What is “World music” – not?

A reflection after four years of Musik.pm

Four years ago today Musik.pm was launched. On this day I would like to contemplate on a concept that has puzzled me over the years, especially when I have visited music shops to buy recorded music. The concept is World music.

The concept World music was launched by the American musicologist Robert E Brown in the 1960’s. It was a concept used in his theory about how understanding between different people and cultures could be built through experiencing music from other cultures. However, soon World music came to be used as a commercial concept, a brand used by the record companies to promote music that was not from the North American/North European culture sphere. Predominately folk music, traditional music, ethnic and indigenous music have been included, but the boundaries are not sharp. Sometimes a mix of traditional and modern Western music is included, but never mainstream Western music.

Using the label World music in this way is confusing. With such a meaning the label seems to refer rather to local music than to a group of genres jointly appreciated by the world community of music listeners. The latter use of the word “world” would have been logical. It would also make sense if the label referred to all genres in the world, or maybe to the music most spread in the world – in that case probably music from the North American/North European culture sphere.

To label music that does not emanate from the North American/North European culture sphere as World music might indeed mean that a large share of the total music being played in the world would be included – but why give such an immense variety of music one label?

I don’t think any specific genre or group of genres deserve the label World music. And, as a matter of fact, I hope there will never be one that does. The variety of genres, and the tension and exchange between genres, represent cultural richness and create development.

So why not stop using the label World music? It gives us almost no useable clue about what to find in such a category, whether used in a physical CD-shop, a web store, in books, in papers or in magazines. It is simply too broad. I might like a few of the genres in such a category, while I dislike or am indifferent to the rest. Such a broad concept also justifies that all the different genres in such a category will have to settle with sharing one small portion of the attention of music lovers and the music industry. That is to overstate the importance of music from the North American/North European culture sphere, and to understate the importance of music from other cultures.

Since basically every genre has its roots in a particular part of the world every genre can rightly be said to be local. Even the North American/North European music is local in that sense.

Released from the conceptual burden of the label World music we can happily look out in the world and find so many interesting genres. Even the North American/North European genres seem more interesting regarded as a local group of genres than as a kind of universal music that is supposed to fit everywhere.

World music or not – here is some of the music that Musik.pm has covered the first four years. Enjoy!


Paloma Faith: Upside Down

Céu: Malemolência

Koop: Summer Sun

Ana Moura: Como uma nuvem no céu

Hindi Zahra: Beautiful Tango

Roberta Sá: Samba De Um Minuto

Maria Gadú: Ne me quitte pas

Lucy Woodward: Use What I Got

Lou Doillon: Devil or Angel

Kat Edmonson: Nobody Knows That

Maria Rita: Cara Valente

Stacey Kent: Jardin d’Hiver

Club Des Belugas: A Men ‘s Scene

Mariza: Ó Gente Da Minha Terra

Cécile McLorin Salvant: If This Isn’t Love

Carminho: Bom Dia, Amor

Keren Ann: La corde et les chaussons

Sant Andreu Jazz Band: Minor Swing