Systemic and inherent racism are being widely spoken about, if not always widely understood, topics at present. It might seem that music is above all that, but while by no means all who make the music, promote the music, or listen to the music are racist, there has long been an air of cultural superiority when it comes to Western music. Classical music exists throughout the world, but it tends to be white European classical music that is most exalted. Nowhere, though, is this sense of cultural superiority more obvious than when the term “world music” is used.
It’s now about 30 years since the concept was created, I’d like to think with the best intentions, but the idea of world music was never a good one then. And certainly not now. Thankfully, more and more people are coming to recognise that world music is an outdated and increasingly offensive term. Artists from Western countries tend not to get stuck in the world section – just those that don’t speak English or come from “exotic” parts of the world.
It can come across, intentionally or otherwise, that the only music that “matters” is that which white musicians have co-opted and made popular throughout the western world. Thus a black musician can play jazz, blues, or rock with relative impunity, but anything outside this white comfort zone is too often relegated to the musical ghetto of world music. Music should be unprejudiced, and all mu-sic should be world music.
I have fallen into this trap myself recently, when I relegated Josh Feinberg’s recent fine album to an A Different Aspect article, stating that as much as I love it (and I do), it wasn’t really progressive. I was pulled up on this, and rightly so. “In many ways it is more progressive than a lot of prog – the polyrhythms, shifting sub-divisions, pushing and pulling of time,” I was told. I foolishly responded, thinking I was justifying myself, when I was really showing my own ignorance,that while there is no denying the complexities and intricacies of Eastern music over Western, and the use of microtones, and polyrhythms, those are standard for the style of music. Josh Feinberg is amazing, I said, but he didn’t appear to me to be doing anything to take the music out of the Hindustani framework (i.e., to make it progressive). It’s the same with a lot of things from the East. You could make the same argument for Carnatic and Gamelan, I suggested. Both are again complex and intricate, I imagine you might call them progressive, but for me, they are what they are, and it is what someone does with them that makes them progressive.
But here’s the kicker, I guess. And I really should know better. Although I had the best intentions, I was letting my ignorance shine through. I am not racist, and I’d like to think most people who follow The Progressive Aspect are not racist also, but it’s important to recognise our limitations. I might well enjoy a lot of non-Western music (and I do), but I clearly don’t know enough about it, or listen to enough variety, to know just what is progressive. It has now been pointed out to me that within Indian Classical there are ‘traditionalists’, and then there are ‘progressives’ – and that Josh Feinberg is definitely in the progressive camp. Feinberg brings in Western compositional elements and approaches, and is contemplate in his approach. He created the unique blend of ragas on the first three tracks of his recent album. I was pointed toward another example of a ‘progressive’, as opposed to a ‘traditionalist’, Shahid Parvez Khan, who “really, really pushes polyrhythms and polymetrics, weird mathy subdivisions and changes. When I saw him live, there were parts where he was mimicking a delay pedal. He’s absolutely a progressive artist in the genre.”
The point is, even those of us who are well aware of the prejudices in our society, and who are anti-racism, can still fall fowl of the cultural superiority that the labelling of Western music, as opposed to “world” music creates. “World” effectively means “the rest of the world that is not familiar enough, or white enough, for us to conveniently place into genres it might fall into, if we gave it more thought”. While there will always be exceptions, the vast majority of “world” music could fall into the same broad categories we use for Western music (for example, rock, folk, jazz, soul or hip hop). That they are not, is a sign that we are still not as free of prejudice as we might like to think.
I have recently consigned a review of Eishan Ensemble’s latest album to the bin, and am in the process of re-writing it, because ultimately it is a jazz album (and a very good one). Why limit the potential audience of a good piece of music by affixing the word “world”? Admittedly, I did not, because I have long found that a troublesome term; but even without calling Eishan Ensemble’s music “world”, I was still framing it in a way that was unfair. This happens more often than you might think. Bands and artists that hail from non-Western countries, no matter if they play music that would be “accepted” by Western listeners, are unfairly given the label “world music”. Even if a musician moves to a Western country their origin is unfairly shackled to them. A quick google reveals two such artists: a Nigerian soul singer who moved to Germany, but whose music (despite her entreaties) is still sold as “world music” rather than soul; and a rapper from the Congo, now residing in Belgium, who would rather his music was sold as “hip hop”, but finds it still handicapped by the “world music” label.
As an example of how ingrained the sense of cultural superiority is within music, I have no doubt whatsoever, that if Vodun were a band hailing from West Africa, their albums would have ended up lost in the world music section. Rather than being one of “our” bands, using West African rhythms, they would be seen as a West African band, fusing their traditional music within a Western framework. That Vodun are not considered world music merely underlines how wrong it is to use the label at all, and how essentially arbitrarily it is used. To reiterate, because I can’t make this point enough, I’m almost 100% convinced it is because Vodun are a “British” band, or else they, too, would be a “world music” band.
If we, as listeners of music, want to be as progressive as the music we like to listen to, we need to start questioning some of the norms within the music industry. A friend of mine recently suggested that even a label as seemingly innocuous as “folk” can also have connotations of cultural superiority. As she pointed out, the Westernised homogeneity people assume from the label is completely counter to the so many different traditions and cultures it should span. Much “world music” is folk music, yet you won’t find it in the folk section of your local record store. And this is true for most labels, starting all the way back with classical. The labels we use instantly “favour” or evoke Western modes. Classical music includes the Indian Classical music I mentioned earlier, as Carnatic and Hindustani are just two extremely vast catalogues of music not usually thought of when someone talks of classical music.
It’s perhaps also worth calling out cultural appropriation, as there are definitely times when non-Western instruments (and stereotypically, the sitar) are used for effect, without real context. I listen to plenty of white and/or Western artists who use Eastern instruments or instrumentation, but they don’t do it for effect. That’s absolutely fine. It’s when it’s used just to dress up a piece of music or add a little colour, that I find it grating. It’s like the musical equivalent of black face. But while black face is now universally reviled and recognised as being offensive, it’s musical equivalent does not (yet?) draw such ire or condemnation. But I love it when someone shows a real passion for learning about the instrument and history of music played with it. Charlie Cawood and Lachlan Dale are two great examples of this.
Concluding this article is not easy, as it is hard to neatly wrap things up when there is still so much misunderstanding (some wilful, and much unintentional) regarding systemic and inherent racism. There are many people out there who are anti-racist, but due to their white privilege overlook the more subtle aspects of cultural superiority within society. There is always opportunity for learning and recognition of what could be changed for the better. I have long railed against the term world music, but still stumbled into unintentional prejudice (due to ignorance) when writing about Josh Feinberg’s album. What you take from this article is up to you. It’s up to all of us.
Love Music, Hate Racism – Facebook