I'm fairly adamant generally that world music is bad, but if there's one thing I can usually accept that gets lumped into that category it's the pre-existing music. Something someone has heard (rather than made) and decided to pass on to the west. Heck, I'm guilty of enough of that myself to defend it, at least when it's knowledgeably and respectfully done and the selection is fair and based on the received wisdom of the scene itself.
But even as I'm involved in this sort of thing myself, I've recently started to realise the magnitude of its problems. The biggest one by far, I think, is our discourse of genre selection, and I find myself asking: what types of music are we really selecting, and what is our real reason for selecting them?
And I'm afraid, I'm very afraid, that the reason is stereotyping.
I generally consider myself some sort of hip-hop/disco fan and most of the music I've chosen to pass along has been young, electronic, "hard", bass-driven and working class. That type of music certainly gets some attention, and over the years seemingly disparate material like (to take three examples) Cambodian garage rock, crazy eclectic Bollywood music and South African semi-modernised dance music has ended up in some hazy media spotlight. Why this material exactly?
Chance, I guess. Quality to a certain extent. Accordance with the usual prejudices of "world music" in many cases, like that they're a bit exotic, fairly unthreatening, fairly old. (80s Bollywood, clearly superior to the 60s material previously touted, has only recently been accepted in world music circles.) But I think that even if we chose to factor out all these things there is a clear prejudice to the genre selection that I see in myself and that I'm very uncomfortable with.
I think a lot of the music is picked because we have expectations that certain people are going to conform to certain stereotypes. The Indian film music composers are allowed to be genre-crossing music thieves, but you'd never see crazy eclectic Latin music. Or South African garage rock - Africans are meant to copy African-American music, right, and make blues and funk and hip hop-based modernisations? Everything else is sorted away.
We all love it when someone in South East Asia creates a dynamic hybrid genre with hip-hop or something. But what if they decide to use heavy metal instead, like in morlam sing?
You could argue that metal is a "bad" genre and hip-hop is a "good" genre, but I think there's also an underlying assumption that metal is a "white" genre that "ethnic" people can't take their lead from, so this kind of hybrid is never properly explored. I certainly would have ignored it a few years ago.
Plus there's a whole bunch of conventionally "good" genres that people in the developing world aren't allowed to take their lead from. There's a really good shoegazer scene in Singapore, for instance, that we will never hear about because it's not "their music" - people "down there" are meant to make funky working-class music with ethnic undertones.
with comb & razor, easily my favourite MP3 blog at the moment. From his vantage point on the scene in Nigeria, the author scours for quality local vinyl of every type and genre. Recent highlights have included Nashville-style country (which, of course, was also wildly popular on Jamaica), a coloratura soprano singing faux folk songs and the overture of a Nigerian opera. None of it is bad either (okay, the opera kind of is), but you'd never hear of any of it in the sea of Afro-funk and ethnic sounds that is our stereotype of Nigerian music.
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