Why "World Music" Doesn't Mean Anything Anymore: What I Learned At APAP

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Fatoumata Diawara

If you ever had any doubts about whether the global pop promotion game was an intellectual enterprise as well as an entrepreneurial movement, this year's 10th pairing of NYC's annual Global Fest with the yearly Association of Professional Arts Presenters' conference would set you straight.

APAP first emerged (as the Association of College and University Concert Managers) in the late 1950s out of a small, visionary network of college arts programmers who wanted to increase and diversify the kinds of cultural enrichment to which mainstream America had access. Being a college-based organization during the red-baiting '50s meant this group was also aware of the political ramifications of promoting every type of music, dance and theater as equal in social value.

As organization membership grew to include commercial venues, community non-profit theaters, and foreign governments (as well as professional managers, booking agents and touring companies), its national agenda expanded to effecting multilateral improvements in the way all performing arts got exposure. They became expert at strategic advocacy, professional development, civic engagement, and resource sharing. In short, APAP comprises one kick-ass bunch of creative idealists, and has been recruiting more for over six decades.

World music in particular began to benefit from APAP's curatorial approach during the 1960s, when it was initially marketed alongside American folk music. Later it was affiliated with fusion jazz, only to emerge--like reggae did in the 1980s--as crossover pop by infiltrating dance-oriented rock and hip hop trends. "World music" as it's own marketing category then proceeded to struggle alongside new wave and rap for most of the '80s and '90s until the internet initiated huge changes in the distribution, archiving and consumption of pop music. This brought a strange and unexpected parity to all genres of music. Today, all music inhabits niche categories with the same basic access to potential consumers. YouTube, iTunes, Sound Cloud, and CD Baby have leveled the pop music playing field like never before.

Assigning musicians to stereotypical genres seems all but irrelevant now when Rihanna and Beyonce spend much of their time sounding like Jamaican dancehall artists, the Belgian alt-rocker Gotye records an American radio hit reminiscent of vintage Manu Chao, and the year's biggest crossover story is a K-Pop electronic dance number sung in Korean. Last week APAP devoted a special two-day educational track to the rising competitive profile of Global Pop. Conference rooms at the Hilton were filled with that portion of APAP's national and international membership whose future success in this arena depends on mastering the synergistic use of a broad spectrum of online content distribution and social networking tools.

Joe's Pub Director and current co-producer of Global Fest Shanta Thake has some interesting things to say about the past decade of innovation for the Category Formerly Known as World Beat. First she credits Emmanuel Moret, a director of music and cultural services at the French Embassy, with most of the bar-raising diversity of Global Fest's initial offerings.

"Global Fest was in part conceived with Emmanuel," says Thake. "He has always been a huge supporter, and part of that support is that we really look at the diaspora of French artists from around the world. Lucky for us the French were everywhere, so it hasn't really been limiting in terms of our programming scope. They have a great cultural services organization that's still thriving and willing to fly performing artists back and forth to create cultural dialogue. Which is increasingly hard to find."

But Thake is quick to point out that tightening purse-strings helped make Global Fest pay more attention to multi-cultural, multilingual music which is native to, yet still marginalized in, the USA. Hawaiian, Native American, Puerto Rican, Tejano, Cajun and Creole musicians were already in the U.S. preserving endangered traditions that qualified as "world music" and deserved the economic stimulation Global Fest might provide. "when it became hard to bringing big groups from Hungary without governmental support," Thake remembers, "It allowed us to look inward and to highlight artists from New Orleans since Katrina...as well as world music bands that are [already] based in New York."

Widespread economic contraction has been an ongoing concern of Global Fest and its APAP-affiliated partners for at least the past four years. But this concern never stops a torrent of hopeful performers from flooding Manhattan the week APAP's conference is in town. Besides Global Fest, APAP members attend dozens more privately publicized international showcases for dance troupes, theater ensembles and musical acts which are hosted throughout the city.

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Plus, what is the music of a particular country? Using Wales again, why wouldn't you consider putting Super Furry Animals' albums sung entriely in Welsh in the Wales section? Why is Heino is the German section, but not Can or Amon Duul II?

And is not the blues a folk music of a country in the world? Why shouldn't Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters be considered "World Music"? When Ali Farka Touré plays his African blues, it's "World", but when Keb Mo' plays his American blues, it's not. Why? Last time I checked, the US is part of the world. Shouldn't the term then really be "World (except for the US [and English-speaking parts of Canada]) Music"?

If the term "World Music" was really accurate, it would include people like Michael Jackson, U2, The Beatles, ABBA, Beyoncé, etc., because this is the music that the ENTIRE world actually listens to.

It would be nice if people all over the world did listen to (non-pop) music from all over the world. But "World Music" as a name to promote this is false, and will never change what people listen to.


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I have always hated and had problems with the term "World Music". In the old days of record stores, you would find music in the "International" section. Of course, this music was still segregated by its nature as 'folk' music of certain countries - so you wouldn't find the Welsh rock band Man in the Wales section.

But then when some marketing idiot came up with "World Music", it changed the game. Implicit in the term was the idea that this was music the whole world listened to, when this couldn't be farther from the truth. Plus, I think also hidden under the idea of the way the way "World Music" is pushed, is the concept that if you don't like these musics, you must not really care about the world, or certain parts of it. The majority of music in most countries is still, and will likely always be home-grown. The citizens of Kazakhstan are not likely to all suddenly become fans of music from Zambia, and vice versa.

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