I Hate World Music, Too

I Hate World Music Too
By Scott Kettner (band leader Nation Beat)
“In my experience, the use of the term world music is a way of dismissing artists or their music as irrelevant to one’s own life. It’s a way of relegating this “thing” into the realm of something exotic and therefore cute, weird but safe, because exotica is beautiful but irrelevant; they are, by definition, not like us.”  It groups everything and anything that isn’t “us” into “them.” – David Byrne 1999 article for the New York Times. http://www.davidbyrne.com/news/press/articles/I_hate_world_music_1999.php
David Byrne hates world music and I do too.  He hits the nail on the head in his article written 10 years ago, and yet our industry still continues to generalize the cultures and the people who make music outside of the USA by grouping them into a generic term to separate “them” from “us”. Even worse, the industry discriminates against US based artists who adopt music from foreign cultures as a main influence in their own music.   They justify their prejudices by calling the music “unauthentic”.  What is authentic anyway?     
Ten years after Byrne’s article the digital download culture has exploded and the world has exponentially become much smaller.  There are millions of artists who live in the US (either born here or immigrated here) who make music that is not sung in one language but two or three (maybe even four…let us know if you find them).  Since there’s no genre or box to group these artists in they’re simply ignored and marginalized by the industry.  And what happens to a band based in the US who has Brazilian and American musicians and sing in English and Portuguese?  When they get invited to perform at a world music festival they’re asked to “please don’t sing the songs in English, especially the American country songs because this is a world music festival”.  That’s what happened to my group Nation Beat last summer.
I was very fortunate to have had the opportunity to perform alongside one of my musical mentors Cyro Baptista for about 3 years.  He always told audiences that “I don’t play Brazilian music, I play music from the world.  I am not a Brazilian citizen, I am a citizen of the world”.  Cyro was challenging people to think outside of the box.  This made sense to me immediately.  Cyro embodies the contemporary musician who can channel every sound he’s ever heard into his own music.  He has traveled the world, downloaded a billion songs from the Internet and has digested it, internalized it and made it his own.  The Brazilian term for this is Anthropofagia, a popular notion among Brazilians that the formation of Brazilian identity resulted from “the constant interaction between diverse cultures, each of which consumed the other until a single, all-encompassing culture was created.” The same exact thing happened here in the US, we call it the Blues.
So what is world music?  Most people say it’s music that’s not sung in English or made in the USA.  Then, what do you call Cajun music, Mardis Gras Indian chants sung in Creole or Tex-Mex music sung in Spanish?   Literally, the term world music means music made in the world.  Isn’t America Part of The World? 

“In my experience, the use of the term world music is a way of dismissing artists or their music as irrelevant to one’s own life. It’s a way of relegating this “thing” into the realm of something exotic and therefore cute, weird but safe, because exotica is beautiful but irrelevant; they are, by definition, not like us.”  It groups everything and anything that isn’t “us” into “them.” – David Byrne 1999 article for the New York Times

 

David Byrne hates world music and I do too.  He hits the nail on the head in his article written 10 years ago, and yet our industry still continues to generalize the cultures and the people who make music outside of the USA by grouping them into a generic term to separate “them” from “us”. Even worse, the industry discriminates against US based artists who adopt music from foreign cultures as a main influence in their own music.   They justify their prejudices by calling the music “unauthentic”.  What is authentic anyway?     

 

Ten years after Byrne’s article the digital download culture has exploded and the world has exponentially become much smaller.  There are millions of artists who live in the US (either born here or immigrated here) who make music that is not sung in one language but two or three (maybe even four…let us know if you find them).  Since there’s no genre or box to group these artists in they’re simply ignored and marginalized by the industry.  And what happens to a band based in the US who has Brazilian and American musicians and sing in English and Portuguese?  When they get invited to perform at a world music festival they’re asked to “please don’t sing the songs in English, especially the American country songs because this is a world music festival”.  That’s what happened to my group Nation Beat last summer.

