Anything in English is ‘world music’; everything else is niche

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL October 16, 2013

3236606-world-of-music-icon--isolated-over-white-backgroundIt is always amusing to hear people talk about “world music”. By definition, world music is anything but popular across (or accessible to) the whole planet. It is not world music at all, but a niche compilation. Common sense suggests that the only music that can justly be branded ‘world’ is that sung in English, the lingua franca, which is spoken as a first language by around 375 million and as a second language by around 375 million people.

World music has been on my mind of late because we’ve been discussing the unfairness of the categorization with Port au Prince radio show host Carel Pedre @carelpedre. Why should Leyla McCalla be ‘world music’ we wondered? She sings in kreyol – it’s hardly a world language. But that’s the box she’s in. The Guardian’s recent review of her forthcoming album categorises her as ‘world music’.

I remembered one of my favourite pieces, “I Hate World Music” by David Byrne, who practically invented ‘world music’. Back in 1999, he wrote in The New York Times, “I Hate World Music (because) in my experience, the use of the term is a way of dismissing artists or their music as irrelevant to one’s own life. It’s a way of relegating this ‘thing’ into the realm of something exotic and therefore cute, weird but safe, because exotica is beautiful but irrelevant; they are, by definition, not like us. Maybe that’s why I hate the term. It groups everything and anything that isn’t ‘us’ into ‘them’.”

Mr Byrne should know. He founded the ‘world music’ record label Luaka Bop in 1990, originally to release Latin American compilations. It later grew own include music from Cuba, Africa, the Far East and beyond. In other words, as Mr Byrne wrote in the NYT, “This grouping is a convenient way of not seeing a band or artist as a creative individual, albeit from a culture somewhat different from that seen on American television. It’s a label for anything at all that is not sung in English or anything that doesn’t fit into the Anglo-Western pop universe this year.”

Enough said.

Jack Kerouac

“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life”
– Jack Kerouac