Global Music: Useful phrase or restrictive labeling?

August 29, 2012

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Twenty-five years ago this summer, some music enthusiasts got together in London pub to come up with a way to make selling music from different parts of the world easier for record stores. Worldbeat and Tropical were some names that were tossed about but finally, World Music was the phrase that stuck.

According to those at the meeting this phrase was and remains for them nothing more than a term –not a genre- to help record stores categorize. But over the years some have argued the term ghettoizes music from nonwestern parts of the world and restricts those artists from reaching a broader audience. Yes and no. The Congo based band Staff Benda Bilili continues to sell out it shows around the world. But you don’t hear them much on U-S music radio (except for WBEZ’s Radio M).  I think the term World Music has scared away U-S music radio programmers from taking a chance on an artist that would easily fit into its format, but because of a language barrier it’s a no go.

But if a record store listed Natalia Lafourcade under rock, would the average rock fan take notice of the Monterrey Mexico based artist who is as forward thinking and innovative as Grimes or St. Vincent? Hard to say. Then again does placing her in the Latin/World Music section help? And why is the Eastern European centric sounds of the Albuquerque based  A Hawk and A Hacksaw defined as indie and not World Music? Is it because one of its members is a former drummer in a much loved indie rock band? This is one of the problems with the phrase World Music; there’s no clear definition of what it is in this fusion saturated 21st century world of music, or should be thrown into that bin.

I think a couple of solutions to getting more exposure to good music no matter where it comes from is for music radio to be willing to take more chances and trust their audiences, and for rock and hip hop music critics to go beyond mainstream/Western sounds within those genres and think/listen outside the box. Until that happens, when it comes to the phrase World Msuic, some say, “if it ain’t broke…”