Ethnic, roots or world - or just folk?

(January 10, 2008)

The changing face of music definition with direct reference to the 'roots' and 'world' are definitions that continue to develop - as if we needed any more……..

Here are a couple of questions for you. First one: ‘Where did the terms ‘roots’ and ‘world’ music come from, who invented them and exactly what do we mean when we use them?” And the second: “What’s the difference between ‘roots’, ‘world’ and ‘ethnic’ music? Those are both questions I’ve met during the past year in pubs, clubs, festivals and gigs across the UK. I've listened to a lot of debate and argument - some of it informed, some of it emotional. I’m not sure there’s any definitive answers but the following may shed some light. Alternatively, it may just add more shadows to the darkness.

Roots – important but are they relevant?

If you explore a few of the accepted definitions of the term ‘roots’ music you will find the following – there are of course more – these just crop up most often:

‘roots describes styles that popularise previously non-mainstream folk music’

‘roots is music created by adapting folk or ethnic music to pop or rock structures’

‘music that features instruments (usually ethnic) new to the folk genre’

‘roots describes music from ethnic origins usually composed by its performers’

‘music performed by musicians from the underground of a country’s musical culture’.

There is also a view that ‘real’ roots music also has to include politically aware lyrics, often critical of a government, religion or other authority, or society in general. The root (pun intended) of the particular music is also seen as dealing with the problems and issues that beset the ordinary (often considered downtrodden) people of a country or region. So there’s already a strong affinity with one definition of the roots of English, Irish and Scottish folk music.

Incidentally, be careful where you look for ‘roots’ definitions. The scope is way beyond any reference to folk music or folk themes. You could end up with a hip-hop band from Philadelphia or albums by Sepultura and Curtis Mayfield – that have used the term to title their work. 

So when did ‘roots’ first appear? The term ‘roots’ appeared in the media and music industry during the early 80’s and became commonplace in the 90’s. Its arguable origin was as a marketing and classification device used by the media and the music industry to brand ethnic folk or local country traditional music as having African or South American origins. Extend that to a ‘world’ music definition and one could just as easily include Japanese koto music, Hindustani raga music, Tibetan chants, Eastern European folk music plus tribal music from Asia or the Middle East. Today, ‘roots’ is generally used to classify any ‘foreign’ (that is non-Western) folk music. Interestingly, I’ve also encountered an increasing view that popular English music (not just folk music) has lost its roots. Yet ‘roots’ can just as easily be applied to traditional English folk music. 

World - music of the world or worldwide music?

In my personal experience (and having asked many people), ‘world’ music is usually defined as music that uses distinctive ethnic stories, scales, modes and inflections. It’s also music that is usually (though not always) performed on or accompanied by distinctive traditional ethnic instruments, such as the dejembe, sitar or the didgeridoo. I’ve also heard it defined as music only performed in its original native language or accent. So there’s lots of latitude in that definition then. Also ‘world’ is rarely perceived as another name for ethnic folk – western or otherwise – unlike ‘roots’, which seems to be interchangeable with folk. ‘World’ has gained a far wider meaning.

As with roots, the term ‘world’ is mainly used to classify the many styles of non-Western music that have previously described as ‘ethnic-folk’ or ‘ethnic-traditional’ music. However, in today’s accepted definitions ‘world’ music does not always mean traditional folk music. The description has come to refer to indigenous classical forms of music from nations and cultures across the world, music from a country's folk tradition and to modern cutting-edge pop music – also from across the world. The shortest (and not necessarily the most pleasant) description I’ve come across is "local music from out there" or "someone else's local music". What's wrong with ‘ethnic-folk’ or ‘ethnic-traditional’ music?

Influence, counter-influence and criticism

In our over-communicated society it’s impossible for cross-cultural influences, including musical styles to avoid influencing one another. Everyone can easily hear everyone else and if they like it – use it. 

