What is World Music?


Carl Rahkonen


In: World Music in Music Libraries. Technical Report No. 24. Canton, MA: Music Library Association, December 1994.


ABSTRACT: World Music is the currently popular alternative for terms such as primitive, non-Western, ethnic and folk music. It has come to the forefront by its use in commercial and academic circles. With the growth of worldwide systems of communication and commerce, music librarians will feel increasing demands for materials characterized as world music.


World music means different things to different people, making it difficult to define. One thing is certain--we see more of it coming into our music libraries every day and "we know it when we hear it!"

World music might best be described by what it is not. It is not Western art music, neither is it mainstream Western folk or popular music. World music can be traditional (folk), popular or even art music, but it must have ethnic or foreign elements. It is simply not our music, it is their music, music which belongs to someone else.

A review of the literature shows that "world music" is a relatively recent term, and one appearing in ever wider contexts. Only since 1989 has the Music Index given a cross reference for the term, one which directs us to see "ethnic music," "folk music", and "popular music--styles". This seems to imply that world music is a large category, which encompasses ethnic music, folk music, and certain popular styles with non-Western elements. The fact that the term only gets a cross-reference suggests that Music Index has not yet fully accepted it as a subject. The Library of Congress Subject Headings do not use the term at all. What, then, is world music?


The Impact of Western Culture on World Musics

In the past, hardy explorers traveled to "exotic" locations and discovered different lifestyles, customs, beliefs and musics. These musics were largely "home grown" and reflected their various indigenous cultures. Later, worldwide systems of transportation and communication broke down the isolation of these cultures and exposed them to new ideas and new musics.

As long as humans have inhabited the planet, they have been exposed to the processes of acculturation, assimilation and exchange of information, but in the present world this exchange takes place almost instantaneously. Multi-national record companies release and promote music globally. With instantaneous satellite transmission, we can watch CNN or MTV simultaneously in virtually every corner of the earth!

The cassette tape, invented by Phillips in 1966, has become the most common propagator of recorded sound in the world. Victor Fuks, an anthropologist who completed his ethnomusicological fieldwork among the Waiapi Indians of the upper Amazon basin in Brazil, showed me photographs of his informants who dressed in loin cloths, lived in grass huts, practiced "slash and burn" agriculture, hunted in the rain forest using bow and arrow, and who played large flutes made of bamboo. To my great surprise, the photographs revealed that many of them owned battery powered cassette tape recorders! In our day, the Sony Walkman has become almost as common among the Indians of Brazil and the Bushmen of Africa as on the streets of New York.

In the early 1980s, a research project known as the "Music Industry in Small Countries" (MISC) was undertaken by two Swedish ethnomusicologists Roger Wallis and Krister Malm. They published their results in a book titled Big Sounds from Small Peoples.1 Dr. Malm, who is the director the Swedish Musikmuseet, gave a report at the 1983 International Music Council of UNESCO World Congress, held that year in Stockholm. At one of the plenary sessions which I attended, he said that they had become interested in how widely distributed the music of the Swedish band ABBA had become and said, "We found cassette tapes of the ABBA band in every country of the world, except Vietnam." At this, the delegate from Vietnam arose and said, "We have ABBA tapes in Vietnam too!"

The MISC project documented how international record companies sought new markets for their products in the so-called third world. The coming of cassette technology, with its relatively low cost, made possible an extremely wide dissemination of Western popular music, especially through "pirated" reissues. Inevitably, this affected the indigenous popular musics of these countries. As Simon Frith, a noted scholar of popular music has said:

...popular music has to be studied as an international phenomenon. The point here is not just that popular music exists in all countries... what matters, rather, is that all countries' popular musics are shaped these days by international influences and institutions, by multinational capital and technology, by global pop norms and values. ... No country in the world is unaffected by the way in which the twentieth-century mass media (the electronic means of musical production, reproduction and transmission) have created a universal pop aesthetic.2


Ethnomusicologists initially feared that the driving force of multi-national industry would make the world musically homogeneous, perhaps banishing indigenous musics into oblivion. Wallis and Malm pointed two possible directions that the world's music may take:

The continuation of the transcultural process in the future can take one of two main directions. The interaction of transculture and individual culture will either continue in a to and fro movement where more and more musical features will become common to more and more music cultures. The end of such a path would be the attainment of a global music culture available to almost everybody... We would then live in a music environment that would give a little satisfaction to a lot of people, and a lot of satisfaction to very, very few....