 

I was very fortunate to have had the opportunity to perform alongside one of my musical mentors Cyro Baptista for about 3 years.  He always told audiences that “I don’t play Brazilian music, I play music from the world.  I am not a Brazilian citizen, I am a citizen of the world”.  Cyro was challenging people to think outside of the box.  This made sense to me immediately.  Cyro embodies the contemporary musician who can channel every sound he’s ever heard into his own music.  He has traveled the world, downloaded a billion songs from the Internet and has digested it, internalized it and made it his own.  The Brazilian term for this is Anthropofagia, a popular notion among Brazilians that the formation of Brazilian identity resulted from “the constant interaction between diverse cultures, each of which consumed the other until a single, all-encompassing culture was created.” The same exact thing happened here in the US, we call it the Blues.

 

So what is world music?  Most people say it’s music that’s not sung in English or made in the USA.  Then, what do you call Cajun music, Mardis Gras Indian chants sung in Creole or Tex-Mex music sung in Spanish?   Literally, the term world music means music made in the world.  Isn’t America Part of The World? 

by Scott Kettner (band leader Nation Beat)

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4 responses to this post.

  1. I’ve been listening to, writing about, and broadcasting global music for many years, and I’m still somewhat ambivalent about the term “world music.” To some extent, it’s a helpful shorthand when you don’t need or want to spend minutes or longer trying to explain the subtleties of the Euro-Arabic blends of bands from southern Spain, or the bouncing of Afro-Cuban musical styles between the Africa and the Americas. Sometimes it’s nice to have that shorthand. Other genres use similar umbrella terms; is there honestly one thing called “jazz” or “folk” or “rock”?

    The term “world music” emerged in large part because record stores needed a new bin for this strange, exotic stuff. So where should we go? New separate bins for Balkan brass bands, Afro-Celtic fusion, and Brazilian-Klezmer-country mashups such as yours?

    Actually, I’m serious in asking you this question. Music stores will want to slap some kind of label/genre on Nation Beat’s music, so if you could decide, what would those labels be? Or how would you reorganize the industry to accommodate the proliferation of multicultural, multinational groups?

    All music may be “world music,” but the world music I’m most interested in has some kind of distinct ethnic roots, whether from one culture or several. I’m far less interested in Cuban hip-hop that sounds just like US hip-hop, or Cameroonian soul that sounds just like UK artists. That’s just dull.

    I love that so many musicians are making post-national music, but it’s clear that we haven’t yet developed the language (or the CD bins) to deal with this shift. I guess that’s why we’re having this conversation!

    Globally yours,
    Scott (of SoundRoots.org)

    Reply

    • Hey Scott,
      This is more than a belated response to your comment. Your comments have been on my mind ever since and I have been mulling them over for some time. I agree with you about using an umbrella term to sum things up in short. It does help when you’re speaking to the general public who may not be educated in music or international music. Yes…jazz, folk and rock are quite generic terms for they too are hybrid forms of music and have many styles within the umbrella term. However when we use the term “World Music” it’s suggested that this is a genre. At least when you say “jazz” I have a pretty good idea of where the root of this music comes from and it’s history and the ancestors who helped create it. But when you say “word music”….I have no idea where to begin. I feel that using this term to describe a genre is very misleading. We should just call it a band from the south of Spain blending Euro-Arabic styles….at least until this fusion becomes so popular that there is a social movement surrounded by it and a million bands doing the same thing that we need to call it something….in which time the media will come up with something to call it 🙂

      I agree that the term emerged in large part because we needed to put a tag line on the record bins in the record stores for music that was not in English. But there’s no record stores anymore (for better or worse). We don’t need to put a title on a bin anymore because they don’t exist. Now, thanks to the internet we can search for bands who mix Brazil-Brooklyn-Klezmer music and find them. Google those terms and Nation Beat comes up on the first page. So in response to your direct question about what label I would put on the back of a Nation Beat CD – the answer is that I have never been asked and don’t need to worry about it. Bands like Nation Beat mostly sell CD’s at our gigs to people who see us play. It’s a waste of my time and money to print 20,000 copies of our CD and distribute them to record stores across the US (if there’s any left). I can upload my songs and sell them online and sell the CD’s at gigs…for a fraction of the cost. At this point the label is our music and the bin is our live show…fans hear us play a show and buy CD’s because they like the music (or they don’t….oops)

      I think we’re in a very interesting time with all of this. Globalization is forcing us to think outside of the box and has exposed us to music that my parents were never exposed to. This means that every generation of upcoming artists will most likely be influenced by many different styles of music from around the world and will express this in their art. I have no idea what we’re gonna call it but as long as it’s good music and good art I’m happy that it’s out there for all of us to see and hear.