So does that mean everything musical is turning into ‘world’ and ‘roots’?  Does that mean that if anyone can hear and use your style that will destroy the uniqueness of your culture? Not necessarily but something else is going on. What’s happening now is that world wide music is being seen as a descriptive term and a genre in itself. Rather than distinct and previously isolated forms of ethnic music from diverse geographical regions, countries or ethnic groups described as such, it’s all lumped together under the ‘world’ description. That's music that is ‘not from round here’. So now do we have marketing and media people defining what musicians are doing? A scary idea if I ever heard one.

Many musicians I talk to avidly dislike the term ‘world’ music. Some of that dislike stems from the false classification of multiple types of music into the ‘world’ bucket. And some from what many see as possible racist connotations attached to the word ‘world’. Potential racist overtones aside for a moment, these critics see ‘world’ music as a parochial, catchall term for non-western music of all kinds – folk music included. It’s argued that labeling and classifying music of other cultures as ‘world’ is simply falling victim to insidious marketing. It positions various of types and styles of music by who plays it rather than what it is. It’s also argued that such labeling attracts insincere consumers (who only want to add another musical style to their collection) but deters more serious, dedicated consumers. I’m not certain about marketing music but the potential exists for patronising the performers.

Perhaps different strains of ethnic music are more intelligently classified by virtue of their indigenous roots – and taking the time to understand and recognise those roots. Steve Knightley may justifiably sing about England’s roots and how they’ve been neglected and lost by most of the ‘English’ – many other ethnic musicians could complain about the same process. Such views are important but how many English folk fans would like to hear their music described as roots?

There's an advantage in adding a little thought

Although there's enough classification already without complicating matters, the terms 'roots' and ‘world’ appear increasingly mixed and used with little true thought. However useful they may be when wanting to include more ethnically diverse music – say for the sake of advertising, sales promotion, or for an event or festival - the terms add nothing but complication.

Returning to the possibility of racist overtones, there is a view the terms ‘world’ and ‘roots’ music have become in many sectors, patronising western labels. They are used to lump together many and varied traditions purely on the basis that their practitioners are (usually) ‘brown’ or ‘not from round here’. That makes one want to vomit.

There seems to be a growing enthusiasm in much of the press for non-white and non-English-speaking music – which is great. Unfortunately, to some people this is rarely based on its quality, but on the seeming surprise of some marketing people that these ‘brown people’ can produce any good music at all. This is starting to sound seriously racist – and it’s not an accusation just an observation.

Despite the perceived growth of interest, the vast majority don’t appear know or pretend not to know much about most non-western folk or traditional music. There seems little distinction made on western concert or festival programmes between the widely varying origins of ‘world’ music. I suspect that we don’t get to hear the most interesting examples of music from other cultures, because many western promoters and marketing people don’t have that discernment. They would rather include ‘something by a bunch of brown people that look ethnic’ to appear inclusive. To invest the time and intellect needed to make it any more than that is strangely missing and that’s more than a little worrying.

Music from the ‘world’ – before and after Gracelands 

Arguably, the most massive popular interest in ‘world’ music (forget the classification it’s all just labels anyway) was sparked with the release in 1986 of Paul Simon’s Gracelands album. The album featured those ‘distinctive ethnic scales, modes and musical inflections’ that we talked about earlier – specifically those from southern Africa. Aside from Paul Simon’s talent the album also showcased the talents of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Not folk music by the variety of definitions flying around the genre - but ethnic music that’s for sure.

A minute piece of history - Ladysmith Black Mambazo, an acapella group, began performing in Africa during the 60s. Unfortunately, it was not until their work on Gracelands that they gained wider attention. The album got them recognised – in some areas only as a novelty – and allowed a wider audience to experience their talents. It also introduced their particular brand of non-Western or ‘world’ music to a world wide audience. Did it occur to anyone to label their music as folk or ethnic? Not sure.

Before the mid-80’s, although ethnic, ‘world’ and ‘roots’ music had a niche following it was difficult for musicians to sell their music outside a closed group of admirers. Usually confined to those people who had stumbled across their music or the minute number that had actively sought out their music. During the 80’s an increasing number of specialist music stores included ‘world’ music in their product range. Even so, during the 80’s many roots and world musicians found it difficult to build a following. The ‘novelty’ badge still stuck to them.

