in part, as music that’s not sung in English. Because if you had American punk, you wouldn’t constitute it as world music, whereas Japanese punk you certainly would. ...
“I don’t think it’s a meaningless term. I think it’s the feeling of a need, especially in the marketplace, and in the music business, to be able to have a label. You can tack something on to something and put it in a category that can be there for identifying and marketing.”
Felix Y Los Gatos
David Barclay Gomez
Band: Felix y Los Gatos
Sound: A medley of South and Southwest, with zydeco, jazz, funk and rancheras
Origin: New Mexico
“World music means ‘people music.’ Music that would exist without magazines, recording companies, radio or Internet. Locally grown, unique genres that absorb [their] surrounding culture.”
Los Amigos Invisibles
José Rafael Torres
Band: Los Amigos Invisibles
Sound: Disco, funk and jazz fusion dance music
“To me that's the label for whatever the music industry considers weird and not sung in English. The music industry needs labels. Musicians not.”
How does your music fit within the greater context of what is being made in the rest of the world?
Ligeti: “I think that given all the technological developments of the past couple of decades, it's inevitable that people all over the world will want to use these new possibilities for music. This has been happening for more than 60 years, with musique concrète, etc. In fact the first African electronic music was made in 1944 in Cairo by Halim el-Dabh using a wire recorder. It continued with styles like dub in the ’60s, all the way to techno, house, etc. We also work with electronics and try to do it in a way that doesn't replace people or traditional instruments, but does something new that couldn't be accomplished without electronics. In that way, we are a bit unusual, because very few groups, especially in the world music context, are so deliberately experimental.”
Järvelä: “Our music is one little slice of the world heritage that has been consciously developed towards the needs of modern community to make people understand and explore their roots a bit more easily. Assumedly that is happening more and more around the world. Commercial world music overall has got more and more beat-orientated and [the] majority of the people in the world can relate to the beat. There's just many ways to bring the beat out, and that's why we try to remind [audiences] that drums aren't always that necessary to achieve that. Drums have never played a big part in our musical history.”
Kent: “Each of the members of the band playing with Baraka Moon in ¡Globalquerque! has a career as a solo artist, and has established that over many years. ... What you have, just on the surface of Baraka Moon—just looking at the cultures and the religions of the cultures that the members come from—you’ve got a Christian guy from England who grew up in Africa—that’s me. You’ve got a Sufi Pakistani musician who comes from a 600-year family tradition of singing Indian classical music and Sufi trance music—he’s Muslim. And you have a Jewish New Yorker with lots of connections in India and roots playing in all parts of the Middle East, but from a U.S. European background. So you’ve got a mix of different cultures represented playing harmoniously together. ... It’s very much bringing-people-together music.”
Gomez: “We are artists as well as entertainers. And just like our musical brethren in other parts of the world, we provide pleasure and escape from the mundane—if only even for a few hours.”
Torres: “I used to think about it, not anymore. The most important thing for us right now is to do what we need to do in order to be happy and keep fans happy. Whether this is important for the musicians in the rest of the world is for others to say.”
Why do you tour?
Ligeti: “We love to travel and see the world, and we love to play music and share it with people all over the world.”
Kent: “We love to be out there, we love to make connections. We’re communicators and entertainers as well. We’re about connecting the disparate dots on planet Earth.”
Gomez: “We tour because we know there are those out there that will enjoy what we do. We are obligated.”
Torres: “To build audiences, to grow as performers, to enjoy the pleasure of being in a stage, and to pay our bills.”
Can music change the world?
Järvelä: “Why not? Music is a global language and musicians touring around the world are without a doubt among the best ambassadors, presenting and teaching that language. It is really easy nowadays to get influenced by any kind of music from nearly any corner of the world. You don't necessarily need to understand the specific style you're listening to and you can still get moved. Emotions, energy, musical dynamics, group dynamics, dance, etc., are all a part of a complex and so unexplainable entity, and still every single person in the world can relate to it. ... Music is a cost-effective—maybe the most effective—weapon full of life in the struggle to make people understand each other even a bit more.”
Gomez: “Music can change the world by providing an emotionally altered perspective. All music has it to some degree. From gangster rap to Christmas carols, music changes the mental atmosphere, for better or worse.”
Torres: “I don't think music can change the world. If anything, it just makes life more enjoyable to some individuals.”