      I enjoy being a member of the Music World and appreciate this conversation and look forward to continuing it.

      Thanks Scott!
      -Scott Kettner

      Reply

  2. As a global music DJ, currently in residence at the infamous Mehanata Bulgarian Bar, I feel abliged to both agree and disagree with Scott.

    Yes, it was definitely wrong and biased for the organizers to deny the band the right to sing American country music (a mish-mash of cultures in every way). Nothing more needs to be said regarding this position.

    I would take issue, however, with the attitude that every US band that appropriates “world” sounds in its music is worth listening to. The opinions on this swing wildly. I know Peruvians and Ecuadorians who absolutely despise Chicha Libre, deeming them inauthentic. I can agree on in the use of the term “psychedelic cumbia.” The bands producing that music in the ’60s…did they use such words? One must be careful about slapping labels on someone else’s music, when in actuality it is just a middle-class Western perspective.

    Another example: the dreadful music of Beirut, i.e., the mixing of “world music” with really annoying hipster crooning.

    I think of legitimate objection would be to those bands who simply pick from an a la carte menu of “world” sounds to incorporate in their work, in lieu of actually writing some original music, or somehow deeply adjusting the appropriated music in the service of making something new.

    What are the best examples of bands making “world music” or some kind of hybrid? Here are a few I think many would agree on, and let’s include foreign bands that incorporate US music in a creative manner:

    Gogol Bordello (US)
    Balkan Beat Box (US/Israel)
    Golem (US)
    Guignol (US)
    Kultur Shock (US/Bosnia0
    Panonian Wave (US/Croatia)
    Slavic Soul Party (US)
    Forro In the Dark (US)
    Gipsy.cz (Czech Rep.)
    Shukar Collective (Romania)
    Nortec Collective (Mexico)
    Kinky (Mexico)
    Sidestepper (Colombia)
    Monareta (Colombia)

    OK, I can keep going forever. Needless to say, there are many.

    You complain about the industry? Who cares? The only real industry is your fan base. The industry is ceasing to exist; the alternative is all there is. If by “industry” you mean LiveNation/Ticketmaster, who needs ’em? Bypass them.

    I agree with the other Scott, in his reply, about groups abroad who copy American styles and give it back to us. Why would one bother, when one can have the original, made here? Ah, there’s the rub! How do we feel when a foreign band copies us? A little underwhelmed? Sure enough. Point is, the Industry has been shoveling all th eAnglo-American material it has at the global market, for many decades now, bit not really taking it back in, not distributing “foreign” sounds in the US and UK. We wouldn’t take their authentic music, so now, decades later, some US/UK bands decide to appropriate their sounds and give it back to them. I think they would prefer that they be invited over here to show their stuff, and may be justifiably miffed at US bands aping them.

    I hear Spanish-language bands like The Pinker Tones, DJ Bitman, Kinky, even Nortec Collective, sometimes singing in English. Usually it doesn’t sound so good, & not worth the effort, but there are songs in English by all of them that belie this, and are exceptionally good. but it is sad that they must sing in English in order to “crossover” in CD sales.

    That said, I also think the festival organizers should not have tried to censor Nation Beat’s choices. It is up to the band to sink or swim before the audience. They would let you know if they didn’t care for your music.

    Anyway, That’s my 2 cents. See you at Mehanata some weekend…

    Best,

    Marc Nasdor
    DJ Poodlecannon
    Brooklyn, NY

    Reply

  3. Posted by rich rollison on July 2, 2009 at 11:37 am

    hey- will there be an after-party at 3rd and 3rd this year-like last yr.?

    Reply

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