I interviewed South African trumpet player and composer Hugh Masekela on tour last year. At 71, he's been playing and recording since the late 1950s, and his work has been variously filed under jazz, classical, contemporary North American adult, and as African music, all terms he has little time for.
In recent years, it's been called something new again.
"At one point, the term 'world music' was coined," he remarked dryly. "I woke up one day and people told me I was playing world music." I think the term probably served some purpose at one time in terms of cracking open the homogeneous North American market and introducing its listeners to something beyond their standardized pop/rock/country/classical dogma, but what is it still doing around in the multiplex universe of the 21st century, when all the peoples of the globe live everywhere?
The indie music scene is bursting at the seams with creative collaborations that mix genres, cultures and traditions, artists who pack in live shows and build a reputation on the road, but for whom radio airplay is elusive. Consider a band like Yemen Blues. Fronted by Ravid Kalahani, a Yemenite Jew, and jazz bassist Omer Avital, the nine-piece band includes a trombone, strings and oud, among others, and weaves together Jewish, African, Arabic and other Middle Eastern traditions with blues and funk. You won't find them on iTunes or even Amazon, but they managed a multi-city tour of North America based largely on word of mouth and the internet. In Toronto, Madagasy born guitarist Donné Roberts blends African polyrhythms with indigenous music in collaboration with First Nations artists like Marc Nadjiwan and Jani Lauzon. It's a great live show and I highly recommend catching it -- but that's if you ever hear about it.
World music, like jazz (much to the chagrin of purists) becomes a repository of the unclassifiable. Anything non-English speaking, non-Euro-sonic (if I can coin the term) or particularly complex musically tends to get warehoused there, and outside of public or college radio stations, you'd be hard pressed to find any of it on the airwaves. There are odd exceptions to the rule, and cultural appropriation can be marketable depending on who's appropriating who. North American bands like Vampire Weekend, for example, can borrow liberally from African musical traditions without losing their place in the alt-rock line-up.
The dance music world has been absorbing worldwide musical influences for years. Britiain's Banco de Gaia has been firing up the dance floor with beats from Tibet, Central Asia, and the Middle East for some two decades, in turn inspired by a 1987 Coldcut remix that featured a sample of Israeli singer Ofra Haza over American hip hop.
There's a Latin music bin at the record store and, largely thanks to Bob Marley, a reggae slot too, but even these are treated largely in the same manner as the world designation -- with a nominal recognition, but very little in the way of airplay or promotion outside its narrowly designated niche. And there's a wide range of music that gets stuffed into these categories. The reggae bin alone is home to a diversity of styles from Marley-esque roots reggae and dancehall to innovative variations like Chicago's MC Zulu, who adds reggae vocals to drum 'n' bass, and DC's See-I, with their unique fusion of reggae with soul, funk and Jimi Hendrix style rock riffs. Is it dance? Reggae? Rock?
The big machine of the mainstream music industry is plugged into commercial radio, but that same industry tells us that sales keep falling even as they continue to ignore anything that falls outside their boxes. Could these things be related? Are people abandoning the rigidity of a system that's hooked on finding and playing that Next Big Popstar into oblivion for a digital and DIY world that simply offers them much more? Digital media lends itself to multiple categorization, to linking and easy accessibility, with artist friendly sites like reverbnation.com and bandcamp.com supplying an endless stream of new material. This "new" music possesses the uncommon vitality of artists at play, colouring outside the lines and creating something new. Giving it a shot at finding a wider audience -- could it be the shot in the arm the industry needs?
One way or another, "world music" is a clunky anachronism and too often a way of ghettoizing great music. It's time for the industry at large to wake up to the world that really is.