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Public Culture 12.1 (2000) 145-171

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A Sweet Lullaby for World Music * - [PDF]

Steven Feld


To begin, the music globalization commonplaces that are most broadly circulating in Western intellectual discourse as actualities or immediate predictions at the end of the twentieth century:

1. Music's deep connection to social identities has been distinctively intensified by globalization. This intensification is due to the ways cultural separation and social exchange are mutually accelerated by transnational flows of technology, media, and popular culture. The result is that musical identities and styles are more visibly transient, more audibly in states of constant fission and fusion than ever before.

2. Our era is increasingly dominated by fantasies and realizations of sonic virtuality. Not only does contemporary technology make all musical worlds actually or potentially transportable and hearable in all others, but this transportability is something fewer and fewer people take in any way to be remarkable. As sonic virtuality is increasingly naturalized, everyone's musical world will be felt and experienced as both more definite and more vague, specific yet blurred, particular but general, in place and in motion.

3. It has taken only one hundred years for sound recording technologies to amplify sonic exchange to a point that overwhelms prior and contiguous histories [End Page 145] of travel, migration, contact, colonization, diaspora, and dispersal. It is therefore the recorded form, as it circulates commercially, that defines the authenticity of music globalization. The hero and villain of this situation, the music industry, has triumphed through continuous vertical and horizontal merger and consolidation. By aligning technologies of recording and reproduction with the dissemination capacities of other entertainment and publication media, the industry has accomplished the key capitalist goal of unending marketplace expansion.

4. Musical globalization is experienced and narrated as equally celebratory and contentious because everyone can hear equally omnipresent signs of augmented and diminished musical diversity. Tensions around the meanings of sonic heterogeneity and homogeneity precisely parallel other tensions that characterize global processes of separation and mixing, with an emphasis on stylistic genericization, hybridization, and revitalization.

So, like everything else called globalization these days, this version is clearly about increasingly complicated pluralities, uneven experiences, and consolidated powers. But is there anything distinctive about how this is happening in the world of music? One way to answer is by denaturalizing the now ubiquitous phrase world music, today's dominant signifier of a triumphant industrialization of global sonic representation. Until little more than a decade ago this phrase was considerably more obscure. How did it become so thoroughly and rapidly naturalized in public spheres? How has it participated in ways we have come to imagine, interpret, or contest the notion of globalization? How might a sketch genealogy of world music help make more critically visible the ways a modernity is tensely mirrored in the kinds of commonplaces with which I began?

World Music

Circulated first by academics in the early 1960s to celebrate and promote the study of musical diversity, the phrase world music began largely as a benign and hopeful term. In those days, nostalgically remembered by many for their innocence and optimism, the phrase world music had a clear populist ring. It was a friendly phrase, a less cumbersome alternative to ethnomusicology, the more strikingly academic term that emerged in the mid 1950s to refer to the study of [End Page 146] non-Western musics and musics of ethnic minorities. Like ethnomusicology, world music had an academically liberal mission, to oppose the dominant tendency of music institutions and publics to assume the synonymy of music with Western European art music. And in practical terms, the world music idea was meant to have a pluralizing effect on Western conservatories, by promoting the hiring of non-Western performers and the study of non-Western performance practices and repertories.

Whatever the success of these aims, the terminological dualism that distinguished world music from music helped reproduce a tense division in the academy, where musics understood as non-Western or ethnically other continued to be routinely partitioned from those of the West. The binary reproduced by the world music concept thus...


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pp. 145-171
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Archived 2004
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