The world does not fit in a song

The legendary Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré is the only African artist to have won three Grammys, for "Talking Timbuktu" (1994), "In the Heart of the Moon" (2005), and "Ali and Toumani" (2011).

The legendary Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré is the only African artist to have won three Grammys, for “Talking Timbuktu” (1994), “In the Heart of the Moon” (2005), and “Ali and Toumani” (2011).

Four days ago, the winners of the 55th Grammy awards were announced, and the music industry celebrated this year’s finest contributions to music in eighty-one unique categories. I thought it timely to discuss the highly-problematic category of “world music”, which sounds more out-of-date with each passing year. The very existence of this category speaks to a real problem within the music industry in the United States; one that undermines the contributions of innovative artists from all over the globe.

The history of the Grammy Award for Best World Music Album offers up the inherent challenge of music classification. It started out as an honor for “non-European, indigenous traditions” in 1992, only to be expanded in 1996 to include “non-Western classical music”. In 2003, the category was split into two: for Best Traditional World Music Album and Best Contemporary World Music Album. Just last year however, the two categories were merged in a return to the huge, global mish-mash.

Music marketers, radio DJs, and record-store owners first popularized the term world music in the 1980s, in an effort to sell records to a mainstream American audience. The label refers primarily to any non-English-speaking recording artist, and it encompasses a hugely disparate range of musical styles. As Simon Clea writes in his 2000 article, we might as well call it “exotica”, or “other people’s music”. In the same way that “urban” lumps together African-American popular music styles, “world music” does an even worse job by grouping together artists and styles that have no common origins or attributes. (“Latin music” perhaps fares a little better, since they have their own Latin Grammy Awards). The world music category works well as a marketing tool because it provides the consumer with a pre-packaged, easy-to-swallow product. Sadly, the target audience cares little about learning the history or traditions of the culture that produced the music. We get a dumbed-down version of musical histories that are much older and richer than our own.

The marketers will defend their position with the “music knows no bounds” argument. They will claim that we don’t really need strict categories anymore as global divisions dissolve in favor of true universality. It all sounds so simplistic, and lacking in any truth.

Easy notions of globalism and universality do more to obscure than to illuminate the meaning that these traditional musics have to their musicians and their audiences. – Simon Clea, “Why World Music Isn’t” (2000)

The world music category satisfies our desire for culture and adventure, as we sample new sounds and traditions. But we are getting a filtered view; one that fits neatly within our American frame of reference, reinforcing our pre-conceived notions about the rest of the world. In his 2004 article about the musician M.I.A., Sasha Frere-Jones points out that the American notion of world music “tends toward the gentle, melodious, and uplifting, as if the world were that way”.

We all have our own definitions of world music, and there’s nothing wrong with categories. Categories are difficult to formulate and adhere to, but they allow us to describe uniqueness. When an artist breaks out of their category, they become a crossover artist. And when we hear a great song – a truly unforgettable, amazing song – we’re no longer talking about great world music. We’re just talking about great music.