‘World Music’ or A World of Musics? An African Perspective

I can think of no organisation more determined to promote encounters amongst the musics of the world than WOMAD. We performers who draw inspiration from such encounters owe an enormous debt to WOMAD, and we will continue to look to WOMAD for leadership in the thoughtful presentation of musics from around the world to audiences around the world.

I would like to share my thoughts about the ‘encounters’ of musics which WOMAD has done so much to promote. To me, these ‘encounters’ are the most interesting aspect of the musical history we are all making together.

Crafting one’s own music in the face of the awesome and sometimes daunting machinery of the international entertainment industry poses as much of a challenge to a performer from outside the United States or Europe as it does to performers in those countries. It is curious to observe how uninitiated westerners have a tendency to think that we Africans operate in our own musical world immune from the influences and uninspired by the examples of popular music from your countries.

Youssou N'Dour - Immigres (Live in Athens 1987)

Actually, for us African pop musicians, nothing could be further from the truth. We are immensely interested in music from around the world and share with western performers a burning passion to communicate our ideas, our cultures, our emotions and our dreams. We must try, just as every western performer must do, to shape our music into coherent statements about who we are, what we love in life, what we aim to be. Often we learn or take a cue from the brightest amongst your musical stars.

For African pop musicians as for any others, it is perfectly natural to weave new elements from the vocabularies of other musics amongst the strands of our age-old cultural legacies. Finding these new elements, then assimilating them in aesthetically and emotionally appealing ways, making them one’s own, I think is something which truly great artists often achieve.

For while one may be born into one musical idiom, one need not limit oneself to that idiom. Indeed, in this age of international radio and television, and easy access to recordings and videos, one probably could not do so if one wanted to.

Thanks to his early listening experiences via radio, there is no more soulful singer of rhythm and blues in the world than Van Morrison. There is no more authentic voice of blues guitar than Eric Clapton. Perhaps right now somewhere in Belfast, London, Paris or Boston, with the genuine insight only love can provide, a young singer is painstakingly elevating her phrases borrowed from Miriam Makeba to fresh, personal heights —in whatever language, in whatever context larger than a particular song! I wonder where the South African mbaqanga guitar licks of Mark Mhangwane will next turn up in the near future of English or American rock. What young musical mind is Algeria’s Cheb Khaled influencing in Los Angeles this week?

And so the musical encounters go on, in several directions at once. These encounters always have gone on in Africa— a continent with a history of tremendous trade activity across national borders, a significant movement of peoples over time, and the importation and exportation of culture and ideas as well as goods. In my country, Senegal, alone, the interconnectedness of musical cultures from throughout the West African region —primarily amongst the Wolof, Malinké, Serer and Tukulor peoples— has long been recognised. It is as much taken for granted as the relationship, say, between Scottish religious hymns and the development of the ‘Negro Spiritual’ and African-American gospel traditions in nineteenth and twentieth century America.

Youssou N'Dour and Peter Gabriel

More broadly speaking, no serious student of the history of jazz, the blues or rock ‘n’ roll can fail to acknowledge Africa’s central role in all of this music, now seen as such an important part of the western cultural legacy.

It should therefore come as no surprise at all that, as we Africans have since time immemorial been avid importers as well as exporters of musical ideas, we should be so keen today, in the ostensibly ‘new’ climate of encounters amongst the musics of the world, to borrow and reshape ideas which we admire from other places.

If I may speak very candidly, I think that alongside all the positive developments arising from the western public’s ‘new’ exposure to African music, certain misunderstandings have also arisen. One thing we Africans are loathe to accept is a certain desire by some westerners —sometimes even the most well-intentioned critics, record producers, distributors, retailers and radio and television people— to lump African music into one category whose distinguishing characteristic is simply the geographical provenance of the music. A second, related, error of judgement is an almost automatic preference of many westerners for ‘traditional’ African elements in a performance or a record as opposed to the panoply of ‘modern’ sounds which so many of us now incorporate into our music. These two attitudes often do a disservice to the possibilities for uncompromised expression and development which African performers so vitally need at this juncture in the history of our music.

The disservice may be done in two ways. Firstly, intending to create a music industry ghetto for African music, or at least an African music territory within a larger ghetto of ‘world music’, the lumping together of all African music into one category often restricts access to new audiences in the West. The second, and perhaps graver, way in which the disservice may be done happens when an African artist is uncritically reproached for his or her openness towards wester musical vocabularies. This is typically justified on some unexamined principle valuing a misunderstood ‘tradition’ over insufficiently specified ‘modern’ or ‘western’ elements. In the name of attacking ‘homogeneity’ (a code word for music made by Africans, which to their ears sounds like ‘western music’), some self-professed ‘world music experts’ ironically seem to end up advocating a much more unattractive homogeneity— an African music devoid of ‘non-African’ inspiration or technique.

Isn’t it time to leave behind such tired ways of listening? Such approaches to African music are nonething but relics of unenlightened colonialism— sad examples of the unfortunate mentalities (amongst both Europeans and Africans) left over from another time. I believe that ethnic, national and regional identities are essential explanatory footnotes to the career and performance of any artist, but that any artist’s birthright is the common heritage of humanity as a whole. The many New Ethnographers who people the ranks of ‘world music’ community are unwittingly working against the basic thing they surely wish to advance— namely the wider acceptance in the entertainment industry of African music and musics from other under-represented parts of the world.

There are knotty problems here, to say the least. Theoretical and practical paradoxes abound. But I think that, with the support of everyone who appreciates musics originating in places outside the United States and Europe, and the unending educational efforts of organisations such as WOMAD, the day will soon come when individual artists from Africa will be able to transcend category as freely and unselfconsciously as any other pop music performers in the world.

That will be a good day for African music, for ‘world music’, for music.

Featured Release

  • Fatteliku (Live in Athens 1987)

    Youssou N’Dour

    Released 15 October 2015

    October, 1987. An open-air amphitheatre overlooking the twinkling sprawl of night time Athens. Thousands of people are going crazy for a young Senegalese singer they'd never heard of until Peter Gabriel had walked onstage and introduced him. On the cusp of Western stardom this is N'Dour's opening set from that legendary Live in Athens show.

By Youssou N’Dour

Originally published in Worldwide: Ten Years of WOMAD, 1992.

Youssou N'Dour is a world-renowned singer from Senegal, and one of the most influential African artists of the last 30 years.

Main image: Youssou N'Dour performing at WOMAD Morecambe Bay 1991. Photo credit: Pete Williams

Published on Sat, 09 June 18

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