It may be time to drop the ‘world music’ label (and The Brother Moves On has something to say about it)

Last week the second Cape Town World Music Festival (CTWMF) took place, and warmed up a very cold and wet “Mother City” weekend. The notoriously lax Cape Town audience (myself included) got out from under our duvets to check out some of the best bands in South Africa, as well as some international acts, such as Malian guitar maestro Vieux Farka Toure and US singer/ songwriter The Mynabirds.

The festival has had a few ideological bumps in the road to its success. In 2011 the Israeli embassy provided airfare for Israeli artist Boom Pam to fly to the festival, which resulted in much criticism and a call from Palestinian solidarity group BDS South Africa to boycott. Luckily CTWMF seems to have cut ties with the Israeli embassy, which is good. The festival itself, held at Cape Town’s beautiful city hall, was well received by all who attended. However, on another note, we need to ask, why use the dated term “world music” for such a progressive and inclusive lineup?

Acclaimed Johannesburg-based band/performing arts collective The Brother Moves On performed a much- anticipated and moving set on the first night of CTWMF.  Near the end of their show they commented on the term world music. Lead vocalist Siyabonga Mthembu addressed the audience, questioning the legitimacy of the term. Guitarist Zelizwe Mthembu, Siya’s cousin, expressed his disdain in our video interview: “The term world music has taken a whole lot of genres and placed them under one category… you can’t do that!” He was quick to add however, that the festival organizers had put together an amazing lineup, and because of that they could call the festival whatever they want.

The term itself originated in Western academia. Ethnomusicologist Steven Feld writes in his essay “A Sweet Lullaby for World Music” that the term was first circulated in the 60s by academics as a friendlier, less cumbersome alternative to ethnomusicology, which referred to the study of non-Western music and the “musics of ethnic minorities.” Although its mission was liberal and inclusive, Feld writes that this reinscribed a binary which separated musicology from ethnolomusicology, the West from the rest: “The relationship of the colonizing and the colonized thus remained generally intact in distinguishing music from world music.

The 1980s and 1990s saw a proliferation of Western artists collaborating with and drawing samples from artists from the third world, such as Paul Simon and Peter Byrne. This often perpetuated the global power structures that colour the relationships of the West from the rest. In “Sweet Lullaby for World Music,” Feld writes about how The Grammy Award winning Deep Forest sampled a UNESCO Solomon Islands recording in which a woman named Afunakwa sang a lullaby called “Rorogwela.”  The recordist, Hugo Zemp never gave his consent, let alone the singer Afunakwa, and the song became highly lucrative, even appearing in commercials for Coca Cola and Porsche. Because of legal loopholes and the recording being labeled as “oral tradition,” Deep Forest and their record label legally owed nothing to the original sources of their hit. The lullaby eventually became sampled again by Kenny G-esque Norwegian artist Jan Garbarek, who misidentified the song as Central African and named his smooth jazz version “Pygmy Lullaby.


We have to conclude that the term world music is at best dated, and at worst problematic. So, CTWMF, perhaps its time to drop the word world from your title? Cape Town Music Festival has a nicer ring to it. Why clump together the maskandi of Madala Kunene, the experimental afro-rock of the Brother Moves On and the electronic kwaito of Okmalumkoolkat under this contentious label and continue Western classifications of ethnic others on our own soil? In all fairness, the festival audience didn’t seem to be bothered, but perhaps that speaks to a general Eurocentric attitude which pervades in the administrative passageways and cultural hubs of the Mother City.

Photo Credit: Kent Lingeveldt.



Dylan Valley

My DVDs weigh a ton. Capetonian in Johannesburg. Also Film and Video Editor at Africa is a Country.

  1. As you know, Dylan, it’s a marketing thing, largely rep’d by the WOMEX festival and the history of marketing African fusion in Paris in the 80s.

    I’m against the term and have long worked to subvert what it represents, but even after a decade in and out of the music business, I’m not convinced the term “world music” is the problem.

    The problem is that the marketing engine and distribution chain behind the term creates real issues which separate audiences, alienating local markets from international market.

    I’m actually kinda enthusiastic about the term as it circulates outside the West, and as it becomes disentangled from touristy western marketing cliches it represents here.

    Feld and David Byrne may be famous for critiquing the term, but I’m not sure Feld’s frog sounds and Ghanaian jazz or Luaka Bop’s “psychedelic classics” provide better marketing interventions than “world music.” Feld’s label seems to be a platform for him to pretend that he’s selling music while enjoying some cozy tenured position in New Mexico. Not sure how much his artists your and I find it incredibly strange that their music is only made available through Feld’s website rather than standard digital distribution channels. And Luaka bop can do great things but their audience base is still predominately white and western.

    Appropriation and cultural dilution will always be an issue unless we change the structure of the music business, which often means taking the power from the old guard. “African music,” “world music…” the idea of genre itself is often inadequate, but I think what’s behind the words count much more than the word itself. The word can be flipped into new contexts, but those old distribution chains are harder to break.

  2. In the UK it was a meeting of independent labels that coined World Music as an attempt to get Virgin, HMV and Tower Records to dedicate a section to their non-European products…but yes its long past its sell-by date.

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