Deciphering Culture

Genre Boundaries: World Music & the Space between Artist Self-Identification and Music Industry Categorization

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A recent conversation with “Northern Roots” singer Tim Eriksen set me to thinking about the strategic nature of genre identification. Eriksen is an exception in that he has created his own genre label to identify his quirky mix of  American “roots” material. For him it’s hopefullly a way-station on the way to defining his work as simply his own — in the way that a Bob Dylan album is always first of all a Bob Dylan album. Still, for most artists, genre identification is a necessary exercise in balancing self-identification (comfort with a label) with industry categorization (so interested listeners can find you). You got to play the game if you want to get heard.

Nowhere is the conundrum of genre more tangled than in the so-called World Music realm where issues of marketing and how to sell to the Western consumer take precedence. Although, aesthetics and some power dynamics have shifted in the almost three decades since World Music emerged as a marketing term. The following observations still seem pertinent.

World Music “fusions” are often little more than marketable forms of aural tourism in which exotic locales are tamed and made approachable for Western consumers. This use of “fusion” reflects the overwhelming preoccupation in Western discourse with “difference” in which interactions with non-Western cultures are presumed to be infrequent and of minor importance. While this orientation has come under intensive critique during the last several decades, it still exerts an intense pressure upon the Western mindset (see for example the writings on this by James Clifford and Arjun Appadurai) — plagiarizing myself from my dissertation French Fries in the Tagine (2006).

World music means music of the poor…. You get music from the poor and try to get the rich to listen to it… It’s like a big European producer coming in and saying “This is a good sound but you know it’s not well-exploited. We are going to do something better with that” (Interview of Reda Allali of Hoba Hoba Spirit, 2002).

Allali, of the Moroccan band Hoba Hoba Spirit, was stating a sentiment I heard repeatedly from African musicians, including Moroccan rapper Don Bigg and Malian bandleader Cheikh Tidiane Seck (for Salif Keita and Oumou Sangare). World Music is not a category meant for them and it doesn’t satisfy them, artistically or financially. It’s a matter of who has the control, musically and financially. But what about the opening up that can occur with crossing cultural and musical boundaries. That is the primary emphasis of Western artists who make the journey across musical boundaries between North & South, Western & Non-Western. I must admit that I disregarded the sincerity of that sentiment in forming my opinion of the World Music phenomenon. A recent interview of French World ‘n’ Bass ensemble Watcha Clan set me to reconsidering my opinions. For me, it’s still in process. Below are extracts from some of the source material I’m considering: the interview with Watcha Clan (available in full at and a piece I wrote on Moroccan musicians and their positionings regarding the World Music label a few years ago (available here).

Watcha Clan

…but there are all the misses, mostly World Music endeavors that perpetuate the worst of the North–South colonial heritage under the auspices of intercultural understanding. It’s the forefronting of the “Western” artist or musical reference and a certain rhetorical smugness that stands out. But all of this is just preamble to an album I don’t know what to do with. I should hate it. It’s rootless, “multi-cultural” music produced by “musical nomads.” On the surface, it’s all too precious but it’s got something and, sometimes, it’s got a lot. (to read more click: Deciphering Watcha Clan: Interview with Jeffrey Callen).

Hoba Hoba Spirit

The songs of Hoba Hoba Spirit fuse rock ‘n’ roll, reggae, and punk with cha’abi and gnawa. The members of Hoba Hoba Spirit were among the numerous musicians I met last year in Morocco who are creating music that transcends the narrow constraints imposed by the Moroccan music industry and media. Many of these musicians are making music that blends Moroccan traditions with musical styles from around the world. They feel this is simply a reflection of their lives which are both rooted in Moroccan tradition and enmeshed in webs of connection that make rock ‘n’ roll, hip-hop, reggae and salsa as much a part of their world as cha’abi, melhoun and gnawa.  Like numerous other musicians from the global South, they are  not interested in creating raw material for American or European artists or acting as exotic aural scenery for the Western market. (to read more click: Don’t Call it World Music).


Written by Jeffrey Callen

December 22, 2009 at 2:55 pm

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