With the upcoming visit of one of popular music’s greats, David Byrne, and with another excellent WOMAD on the horizon, it seems as good a time as ever to look at the fraught nature of world music, writes BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM.

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GIVEN indie music has recently seen a renaissance of bands who have been exploring the multitude of music that doesn’t quite fit into the narrow boundaries of pop/rock conventions – bands such as Animal Collective, Beirut, Yeasayer, M.I.A., Vampire Weekend or New Zealand artists such as The Hot Grits, An Emerald City, or The Pyramid Scheme – it’s easy to downplay the vast history of exploitation of Otherness for musical needs. Hell, that’s how rock‘n’roll got sold to the masses. But that’d be too simplistic – music has always been subject to a cross-cultural flow, and the preservation of local identities and traditions has persisted despite, and because of, the commercialisation and globalisation.

It’s hard to deny that Anglo-American music dominates commercially and socially. Most traditional rock music accounts focus on those artists who have achieved success in the US or UK, while the overwhelming amount of chart-toppers and album sales are from those countries. The exceptions, invariably have to sing in English (e.g. Shakira, Celine Dion, ABBA), or require some luck/other media help/promotion by Anglo-American artists (Buena Vista Social Club, anyone associated with Damon Albarn, Peter Gabriel or Paul Simon). Since the ’50s, when American rock‘n’roll took over as the global popular culture (though the story of exploitation of Otherness/‘blackness’ within rock‘n’roll is the topic for a whole other book), and the ’60s when the Brits took it further with their own take on the blues and rock‘n’roll, popular music has had these biases in built into them. Many other music forms from around the world took their template from what the Americans and British were doing.

And right from the start, Otherness has been in-built into popular music. As long as musicians want to try something different, they’ll be looking for new melodies, instruments, rhythms. The genres of the “outsiders” – blues, R&B, reggae, hip-hop – also had pastiches and homages in-built into the music. US Black consciousness movements in the ’60s and ’70s looked to the polyrhythms of Africa, punk kids in England looked to reggae from Jamaica, contemporary indie kids look on the internet – it’s a natural state of curiosity. The Beatles taking of some Indian riffs and instruments was a key early precursor, but it was in the ’80s when a number of artists achieved fame for mining other traditions. Lizzy Mercier Descloux, Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel and the Talking Heads for example all found some fame for incorporating various musical traditions into their work. One of the highpoints is the Talking Heads’ masterpiece Remain in Light with its Fela Kuti-inspired Afro-beat polyrhythms. And others like Graceland were huge popular with their incorporation of South African music into the mix.

But there were other advances in terms of the marketability of different kinds of music. 1982 saw the first WOMAD festival in Shepton Mallet in England, a festival set up by Peter Gabriel (who had re-formed Genesis to cover the cost of doing so). WOMAD was set up to showcase music from around the globe, and the roaring success that it is now is testament to the commercial appeal of the WOMAD strategy. In the ’80s, the term “world music” became used by record companies to market the variety of music from around the world. It’s a ridiculously reductive term which managed to mash fado with klezmer music and bhangra. It’s arbitrary too – Norwegian black metal or reggae somehow manage to evade its simplistic labelling. It carries the patronising taint of exoticism – “world music” needs to be with traditional instruments or have some semblance of authenticity (the idea of authenticity is the record company’s, not really the musicians themselves). So local variations of Western music – e.g. Turkish garage rock or Hungarian prog, which is just as valid a cultural output and demonstrates the cross-cultural flows of global popular culture – don’t really fit into the world music category because it’s not authentic enough. The term basically came about when a whole bunch of record company execs met up and decided to come up with a term (it had been coined by ethnomusicologists) that was marketable and non-threatening to Western audiences. And “world music” was it. But it proved successful – labels such as Putamayo, the work by companies such as Starbucks, and the push by established record labels all managed to help sell different kinds of music to people who wouldn’t ordinarily buy it.

It also led to the exploitation of various genres. Of course, record companies’ primary business is to make money, and if a particular genre is selling well, then they’re going to push that as much as they can. Cuban music became the big thing after Buena Vista Social Club. South African music was suddenly the hip thing in world music after Graceland and also in the post-apartheid South Africa. But that’s record company practice, and by their nature, they’re conservative.

