Culture is future »


Contribution: "World music, music of the world or global music?" by Mélodie Irondelle

Translated in French as ‘musiques du monde’, the World Music is a marketing concept that emerged in the 1980s to promote music from the third-world. Both excluding and englobing, the notions is debated as distribution and access to music have become global.


“Music of the wolrd”, everything that is outside the occidental world.

On June 27, 1987, the representatives of the eleven independent music record companies and British magazines gathered in a London pub. The issue of the day: creating a label that will promote productions of artists from the third-world often excluded from the British and American markets. This meeting sought to continue the success of occidental stars like Paul Simon whose album Graceland, conceived with South African musicians, ranked first in the United Kingdom in 1986. Desribed by Paul Simon as “a music both familiar and foreign”; the World Music defines itself thus in its beginnings as a certain open mindset from the occident world towards traditional music from specific regions but also towards contemporary sound productions emerging from a mix between very diverse musical traditions. Nicolas Jaujou defines this quest for ignored musical continents – often fantasized – like “the aspect of the imaginary of the occidental consumer”. Musical exoticism is in vogue, and it sells!

“World Music”, under a common label, will open and develop new musical territories defined according to criteria solely based on occidental commercial interests. Neither a musical ‘genre’ in itself, neither a very precise ‘geographical continent’, the concept displays itself as a “all-in-one” that essentially operates by the rule of exclusion: “world music” is everything that doesn’t correspond to the etiquettes decided by the occidental market such as classical music, jazz or various (pop, rock, etc.). Ever since its origin, World Music encounters limitations due to its ethnocentric way of classifying artists uniquely according to their geographic localization as ‘outside the occident’. The binary relation ‘occident vs. the world’ will not resist against the effervescence of emerging productions thanks to technologies that accelerate the diversification, mix and propagation.

A global music that could hide something else

Since the 1990s, cheap and easy recording technology has been spreading around the world. New music genres are born – like the Kuduro in Angola – fruits of a mix between contemporary music relayed by the diaspora. Local musical production are that are being constantly re-elaborated are taken up by these new cultural flows. Reggae’s evolution is an archetype of this trend. Exported around the world by the Jamaican diaspora, enriched by encountering other musical tradition and musical sub-genres, reggae is the fruit of reinterpretations specific to each context of immigration: distinguishing itself from Jamaican, British, West Indies reggae… “It isn’t only listening to reggae music that was exported, comments the sociologist Sarah Daynes, it was reggae itself and thus musical creation”.

Reggae, afrobeat, salsa, coupé-décalé, raï, kwaito… music is globally distributed thanks to the profusion of musical streaming sites such as Deezer and SoundCloud, also social media platforms that compensate for the certain ostracism shown by traditional media. The mobility of sound reduces the qualitative differences between amateur productions and those of large record labels. The emergence of ‘world’ stars like Davido, Nigerian singer and producer, comes from the quality of the music videos and ambitious productions that find nothing to envy from European or American companies. From a segregating ‘World’ to a world that has become global, for the best of diversity and unlimited creativity, all passing by hybridization. And for the worst, with the risk of the standardization of musical creations… Voilà, we are at the core of an endless debate provoked by World Music: does it join diversity or is it for the universality of music?

Mélodie Irondelle, Master 1 Publics de la culture et communication, Université d'Avignon

Bibliographic sources:

  • JAUJOU Nicolas, «  Comment faire notre Musique du monde  ?  », Cahiers d'études africaines n°168, 2002, p 855
  • DAYNES Sarah, « Frontières, sens, attribution symbolique : le cas du reggae », Cahiers d’ethnomusicologie , n°17, 2004, p 119-141

Photo legend: Austrian World Music Awards 2014

Photo credit: Manfred Werner - Tsui