We are the World? – the strangely slippery definition of ‘world music’

Arjun Sajip 4 March 2013

World music. It’s an odd term, and strangely condescending, the implied paradigm comprising ‘us’ – Britain and America – and then ‘the world’. I asked one international student from Nigeria how Nigerians back at home conceptualised non-Nigerian music. “I don’t know… ‘foreign music’?” he replied. “We don’t really have a name for it… there’s just hip-hop ‘n’ afro-beats ‘n’ shit.”

Delving as I did recently into Get Up With It, one of the more challenging entries in Miles Davis’ oeuvre, two things struck me: that all sorts of American or British music can be contorted to fit under the banner of ‘world music’, and that ‘world music’ is an incredibly elusive concept.

It would be ridiculous to suggest that the Beatles’ ‘Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)’ is a piece of world music, but it was one of the earliest popular songs to feature a ‘foreign’ instrument: the sitar. Everybody loved it, and the idea was soon nicked by artists such as Brian Jones, who played the marimba, a southern Mexican instrument, on the 1966 Rolling Stones hit ‘Under My Thumb’. By the mid-1970s, artists were launching themselves headfirst into the music of other cultures. Guitar maestro John McLaughlin took the name ‘Mahavishnu’ in 1971, a moniker that would have been artificial and pretentious if his music was not so respectful of Indian music. This respect was by no means slavish: some of his pieces have transcended all sorts of boundaries, with his 1975 live album Shakti featuring some of the most blisteringly intense solos ever heard. Surprisingly, these incredible solos come from three very different instruments: violin, tabla, and acoustic guitar. The album represents ‘world music’ at its most supernal.

Paul Simon’s 1986 album Graceland is often credited as the album that propelled ‘world music’ into the Western mainstream. It hit #1 in the UK and #3 across the pond, and was largely recorded in South Africa. Every track featured some kind of African influence, usually bleeding through most strongly in the rhythm section, although Ladysmith Black Mambazo provided unforgettable vocals (sometimes lead vocals) on various tracks. Rolling Stone called Graceland “an album about isolation and redemption that transcended ‘world music’ to become the whole world’s soundtrack”. This isn’t as bullshit-infused as it sounds. It provides an interesting idea about what defines ‘world music’: not just ‘foreign music’, but music that comprises elements of musical styles from all over the world to create a new form. Which would perhaps discount the wonderful, seminal work released the previous year: the compilation album The Indestructible Beat of Soweto, which focuses its lens on South Africa.

Personally, I would contend that the western world’s first proto-‘world music’ album was Taj Mahal’s Happy Just to Be Like I Am (1971), an exuberant work now sadly out of print. Its track ‘West Indian Revelation’ is still available, and is essential listening for world music fans. The Clash’s Sandinista! (1980) is also worthy of note: the band threw themselves into rap, reggae, dub, calypso, mock-disco, gospel, R&B, and straight-up punk, while still retaining their integrity. They even fought with Columbia Records to make the 144-minute triple-album available at the price of a standard album.

I shall use this platform to exhort you to buy the best ‘world music’ album I can think of: Mekfoul District, by Toubab All Stars, a Francophone band from Senegal. Songs on the album are sung variously in English, French, Spanish, and a Senegalese dialect I couldn’t recognise if I tried. The album is relentlessly joyful, mixing rock, reggae, rap, ska, and other genres to create a potpourri of glorious music. Used copies are going for £1.99 on Amazon.

Arjun Sajip