“In the ’80s, the term “world music” became used by record companies to market the variety of music from around the world. It’s a ridiculously reductive term which managed to mash fado with klezmer music and bhangra. It’s arbitrary too – Norwegian black metal or reggae somehow manage to evade its simplistic labelling. It carries the patronising taint of exoticism.”


However, musicians have also attracted a fair amount of controversy for appropriating Otherness to sell records. Paul Simon would argue that Graceland promoted music that was otherwise marginalised, especially given the embargos around apartheid. And he did achieve that aim – many musicians got the chance to be heard and be more commercially successful. But how many people can name the other musicians who appeared on the album or the types of South African genres Simon touches on? Paul Simon gets the auteur credit for the album, not people like Ladysmith Black Mambazo or Okyerema Asante. Who got the lionshare of the profits? I don’t know, but it’d be an obvious guess. Fears of cultural imperialism, where bands who have no link to the musical traditions, come and take what they want, and leave to take the money, were well argued in ’70s and ’80s popular culture debates.

But it’s hardly as simple as pure exploitation – local identities also appropriate various different musical styles (the mutations within bhangra for example was heavily based on incorporating electronic, dancehall and hip-hop traditions), and it’s fallacious to assume national identities are fixed and unchanging. There is no South African identity just as there isn’t a uniform United States identity. The unfixed nature of global space too – highly mobile populations, globalisation, and the changing nature of cultures means this makes terms such as “world music” even more problematic. But then, it’s hard to ignore history. The contemporary global environment still bears the scars of history, and it’d be dangerous to adopt a free market position and whitewash the cruel and shocking history of colonialism and exploitation. For example, you can trace the Democratic Republic of Congo’s current humanitarian woes back to the King of Belgium, Leopold II declaring that arbitrary land mass his own corporation and committing large-scale genocide. Of course, popular culture has been, and is, filtered through these historical inequalities. The role of “blackness” in popular music in the United States is a clear case in point, and history has played a huge role in popular music’s various diffuse incarnations. But all this threw up key criteria of judging the appropriation (or lack thereof) of “world music” – due respect to certain traditions, ‘authenticity’ (is something more authentic if performed by South Africans rather than New Yorkers), due credit, a certain amount of deference, a public recognition of the artists who inspired.

Of course some of the great artists of the ’80s did try their utmost to not exploit. Simon, despite the commercial juggernaut that Graceland became, did acknowledge some of the traditions, and travelled and toured with the artists. Subverting the apartheid inhumanity was reasonably courageous. WOMAD rivals some of the biggest festivals in terms of crowds, and has helped break some artists who would have otherwise been ignored. David Byrne, one of the all-time greats, has openly collaborated with a variety of musicians such as Ryuichi Sakamoto and Cong Su in The Last Emperor soundtrack and Diva Selana. His work with the Talking Heads and Brian Eno (which will be shown in concert in New Zealand) also highlights this cross-cultural flow. David Byrne went further than most and started his own label Luaka Bop which has put music out from music from around the world from Jim White to Os Mutantes. Contemporary artists such as M.I.A., A Hawk and a Hacksaw, Beirut and El Guincho for example, have also been very keen to name and give due credit to their influences, perhaps fearful of being accused of appropriation or cultural imperialism (though M.I.A.’s case as being a diasporic Tamil perhaps changes things). Some others (musicians, listeners, blogs, reviews), though, have perhaps been a little more reticent, while others have been downright disingenuous.

It is also fair to say that success coming the other way is still rare. Despite these globalised times, it’s still rare for “foreign” albums to appear on an equal footing. Perhaps things are slowly changing – the continued success of Buena Vista Social Club, Amadou et Mariam, the Kutis, among others suggest the chance for commercial respectability is possible. But then the problematic nature of the term of “world music” might prove limiting for non-Anglo-American artists. If an artist doesn’t conform to record company described notions of authenticity, if they don’t have the requisite exoticness, then it’s much harder for artists to hitch onto things like WOMAD or find themselves in record store “world music” sections. And if they don’t make it that way, then it’s remarkably difficult to make it any other way as they don’t fit into any other commercial label very easily. Globalisation and authenticity are minefields in terms of arguments and debates, and it’s easy to take a simplistic reading either way. However, it’s dangerous to ignore the complexity, and this article barely hints at the sheer mountain of examples and counter-examples – and while some artists such as David Byrne et al try hard in this respect to acknowledge the pitfalls, there are plenty of artists and listeners who refuse to grapple with the muddy waters of exploitation and globalisation.