World music is a huge global business, but in musical terms it doesn't actually exist. For the authentic vibe, listen to the tinkle of money changing handsby Ivan Hewett / March 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
world music is an oddity. It is a multi-million- dollar global business, whose stars are becoming as well known in Britain as our home-grown ones. It has its own fanzines, reference books and experts. And yet in a fundamental sense it does not exist. Although there are many “world music” performers, there are no performers of world music; there are only performers of Algerian rai, Genoese tra-la-lero, Peruvian chica or whatever. This reflects the fact that world music is not a musical category, but a commercial one. Its birth can be precisely dated to July 1987, when 11 independent record producers of “international pop” met at the Empress of Russia pub in London to figure out how to help buyers find their music. The phrase world music was dreamed up “to make it easier to find that Malian kora record, the music of Bulgaria, Zairean soukous or Indian ghazal.” They guilelessly admitted that it meant “any music that isn’t at present catered for by its own category: reggae, jazz, blues, folk.” This was how Youssou N’Dour, Salif Keita and Celia Cruz reached us-in a bin marked “unclassifiable.”
It was very different when I first encountered non-western music as a schoolboy in the late 1960s. In those days it was a sober affair, utterly free of anything popular, exuding an atmosphere of unfathomable antiquity or courtly sophistication. Browsing through the school’s LP collection, I found “Music of Mali,” one of the series of non-western music recordings produced by Unesco in the 1950s and 1960s. I was tempted by the cover, which showed ranks of interestingly curved Malian women swathed in gorgeous fabrics. But what really gripped me was the sound, which was thrilling even before the music started. What I heard first was snatches of conversation in some unknown language, and all kinds of odd background noises. It was the grainy, slightly disorganised and “authentic” sound of the field recording. Then came the soft wayward sounds of those hammock-style xylophones, so wonderful to look at as well as to hear. Finally the flat, penetrating, oddly plaintive sound of the massed women’s voices sealed the spell. I was hooked. But more than that, I felt that at some level this was now my music as well as theirs.
I was too young to know any better, and at that time not many people did. Edward Said was years away from writing Orientalism…