In an age of instant access and Spotify, is ‘world music’ dead?

Today’s technology means music can be discovered no matter where on the globe it is being played, and it is opening exciting new airwaves from East to West.

Ozgur Cakirlar and Melike Sahin of Baba Zula, Redferns
Powered by automated translation

On June 29, 1987, a small group of DJs, journalists and producers gathered in a London bar to discuss a fairly niche marketing problem that would have huge global implications.

Those assembled in the Empress of Russia all had an interest in music beyond the West, professional or otherwise, but were struggling to get it into the hands of their fellow acolytes. The music of Nigerian pioneer King Sunny Ade was being filed under “reggae” (which he wasn’t), Qawwali legend Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was being filed under “jazz” (again, wrong) – and others were just being lost in the alphabet.

A couple of years earlier, Paul Simon's Graceland had drawn western ears to groups like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the sound of South African townships – but they couldn't get hold of it. So the group met to discuss how they might better market and distribute music from outside the Anglophone world: the result was a campaign (at the cost of £3,500) to create a new filing category in western record shops: they voted on the name – rejecting options such as "roots", "ethnic" and "world beat" – and alighted on "world music".

In the three decades since that meeting the phrase has been frequently maligned, for perhaps obvious reasons – seeming to centre western music as the natural order of things, and (depending on your critique) exoticising, ghettoising or homogenising the endlessly varied cultures, languages and music styles existing outside that narrow part of the world.

In 2004, the Empress of Russia group who had coined the term were reunited, and were mostly defiant about the practical gains their historic coinage had achieved: a surge in global cultural exchange and understanding, many more musicians from outside the West having their music heard and many more of them getting paid for it.

"In a country like Gambia or Madagascar, quite small sales – 10,000 records – can buy somebody a house," reflected Ian Anderson, editor of the long-running fRoots magazine. "None of this would have happened without that world music box. So against [critic of the term and British Indian musician] Nitin Sawhney, who gets grumpy because he gets put in that box, I throw in these thousands of others who benefit from it and say I don't care."

Of course, the centralised sales mechanics and distributional networks that existed in the late 1980s have been turned inside out and upside down in the past 30 years. And if “world music” was coined primarily as a pragmatic tool, rather than a genre, implying something remotely cohesive, then what does it still have a place at this point in the digitally-enhanced 21st century?

Record shops have become something akin to heritage sites, where they have survived at all – a gift shop with no museum attached – and anyone with an internet connection can plunge straight into the heart of a hitherto self-contained scene thousands and thousands of miles away. For DJ, musician and writer Jace Clayton – a zealous acolyte of everything from Berber folk music in Egypt to various types of Latin “cumbia”, the last decade and a half has seen “a paradigm shift in how music itself moves around”.

In his first book, Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Culture, published last year, he documents the way that folk music from remote communities can now more easily end up as coffee table soundtracks in western cities, and also how music production technology like autotune has been used in exciting new ways by musicians whose instruments and styles have otherwise remained the same for centuries, passed down through generations prior to the arrival of recorded music.

“The speed with which digital audio zips from one place to another has shrunk the world,” he writes, “short-circuiting business models and scrambling lines of influence. The overwhelming availability of music that results from this proliferation and portability is altering our conception of it in ways we’re only beginning to understand.”

Clayton calls this messy new digital incarnation "world music 2.0" and he is right that we have not yet got the measure of it – not least because it is continuously evolving. A service such as streaming site Spotify was initially thought by industry experts to be of greatest benefit to "the big boys", and obstructive to smaller scale, independently published music from beyond the West (or indeed, in the West) – even though its co-founder, Daniel Ek, was telling a tech conference, back in the distant past of 2011: "We want all the African music, all the Asian music, all the South American music – our goal really is to have all the world's music." From some unscientific testing, it remains patchy, if far more comprehensive than it was in 2011 – of the artists mentioned in last week's piece on these pages about the rise of the Middle Eastern mixtape, a handful from the Future Rising Dubai mixtape – Eomac, Muhaisnah Four – are available on Spotify.

But where there are gaps in specialist tastes, other services such as MixCloud, SoundCloud and YouTube frequently fill them in – and many happy hours can be spent surfing through scenes that a decade ago would have been impossibly unknowable.

How else would I have discovered young Mozambican Afro-electronica producer Freddy da Stupid (SoundCloud), or kept up with all the latest tracks from the schmaltzy but irresistible Cape Verdean “zouk love” scene (YouTube). One of the most thrilling inventions of the musical new world order is the website Radio.Garden, launched as recently as December 2016, which presents an image of an interactive Planet Earth freckled with green dots, and the opportunity to scroll around the planet like a digital Columbus, before jumping into any one of more than 8,000 of the world’s radio stations and listening to them live.

It is a dazzling experience because for all its scope, it offers the opportunity to feel the intimacy of local radio – Sinar FM in Kuala Lumpur, Dorojnoe Radio in eastern Russia, Ice FM in Greenland: at last, “where do you want to go today?” is as exciting question as it should be.

Digital progress also means archives thought lost or forgotten can be gathered, polished and presented anew – or just shared with a speed and universality that had never been imagined.

The website Awesome Tapes From Africa is one terrific example – it is as described, a huge and incredibly diverse archive of different cassette tapes found for sale across Africa, digitised and made available for download, for free. Founded in 2006 by American ethnomusicologist Brian Shimkovitch, it has since developed into a record label too, releasing music for sale, with 50 per cent of profits going to the artists. Shimkovitch has found himself wrapped up in “the often fiery debates surrounding [the] suspected postcolonial tendencies of the western music industry”, he wrote in 2012 – but like his predecessors, maintains the artists badly want their music to be heard and that it would be stranger, perhaps even “quasi-racist”, to artificially seal off the musicians from the globalisation that is similarly transforming the rest of the world.

Furthermore, the digital age has brought western sounds to Africa in such abundance that the cultural exchange flies both ways, and has resulted in exciting new pop and dance genres like hiplife (a mixture of Ghanaian high-life and rap) and kuduro, a kind of Angolan dance music drawing on western house and techno.

Few styles are immune to the digitally enhanced networks of world music 2.0, and few wish to be. The Turkish band Baba Zula have perfected what they call "Istanbul psychedelia" across their two decades together, and their new double album XX is a career compilation of sorts, but one that reinvents and re-records many of their tracks, reeling in new collaborators and combining a plethora of styles, eastern and western, old and new, in a way that beautifully mirrors the strengths of the great city itself.

So we have strains of 1960s Turkish psychedelic rock, with its roots in Anatolian folk music, but also loose, jazzy experiments and interjections from their collaborations with dub legend Mad Professor, Can drummer Jaki Liebzeit. It’s a glorious, hedonistic mess, and all of it possible thanks to the pulsating networks of the new world order.

Dan Hancox is a regular contributor to The Review.