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World Music History

Ever since World Music emerged as a useful marketing concept back in 1987, conspiracy theorists have wasted energies on criticising it. 'Enough!', says Ian Anderson...

In the New York Times last October, rock star David Byrne penned a feature titled 'Why I Hate World Music.' "In my experience, the use of the term world music is a way of dismissing artists or their music as irrelevant to one's own life," he avowed. "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... It groups everything and anything that isn't 'us' into 'them.' This grouping is a convenient way of not seeing a band or artist as a creative individual, albeit from a culture somewhat different from that seen on American television. It's a label for anything at all that is not sung in English or anything that doesn't fit into the Anglo-Western pop universe this year."

David Byrne hates World Musicspacer
David Byrne hates World Music. Photo: Steve Gillett
Well, that's David Byrne's little local problem, but it is one that has occasionally raised its head among conspiracy theorists ever since the summer of 1987 when the original World Music campaign kicked in. Indeed, hardly had the first press releases settled on journalists' desks when London's City Limits magazine ran a knee-jerk featurette penned by Rick Glanville under the heading 'Bullshit Detector'. "Anybody from the Third World is allowed to join through the paternalistic assumption of rudimentary, exotic and inaccessible qualities. What the punter-friendly moniker fails to do is sidestep the middle class white dominance which spawned it -- fRoots magazine has tenaciously trumpeted acts like the Bhundu Boys and Youssou N'Dour when such hi-tech contemporary synth bands have never worn an Aran jumper in their lives."

Most of that says a lot more about the prejudices of the accuser than it does about the subject itself. In Britain, anything done out of enthusiasm by somebody with the slightest whiff of middle-classedness about them is automatically cause for intense suspicion. If such enthusiastic middle-class activists happen to be white and male too then it's an automatic conviction and throw away the key. Oddly, many of the people who hold these views are white, male and inescapably middle class too. Similarly, across the Atlantic there is a type of American who views anything done by those nasty ex-colonialist Brits (excluding, of course, the poor down-trodden Celts) as bound to be reprehensible. Of course, they then get very jumpy if we mention Coca Cola, cultural colonialism and the CIA...

All of this was very far from the thoughts of those who instigated the short-term marketing plan that resulted in World Music becoming a 'genre'. There was nary a subconscious twinge of a thought of ghettoising third world artists as irrelevant exotica or dressing them in Aran sweaters, I promise you.

How did we get to that point in now ancient history? Well, looking at it from personal experience, back in the 1960s it was very hard to find anything in England which wasn't American or a local copy of it (that'll teach those ex-colonialists, eh?). In turn, jazz, folk and blues (and later reggae) each had a boom, establishing such sufficiently sizeable niches that you would henceforth find their sections in most record shops. What might actually be put in those sections never needed to be fully defined, not that anybody ever could. The important thing was that you gut-feeling knew what jazz or folk was, even if it wasn't the same gut-feeling as the next person had. If you thought that was what you liked, then you knew where there might be a chance of finding it. Record shop staff could take a reasonable shot at which box to drop an LP sleeve into. So the stuff sold to the fans who wanted to buy it, and the curious beginner had somewhere to browse.

This feature first appeared in fRoots 201, March 2000


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