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World music, a problematic label for the “rest of the world”

Workshop at the Center for Popular Culture and Music about the designation “world music” in curation practices, education and concert practice.

Freiburg, May 12, 2022

“ ‘World Music’ through a Postcolonial Lens - Current Debates in Theory and Practice” is the name of the workshop organized by the Center for Popular Culture and Music (ZPKM) at the University of Freiburg on May 13, 2022. It is organized by musicologist Dr. Maria Fuchs, who is a senior postdoc at the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna (mdw), and cultural anthropologist Dr. Johannes Müske, who researches and teaches at the ZPKM. Thomas Goebel spoke with them.

Ms. Fuchs, Mr. Müske, what makes the term “world music” so problematic?

Müske: The term belies an unspoken idea of the world as a “rest.” We have the Western canon on the one side, and the rest on the other. The term ultimately refers unreflectively and pseudoaffirmatively to the culture of the “other,” which also includes ideas of the “primitive” or exotic. And although it is about a very differentiated musical diversity, everything is lumped together.

What music does the term actually refer to?

Fuchs: There's a nice quote from David Byrne of the Talking Heads, who wrote an article in the New York Times more than twenty years ago called "I Hate World Music." Everything is gathered in the "barrel" of world music from commercially successful music of a country like Hindi film music to sophisticated, super-cosmopolitan Brazilian art-pop or the music of a former Bulgarian state choir to million-selling albums of Ricky Martin and field recordings in Thailand. The diversity of global music has to serve as a categorization of the “other,” that is, of everything that is not European or U.S. music.

How did the term come about?

Müske: Supposedly, some record label bosses sat down in a pub in London in the 1980s and invented "world music" to better market their music. The term has been used before - but whether the pub story is true or not, the term became big in the 1980s as a commercial label to sell music that couldn't be properly sorted on the record shelf.

How did you become aware of the topic in Freiburg?

Müske: The idea came from Ms. Fuchs - she was a guest researcher with us at the Center for Popular Culture and Music. And we then developed the topic further together with our director Prof. Dr. Dr. Michael Fischer.

Fuchs: The center wants to get involved in social discourses. I myself have been working for a long time on music in “Heimat films” (sentimental, regional films) and also on the subject of “Heimat” or home country in “the foreign”, which was actually to be redeemed in the colonies. In addition, many disciplines are reflecting on their academic practice from a postcolonial perspective - and so the idea arose that we at the Center in Freiburg should also critically examine categories such as our “own” and the “foreign” and, in particular, the category of “world music.”

Müske: The Freiburg ZPKM was founded in 1914 as the “Deutsches Volksliedarchiv” (German Folk Song Archive), where our "own" culture was to be collected, the "heritage of the fathers", as it was called at that time. In our holdings there are indeed also records of popular songs that were intended especially for the colonies.

Fuchs: Even in the case of hit songs, such as “Schiheil” from a Luis Trenker film, the publisher’s distribution explicitly states: “For the colonies.”

Müske: That’s a topic we want to explore more intensively. I myself have worked on similar native-country topics, specifically on Swiss foreign radio, that is, on European popular traditional music that is disseminated in the world. Now I find it very exciting that we are, so to speak, dealing with the music of the world in Europe in reverse and asking about current trends in theory and practice.

How does the category “world music” affect practice in the music business, i.e. recordings, concerts, festivals?

Müske: Since the 1980s, the so-called ethno boom has on the one hand led to festivals with world music taking place at all, being successful and being well-attended. On the other hand, one can ask: Who actually chooses whom? If European festival organizers, the famous "white men," think that they are now offering a forum to marginalized groups from all over the world, then this is a problematic basic attitude that is now also being critically questioned.

Fuchs: The curation, i.e. the selection of music, is often focused on national and regional styles. This runs the risk of reducing sonic expectations - it often reflects the Eurocentric idea of traditional, exotic music: one looks for the supposedly original and names the music according to the origin of the musicians. At the same time, the musicians are often socialized in many different ways, and there are discussions about hybridity and so on. On the other hand, a change can also be observed, for example through the creative resistance of post-migrant networks against institutional expectations, for example in intercultural music projects, which Rim Jasmin Irscheid from King's College in London will talk about at our workshop.

And in the research?

Fuchs: The theories and methods of the scientific debate are as diverse as the subjects of the study of "world music". Musicology in the German-speaking world is still partly quite conservatively oriented, which also has to do with the disciplinary order and the respective responsibilities of the subject.

Müske: In individual sub-disciplines of the field, such as ethnomusicology, music sociology, with fluid boundaries to cultural and social anthropology, these debates about cultural diversity in musical practice and the related education and research have been going on for a long time. There the label “world music” is seen very critically. This is also the topic of our workshop.

Is the term “world music” still meaningful at all , or what would be the alternative?

Fuchs: Alternative terms such as “global pop” or “fusion” are circulating, but in the end they only include the “rest” of the world under one label. One should listen to the performers themselves, how they describe their music stylistically. This also leads to a differentiation - and that is ultimately one of the goals of the criticism of the “world music” label.


Workshop (hybrid): “ ‘Weltmusik’ through a postcolonial lens: Current Debates in Theory and Practice”
Friday May 13, 2022, 10:30am to 7pm