Off Beat

How world music went from something new and wonderful to a generic branding exercise

Photograph by Lorraine Byrd

It’s a part of Montreal where narrow storefronts all seem to be selling slippery red lingerie and strangers boast to you about how drunk they are. This particular February night, Rue Ste-Catherine throbs to blaring techno, an incongruous soundtrack for conference-goers to Strictly Mundial, billed as “North America’s first significant world music conference.” We slither back and forth between venues along poorly salted Ste-Catherine, attempting to hear as much music as possible—an antidote to hours spent in the sterile splendour of the Palais des Congrès, the city’s premier conference centre.

Everyone has a conference nowadays. Zucchini farmers, dental hygienists, the world music industry. You network, you learn stuff: Biotech zucchinis may cure obesity. Laser technology proves George Washington’s teeth weren’t made of wood. World music as a genre may be dying.

The Empress of Russia pub. St. John Street, London, England. June 29, 1987: Nineteen British indie record-company types and “interested parties” gather to hoist pints and have what the minutes call an “International Pop Label Meeting.” They are not corporate moguls. Of the group, only a few will go on to have mainstream impact, notably World Circuit Records with their release of a recording called Buena Vista Social Club a decade later. The purpose of this gathering is to “broaden the appeal of our repertoire.” A show of hands determines the term World Music will be the banner for a short-term marketing campaign. The conversation is largely pragmatic (how to sell records, methods of promotion, etc.), although there is a discussion around “the possible conflict between the short-term commercial aim of promoting World Music” and “the longer-term aim of establishing World Music as the generic term for this kind of music.”

This kind of music. The elephant beneath the carpet.

Almost two decades later, Vusi Mahlasela, a South African singer-songwriter whose work is cherished by the likes of Nelson Mandela and Nadine Gordimer, is the lone panellist at a Strictly Mundial discussion called “The Role of World Music Festivals in Globalization.” He chafes at the term. “Good music knows no boundaries,” Mahlasela says. “To be classified as world music? This is a problem for me.”

You could almost hear the collective whimper from the clutch of presenters, agents, and radio-show hosts in attendance. For them it’s one more whack at a well-flogged horse. They’d rather talk about cultural exchanges, or even the dry inner workings of the moderator’s pet project, attac, an “international movement for democratic control of financial markets and their institutions.” They’d rather keep telling their version of the world music story, the one that says world music is a way to bridge cultures, a kinder, gentler form of globalization.

Mahlasela’s poke at the carcass is not an isolated instance of a musician who has benefited from being distributed by a multinational corporation (bmg) while simultaneously rejecting the “world music messenger” label. The resistance dates back to the early 1990s, around the time I entered this small subset of music journalism by creating the cbc world music program Roots & Wings. Most musicians I’ve encountered since are uncomfortable with the designation. Buena Vista Social Club guitarist Eliades Ochoa once told me, “I don’t play world music. I play Cuban music.” Still, chasing perceived professional benefits, many musicians have taken a pragmatic approach.

The equation goes something like this: Senegalese singer Youssou N’ Dour had a pop hit with Neneh Cherry, and he sings world music. Bingo! Cape Verdean singer Cesaria Evora lights cigarettes centre stage at Carnegie Hall, and she sings world music. Ditto! But, partly because there have always been two worlds of world music—the capital-W world, where most of the industry and audience are white Europeans or North Americans, and that other world, the one where most of the music comes from—significant commercial world music success stories are few.

The earliest wave of world music performers sensed this. Some of those artists (notably Africans) still release two sets of recordings, one designed for the world music audience, the other for culturally specific audiences. Some artists who are superstars in their own cultures have never even bothered trying to penetrate the world of world music. Still others follow the example of performers like Ethiopian singer Aster Aweke, who had a good kick at the world music can, but is now more likely to be found on the Ethiopian circuit. For artists who have enough of a diasporic community to play to, this approach can be economically beneficial, and does not impose an imperative to be cultural ambassadors as well.

How and by whom world music is promoted is another sticking point. Biyi Adepegba, a London, England-based promoter of jazz and African music, irked some members of the community recently by stating that the most prestigious awards connected to world music, the bbc Radio 3 Awards, are run by a small clique of Europeans who don’t represent African musical tastes. He suggested, on the bbc’s airwaves, that Africans don’t want to be told who the best African artists are and that African music and world music may co-exist and share, but certainly are not one.