There were many issues in the early days – belief, acceptance, understanding, marketing – the list goes on. However, one issue was distribution. That’s marketing-speak for getting music to the likes of you and I. Before the arrival of the Internet and the rise of on-line shopping there was only the high street music store and specialist mail-order companies offering anything out of the mainstream. Sure there were true specialists selling 'weird' music from tiny shops at the rough end of the odd high street but they often fell victim to larger outlets. They also relied in the main on 'word of mouth' marketing.

Because their marketing strategies worked on a totally different level, there was reluctance among larger music outlets (store-based and mail order) to stock music defined as ‘world’ and ‘roots’. They wanted to promote more accessible and popular musical styles and types (pop if you will), and offer what the majority of the public wanted to buy. After all, in marketing eyes it’s difficult to justify in-store, television, radio or magazine promotion of music with so-called limited appeal - and even worse music with limited stock availability.

Using any route to reach the roots

The Internet changed all that. Now musicians can literally produce DIY recordings and make their music available trough the web. It’s possible, to record music in your garage, record it to CD, print labels and create your own e.commerce web site. You can do this for tens of hundreds of pounds - not tens of thousands. You can also use webcasts to spread your musical word.

The 'rise and rise' of social networking sites allows singers and bands to explore styles and approaches. It also serves to increase communication between musicians and their audiences and makes it easy to experiment and get reaction - almost in real-time.

As well as using the wonders of the Internet to market and sell music, it’s easier than ever to record sounds from around the world. The ready availability and increasing quality of mobile sound recording devices raised the bar on musicians hearing music from afar. Also, expanding low-cost international air travel and common access to global communication among musicians (and an appreciative audience) created the potential for musical styles to integrate with and influence one another. Musicians from diverse cultures and locations can now readily access music from around the world, see and hear visiting musicians from other cultures. They can visit other countries to play their own music, and quickly learn to appreciate the results. This helps to create a melting pot of stylistic influences into which musicians can dip as they please.

Another channel used by many ethnic, ‘world’, ‘roots’ – who cares about the definition – bands and performers was (and is) the local or regional radio station. Many regional radio DJs consistently helped to expand the variety of music people could hear. They were in the early days, and many remain today, important for the development and appreciation of ‘roots’ and ‘world’ music - not just from a 'folk' perspective. Many did much to introduce what was niche music to a wider audience – and without resorting to the ‘wonderment factor’ that ethnic people could produce good music.

The disadvantage of the ‘technology risk’

I’m also told that despite the fact it can ‘get regional music to a wider audience’ there is a potential downside to the advantages of technology. The downside is this: while it may allow greater access to all forms of music it increases the risk of musical homogeny. It promotes the blurring of regional identities, and the gradual extinction of traditional local music-making practices. Not sure that this is a problem but I can see where the argument is going.

This increased musical accessibility is, I’m told, why there is far less diversity in folk music today. This is now because everyone is copying or influenced by everyone else. Today, many mainstream musicians - pop, folk, jazz, blues and rock - have adopted aspects of ‘roots’ and ‘world’ music. Such august bands as Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, Fairport Convention and others have integrated various ethnic styles into their music. Far from blurring regional identities and destroying traditional music the percolation of different styles seems to be positive rather than negative. And less diversity? Not sure about that at all.

Incorporating roots from all over the world

Today it’s easy to hear an enormous diversity of musical sounds and styles, which, collectively, amount to ‘roots’ or ‘world’ music. And frequently you'll hear that diversity more often at a gig or festival labeled 'folk'. For some time, folk musicians in the Western world have used rock, jazz, blues, classical and everything else to develop folk music. Simply widening the net to include ‘world’ and ‘roots’ music is just another way forward to bring this music to a wider audience. It doesn't make it any less folk music. Adding varied styles to folk does nothing more than broaden the appeal of folk music and widen the boundaries artists can use.

Music is music. Most certainly there are distinct styles and genres, and certainly many artists borrow from some and all - but surely folk must be the most open of all. Or at least it should be. It doesn’t actually matter how you classify and define for convenience, the important point is that you understand that folk music is the driver for almost every other form – no matter where from, in what form, which language or what colour.

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