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World Music - what is it?




I remember as a kid I had an iPod nano back and came across the music of Enya. My favorites were “Orinoco Flow”, “Lazy Days” and “Storms in Africa.” The Celtic artist has a breadth to her music. An airiness and signature grandness to her sound. I had noticed that next to her name, the iTunes category read: “World.” Wasn’t this Pop? What was it about Enya’s Celtic-influenced music that separated her from other artists I was hearing on the radio?



Technically, World Music as a genre is non-Western-traditional music. Music outside of what we would consider in the west to be “Popular Music.” Music that we can’t seem to label as “Pop,” “Rock,” “Jazz,” “Classical,” or another immediately recognizable genre. “World Music” is a super flexible and inclusive term, but also a very confusing one.



One of the major problems I see in identifying “World Music” is in the very definition itself: Music outside of “Western Popular Music.” Yes, Canon composers from Bach to Debussy laid a genius foundation of musical language. Though “Western Popular Music” as we know it today is not just from this progression of European composers. Pop, Rock, Country, Hip Hop, Rap, Jazz, Musical Theater - MOST of what you will find on the radio or a streaming service by songwriters today owes its existence to the Blues.



The Blues is a musical style that developed in the American South from slaves. African spirituals, work songs, dance music, as WELL as popular music of the time are all influences on the Blues. Every popular American genre has been influenced in some way by the Blues, whether it's through the form, the harmonies, the groove, or the sensibilities. Therefore, you can argue that even Western Popular Music is considered “world music.” You see the problem with the name? In my view, the simplest way to define works as “World Music” is by focusing on the elements of music: pitch, timbre, texture, rhythm, melody and harmony. We find truly unique music according to these parameters in folk and indigenous music from around the world.




Evening Raga is a piece of Carnatic (Indian Classical) music by the legendary Indian musician Ravi Shankar. Carnatic music has norms regarding which pitches to return to, how to build melodies, the grouping of beats, meters and how to improvise. I find the timbres of the sitar, tablas and tanpuras to be gorgeous and glittering. Time seems to pause when listening to this piece.




Sabilulungan by Suara Parahiangan is a piece by a Sundanese gamelan, and it is a timbral garden. Not only are the instruments totally unique, but there are microtones used in this music. Microtones are notes we would hear if we could add more keys and hear pitches between the notes on the piano. These add a unique, hazy sound while still remaining peaceful and resonant. This is characteristic of Sundanese gamelan playing.



The form is cyclical and the melody is constantly being developed by the instruments. Larger, lower-pitched instruments play slower rhythms while the smaller, higher-pitched instruments play faster rhythms and play a more prominent role in the music.




Jangar by Anda Union is a great example of tuvan throat singing. It’s fascinating to hear what the human voice can do. It may sound like growling, but listen closely – you’ll hear a whistling tone that has always captivated me. The phrasing (or musical sentences) are highly irregular sounding, adding an element of surprise this music for non-Mongolian speakers.


Artists sprinkle folk/world elements in their works all the time, giving their work a “world music” influence. Examples of these world music influences are endless. Saint Saen’s Africa Fantasy was influenced by folk music heard on his tour in North Africa. Debussy’s Pagodes was influenced by Javanese Gamelan heard at the 1889 Paris Exhibition. Most of the music by composer Bela Bartok explored folk music from Eastern Europe, the Balkans and North Africa. The Beatle’s Strawberry Fields uses meter changes at the end of each chorus section, likely influenced by George Harrison’s sitar studies with Ravi Shankar. The Bollywood introduction and tabla samples in Selena Gomez’ Come and Get it gives it a “world music” sound. One of my favorite bands, Beats Antique, blends electronic music with middle eastern belly dance music, hip hop, flamenco and Balkan folk music.



Music is ever-evolving. While it can be difficult to trace at times, music from cultures across the globe will always be a well of inspiration and push the art form forward. As we engage, explore and connect deeper with our globalized world, so does our music; A reflection of what it is to be feeling, alive and human today.


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