Philip Hensher: The delusions of world music

There's no real doubt that what you're listening to is basically Western music
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The Independent Online

The Womad festival's been going for over 20 years now. The festival of "world music, arts and dance" was started by Peter Gabriel in 1982 and it's been growing steadily ever since. Now, there are several other Womads in other parts of the world. In the late 1980s, Womads were held in Denmark and Canada; there are now annual festivals in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, the Canary Islands and Sicily.

All of those places, you will note, are sophisticated industrialised nations. There is no doubt, really, that World Music is one of the most striking new genres of Western popular music. Nothing wrong with that, and we are perfectly entitled to enjoy it for what it is. But you would be unusually deluded to think that, through "world music", you gain any access to different cultures.

Western music has been sampling non-Western traditions for a very long time. Debussy was fascinated by the gamelan players at the 1889 Paris Exhibition; Messiaen made a serious study of Indian ragas; Stockhausen drew on Japanese court music in the 1960s. In popular music, the sitar quickly became a terrible cliché after the Beatles' Revolver, but it awoke some, at least, interest in non-Western performers, and Ravi Shankar became very famous in the West.

Since then, largely through Womad, the emphasis has moved away from Western musicians borrowing from other cultures - the picture-postcard orientalism of Debussy's Pagodes, say. Instead, what we get is a direct encounter with these non-Western musicians, many of whom have become very famous in the West, such as Youssou n'Dour, or Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Womad offers, too, some musicians who, though Western by birth, have family, ancestors and musical influences elsewhere, such as Nitin Sawhney.

There's no real doubt, though, that what you're listening to is basically Western music. Even if it originates entirely within a local culture, the fact that you're listening to it in Reading means that it's the aspect of a local culture which Reading has selected. There is a well- meaning idea that music is a language without borders; I have to say, this is more or less complete nonsense.

The fact is that all music is contained within conventions which are local and more or less arbitrary, few or none of which may travel intact.

Take a Western convention, a very specific one; funeral music. In the Western art tradition, such music was slow; it was in 2/4 or 4/4; the third and sixth degrees of the scale were flattened; and, often, it used dotted rhythms. We just take that for granted. But outside Europe, absolutely none of those things may be true of funerary music, and what to an African ear has associations of mourning may sound very much like a jolly dance to a Londoner.

General conventions can be explained. But what can never be instilled is a listener's associations, the sort of thing which makes him tense when a Western symphony veers off into a minor key. All music is rich in such conventional associations - Indian classical music, I believe, associates certain modes with different times of day.

In my view, it's almost impossible to acquire those automatic associations, and, as Western listeners, we are stuck with our own which we apply, however inappropriately, to anything we happen to come across.

Of course, the whole phenomenon of world music is basically a decent one; it gives musicians from what may be very poor countries a chance of making some serious money out of the West. It's their tradition; they are perfectly at liberty to present versions of it which the rich will find palatable. And, of course, one welcomes anything which reminds a big audience of the existence of different cultures, however superficially.

There's no problem with the enthusiasm for world music if we just accept that it's basically orientalism, that we just like its general jolliness, and that, in reality, we don't really know what's going on as the acts on the main stage at Reading hurtle giddily from Brazil to Korea to Syria. The trouble is that, like so much these days, the taste for world music has been driven by a desire for "authenticity." The desire for authenticity, as ever, does not dig up anything authentic; instead, it creates an artistic style with conventional indicators of authenticity.

We might as well accept that that's good enough for us. We just wouldn't like the real thing. I notice that at Womad this year, among other attractions, is a troupe of Kathakali dancers. Well, once in Cochin in Kerala I was taken to a Kathakali evening; it was strongly emphasised that at an hour and a half, this was barely Kathakali at all, more like a trailer before the main attraction.

I have to admit, it was all very colourful, very elaborate, mostly incomprehensible in all but very general outline, and inevitably, to me, extremely boring. I certainly wouldn't have wanted the real thing and I guess that the snippet of Kathakali this weekend would have satisfied my taste for the exotic.

And, with a little effort, you can find out how "world music" sounds to the culture which has supposedly produced it. Many Bollywood films, these days, send their characters off to Europe or America at some point; I've seen more than one where they are reunited in a naughty Western discotheque.

And what is the Western-style music in the background like? You've guessed it. You could, in every case, put it on the stage at Womad.

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