The other main direction would involve the emergence of a multitude of types of music arising out of new living conditions and new musical technologies, at the same time as traditional music is adapted to new environments where, albeit with some changes, it can be put to similar uses and functions as in a traditional society.3

My own research in Finland (not one of the countries included in the MISC project), showed that in spite of being widely imitated in various forms, Western popular music did not replace indigenous music, but was combined with the existing musics in the culture. This resulted in a greater diversity of musical styles than ever before.4 Similarly, Bruno Nettl writes that the pressure of Western music has actually increased the diversity of musical cultures:


During the last hundred years, the most significant phenomenon in the global history of music has been the intensive imposition of Western music and musical thought upon the rest of the world. And surely an important aspect of this event is the formidable number of responses that the world's cultures have made in order to maintain, preserve, modify or virtually abandon their musical traditions. While the coming of Western music is often seen as the death-knell of musical variety in the world, examination of its many effects shows the world's musics in the twentieth century, in part as the result of the pressure generated by Western musical culture, in a state of unprecedented diversity [my emphasis].5

The fear that music around the world would move towards a bland homogeneity simply has not materialized. On the contrary, in our age of instantaneous communication, cross-fertilization of musics on a global scale has resulted in the creation of a multitude of diverse musical styles.6


The Impact of World Musics on Western Culture

Cassette technology made possible not only the wide dissemination of Western popular music, but also the dissemination of indigenous musics. Locally recorded cassettes are easily duplicated and sold inexpensively enough to reach a wide audience. The MISC project documented the enormous impact of local cassette industries, as does a new volume in the University of Chicago Press Ethnomusicology Series.7 A cassette sold on the streets of Cairo or Peking as local music, may be considered world music to us. These cassettes may contain any of the diverse styles available today, from purely traditional, to forms adopting global popular norms.

Surprisingly, local music industries have had a recent impact on the global market. Just as multi-national companies sought to market Western popular forms abroad, so they looked for "exotic" musics to market in the West. This has led to one of the many definitions of world music, one invented by the record industry to market a genre that combines traditional ethnic music and Western popular music.8

In the Introduction to the Virgin Directory of World Music, Philip Sweeney describes how a group of record producers, concert

promoters and broadcasters met in the summer of 1987 in an upstairs room of a North London pub, the Empress of Russia, to come up with a term to promote "ethnic", "folk," and "international" recordings. After much discussion they chose the term "World Music," which was soon picked up by the media and became the standard term for this music in the international record industry.9

In May 1990, Billboard magazine established a bi-weekly "World Music" chart, which lists the top fifteen selling albums in this "new genre." It appears on the same page as the "New Age" chart under the heading of "Adult Alternative Albums." The fact that Billboard established this chart suggests that the term had firmly established itself in the marketplace.10

Two factors signaled the advent of world music in its commercial definition: the first was the uncommon success of reggae in the mainstream commercial market. The second was the appearance of the Graceland album, a collaborative effort of Paul Simon and the South African group "Ladysmith Black Mambazo." The album was a commercial success, but its implications for the commercialization of African music caused a stir in the academic community.11

With the increasing popularity of world music over the past decade, there has come a plethora of specialized publishers and vendors with names such as Music of the World, World Music Institute, World Music Press, World Music Enterprises, and Original Music, which publishes a quarterly World Music Catalog.12 These vendors further expanded the definition of "world music," taking it from the purely popular idiom, and making it include all styles of music with ethnic or foreign elements. They also helped entrench the term as an alternative to "ethnic" or "non-Western" music.


The Era of Cultural Diversity

As ethnic and foreign musics enter the Western commercial main-stream, they bring the possibility of greater understanding, or at least familiarity with other cultures. Nowhere is this more evident than in the United States, where many cultures and ethnic groups are thrown together in the same environment.

The United States was once called a "melting pot," on the theory that with intermingling and intermarriage, each succeeding generation becomes more "Americanized," forming a homogeneous whole. But a more accurate analogy might be that of a fruit salad, with people of diverse ethnic backgrounds mixing and co-existing. As we have slowly abandoned the melting pot ideal, we have come to value diversity, and even to emphasize it. We live in an era when cultural diversity is in fashion. In the jargon of our time, diversity has become "politically correct." All levels of the educational establishment, from elementary school curricula through the university stresses multi-culturalism and diversity.

The term "world music," as used in academic circles differs from the way it is used in the commercial marketplace. Although the record industry may have popularized the term, it was originally invented and used in academia.

Robert Brown maintains that the world music concept grew from the pioneering ethnomusicology program created in the 1950s at UCLA by Mantle Hood. Brown participated in that program, and became one of the founders of the Wesleyan University program in the 1960s, where he applied the term to describe the combination of performance study of non-Western music with traditional ethnomusicological studies, which characterized the Wesleyan World Music program.


...it seemed appropriate to me to coin a new term to represent its particular mix and special emphases. This is the origin of 'world music,' a term now in rather general use, although not always in its original meaning.13


In the early 1970s, the American Society for Eastern Arts, a non-profit organization in San Francisco, expanded its concert and teaching programs and was renamed the Center for World Music.14 In 1980 the Music Department at Kent State University established the Center for the Study of World Musics, and recently the Rotterdam Conservatory began advertising degrees in World Music.

