- World Music: The Basics
Richard Nidel's book, part of Routledge's The Basics series, offers a whirlwind tour of the world's popular music, with selected descriptions of folk and classical music traditions. After a brief three-page introduction, the work is divided into major categories for Africa, Europe, Middle East, Asia, North and Central America and the Caribbean, South America, and Australia and the South Pacific. These large categories are in turn divided into subcategories, which are further divided by country in alphabetical order. The most extensive coverage is of Africa (78 pages) and Europe (99 pages), and the least coverage is of the Middle-East (19 pages) and Australia and the South Pacific (9 pages). Paragraph-length profiles of selected artists, some of which might be rarely discussed elsewhere, are inserted throughout the work. The book's strength is in its compactness, its broad coverage, and its attention to current popular music performers often overlooked in world music textbooks and reference works. It has a number of limitations, however, and falls short of being, in the words from its own description, "a complete introduction to world music styles" (cover).
The book is not written with academic rigor. The author is a lawyer who also books musical acts in his New York club and writes about music and wine. He makes no mention of the field of ethnomusicology, in which the serious study of the world's traditional and popular musical styles has been undertaken for fifty years. Writing in an informal style without footnotes, he often includes impressionistic and subjective statements about the history and music of countries and regions. Because we have few means to judge the sources or reliability of the information, the authority of the author, or the balance of the coverage, many readers will ultimately feel uneasy with the work. It straddles the fence between being a reference work and a "my favorite musicians and compact discs" document. It does include much general historical and contextual information, but because it straddles the fence it defaults in my mind largely to the latter. Reminiscent of the casual accounts one finds in magazine articles and on informal websites, the book will generally not be a good source for research papers on world music topics.
The author would probably acknowledge the less rigorous qualities of his book, and would likely point out the work is not intended for university students or scholars. He emphasizes in his introduction that his definitions match those of "the trade" (p. 3, presumably the trade of marketing, booking, and recording commercial music), and he implies that his focus is on the music industry when he explains he is "highlighting countries, artists, and genres that have made the most significant contributions to world music" (p. 2, by which he means the commercial and popular side of world music). In making these statements, he leads us to believe he is not exploring the terminology and models found in academic studies of world music.
The non-academic nature of the book might not be so noteworthy if Routledge did not state on its website that all the books in The Basics series "provide the perfect starting point for undergraduate students to develop a full and rounded knowledge of their chosen subject." In truth, Nidel's book will only marginally be useful in college classes in ethnomusicology. Although Nidel does often point out some of [End Page 410] the longstanding cultural traditions of a region, his book focuses on commercially-successful artists, and for that reason its value to college students is limited. The book would be best categorized as a trade paperback targeting a general audience, especially popular music enthusiasts.
Nidel wanted, it would appear, to write a compact book that was highly readable, fun to browse, and filled with brief and generalized information about the world's popular music for non-academic readers, and he largely succeeded in that goal. The book is...