A friend once remarked to me that the term “world music” evokes an annoying Pan flute. Maybe that’s why some musicians bristle at a category that embraces everything from Youssou N’Dour to klezmer: If you say you’re going to a world-music concert, you’ve told me nothing. “It’s an imperfect term,” concedes Jacob Edgar, a vice-president at Putumayo World Music, the label behind those compilation CDs sold in coffee shops. “I mean, in America, you call world music anything that’s not American music—but in Argentina? Anything that’s not Argentinean?”
It’s a marketing term, pure and simple. It did not emerge naturally but was chosen in June 1987 by about twenty music-industry professionals in a London hotel. Weary of music stores’ inability to file their records, they named the genre, then distributed browser cards to shops and designated October “World Music Month.” The first press release read: “You no longer have to worry about where to put those new Yemenite pop, Bulgarian choir, Zairean soukous or Gambian kora records.” (And it worked: Putumayo and its ilk sold many more records.)
Then again, asks Edgar, “What is jazz? Louis Armstrong? Ornette Coleman? The point is to enable people to find your music.” So, a modest proposal: Last year, when the World Music Institute teamed with Joe’s Pub to showcase French-Yiddish-Gypsy music and the like, they called it GlobalFEST. Of course, “global music” has the same problem, but it doesn’t evoke that Pan flute. Maybe we should put it to a global test.