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  • World Music Does Not Exist
  • Timothy Brennan (bio)

It takes an era of world culture for world music to exist—despite my title—as an idea in the mind of journalists, critics, and the buyers of records. It is real if only because it is talked about as though it were real. When so much of the world seems immediately accessible without our ever having to leave home, and our experience of things is really an experience of the representations of things, the idea of world music is arguably as important, and as real, as a world music that really existed.

Through television at any rate, we appear to have access to a bewildering array of music from around the world. In Germany, where I lived in 1997 and 1998, one could find on MTV or the Viva channel both rock and rap and shades of pop from France, Italy, Britain and the United States, all available without ever having to buy a record. A visit to a theatre brings one into contact with movie soundtracks of an even more varied and more truly global scope. In that kind of venue most audiences, even without looking for them, will hear South African township music, Latin salsa, West African rock, Hindi pop, Moroccan chaabi, Brazilian samba, Colombian cumbia, and Algerian rai—musics that over time actually become familiar, although the film-goers will not know the names of the styles or where they originated or anything about how they signify in other locales. In stores, metropolitan listeners find a whole section of shelves with CDs grouped alphabetically by country in a bin labeled "world music." And there, in the altogether normal place [End Page 44] that is a record store, world music is born, and becomes real. The very everyday and haphazard act of simple marketing suddenly coalesces into an idea or, rather, clarifies physically an idea that already exists. In the countries of Europe and North America, the idea is what hearing music from other parts of the world must be, the only thing we can make of it: namely, not a specific form of music (symphonic, choral, written, improvised, rural, or ritual) but a place of music—the music of everywhere else.

Indeed, Philip Sweeney recounts that in the summer of 1987 a series of meetings took place in an upstairs room of a North London pub, the "Empress of Russia." Twenty-five British representatives of independent record companies, concert promoters, broadcasters and other individuals active in the propagation of music from around the world assembled to strategize. The objective was to discuss details of a modest promotional campaign for the autumn, and to boost sales of the increasing numbers of records being issued as a result of the African musical boom in other parts of the world. One of the obstacles to persuading record shops to stock the new international product was the lack of an identifying category to describe it. Record shop managers did not know whether to call it "ethnic," "folk," "international," or some equivalent. They were inclined in the absence of an appropriate niche in their racks simply to reject it. As part of a month-long promotion, the broadcasters and record executives did not so much find as invent a solution:

[They] determined to create such a tag and attempted to spread its use via one or two music press adverts, a cassette compilation of music on the various labels involved in the campaign, and the distribution to record shops of "browser cards" bearing the new appellation, to be placed in the sections it was hoped they would now create in their racks. After a good deal of discussion the term chosen was "World Music," other contenders such as "Tropical Music" being judged too narrow of scope. Within months the term was cropping up in the British press, within a year it had crossed the Channel and was rivaling the existing French phrase "sono mondiale," coined three years earlier by the fashionable Paris glossy Actuel and its broadcasting subsidiary Radio Nova.

(Sweeney ix)

The definitive new wave of the global music scene was in all truth an afterthought, a byproduct, as much of the...


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