Academic journal article Canadian University Music Review

Origins and Distinctions of the "World Music" and "World Beat" Designations

Academic journal article Canadian University Music Review

Origins and Distinctions of the "World Music" and "World Beat" Designations

Article excerpt

The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point. (Gabriel García Márquez1)

I would be happy if what I played would simply be called music, nothing else. (Charlie Parker)

The field of ethnomusicology has applied many labels over the years to reflect the types of music that comprise its area of study. Descriptors such as "savage," "primitive," "non-literate," and "ethnic" have now largely been abandoned, particularly for their ethnocentric connotations.2 Ethnomusicologists have not been the only ones grappling with suitable labels for much of the world's vast musical output. People within the record industry have also attempted to define, in a succinct phrase, music from around the globe. Such terms as "international music," "global pop," "tropical music," "global beat," "musique métisse," "international mix," and "ethno-pop" are some that have received limited currency in the media.3 However, few labels have generated more controversy, in both academia and the public realm, than the terms "world music" and "world beat."4

The purpose of this paper is to outline the origins and definitions of the musical designations "world music" and "world beat" in order to shed light on why, in recent years, these two terms have come to mean different things to some groups and the same thing to others. The histories of these terms reflect a certain irony, for though their original meanings carried an intended "inclusive" connotation (related to the removal of cultural, political, and musical barriers), they have since been used to differentiate and "exclude" certain artists, peoples, and musical styles from most European and American musics. Moreover, since one cannot get a clear sense of how the terms have been used over the years without acknowledging the politics of labelling, I will outline a number of critiques pertaining to the "world music" and "world beat" classifications. While the rhetoric surrounding these labels celebrates a "liberatory" agenda,5 these critiques explore how recent applications point to a classificatory scheme that fixes and marginalizes certain musical genres and cultural groups, and exemplifies the privileged positioning and power differential between the "categorizers" and the "categorized." What seems to be an innocent need to label certain kinds of music, in essence, becomes a site for constructing an entire social-hierarchical system.6


As far as I am aware, the term "world beat" was first coined by the famous American author, Jack Kerouac, in his 1957 novel, On the Road.7 Kerouac' s novel was influential for many American youth in the 1950s and 1960s, inspiring their quests for unbounded freedom and spiritual enlightenment. In fact, writers like Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Gregory Corso (among others) were progenitors of what became known as the "Beat" Generation.8

Whether or not there is any connection between Kerouac's use of the term "world beat" and its recurrence almost thirty years later is uncertain. Nonetheless, the phrase was (re)discovered by the Austin, Texas-based musician, composer, and the DJ Dan Del Santo, along with his friend Joe Nick Patowski, a writer for Texas Monthly. Together they came up with the term during a brainstorming session in 1983 that grew out of a need to describe Del Santo's music (which included a multiplicity of styles from Afrobeat, R&B, and Latin American popular music), his philosophy, and his growing "world consciousness."9 Within days, Dan Del Santo had the phrase printed on stickers and posters all over the Austin area, promoting his next live show. Later that year, he released his second album on Pleasure Records, entitled World Beat.10 Soon afterwards, the "world beat" phrase began circulating in the San Francisco area to describe several bands, including the Rhyth-O-Matics, Zulu Spear, the Looters, Special Fun, Mapenzi, and Big City. …

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