'So flawed and problematic': why the term 'world music' is dead

Artists, record labels and even this month’s Womad festival agree that the term is outdated. Is there a better way to market music from across the globe?

Ask most musicians what genre they play and you’ll likely get a prickly response. As one well-known, and slightly tipsy, jazz musician once told me: “If you all stopped obsessing about me playing ‘jazz’, maybe I would be playing festival stages rather than tiny clubs by now.” But while there have been meandering debates about jazz during its long history, another genre has become far more contentious in recent years: world music.

Dreamed up in a London pub in 1987 by DJs, record producers and music writers, it was conceived as a marketing term for the greater visibility of newly popularised African bands, following the success of Paul Simon’s Johannesburg-recorded Graceland the year before. “It was all geared to record shops. That was the only thing we were thinking about,” DJ Charlie Gillett, one of the pub-goers, told the Guardian in 2004. The group raised £3,500 from 11 independent labels to begin marketing “world music”to record stores. “It was the most cost-effective thing you could imagine,” said record producer Joe Boyd. “£3,500 and you get a whole genre – and a whole section of record stores today.”

Founders of the term provided vague justifications for lumping together anything that wasn’t deemed to be from a European or American tradition – “looking at what artists do rather than what they sound like”, as editor of fRoots magazine Ian Anderson said. The World of Music, Arts and Dance Festival, AKA Womad, which was founded seven years before the term gained prominence, similarly used it as a catch-all for its roster of international artists. “There were no other festivals like ours at the time,” artistic programmer Paula Henderson says. “We weren’t pop or rock, so we were happy to advertise it as world when we began.”

But the term soon faced opposition. Talking Heads frontman David Byrne founded the label Luaka Bop, which has released artists who might be placed in the “world” category, including William Onyeabor and Susana Baca. In 1999, he wrote a scathing op-ed in the New York Times called I Hate World Music in which he argued that listening to music from other cultures, “letting it in”, allows for it to change our world view and to reduce what was once exotic into part of ourselves. World music meant the opposite: a distancing between “us” and “them”: “It’s a none too subtle way of reasserting the hegemony of western pop culture,” Byrne wrote. “It ghettoises most of the world’s music. A bold and audacious move, White Man!”

Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 performing at Walthamstow Garden Party in 2018.
Seun Kuti and Egypt 80 performing at Walthamstow garden party, London, in 2018. Photograph: Gar Powell-Evans

The current president of Luaka Bop, Yale Evelev says: “We always considered it a pop music label. When people said we were a ‘world music’ label, we wanted to crawl into a hole. Instead of signifying a certain emotional honesty, it is a marketing rubric.” A rubric that is seemingly none too successful, either. The world category falls at the bottom of year-end streaming and sales figures lists, accounting for 0.8% of album sales in the US and 1.6% of total streams in 2018.

So why has the term persisted? Strut Records manager Quinton Scott, who releases a range of artists, including soul singer Patrice Rushen, spiritual-jazz icon Sun Ra and Seun Kuti, son of Afrobeat pioneer Fela, says: “As labels we need to guide buyers to the right place to find the music as quickly as possible, especially in the chaotic digital marketplace. For that reason, a general term or genre still does work as an in-point for music buyers.”

Yet as a general term, he admits, “it does feel dated”. “Musicians have successfully cross-pollinated styles much more in recent years, to complicate matters further, so it could be changed to something that sounds more contemporary. But I don’t think there can ever be a catch-all phrase that avoids overgeneralisation.” As Womad’s Henderson puts it: “If the consumer wants to class it as world music, as long as they buy the ticket or the music, that’s fine by me.”

Other industry heads are less equivocal. “It’s the antithesis of art,” says Pete Buckenham, founder of the independent label On the Corner. “At its best, it’s bad culture, dialled-down and made safe for a generic, mostly western consumer as imagined by a marketing department. At worst, the term is out-and-out racist.” For Buckenham, “world” must be abolished and the industry should lead the way. “When the term is so flawed and ideologically problematic there is no alternative.”

