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Music | Opinion

Why ‘World Music’ is an outdated term


It’s quite simple really, what on earth does Afrobeat have to do with Puerto Rican Danza? They are miles apart in every which way, except for in record stores where for some reason they occupy the same inch owing to the wildly outdated term of World Music that pits the west against everything else. 

In the past, this might have denoted a sort of exotic sentiment—a tag that this music was different from the norm. Indeed, most of the sounds in the World Music section are different to conventional radio waves, but we’re exposed enough now to celebrate the variegated ways of the world in less of a broad stroke manner that diminishes the integrity of the spice of life when it comes to music. 

Essentially, you don’t go into a supermarket and see the food section delineated by mash and gravy, and then everything else. As Manu Chao once said: “For me, there is no such thing as world music. That can only come when an artist from Nigeria records in Nigeria and the record company is from Nigeria. At the moment the music is from the Third World but the business is still in the First World. It’s neo-colonialist.

The issue arises when it comes to boxing something up with a label. World Music isn’t the most well-thumbed section of the record store in every which way. However, part of this is due to the term itself as opposed to the occasionally challenging sounds. If you were trying to sell Moby Dick and The Hungary Caterpillar together simply because they both involve glutinous animals, then even those masterpieces might fail. Music is no different.

Thus, wildly varied artists find themselves clobbered into the same ‘foreign’ space and this denies them the individualism of their sound. Thereafter, global record sales are hindered, and therefore exposure, and therefore profits, and therefore touring possibilities, and therefore bookings, and so on and so on. If The Beatles can sell millions of records with the sounds of Ravi Shankar, then shouldn’t he be given his own platform?

Ultimately, we are all losers. International stars get less of a chance, we get to hear fewer sounds, and the term World Music continues its problematic prevalence. The world would be richer if Zamrock masterpieces like Amanaz’s Africa sat side by side with its English-speaking counterparts like the Velvet Underground’s magnificent Loaded thanks to its similar musicological tones rather than getting dusty next to Kwaito records thanks to its similar postcode. 

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