Critical World
Thinking Globalization Through Popular Culture
My Life In The Bush of Ghosts
Categories: Critical World Book

This article was created to accompany a text that appeared in the edited volume entitled “Music and Globalization:  Critical Encounters” (Indiana University Press, 2012).

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Since the early 1980s I have been tracking “world music.” I place that term immediately in quotes to indicate that I don’t use it transparently, as a benign generic gloss for human musical diversity. Rather, my interest is specifically in “world music” as a label of industrial origin, a label that refers to an amalgamated global marketplace of sounds as ethnic commodities. Once more idiosyncratically and unevenly collected and circulated under labels like “primitive,” “folk,” “ethnic,” “race,” “traditional,” “exotic,” or “international” music, today’s “world music” tells a new story.

It’s a story about intersections of transnational capital, global economic niche expansion, technological ubiquity, and the contradictions of aesthetic pluralism and product homogenization.

It’s a story about the shaping power of a global recording industry that sees the marketplace as the actual arbiter and guarantor of musical authenticity.

This is to argue that the existence of the category of “world music” –-like the existence of the category of  “fine art” examined by Fred Myers (2001) in The Empire of Things­— derives from and is chiefly dependent on the marketplace, and not from formal genre distinctions, autonomous aesthetic qualities, or geographic categories.

— Steven Feld

Listen to Brian Eno’s My Life in Bush of Ghosts here.



Alongside the production of these anxious narratives, “world music” has consistently, indeed, dialectically, produced a much more frequent narrative, of celebration. It’s this celebratory narrative that sees “world music” as indigeneity’s champion and best friend.

This celebratory narrative sees musical hybridity and fusion as cultural signs of unbounded and deterritorialized identities.

It sees the production of both indigenous autonomy and cultural hybridity as unassailable global positives, moves that signify the desire for greater cultural respect, tolerance, and blending.

Here is where celebratory discourse virtually proclaims “world music” synonymous with anti-essentialism, with borderlessness, with cultural free-flow, with a futurist hope or prediction of greater cultural and economic equilibrium.

— Steven Feld

Anxious narratives tend toward sharper focus on economics and power. They emphasize how the music marketplace is structurally founded on historical inequities in the areas of copyright, royalty structures, ownership regimes, and access to the market.

They insist that the industry is currently organized in ways that typically reproduce and amplify these fundamental inequities. Celebratory narratives tend toward sharper focus on how pleasure and participation enhance new connections and close old gaps.

They emphasize new possibilities, new forms of recognition and the potential for respect they bring. In short, both anxious and celebratory narratives of “world music” embed a fraught cultural politics of nostalgia, that is, they each are deeply linked to the management of senses of loss and renewal in the modern world. And they each involve complex suspicions and idealizations about notions like resistance and survival, or tradition and heritage.

My project is devoted to untangling some of the strands of suspicion and idealization that bind anxious and celebratory narratives. It is in this mutualism and interdependence, this play “from schizophonia to schismogenesis” that I locate the social core of the “world music” story (Feld 1994, 2000).

— Steven Feld


World music was not quite a newly emergent market category when My Life in the Bush of Ghosts was released on LP in February 1981.

But the LP certainly heralded a great deal of what was to come in the 80’s and 90’s under the banners of “world music” as well as “world beat” and “ethno-techno” —the two sub-genre terms that most overtly celebrate exotic alterity as danceable hybridity.

— Steven Feld


Read an Interview with Brian Eno by Sandy Robertson (1981) “The Life of Brian in the Bush of Ghosts, here

Most importantly, all of this takes place in an aesthetic space that is dominated by dance music, by the allure of physical participation and its promise of bodily pleasure.

Danceability is what sold pop and rock music, and danceability was well understood by Eno and Byrne to be the critical step in resignification, the commodity phase where the exotic tease never strips the familiar.

Again the anxious question about virtual religion comes into focus: Is MLBG, then or now, a simulacrum of increased spiritual contact that masks an unexamined reproduction of increased spiritual distance?

— Steven Feld

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