In academia the term "world music" (or "world musics") has become the currently popular alternative for such terms such as primitive, non-Western, ethnic and folk.15 Helen Myers, in the new Norton/Grove Handbook Ethnomusicology: An Introduction writes:

In the 1990s, the conscientious ethnomusicologist is often at a loss for descriptive words to explain his enterprise, having been stripped during the last several decades of his working vocabulary of vivid, colourful terms. In the kingdom of exiled words live the labels condemned as pejorative: the old timers, 'savage', 'primitive', 'exotic', 'Oriental', 'Far Eastern'; some newcomers, 'folk', 'non-Western', 'non-literate', 'pre-literate'; and recently 'world'.16


The Music Library Association held a pre-conference symposium titled "Linking Music and Culture: World Music Materials and the Music Library" at the 1986 meeting in Milwaukee, and shortly thereafter established a World Music Roundtable to educate and assist music librarians in dealing with these kinds of materials.



As we continue to improve systems of communication and increase the interconnectedness of our global economy, we will see and hear more music from other parts of the world in our libraries. The diversity and complexity of our culture and of other cultures around the world will continue to increase. Multi-national record companies will continue to drive Western music into the farthest reaches of the planet and, at the same time, will act as a conduit to bring local ethnic musics back into mainstream commercial markets.

The consumers of world music will not only be ethnomusicologists, the specialists in various obscure, exotic musics. Music educators, students and the general public will also demand their own varieties of music, and whatever music may interest them from other parts of the world.

Western art music will remain the core of our music libraries, but we will feel increasing demands for materials dealing with the vast remainder of the world's music.


References and Notes

1. Roger Wallis and Krister Malm. Big Sounds from Small Peoples: The Music Industry in Small Countries (London: Constable, 1984).

2. Simon Frith, ed. World Music, Politics and Social Change (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989), 2.

3. Wallis and Malm, 323-24.

4. Carl Rahkonen, "The Development of Finnish Popular Music." Paper presented at the Allegheny Chapter of the American Musicological Society, October 27, 1990 ; "International Influences on Finnish Popular Music." Paper presented at the Niagara Chapter of the Society for Ethnomusicology. Kent, OH. March 27, 1993.

5. Bruno Nettl, The Western Impact on World Music (New York: Schirmer, 1985), 3.

6. For examples see Peter Manuel, Popular Musics of the Non-Western World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988) and Christopher Waterman, Jj: A Social History and Ethnography of an African Popular Music (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).

7. Peter Manuel, Cassette Culture: Popular Music and Technology in North India, Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

8. Judy Tsou gives the following definition in her review of The Virgin Directory of World Music by Philip Sweeney, Choice (February 1993): 69: "'World music,' a term coined by the record industry in order to market the genre, refers to the fusion of traditional ethnic music and modern Western popular music."

9. Philip Sweeney, The Virgin Directory of World Music. London: Virgin Books, 1991 ; New York: Henry Holt, 1992, p. ix.

10. A description of how Billboard developed its World Music chart can be culled from the following articles: Ken Terry, "NMS Panel Explores World Beat Music's Potential," Billboard 101 (August 5, 1989): 30; "Billboard Debuts World Music Chart," Billboard 102 (May 19, 1990): 5; Thom Duffy and Ed Christman, "World Music Starts Cooking at Retail," Billboard 102 (June 2, 1990): 1; Ken Terry, "NMS Report ... Chiefs Square Off over World Music," Billboard 102 (August 4, 1990): 28.

11. See and compare Charles Hamm, "Graceland Revisited," Popular Music (Cambridge) 8 (No. 3, 1989): 299-304 and Louise Meintjes, "Paul Simon's Graceland, South Africa and the Mediation of Musical Meaning," Ethnomusicology 34 (January 1990): 37-73.

12. The addresses for these vendors may be found at the end of Jim Farrington's essay.

13. Robert E. Brown, "World Music: The Voyager Enigma," In Music in the Dialogue of Cultures: Traditional Music and Cultural Policy, ed. Max Peter Baumann (Wilhelmshaven: Florian Noetzel, 1991), 366.

14. Ibid., 367.

15. Representative articles from music education are Patricia Shehan [Campbell], "World Musics: Window to Cross-Cultural Understanding," Music Educator's Journal 75 (November 1988): 22-6 and Will Schmid, "World Music in the Instrumental Program," Music Educator's Journal 79 (May 1992): 41-5 (published in a special Multicultural Music Education issue); and from music therapy Joseph Moreno, "Multicultural Music Therapy: The World Music Connection," Journal of Music Therapy 25 (No. 1, 1988): 17-27. Doctroral dissertations using the term include: Anthony Palmer, "World Musics in Elementary and Secondary Education: A Critical Analysis." Ph.D. UCLA, 1975, and Jacqueline Joy Yudkin, "An Investigation and Analysis of World Music Education in California's Public Schools,

K-6." Ph.D. UCLA, 1990.

16. Helen Myers, "Ethnomusicology," In Ethnomusicology: An Introduction, edited by Helen Myers, Norton/Grove Handbooks in Music (New York: W.W. Norton, 1992), 11.