Let’s cut through the chase. The term World Music, no matter how much it has caught on today among the cognoscenti, was a marketing invention by the music industry in the 1980s to describe traditional music of any culture. Which means that it includes Celtic music from Irish band Lunasa and Chhebi music from Moroccan group Lemchaheb to the baul songs of Madan Bairagi from Bengal and the qawwali of the Sabri Brothers from Pakistan.
World Music is basically the kind of music that does not fall into the multitude of categories that is mainstream in the West. If other kinds of music across the world — and the accompanying instruments and styles of playing and singing — came under the spotlight, it was because of Western musicians, whether in classical music or pop or rock, bringing them closer to Western ears, introducing Western listeners to different kinds of sensibilities.
In other words, World Music has come to mean any kind of music that can’t be easily fitted into the categories that have been around for decades in record shops in the West.
Anything that’s not on the charts
One of the earliest Western musicians to inject an overtly ‘Other’ sound into their music was 19th-20th century classical composer Maurice Ravel, whose one-movement orchestral piece, Bolero, brought the Spanish dance and musical form into the mainstream.
Sure, there had been other ‘mainstream’ composers who had been influences by different sounds from across the world.
Mozart’s opera, The Abduction from the Seraglio, for instance, is his take on contemporary Turkish music. In his Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, sometimes called the ‘Turkish Concerto’, he repeats this eastern influence that arouses the curiosity of listeners in this ‘other kind of music’.
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Not too dissimilar, if you think about it, from musicians in a different century presenting their audiences with sounds that intrigue and delight them.
Take Brian Jones, former member of the Rolling Stones, who is not only acknowledged as the first Western musician to introduce the sitar in a pop song (Paint It, Black in 1966, a full year before George Harrison played the Indian instrument in Within You Without Out), but also the man who produced arguably the first World Music album: Brian Jones Presents: The Pipes of Pan at Jajouka in 1971 showcasing the music from the Moroccan mountain town of Jajouka.
Our other sounds, their other sounds
But even if the term World Music — and its classification — is a Western invention, today, it has come to mean anything that is (or at least sounds) indigenous. ‘Folk’, ‘roots’ and ‘ethnic’ music just has a new name — and has a new set of listeners who give it the attention that it lacked when it was confined to a localised few.
Whether it’s Andean pan pipe music or steel drums in Jamaica or Brazil, or closer home, baul, bhatiali, bhangra, gajan, tappa, kirtan, langa, manganiar, more people are listening to these disparate sounds under the rubric of World Music.
Whether Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s qawwali is closer to Pearl Jam’s heavy R&B rock than it is to Paban Das Baul’s songs or whether Kailesh Kher’s sufi has closer sonic similarities to Robert Plant’s solo albums than the latter has to Led Zeppelin are questions that no longer bother us World Musicwallas.
But it is as a niche musical category that World Music is having its Golden Age today. It’s been 25 years since Fête de la Musique (literally Festival of Music) was initiated in France in 1982 marking June 21 as International World Music Day.
It’s another matter that the predecessors of Daler and Nusrat, Purna Das and Tejan Bai had been playing their stuff much before the likes of Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel ‘discovered’ then. If America wasn’t the world leader of music consumerism, would country star Garth Brooks been a World Music artiste? Think about it.
(This article first appeared on Hindustan Times in 2007)