Just as the category of “Foreign Language Film” has serious problems, so too does that of “World Music,” which names so many kinds of music that it names nothing at all. World music “might best be described by what it is not,” noted a 1994 Music Library Association report. “It is not Western art music, neither it is mainstream Western folk or popular music.” The report adds some vague qualifications about “ethnic or foreign elements” then gives away the game: “It is simply not our music, it is their music, music which belongs to someone else.”
Perhaps one can see why the idea is now regarded by some as “outdated and offensive.” As the University of Minnesota’s Timothy Brennan argues in a historical analysis of the term, “world music does not exist” except “as an idea in the mind of journalists, critics, and the buyers of records.”
But to whom can music belong? If Japanese musicians play jazz, are they playing American-owned music? Is it “Japanese jazz” or just jazz? Must it have Japanese instruments for it to be “World Music”?
How these questions get answered can determine whether most listeners ever encounter the recorded output of jazz musicians from Japan, such as that in an excellent thirty-minute sampler from the 1970s that we featured just a few days back. In this mix, DJ Zag Erlat showcases names that “will sound familiar,” wrote Open Culture’s Colin Marshall, “to those of us who’ve spent years digging crates around the world for Japanese jazz on vinyl.” That’s a select group, indeed, and one you may be inspired to join once you’ve heard Erlat’s mix.
The Turkish DJ has further done his part to disambiguate World Music on his YouTube channel My Analog Journal. Here, you’ll find Erlat spinning sets of “Brazilian Grooves,” “Arabic Grooves,” “African Grooves,” “Bollywood Grooves,” and so much more—including a set of Jazz from the USSR in his tenth episode that is quite a revealing listen. Who knew such music existed in the Soviet Union? Well, except for those Soviet jazz crate-diggers.
Now you know too, and you’ll learn a lot more about what the world’s been up to, music-wise. These are also, obviously, very broad categories, and one might reasonably object to them. But it’s a great start for getting to know some classic pop sounds from specific regions in the world. Erlat does get more specific in some sets, as in his Japanese jazz from the 70s. (I’d especially recommend his “Turkish Female Singers from the 70s” mix.)
This is music of the modern world—not “ours” or “theirs”—its basic elements embedded in a global cultural marketplace. “It is 25 years since the concept of world music was created by enthusiasts in a north London pub,” wrote The Guardian’s Ian Birrell in 2012. “Perhaps it made sense then, as a marketing device to promote the sounds of the world that were lost in record shops and on the radio. But not now. Not in this mixed-up, messy and shrunken world.” Perhaps it didn't make sense then, when artists like Fela Kuti or Os Mutantes made music that was as much “Western” as it was African or South American.
It becomes increasingly impossible to segregate artists from different countries. Genre mashups rule, and the more furiously artists from around the world pick up and put down global styles, the more they attract the positive notice of fans and critics in pop music. But perhaps we’ll continue to refer to indigenous folk traditions as “World Music,” and perhaps that’s what the label has always been meant to describe. In that case, as one writer for the Grammy’s official blog put it, “something tells me that the rest of the world has a different definition."
Get familiar with several other groovy musics from elsewhere at Erlat’s My Analog Journal.