World Music


Traditional music (sometimes called folk music or roots music) of any culture that are created and played by indigenous musicians or that are “closely informed or guided by indigenous music of the regions of their origin”, including Western music (ie. Celtic music). Most typically, the term “world music” has now replaced “folk music” as a shorthand description for the very broad range of recordings of traditional indigenous music and song from around the world. Terminology The term became current in the 1980s as a marketing/classificatory device in the media and the music industry, and it is generally used to classify any kind of “foreign” (i.e. non-Western) music.

In musical terms, “world music” can be roughly defined as music which uses distinctive ethnic scales, modes and musical inflections, and which is usually (though not always) performed on or accompanied by distinctive traditional ethnic instruments, such as the kora (West African lute), the steel drum, the sitar or the digeridoo.

World music is, most generally, all the music in the world. More specifically, the term is currently used to classify the many genres of non-Western music which were previously described as “folk music” or “ethnic music”. However, “world music” does not have to mean traditional folk music, it may refer to the indigenous classical forms of various regions of the world, and to modern, cutting edge pop music styles as well. Succinctly, it can be described as “local music from out there”, or “someone else’s local music”.

Music from around the world exerts wide cross-cultural influence as styles naturally influence one another, and in recent years “world music” has also been marketed as a successful genre in itself. Academic study of world music, as well as the musical genres and individual artists with which it has been associated, can be found in such disciplines as anthropology, Folkloristics, Performance Studies and ethnomusicology.

Examples of popular forms of world music include the various forms of non-European classical music (e.g. Japanese koto music, Hindustani raga music, Tibetan chants), eastern European folk music (e.g. the village music of Bulgaria) and the many forms of folk and tribal music of the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Oceania and Central and South America.

The broad category of “world music” includes isolated forms of ethnic music from diverse geographical regions. These dissimilar strains of ethnic music are commonly categorized together by virtue of their indigenous roots. Over the 20th century, the invention of sound recording, low-cost international air travel and common access to global communication among artists and the general public has given rise to a related phenomenon called “cross-over” music. Musicians from diverse cultures and locations could readily access recorded music from around the world, see and hear visiting musicians from other cultures and visit other countries to play their own music, creating a melting pot of stylistic influences.

While communication technology allows greater access to obscure forms of music, the pressures of commercialisation also present the risk of increasing musical homogeny, the blurring of regional identities, and the gradual extinction of traditional local music-making practices.

Popular non-western genres

Although it primarily describes traditional music, the world music genre also includes popular music from non-Western urban communities (e.g. South African “township” music) and non-European music forms that have been influenced by other “third world” musics (e.g. Afro-Cuban music), although Western-style popular song sourced from non-English-speaking countries in Western Europe (e.g. French pop music) would not generally be considered world music.

World Music in France

Paris is one of the great European capitals for world music. For many years, the city has attracted numerous musicians from former colonies in West Africa and North Africa. This thriving scene is aided by the fact that there are many concerts and institutions that help promote the music.

Algerian and Moroccan music have an important presence in the French capital. Hundreds of thousands of Algerian and Moroccan immigrants have settled in Paris, bringing the sounds of Amazigh (Berber), rai and Gnawa music. Algerian raï also found a large French audience, especially Cheb Mami.

The West African community is also very large, integrated by people from Senegal, Mali, Ivory Coast and Guinea. They have introduced Manding jeli music, mbalax and other styles.

Cultural appropriation in western music
After 1987: WOMAD and beyond

The origins of the term World Music in relation to the selling of this type of music began in 1982 when World Music Day (Fête de la Musique) was initiated in France. World Music Day is celebrated on 21 June every year since then. On Monday 29 June 1987 a meeting of interested parties gathered to capitalise on the marketing of this genre. Arguably popular interest was sparked with the release in 1986 of Paul Simon’s Graceland album. The concept behind the album was to express his own sensibilities using the sounds which he had fallen in love with listening to artists from Southern Africa, including Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Savuka. But this project and the work of Peter Gabriel and Johnny Clegg amongst others had to some degree introduced non-western music to a wider audience and this was an opportunity which could not be ignored.

