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What Is "World Music"?


When I explain what I do at KAOS, I'm often asked this question. So what is "world music"? The term sounds foreign, exotic...and vague. Maybe that's for the best. Much of my favorite music defies categorization. Yet for simplicity, I'm going to ignore my own good sense and define world music in three categories.

The Roots: Traditional music

Traditional "world music" is the root of everything. From rainforest chanting to desert drumming, this is music as it happened where it happened. This is the target of ethnomusicologists and field recording artists such as Alan Lomax. Acoustic music sprung from the earth. It's not always the most popular music, and often its practitioners are ignored as other music catches the public ear. Yet because of its authenticity, musical tastes eventually swing back to this for inspiration, freshness, and substance. Many early recordings are being released (check the Smithsonian Folkways label). And other traditions are just being discovered, such as the throat-singing traditions of Central Asia (try Various Artists - Epics & Overtone Singing Vol. 1 -Inedit). The relatively new label Hugo is great for Chinese traditional music.

The Tree: Modern music with a sense of place

Popular music has largely lost any sense of place. Its catchy hooks and thin lyrics float across international borders and have no loyalty to their origin. Such music is being produced everywhere, from New Jersey to Japan. Yet there is new music that retains a sense of place, while incorporating imported styles, instruments, even languages. When the electric guitar hit Africa, for example, wondrous things ensued. Listen to Oliver Mtukudzi, for example, and you will hear in his guitar work echoes of the mbira (thumb piano) used in traditional Zimbabwean music. Rokia Traore of Mali is another great-and very different-example of a modern African guitarist with traditional roots. Other examples include Gypsy singer Vera Bila, Brazilian Virginia Rodrigues, and the "Father of Congolese Rumba" Wendo Kolosoy.

The Wildly Fluttering Leaves: Cross-cultural hybrids

What do you get when you give a bunch of Scots the power of the Latin groove? Salsa Celtica! The band's CD "The Great Scottish Latin Adventure" is a festival of danceable Latin music with bagpipes spicing up the mix, and is arguably a bit subtler and more effective than their Celtic-Brazilian cousins Mac Umba. These kinds of experiments can be really awful (I really don't want to name names...), and the KAOS crypt is littered with examples of artists who tried to change or borrow from another tradition without understanding or loving the music. Yet from Native Americans performing reggae (Casper Loma-da-wa) to Tuvan-throat-singing bluesmen (Paul Pena), to Senegalese hip-hop (Positive Black Soul), to hybrid music with a made-up language (Ekova), many have succeeded. Call it the positive side of globalization.

The term "world music" sounds vague because it is. But no more vague than the term "alternative" or "rock" or "pop". Like other KAOS programmers, I play what I think is good music. For me, that means intelligent writing, humor, high musical standards, and roots-in widely varying permutations. With the over-commercialization and shallowness of much of the US music scene, most of the good music I find happens to originate elsewhere. That's my "world music".

©Scott Stevens, November 2000



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