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My fantasy career (or why there is no such thing as world music)

The Hindu, 23 January

In another life, I’d like to have been an ethnomusicologist. It would have been a wonderfully open-ended excuse to discover new music, to travel and imbibe foreign cultures at close range.

As an academic discipline ethnomusicology began as a western study of non-western music, but in recent decades it has come to embrace the study of the musics of the peoples of the world, western and non-western, elite and popular, parochial and cosmopolitan. In particular, ethnomusicology studies the musics of the peoples of the world in their social settings. It hears them as part of, and sometimes a key to, a larger culture.

In trying to explain the complex ties between a music and its place and time, ethnomusicology faces a host of thorny questions. This for me is one of its fascinations. Each musical style, each performance casts in a new light the ever-shifting relations between audience and performer, tradition and innovation, individual and collective, art and economics. It’s a ticket to explore the glorious, border-less mystery of human creativity.

Songs, scales and rhythms have been described as “indefatigable tourists”. They cross geographical, linguistic, political and cultural barriers. As they do so, they are modified. The history of music is fluid, with local and global engaged in a perpetual mutual exchange. So, whatever course it takes, ethnomusicology is always a journey, through both space and time.

I come from an entirely unmusical family. But growing up in the 60s and early 70s, I was lucky enough to be introduced to music during an extraordinarily fertile era for Anglo-American rock, soul and pop. There were of course the Beatles and Dylan, and along with them a brilliant array of individual stylists, musical explorers and genre-busters: Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Gram Parsons, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Captain Beefheart, Randy Newman, Stevie Wonder, to name only a few. Each of these formed part of my musical education. Like many others I followed the contemporary sounds to their sources in blues, folk, jazz and country – the musics of North America’s marginalised communities. The 60s/70s taught me my first lesson in the social context of music: no one could miss, though many misinterpreted, the connection between the era’s innovative pop and its political turmoil. A number of those for whom ethnomusiclogy is not merely a fantasy career embarked on their studies from the same starting point, alerted by personal experience to the richness of the subject.

After that my musical journey has been shaped by travel, politics and accidental connections. When I worked in a north London youth club in the early 80s I listened to a lot of reggae. It’s amazing that the music of a small, marginalised island community could be so warmly embraced by such a wide global audience. But then perhaps not so amazing, when you reflect that reggae mixed influences from Africa, North and South America, dancehall and church, local patois and internationalist anti-colonial politics. In other words, it was a distinctively Caribbean contribution to global culture.

As a result of much travelling in India, I fell in love with Carnatic music, which, I learned, was not nearly as conservative and hidebound (or as ancient and unchanging) as it was made out to be. I’ve heard some bravura celebrity recitals during the annual Chennai season, but nothing more quietly moving than modest restraint of the Bombay Sisters at a sparsely attended Christmas morning kutcheri.

One of the things I cherish about Carnatic music is that for all its elaboration, the song remains at its heart. But I’ve also come to enjoy the more expansive Hindustani school, largely because I’ve been fortunate enough to hear Hari Prausad Chaurasia, Amjad Ali Khan, Shiv Kumar Sharma and Zakir Hussein live. And on record there’s nothing sweeter than the sound of Bismillah Khan’s shehnai. I’m also a fan of 50s and 60s Bollywood music, especially the folk inspired SD Burman and the classically minded Naushad. Bollywood is a delight for the sociologist of music, harnessing folk, classical and western instruments and influences, Urdu poetry and Goan orchestrators.

An intriguing book by Timothy Brennan called Secular Devotion: Afro-Latin Music and Imperial Jazz prompted a detour into the lavish melodies and percussive abundance of salsa, which draws on Cuban sources but was forged entirely in the ghettoes of North America. Salsa is as authentically and completely “New York” as the Broadway musical, which was itself an amalgam of African-American, Jewish and Western European influences.Later visits to Morocco, Portugal and Spain triggered excursions into Andalusian (al ala, the plangent, ruminative classical music of the Arabic west), fado (not least he heart-shaking voice of Amalia Rodrigues) and especially flamenco, which has become something of an obsession. It’s one of the world’s least classifiable but most easily recognisable musical genres, technically sophisticated and at the same time daringly emotional.

Just now I’m investigating the Arabic music of west Asia and relishing the discovery of two 20th century greats: the majestic Egyptian, Umm Kalthoum, and the supple Lebanese, Fairouz, neither of whose careers can be understood without reference to the tragic politics of the region.

Brennan’s book includes a chapter titled “There is no such thing as world music”, which made me want to cheer on sight. He’s referring to the marketing category launched in the 1980s to bring artists from the developing world to Western notice. While it did succeed in creating new audiences for the likes of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Youssou N’Dour, “world music” is an amorphous and deeply patronising catch-all. If you visit the “world music” racks in a London emporium, you’ll find Indian classical alongside Algerian Rai, Afro-Beat, Berber gnawa , klezmer, qawalli, fado, flamenco and all manner of Latin American styles (which in New York would have a rack to themselves), but not jazz or Western classical.

So I’m not even a pretend ethnomusicologist. Just a blundering amateur. These days you don’t have to spend years in the field to sample the banquet of the world’s many musics. It’s all recorded, readily accessible and downloadable. That’s a great boon, but there’s still no substitute for live performance, for being part of an audience, for contact not only with the music but with its context.

The only music with anything like a global reach today is the one that’s never found in the “world music” racks – mainstream western pop, whose ubiquity stems from the global distribution of power and wealth. Anyway, what could a truly “world music” be other than a dismal lowest common denominator? The world muzak of airport lounges and hotel lobbies?

Music is a human universal that exists only in infinitely varied forms. It’s in the differences, the variations, that its beauty and meaning resides. And that variety derives from the specifics of historical development. Which is what makes the ethnomusicologist’s quest so rewarding – and so endless. It’s a reassuringly inexhaustible field.

You encounter a new music. Gradually, your ears adjust, your consciousness makes space. What was alien and forbidding becomes familiar and intimate. It’s a small miracle but in it there’s a portent of something much greater.