What is World Music?

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What is World Music?

Whether it’s early blues or late 60s British Invasion, music and musicians have often consisted of a complex blend of different identities and cultures. And although popular music has predominately been of North American and European origins, these pop musicians have long been both musically and emotionally inspired by non-Western melody and rhythm. Despite the obvious influence, music outside of the mainstream music industry did not receive much credit or attention until the late 80s and early 90s. Yet even then, music outside of the Westernized music scene was not properly identified and instead eclectically labeled as simply “World Music.”

Upon such designation, the very phrase itself soon became popularized as more Western music listeners grew interested in songs outside of what they could find on the radio. Popularity eventually grew to such degree that “World Music” became such a catch-all phrase that it essentially lost it’s meaning. Now, in the 21st century, it is quite difficult to discern what exactly is meant when one uses the phrase “World Music.” To help develop an genuine understanding, this article seeks to unpack this catch-all phrase, as well as provide clear examples of what can be considered World Music.

The Definition of World Music

Seeming to understand the complexity of the phrase, Merriam-Webster dictionary provides two different definitions for World Music, one that they consider simple and one that they consider full:
• Simple Definition: popular music that is based on musical traditions from different parts of the world and that often has a rhythm that you can dance to
• Full Definition: popular music originating from or influenced by non-Western musical traditions and often having a danceable rhythm – usually hyphenated when used attributively

Conversely, the Encyclopedia Britannica provides a much broader and more appropriate definition noting that world music can be considered “music of the world’s cultures,” before adding that the phrase itself was initially used by the media and music industry businessmen who were looking to promote and make a profit off non-Western artists.

world music

Examples of World Music

Zimbabwe Guitar Bands

When the term “world music” became popular in the 70s and 80s, one of the music styles most commonly associated with this phrase were Zimbabwe guitar bands. Most of these bands incorporated rhythm driven guitar riffs on top of traditional dance-hall beats to form a very lively drum/guitar combination. Popular artists of this style include Biggie Tembo (Bhundu Boys) and Mike Mopo & Zinawa.

Qawwali (Pakistani Sufi Singers)

Qawwali is a musical performance that combines sacred religious themes with vehement poetic expression in efforts to place both listeners and performers in a state of spiritual union with Allah. A qawwali is most often composed of one or two lead vocalists, a choir that claps and sings backing vocals and a percussionist that uses a dholak or tabla to provide the beat. Traditionally, musicians perform in Sufi shrines on sacred days (often related to the death of a saint), but less sacred performances can be held at any time throughout the year.

Prior to the 20th century, there was very little know about qaqalli outside of South Asia. But in the late 80s, Sufi artist Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan helped ignite global interest in this style of music, so much so that he now is featured on a wide variety of soundtracks and films.

It is important note, though, that despite its newfound commercial appeal, qawwali is still considered to be a deeply spiritual and sacred performance by those involved.

Cajun Fiddlers

As European migrants moved south to Louisiana, they brought their acoustic guitars and fiddles along with them. While the fiddle was initially used for folk songs and dance parties, the various cultures in Louisiana eventually blended together turning the state into what many called the fiddling melting pot. This melting pot of styles, personalities and cultures merged traditional folk with blues, jazz and swing to become the legendary Cajun fiddling style as it is now known. Even today, locals of visitors to Louisiana will be pleased to find that Cajun fiddlers can still be heard performing on the streets.

Could The Label “World Music” Be Outdated?

Although it is quite easy to understand how the term “world music” came to be, there are many who feel as though the label is outdated. Their argument is that all music, no matter whether it is a Western pop hit or a Middle Eastern religious performance, comes from world inhabitants, so it is improper and misleading to describe world music as a catch-all term for music outside of Western culture.

Thus said, it is very important to keep all individuals, cultures and ideas in mind when discussing world music, or even music in general. As music is always changing, the way we think and discuss music change as well, so there may not always be an obvious right or wrong answer when labeling or categorizing music.

Are you passionate about music and education? Well, why not share your passion with others by becoming the next graduate of Kent State’s online Master of Music in music education program. You can study entirely online and graduate in as few as 23 months – find out more today!






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