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Should we really still be using the term ‘world music’?

05 Oct 2015

‘World music’ seems to be a highly complex and argued term in the present day. Put simply, ‘world music’ encompasses music from around the world, mainly that outside of Europe and America. This kind of music has certainly had some extremely positive impacts on music today. So why can’t I help feeling uncomfortable with the term?

The labelling of ‘World Music’ in relation to the likes of African or Latin American sounds has offended many, as it implies that the Western world is culturally superior. European and American artists do not fall under this section, as there seems to be an emphasis on Western music being the dominant and prevalent sound of today.

Let’s take the artist K’naan as an example. He was born in Somalia, moved to Canada at a young age and sings in English. A lot of his music has Somali and Ethiopian influence – notably his 2007 album, The Dusty Foot on the Road. As a result, his music is categorised as ‘world music’ in record shops. As a performer, this results in a struggle to get as many gigs, reach playlists and gain as much recognition. Immediately, he becomes pigeonholed by a category that has been thrust upon him by the West.  

Indeed the term ‘world music’ is highly contradictory when it comes to British artists – perhaps an acknowledgement from the Western music industry of its own superiority. Take Damon Albarn’s 2012 project, Rocket Juice & The Moon, for instance. The album was created by Albarn, Nigerian drummer and songwriter, Tony Allen, and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist, Flea. It features tracks with Malian-wonder Fatoumata Diawara and Ghanian rapper, M.anifest.

However, while not all the tracks are sung in English and the music takes influence from the African continent, the album is not labelled as world music. Why is this the case? Is it because of Albarn’s already distinguished position in British music? Similarly, what differentiates genres such as Reggae from being identified as world music? Surely the term ‘world music’ is too vast and complex to lump different artists from across continents into one grouping.



Even so, world music has certainly brought recognition to musical diversity and appreciation to music lovers who might not have been educated on the matter. I, for one, enjoy exploring the world music section at record shops. This is simply because I stumble upon local artists that I’ve never heard of, from places I’ll potentially never get the chance to visit. The music is vast and encompassing, stretching from places like Latin America to New Zealand! As well as this, it’s hugely important that music lovers are encouraged to explore the different sounds, instruments and techniques that other countries in far-reaching continents can bring to the musical compass. So, it’s not the music I have an issue with, but the grouping that has implied that once you’ve left the West, all those unfamiliar beats can be categorised under one simple heading. 

Of course, there are notable artists and labels in the UK that encourage and promote musical diversity. London-based Soundway Records is a particularly vibrant label, created in 2002. It has had heavy emphasis on the promotion of Ghanaian music from the early 1970s. Today artists such as Fantasma, a South African collective of a fusion of eclectic sounds, are signed to the label. Additionally, pioneering music figures such as Gilles Peterson have labels like Brownswood Recordings, which celebrate absolutely fantastic artists such as Diggs Duke and Mala. Although the label does not claim to fall under the category of world music, it acknowledges its importance in giving exposure to non-Western sounds.

Ultimately, while the term is outdated, ‘world music’ – simply put, sounds from across the world – should be encouraged, nourished and acclaimed by all. Such music allows a Western audience to discover the local treasures from all parts of the world. So the real question is, in today’s multicultural world, shouldn’t all music be classified as world music?