Stop the world music, I want to get off

It might seem boom time for world music, but the term itself is one of the things that may destroy it, says Michael Church
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The Independent Culture

Tomorrow, Radio 3 will broadcast 12 hours of world music which I – like a lot of people – will be taping in great chunks: live concerts by traditional masters from Korea, Corsica, Russia, Romania, Greece, and Morocco don't often drop so neatly into one's lap. The day will end with a knees-up at Dingwalls in north London where bands from Africa, India, Cuba, and the Middle East will be Late Junction-ised by DJ Verity Sharp.

This weekend, Radio 3's inaugural World Music Awards will be unveiled on World Routes, a programme now starting a second year in its prime-time slot. Pulling World Routes out of its nocturnal burrow was a bold response by Radio 3 to the world-as-it-is: consider how many decades jazz had to wait before it was released from its ghetto.

Meanwhile, on BBC London, Charlie Gillett's Saturday Night goes from strength to strength: after decades of beavering away in anoraky obscurity, this world-music veteran has moved centre-stage, as evidenced by the popularity of the annual Virgin compilation of his listeners' favourite things. Everything in the garden, it seems, is growing just fine.

But the short-list for the awards prompts soberer thoughts. No one could quarrel with some of its nominations: with the bassist Cachaito, mainstay of Buena Vista Social Club; with the persuasive Mozambican group Mabulu, or with the Malian Habib Koite. But these performers are offset by those whose indigenous sounds have been coated in a slick international gloss. And almost everyone in the frame is, if not downright danceable, easy on the ear. They've got their label, they do their promotional tours: they're all packaged for Western consumption.

World music, in fact, is being turned into a commodity – and when you look at CD sales for the Cuban boom, it's easy to see why. So far, no one seems to mind – certainly not the critic who recently wrote these dismal words: "World music doesn't require the quasi-religious commitment of jazz fans. Much of the time it is just another kind of pop music for grown-ups, a rich array of sounds for people who don't expect every piece of music to be sung in English over a pre-digested backing track." Yes, that's exactly how most newspapers treat it – as a party-adjunct, a feelgood frippery. Sometimes, as with Thomas Mapfumo, it comes garlanded with political respect, but mostly it's a case of shove it in a corner, and add a smiling face in a funny hat: hey folks, it's world music time.

This complacent cultural imperialism is widespread, and it's a global insult. Most obviously, it insults those musics whose function is religious; indeed, it insults all music with any significance whatsoever. It also insults the intelligence of the listener. But then, so does the term "world music" itself. For what does this term – originally coined to help shops shift product – actually mean? It means all music that is neither Western classical music, nor Western jazz, nor Western pop, nor Western folk. It means, to be precise, almost all the music in the world. From our Eurocentric pinnacle, we stick a label on it, then reduce it to an "array of sounds".

Can this rot be stopped? It will take much more than a weekly edition of World Routes to counteract it. One might have hoped that the Proms – which once blazed the trail with sitar music – could redress the situation, but all we get is one voguish gesture per year: an Irish ceilidh in 1999, a Cuban night in 2000, a Gypsy bash in 2001, and presumably a flamenco fling in this coming year with its Spanish theme. Perhaps, given their need to fill their huge auditorium, we should make allowances for the Proms. But one might expect more of the South Bank Centre, with its handier-sized Queen Elizabeth Hall and its ideally intimate Purcell Room.

But the real antidote to the prevailing culture-blindness would be more fundamental: a realisation that beyond Western classical music lie a dozen other classical musics – and a myriad folk forms – many of which are of much greater antiquity, and no less refinement, than ours.

Think of the infinite sophistications of Indian classical music, and of the gamelan tradition that entranced Debussy and Britten. Listen to the Japanese Imperial Gagaku, whose oblique and graceful forms date back 1,500 years; drink in the exaltation of praise-singers from Azerbaijan; savour what Turkish and Persian musicians can do with their variants on the lute. And when you listen to the seductive music of Mali, bear in mind its 400-year-old roots in the Mande empire. It may well be that around 1600 something uniquely amazing happened in European music, but that should not blind us to discreeter musical miracles – Albanian polyphony, Vietnamese Ca Tru – in other parts of the world.

As it happens, the two above-mentioned musics are both under threat of extinction: both survive in grindingly poor societies, whose populations are currently looking to salvation by the rich West. Both these musics are unique; once lost, they will never be resuscitated. That's where the awards and the record contracts should urgently be sent.

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