Perhaps one of the biggest banes in the life of a modern music listener is the excessive classification of sound at the hands of an ever-growing mass of music journalists, retailers and publishers. It’s easy to understand that when tasked with describing music, people are left struggling to produce material which exceeds mere description by […]

Perhaps one of the biggest banes in the life of a modern music listener is the excessive classification of sound at the hands of an ever-growing mass of music journalists, retailers and publishers. It’s easy to understand that when tasked with describing music, people are left struggling to produce material which exceeds mere description by using increasingly oblique and esoteric genre tags to help separate one thing from the next. I am largely forgiving of this vice, because after all we do need to be able to separate the work of Mozart from The Dead Kennedys. Furthermore, while of limited use, genre names like “aquacrunk” have provided me with at least a few giggles over the years. And who can fault the vintage Ishkur’s Guide to Electronic Music for substituting hours of actually listening to music with trying to pin down the exact differences between neurofunk and trance ‘n’ bass. As I said, I can forgive.

But one genre tag I cannot and will not abide is “world music”, which aside from being somewhat patronising to the artists in question, fails to describe what the music sounds like in any way.

An anthropologist called Edward Saïd once said that the West studies and admires the Orient from a colonial perspective, never considering itself equal to its cousins but naturally capable of appreciating its subtleties. In a similar way, I think describing something as world music is an inherently patronising notion. Although as a westerner I naturally have a greater understanding of my own musical traditions, it is wrong to centralise western music in this way. Some people seem to use the term to describe music that is from other countries but has no established genre tag.

When you take a trip to a record shop (online or not), a quick browse through the world music section can be an eclectic experience. You can jump between the jazzed-out, smokey traditional folk instruments of Anouar Brahem, one of Tunisia’s finest oud players, and the funk-driven grooves of Paris’s Orchestre National de Barbes without moving too far. While both these artists are excellent and worthy of note, they are not similar. The idea that someone could like both is not a given and when you include a third random selection from the world music vaults – a compilation of Mongolian throat singers, for the sake of example – it becomes clear that we are not dealing with a genre so much as a tag given to music which we lack commercial incentive to classify properly. To me, this idea sounds as strange as walking into a Peruvian record shop to find the European music section where DJ Friction, Radiohead, S Club 7, Eiffel 65 and Mozart are housed under the same tag. Of course, that is not how Peruvian record shops are laid out, because the South American record industry doesn’t thrive on its own folk music, but on its exports, which often consists of artists singing westernised versions of local music. “Do you want some Brazilian folk music? Great! Look in the world music section, sir.” “Shakira?” “Yes sir, that’s over in the pop department.”

It is perfectly reasonable to argue that location makes a difference to how one might describe music. Aficionados will all be aware (perhaps painfully) of the differences between East and West coast hip hop, and I can think of a handful of people who would stress the difference between Detroit techno and Berlin techno. But the world music tag defies these subtleties. How can the varied music of Zimbabwe be considered similar to music from Pakistan? How can music which comes from two unique perspectives, cultures and languages be classified under the same term?

The truth might be that as Europeans we identify less with music from other cultures. This might explain why we need broader terms to catalogue and define what we consume from outside our immediate surroundings. This is consistent with the fact that African music became a lot more popular through the blues revival and through the work of fusion artists like Fela Kuti. As our culture becomes more and more diverse, we become more familiar with sounds from far away. Our producers and musicians become inspired and we listen in, much to our benefit.

Why then, when we’ve come so far, should we not abandon the archaic idea that we have our complex, multi-layered musical society, standing apart from the rest of the world, only to be experienced at the odd world music festival once a year? We are happy to listen to foreign artists when they emulate our music and we are happy to listen to European artists when they take influence from other musical forms, but it seems we can’t engage foreign artists playing completely foreign music.

If we were to reduce styles of music to their most basic genres, almost all would be without nationality tags. Detroit techno would simply be techno and Russian romanticism would just be romanticism, but world music wouldn’t change – it would still be a large cluster of music we haven’t had time to engage with on its own individual merits. Maybe it’s time to start.

Fred Oxby.