Sarathy Korwar.
‘It only helps reinforce the narrative that other people’s music is less evolved’ … Sarathy Korwar. Photograph: Gaurang Anand

The musicians who have found themselves in the world record bins largely agree. Indian jazz drummer and producer Sarathy Korwar finds the term lazy. “It only helps reinforce the narrative that other people’s music is less evolved and important than your own and doesn’t deserve a more nuanced approach,” he says. Multimillion selling Senegalese musician Youssou N’Dour believes the label has “served its purpose” and can only now be applied to collaborations that span across the globe, geographically taking in the world through their mixture of cultural traditions.

For Réunion Island musician Jérémy Labelle, the initial labelling of his amorphous electronic music as world was enticing, allowing him to broaden his appeal to a network of world music festivals and events. “But I quickly understood that this label was very dangerous, especially for music like mine that seeks to create bridges between aesthetics,” he says. Congolese funk band Bantou Mentale, encountered similar issues. Their solution? Abolish all generic descriptors, since “categorisation equals discrimination”.

It is a question of ethnicity as much as one of perceived authenticity and category. London-based trio Vula Viel centre their work around the west African xylophone, the gyil, which bandleader Bex Burch learned when she spent three years with the Dagaaba people in Ghana. Burch hails from Yorkshire and the other members of Vula Viel are white. “I’ve had world music industry people say my band does not fit the world genre because I’m not African,” she says, raising the issue of cultural appropriation. “The sad fact is that musicians from African countries are still refused visas and have much less access to the music industry. So, the white ‘saviour’ tries to bring the black or brown musicians from a village to a studio or festival stage and profits from them. The fact I’m told I need a black member of my band to qualify is another example of tokenism and the blatant exoticising of black skin.”

Ethnicity … Vula Viel.
Railing against tokenism … Vula Viel. Photograph: Alex Bonney

In 2018, Womad experienced visa denials for its acts, with at least three having to cancel appearances, yet Henderson disagrees with the ‘white saviour’ term. “Visas are so expensive and the Home Office can be so prohibitive when it comes to bringing artists from other countries here,” she says. “Often, it’s only with the help of western festival organisers that we can mitigate the denials – otherwise an act will pay £6,000 for a visa, be denied, and never see that money or a potential new audience again. We always make sure our artists are paid fairly and aren’t exploited.”

My first experience of “world music” went unnoticed. It was the Bollywood songs that played through our kitchen radio and that my grandma listened to religiously. It was the devotional music I heard at temple, and perhaps even the reggae records my mum put on. To me, this was simply music – to be included with the other formative records and artists of my childhood: Motown, hip-hop, jazz.

Korean musician Park Jiha.
Korean musician Park Jiha. Photograph: Kim Jaewoo

When the Guardian began its world music coverage, it was a reflection of a music industry coming to terms with a new, globalised landscape – one not only confined to the recesses of the record store. Now, with the internet at our fingertips and streaming services providing endless hours of musical discovery, the world has reached far beyond the meaning of “world music”. The Guardian has therefore ceased using this tag on its articles: only a relevant genre tag such as pop and rock, dance music and metal will be used. Rest assured that we are more committed than ever to telling the stories of music around the world, be it disco divas from India, techno from Uganda, reinventions of classical Korean instrumentation, or political Turkish psych-rock.

Our world album of the month column has, meanwhile, been renamed global album of the month, which does not answer the valid complaints of the artists and record label founders who have been plagued by catch-all terms. Yet, in the glorious tyranny of endless internet-fuelled musical choice, marginalised music still needs championing and signposting in the west. The term “world music” has become toxic, so a new word for this monthly planet-spanning roundup, however reductive, is needed. As Vula Viel’s Birch says: “Is ‘world’ helpful? Musically, no, but as a genre to champion and curate this fantastic world of music, sure.”

For its latest edition, Womad is also moving on from the term, simply calling itself “the world’s festival”. “We understand ‘world music’ is ghettoising for a lot of the artists,” festival director Chris Smith says. “We’re respectful of the term because it’s our heritage, but we need to evolve it because the music has evolved. All that matters is championing new music for people to hear and enjoy. We don’t want these artists to be held back by genre, we want to see them at Glastonbury and beyond. We’re international, world, whatever you want to call it – it’s just music.”

Womad festival is at Charlton Park, Wiltshire, 25-28 July.


Ammar Kalia

The GuardianTramp

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