It is not unusual these days to walk into any music store and find a category called ‘World Music’ – most commonly displayed alphabetically, according to country and not artist, quite unlike the other products in the shop. The term has become a marketing ploy and a category supposedly meant to introduce the wider recording buying public to sounds from ‘around the world’. On further scrutiny you will find an array of colorful, beautifully packaged CDs with titles like the American- based Putumayo series Music from the Chocolate Lands, Latin Lounge or Arab Groove. Also in this category is the popular British series, the Rough Guide to World Music, with titles like Desert Blues and Highlife – these sometimes with bright illustrations of alluring, brown-skinned, seductive-looking women against a backdrop of deserts, palm trees, marketplaces and cafés, which apparently represent the landscape, main export commodity and flavour, of particular regions of the world.
Obviously, this is a case where music marketing agents are advertently regressing into crude, debased concepts about people from Africa, Asia and South America. These images are often already existent in the minds of the major target audience of these products, such as Europeans and North Americans. But I would argue further that these images entrench and deepen racist perceptions not dissimilar to 19th-century colonial imagination and imagery of ‘the other’. Does they also not reduce what are complex music creations into watered-down consumable products expressly meant and directed at the mass music markets in the metropolitan cultural axis of New York/London /Paris/Berlin/Tokyo? It replays the colonial encounter because it resembles the work of original ethnographers in the colonies and the codified reports that were made the mother country of primitive customs of unruly natives. World Music fulfills and taps into a need and a desire to engage with the ‘faraway’.
The idea and strategy of packaging completely divergent music styles and musicians into headings like African or World Blues is seriously problematic. Although the late Malian guitarist Ali Farke Toure produced many collaborations with American blues musicians like Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal, he always insisted and mantained that his own music could not be called ‘Blues’ because it sprang from completely different origins. Yet an earlier compilation by the London-based Rough Guide to World Music series throws him together with Cape Verdean Cesaeria Evoria and fellow Malians Oumou Sangare and Rokia Troare, even though their music has completely different sensibilities. This implication suggests that this highly varied music from Africa can be simplified, grouped, understood and absorbed under the same banner while using a music description akin to what emerged from the southern USA during slavery.
The criticism of the labeling must not be confused with misguided efforts to preserve the purity of tradition and to have music untouched by other influences and fusions. These cross-influences are inevitable and should be welcomed, but the corralling of divergent countries from diverse continents into an ensemble does these artists and music a disservice. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan from Pakistan has nothing to do with Gilbert Gil from Brazil; they have their own music and styles in their own right.
The labeling of music of artists from over a dozen separate countries, in sites that remain untranslatable to us, with terms borrowed from an explicitly North American market idiom (‘Blues’, ‘Lounge’, ‘Groove’ and so on) shows that this has less to do with actual musical techniques or established genres than with atmosphere. People who buy these CDs usually look for a service, and want to be ensured by the selection made that they never have to leave a certain well-designed mental space. The CD becomes an object of utility that is meant more to establish mood (Mike in New York feels like a bit of Lounge today). It is not only ambiguous but also ultimately offensive.
While there is no doubt that many artists, like Salef Keita, Yousef N’dour Salief Keita, Cesaria Evoria, Simphiwe Dana and Mariam Makeba have achieved international fame and benefited from likeminded publicity, it has been more in spite of this than because of this. It becomes debilitating for both artist and listener. The late South African jazz singer Miriam Makeba always rejected the term World Music: ‘It is a polite term for Third World music and an excuse to pay us less’ she once said. World music inevitably colludes with the dehumanisation, depersonalisation and marginalisation of the complex tapestry of creative output of various artists.
It is of course necessary to see world music against the backdrop of unequal trade and economic relations. Whatever the commodity, it’s always about dependency and imperialism. The dependent dead-end that American- and British-dominated popular music has reached leads to a yearning for different and new sounds. These markets now rely heavily on the creativity of foreigners. The explosion of World Music is a welcome antidote to the numbing effects of recycling the same play charts; there is a longing in these metropolitan heartlands for music that is not from Europe or America – a growing curiosity and positive interest in the cultural life of the rest of the planet. How bizarre! All of this curiosity for ‘foreignness’ happens ironically at a time when a single world culture is said to be emerging, the nation state is an obsolete construct, and there is a non-defined common cultural currency.
Forging an alternative to this misrepresenting and distortive marketing is challenging. This is more about who controls the music distribution channels: inevitably the multinationals whose major driving engine is profit at all costs. Yet, perhaps educating and challenging listeners and buyers of ‘World Music’ to dig deeper and go beyond these simplistic categories could be a good start. World Music, despite its distortions, is a progressive development and more often than not represents global solidarity or at least a deep yearning for it. So listen and enjoy – it is our common humanity; don’t let them destroy it and commodify it.
(This article was influenced by many of Timothy Brennan’s ideas and his seminal book Secular Devotion – Afro-Latin Music and Imperial Jazz (Verso, 2008).)
Andre Marais presents the music programme ROOTZ 2 FRUITZ on Bush Radio 89.5 fm, every Wednesday between 22h00 and 24h00. Also available on audio stream. He is also the arts editor for Amandla! magazine.