Speaking of World Music

The recent plane-crash death of Brazilian pop star Marilia Mendonça and her music producer illustrates how little most of us know about the cultural music enjoyed by people in other parts of the world. As music seems fairly provincial in that regard, curiosity, research, and physical effort are the roads every music fan must take to educate themselves about, and attempt to understand and appreciate, the music of other cultures.

For example, surrounded by many styles of Thai music for the past four years, I’ve only recently started to recognize and appreciate its many nuanced forms, both traditional and contemporary.

The Wikipedia entry for “world music” includes this sentence:

“The classic, original definition of world music was in part created to instill a perceived authenticity and distinction between indigenous music traditions and those that eventually become diluted by pop culture, and the modern debate over how possible it is to maintain that perception in the richly diverse genre of world music is ongoing.”

Well, yes, here we are engaged in the “modern debate.”

Another “expert” quoted by Wikipedia calls world music, “a problematic, horrible term that satisfies absolutely no one.” Yeah, that’s it.

When writing about music, critics and others seem to use “world music” as shorthand for groove-based rhythms, possibly played on strange stringed and percussive instruments, sung or incanted in a language they do not understand. Think about it. You don’t see Canadian folk songs or K-pop classified as “world music.” Africa, Central and South America – “Oh, wait, isn’t that all Latin music?” – most of Asia – check, check, check. Mexico gets into the club, too.  (“Wait, Latin again, right?”) Musicians from English-speaking Western countries and much of Europe are largely excluded from the “world music” category – even though those artists, too, EXIST ON THIS VERY WORLD. (Sorry for shouting.)

How does a song or artist become identified as “world music?” I mean, who decides? Every song is created or performed by a being from this world. It’s not like humans compete for streams and downloads with “extra-terrestrial lifeforms” (gee, I hope that’s a PC term in the cosmos). Even so, aliens must come from some kind of “world,” so isn’t their music “world music” as well?

Yes, it’s a facetious argument. Relax. Just messing with you. Most cultures necessarily develop some type of indigenous or ceremonial music, and that which is not “ours,” presumably, is from “the rest of the world.” That might offer a workable definition.

All that said, I enjoy reading music critic John Clewley’s Bangkok Post column. Clewley writes about deserving Thai artists and regularly spotlights artists featured on the Transglobal World Music Chart. To support “world music” this week I’ve purchased songs by each of the three artists topping the November chart – Susana Baca (Peru), Monsieur Doumani (Cypress), and Omar Sosa (Cuba) with Seckou Keita (West Africa). Three bucks well spent!

From her new album Palabras Urgentes (Real World), legendary Peruvian singer Baca’s “Sorongo” opens with a bold R&B piano riff that quickly evolves into a percussive, chant-driven anthem that conveys passion and, indeed urgency, despite any language barrier. The song builds with increasingly intense vocal harmonies and bop-inspired saxophone to a fiery ensemble conclusion.

Clewley describes Cypriot rock band Monsieur Doumani as a “live-wire neo-rebetiko trio who play tzouras (similar to the iconic Greek instrument the bouzouki but with a smaller body; originates from the Turkish cura), guitar and wind instruments (especially the trombone).” “Poulia,” from Monsieur Doumani’s album, Pissourin (Glitterbeat), offers a trance-like meditation, a perfect gift for the professional snake charmers in your life. Caution: the snakes may become a bit agitated by the song’s suddenly aggressive, bombastic coda.

Offering more calming sounds are Sosa and Keita, whose song “Allah Léno” comes from the album Suba (Bendigedig). It is easy to fall under the spell of Sosa’s creative piano melodies and Keita’s gentle kora, a conversation that floats through the air like hundreds of butterflies. Imagine a Bollywood ballad performed by Seals and Crofts. Or something like that.

Do yourself a favor and spend some time with the Transglobal World Music Chart. Track down and listen to a few of its selections. You might be surprised at what you hear.

Published by billpaige

Interested parties are first directed to my memoir, “Everything I Know I Learned From Rock Stars” (Eckhartz Press). While I have taken music therapy classes and read extensively about music’s effect on the brain, I am NOT professionally trained -- just a music lover who recognizes that everyone benefits from music. Giving that gift to special needs youth is highly rewarding, but again, my process is intuitive, not academic. I draw largely on personal experience. I’ve spent most of my 67 years observing a wide world of music, from working as a music critic professionally for 20 years, and holding positions in music companies in the 1970s and 1990s. Since 1990, however, I have focused on learning more about music and improving as a singer, guitarist, and performer, both solo and in ensemble settings.

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