At the Palais des Congrès, it becomes obvious that Strictly Mundial, spearheaded by the European Forum of Worldwide Music Festivals, is itself one of two worlds. The European influence is muted, as this incarnation of Strictly Mundial is the curious cousin of the concurrent big-daddy gathering, the annual get-together of the North American Folk Alliance. It’s difficult to tell the folkies from the world music geeks, since the days of the latter dressing in bright African prints have waned. (The existence of a third, unrelated event for motorcycle enthusiasts means there are scores of aging white guys sloping through the Palais. The ones with more expensive leather jackets go to le Salon de la moto de Montréal; the ones carrying goofy canvas bags ascend the escalators to the distant waft of fiddles and people spontaneously breaking into choruses of “Oh Shenandoah.”)

Only the world music performers stand out since they are, for the most part, “of colour”—at least the ones who show up. Most don’t. Possibly they are not interested in hobnobbing with folkies or discussing world music. More probably, they are just here to sell their music, and they see that transaction jump-starting only from the stage. On the rare occasions performers do speak, there is a small frisson through the room, and when they have something positive to say, the relief is palpable. After all, the world music industry is not made up of evil, colonizing conspirators; they are just the little, hopeful people— indie record-label heads, devoted radio journalists, impassioned agents. . . me.

I remember the first rush of discovery in the 1980s, when shockingly sublime sounds from around the world began to trickle into community radio stations and friends’ living rooms. It was as if, up until the 1980s, opera had only been available if you were fortunate and wealthy enough to travel to Milan or Vienna, but then, quite suddenly, record stores began to sell the stuff. Those were heady, blissful days. Sure, you could get exercised about “Simonizing” (Paul Simon’s supposed appropriation of the voices of Ladysmith Black Mambazo for his own financial gain), but you could also see Mambazo on a creative high, playing at Canadian folk festivals for the first time. And there was so much more music that wasn’t making it to festival stages. It seemed obvious: if people could only hear this music, they would come.

(While the “if you build it” notion is still a life raft clung to by some in the world music industry, others speak in resigned tones about it being a “niche market,” like folk, jazz, and blues. But, even as a niche market, world music lacks the chronologies and shared musical and cultural antecedents of these more established forms.)

In those early days, many of us boosters had a limited understanding of what was being marketed as world music—its social and political context, literal musical components, or what the songs meant. Still, we believed it was a superhero emissary of cross-cultural understanding, a true “international language.” Then came extraordinarily rapid developments in technology and corporate attempts to co-opt and commodify the music—misread by many as a sign the world was finally getting the message, was literally hearing the music. By the mid- to late 1990s, there emerged a soft-focus vision of a one-world utopia, packaged for the grande-skinny-macchiato-no-foam generation, dancing to a “world beat” for the usual reason: profit.

Of course, before there was something called world music, there was Juan Valdez with the coffee, Carmen Miranda with the bananas. In advertising, manipulating clichés is a life’s work, and with the advent of world music as a genre the cliché went from instances of supposed cultural specificity (e.g. the sounds of Colombian cumbia music pushing coffee beans) to blurry cross-cultural references signifying unity through, for instance, television advertisements for communications technologies featuring young, beautiful (multicultural) things sawing away on one piece of music from their disparate corners of the world. Someone should have been whispering, “Pay no attention to the ad exec behind the curtain,” because although music from around the world was readily available, the assumption that this engendered an understanding of the cultural forces shaping the music was false.

There’s no question that world music’s availability is now staggering, and it is hybridizing as fast as you can say Hasidic-Punk-Pan-Latin-Polka band. Should you need proof, the showcases at Strictly Mundial are a living testament. One evening starts with a seven-centuries-old Indian ghazal with lyrics by living Canadian poets, and ends with a Swedish band whose members represent half a dozen cultural and musical backgrounds. Many in the industry nod their heads to both. But the latter kind of fusion, an inevitable musical offspring of travel and immigration, has left world music “purists” in the dust. So has the lust for all-things-old-are-new-again, resulting in DJs mixing dance beats with thirty-year-old Ghanaian funk or Brazilian bossa nova. Some cried “hallelujah” when this trend began, seeing it as the ticket to commercial sustainability. But it ain’t so. Clubification and fusion have become just more fragments of the shattered glass of world music.

Back at home, a music-loving friend is perplexed by my conference-going. “World music?” he asks. “Isn’t that term kind of passé?” I hope he’s right. Granted, world music as a retail term is one we’re stuck with for the foreseeable future, just as we’re stuck with the Gipsy Kings on rotation at wine bars. But hopefully, as the vast musical diaspora continues to grow, the acceptance of music from different cultures will grow right alongside it.

What this may mean is giving up the belief that world music is the best way to connect people, defeat racism, stop unpleasant nationalistic tendencies, etc. But why impose these unrealistic ideals? Why not simply trust that, with the help of savvy media and determined producers and presenters, music that happens to have roots in traditional or classical forms stemming from various cultures will gain audiences based purely on quality. And that quality, in turn, will engender genuine interest in the cultures from which the creators of the music draw their inspiration.

Li Robbins