Before 1987, although World Music undoubtedly had a following and with this potential market opening up, it was difficult for interested parties to sell their music to the larger music stores; although specialist music stores had been important in developing the genre over many years, the record companies, broadcasters and journalists had been finding it difficult to build a following because the music itself seemed too scarce. They were eyeing the Jazz and Classic markets, watching them develop a cross-over audience and decided that the best way forward would be to collective strategy to bring the music to a wider audience.

At the outset of the 1987 meeting, the musician Roger Armstrong advised why something needed to be done; “(He) felt that the main problem in selling our kind of material lay with the UK retail outlets and specifically the fact that they did not know how to rack it coherently. This discouraged them from stocking the material in any depth and made it more difficult for the record buyers to become acquainted with our catalogues.”

The first concern of the meetings was to select the umbrella name that this ‘new’ music would be listed under. Suggestions included ‘World Beat’ and prefixing words such as ‘Hot’ or ‘Tropical’ to existing genre titles, but ‘World Music’ won after a show of hands, but initially it was not meant to be the title for a whole new genre, rather something which all of the record labels could place on the sleeves of records in order to distinguish them during the forthcoming campaign. It only became a title for the genre after an agreement that despite the publicity campaign, this wasn’t an exclusive club and that for the good of all, any label which was selling this type of music would be able to take advantage.

Another issue which needed to be addressed was the distribution methods which existed at the time. Most of the main labels were unhappy with the lack of specialist knowledge displayed by sales persons which led to poor service; there was also a reluctance amongst many of the larger outlets to carry the music, because they understandably liked larger releases which could be promoted within store. It was difficult to justify a large presentation expense if the stock going into stores was limited.

One of the marketing strategies used in the vinyl market at the time was the use of browser cards, which would appear in the record racks. As part of the World Music campaign it was decided that these would be a two colour affair designed to carry a special offer package; to aid the retailer a selection of labels would also be included

In an unprecedented move, all of the World Music labels co-ordinated together and developed a compilation cassette for the cover of the music magazine NME. The overall running time was ninety minutes, each package containing a mini-catalogue showing the other releases on offer. This was a smart move as NME reader are often seen as discerning listeners and it was important step to get them on board.

By the time of that second meeting it was becoming clear that in order for the campaign to be successful, it should have its own dedicated press officer. They would be able to juggle the various deadlines and also be able to sell the music as a concept to not just the national stations but also regional DJs who were keen to expand the variety of music they could offer. They were seen as a key resource as it was important for ‘World Music’ to be seen as something which could be important to people outside London – most regions after all had a similarly rich folk heritage which could be tapped into. A cost effective way of achieving all this would be a leafleting campaign.

The next step was to develop a World Music chart, gathering together selling information from around fifty shops, so that it would finally be possible to see which were big sellers in the genre – allowing new listeners to see what was particularly popular. It was agreed that the NME could again be involved in printing the chart and also Music Week and the London listings magazine City Limits. It was also suggested that Andy Kershaw might be persuaded to do a run down of this chart on his show regularly.

And so October of 1987 was designated ‘World Music’ month. A music festival, ‘Crossing the Border’ was held at the Town & Country Club, London and it was the start of the winter season for both WOMAD and Arts Worldwide. The main press release stressed the issues inherent in the campaign:

“Since the early Eighties the enthusiasm for music from ‘outside’ Western pop culture has been steadily mounting. More and more international artists, many of whom are big stars in their own countries, are coming here on tour. They started off, like The Bhundu Boys, playing small clubs and pubs, but now many acts are so popular that they are packing out larger venues.

“The excitement and word-of-mouth appeal is backed up by radio – World of Music on Voice of America, Transpacific Sound Paradise on WFMU, The Planet on Australia’s ABC Radio National, DJ Edu presenting D.N.A: DestiNation Africa on BBC Radio 1Xtra, Adil Ray on the BBC Asian Network, Andy Kershaw’s show on BBC Radio 3 and Charlie Gillett’s show on the BBC World Service to name but seven… and the demand for recordings of non-Western artists is surely growing. This is where the problems can start for the potential buyer of ‘World Music’ albums – the High Street record shop hasn’t got the particular record, or even a readily identifiable section to browse through, it doesn’t show in any of the published charts, and at this point all but the most tenacious give up – and who can blame them?”

