The term “world music” has always been hotly debated, even contested. People struggle with a definition. They often refer to the fact that it is a term of slightly dubious origin – it was invented in the commercial sector, as a label in record shops for the growing amount of…. yes, of what? Of world music cd’s needing a fitting label.
But actually defining world music is not difficult at all. Let me propose you my definition. World music is the kind of music that, due to statements on the possibility to identify its sound as connected to a certain specific geographic origin, offers itself as being referred to as exotic and sold as such in some part of the western(ized) world.
Yes, some work has to be done on a clearer phrasing, I agree. But let me point out some of the major points in my definition:
- World music is not defined on the basis of objective criteria – musical or other - but on human ascriptions of meaning. It is not a fact but an invention – as all other genres, eras et cetera are. Defining world music is essentially a meaningful social action.
- World music basically is local or regional music in essence – one has to be able to hear a specific geographic origin out of the music, or at least claim that one is able to do so.
- Defining world music is in essence an exoticizing action. Something is world music for someone because for him, or for somebody else, it sounds as coming from somewhere else. It is, in that respect, sincerely connected to the modern world, with its emphasis on individuality and identity and its continuous romantic search for the “pure” individual ánd its counterpart (bear in mind Said’s “orientalism”) in the past, the future, or far away places.
- Defining world music as world music takes place in a large part in the economic domain – world music is not only in its origin but also in its continued use sincerely connected to the music industry; to western capitalism, if one wants to make a sweeping statement.
What I find interesting is the exoticizing element. It is basically based on a double thought: music is exotic if it sounds as connected to a certain geographic place which is exotic. This is a very open definition – Africa and the Caribbean are very exotic places for many westerners, but Europe is kind of exotic for US citizens, France for the Dutch, and Iceland for everyone except the Icelanders. As long as musics can be described as typically belonging to Africa, the Caribbean, Europe, France or Iceland, or to certain parts of one of them (Mali, St. Kitts, England, Paris or the Vatnajökull) they potentially are part of the world music scene.
I am a subscriber to the British SongLines magazine. It is dedicated to world music, in its broadest sense. It comes about every month, accompanied with a cd – 10 new tracks which for some reason or other are collected on the cd, and five extra tracks which are chosen by a world music guru, someone like Ravi Shankar or Andy Kershaw. These cd’s give an excellent view on what world music is from an English/western international standpoint.
When I started my subscription I was a bit startled that the magazine covered world music as I knew it (“non-western music”) as well as European and American folk music. Now that I have my definition of world music, I see why that goes together seamlessly. Both are possibly exotic – not only African and Asian traditions, but also English folk music; it may be recognized as belonging specifically to England and is therefore possibly exotic for, and sold as such to, the Americans, French, Icelandic or Dutch.
And what about Dutch music? That is for another time.