With Cape Town World Music Festival coming to The Fringe this November, we delve into the debate around the term “world music” and the relevance of its use in our context.
In the 1980s music shops faced a dilemma: access to genre-bending music from different parts of the world was increasing but it was difficult to market because it did not fit neatly into existing categories. Their solution? Create a new section and call it all “world music”. And so a catchall phrase was coined. From that time onwards the world music section became a music store staple, featuring everything from kwasa kwasa to kubuki, tango to goema, with the term being applied to artists from places as far afield as Afghanistan and Angola, Budapest and Buenos Aires.
Fast forward 25 years and the term is still being used but now under greater scrutiny, with many people considering it problematic. While for some it remains a useful descriptor for music which doesn’t conform to the Anglo-American mainstream, for others the term is at best a creaky anachronism and at worst a way to ghettoise music.
Steve Gordon, of Making Music Productions, and project manager for City Hall Sessions, points out that the term “world music”’ is not a genre but rather a collective noun, describing a vast array of music styles and types: “As the interest in ‘non-western’ sounds grew in the 1980s, the resultant product was often misplaced in record stores – for example, you might find Congolese guitarists in the same rack as the ‘birdcalls of the bushveld’ sound effects album! So the term ‘world music’ helped prevent the curio-shopping of a whole range of musical genres which fell outside the mainstream rock/pop/classical labels.”
In this regard the term may have had its uses, allowing people a convenient shorthand for exploring a whole new ‘world’ of music and thereby diversifying the tastes of Anglo-American music lovers.
But however functional the term may have been, it now stands accused of being vague and perhaps even deliberately misleading. Composer and musician Neo Muyanga (of Blk Sonshine and Pan African Space Station fame) agrees: “The term is a bit nonsensical since it doesn’t even begin to elaborate on the contradistinctions between the music of Africa, Asia and the Americas (heck, it doesn’t even begin to address the codes of nuance between maskanda and marrabenta, taarab and tuareg) but that being said, it has provided a market of buyers for some distinguished talent around the world (Baaba Maal, Cesaria Evora, Nusrat Fateh ali Khan, I could go on and on … )”
For the organisers of the upcoming Cape Town World Music Festival, the validity of the term was considered before it was included in the name of the event. Ma’or Harris, one of the organisers, explains: “We decided to go with this name because it actually best defines music that is, however vaguely, related to roots music as opposed to popular Western music. So, country music is world, kwasa kwasa is world, Mediterranean surf rock is world and even some streams of hip hop are included. I think it is actually a pretty inclusive term – there is more world music in the world than non-world music.”
Over and above critiques of whether it adequately describes the range of musical styles to which it is applied, questions also remain around what “world music” means within the context of South Africa. In Steve’s opinion, the term is superfluous: “‘World music’ still has currency for the European or North American consumer and marketplace, but transposing it to a local African context is a bit of an own goal. The majority of Africans don’t think of marabi or mbalax or goema as ‘world music’, so why aggregate our myriad unique voices to fall within a catchall phrase born up north?”
It is this diversity of sounds that the Cape Town World Music Festival hopes to showcase. Running from 9 to 10 November with 32 acts playing over 2 days on 4 stages, the festival will feature artists from across the globe, including the Israeli group Boom Pam, Bholoja from Swaziland and headline act Oliver Mtukudzi from Zimbabwe. The festival also recognises Cape Town’s rich history as a port city, and a musical crossroads where influences from the east, west and north have met and mingled, resulting in a uniquely local sound. “We would like people to think differently when it comes to live music,” says Ma’or. “We want to create a space where South African music can exist, beside international pop music, and get the recognition it deserves.”
Perhaps the time is ripe for the creation of a more nuanced language to describe the diversity of styles normally referred to as world music. In Neo’s words, “Genre specificity is the occupation of marketing gurus and hoodlums. I suspect as long as the species is extant, terms will continue to be coined aimed at flogging old tricks under a new guise. Arguably, however, the time has come to let that ‘world music’ ship sail by. The world is (hopefully) wiser now than it was in the late 80s about variety within the global musical family.”
Whatever your preferred music nomenclature, if you’d like to know more about the diversity of voices featured in this post:
- The Cape Town World Music Festival is happening on Harrington Street and at the Assembly from 9 to 10 November 2012, and includes a free stage on Saturday 9 November.
- Steve Gordon has a long (and interesting) history in the South African music world, and is now producing City Hall Sessions through Making Music Productions.
- To find out more about composer Neo Muyanga, visit his official website, then read up on how he finds residential life in the heart of Cape Town.
- Read the September 2012 edition of City Views in which Cape Town’s CBD is mapped through sound. Alternatively, download a copy of this map of sonic exploration for yourself.