Another factor to raise the profile of world music was the founding of the Real World Records label by Peter Gabriel in 1988. His well-known name brought attention of the artists whose work he released, such as Pakistani qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

Today, mainstream music has adopted many of the features of world music, and artists such as Shakira and the members of the Buena Vista Social Club have reached a much wider audience. At the same time world music has been influenced by hip hop, pop and jazz. Even heavy metal bands such as Tool and Nile have incorporated world music into their own. Some entertainers who cross over to recording from film and television will often start with World music; Steven Seagal is a recent example.

World music radio programs these days will often be playing African hip hop or reggae artists, crossover Bhangra and Latin American jazz groups, etc. Public radio and webcasting are an important way for music enthusiasts all over the world to hear the enormous diversity of sounds and styles which, collectively, amount to World Music. The BBC, NPR, and ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) are rich sources for World Music where it is possible to listen online as well as read about the artists and history of this genre.

Criticisms of the term

Some musicians and curators of music have come to dislike the term “world music”. To these critics, “world music” is a parochial, catchall marketing term for non-western music of all genres. On October 3, 1999, David Byrne, the founder of the Luaka Bop music label, wrote an editorial in The New York Times entitled I Hate World Music explaining his objections to the term. Byrne argued that the labeling and categorization of other cultures as “exotic” serves to attract an insincere consumership and deter other potential consumers.

World Music (Awards)

World music awards are awards presented by broadcasting organizations such as the BBC and others to World music artists. The BBC presents awards every year. The hosts for the Awards for World Music 2005 Poll Winners’ Concert were Eliza Carthy and Benjamin Zephaniah.


There are many World Music festivals and jazz/folk/roots/new age crossover events. A small selection is represented here:

* The California World Music Festival is held each July at the Nevada County Fairgrounds.
* The World Sacred Music Festival is held annually in Olympia, Washington State, sponsored by Interfaith Works.
* FloydFest in Floyd, Virginia, USA. Has featured artists from a wide diversity of styles including Ani DiFranco, Geno Delafose & French Rockin’ Boogie, Trumystic, Nickel Creek and Akoya Afrobeat Enemble.
* The Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival of Music and Dance in Trumansburg, New York, USA. Has featured artists from a variety of world and ethnic music genres including Tinariwen, Thomas Mapfumo, Michael Franti, D’Gary, Boubacar Traore, Mamadou Diabate, and many more from around the world.
* The WOMAD Foundation puts on festivals in different countries all around the world and which have last year included artists such as Youssou N’Dour, Robert Plant and Jaojoby.
* The Festival in the Desert takes place every year at Essakane, near Timbuktu, in Mali, West Africa and has achieved international status in spite of the difficulties of reaching its location.
* Stern Grove festival is a San Francisco celebration of musical and cultural diversity. Examples: Lucinda Williams, John Doe, Ojos de Brujo, O-Maya, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the Funk Brothers and also symphony orchestras and operatic stars.
* The German World Music Festival der Klangfreunde takes place every first weekend of August, at Schlosspark Loshausen. Klangfreunde e. V. is a Non-profit organization
* The Starwood Festival has been held in July every year since 1981. Now situated in Sherman, NY, it has featured such world music acts as Amampondo, Babatunde Olatunji, Badal Roy, Sikiru Adepoju, the Prodigals, Yaya Diallo, Merl Saunders and the Rainforest Band, Baka Beyond, Stephen Kent, Cyro Baptista, Airto Moreira, Muruga Booker, Gaelic Storm, and Halim El-Dabh.
* World Music Festival Lo Sguardo di Ulisse, one of the most important music event in Campania. Born in 1997, this festival is the main appointment of all the summer programme in Naples.