Critical World
Thinking Globalization Through Popular Culture
The Promise of World Music


The Promise of World Music: Strategies for Non-Essentialist Listening

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


“The Same” (Youssou N’dour, Sony/Columbia, 1992)

Sound is the same for all the world
Everybody has a heart
Everybody gets a feeling
Let’s play!  Sound box!
Rock, reggae, jazz, mbalax
All around the world…the same
Pachanga, soul music, rhythm and blues…the same
La samba, la rumba, cha-cha-cha…the same
Sound is the same for all the world
Everybody has a heart
Everybody gets a feeling
Mbaqanga, ziglibiti, high life music…the same
Merengue, funk, Chinese music…the same
Bossa nova, soul makossa, rap music…the same
Come on people, dance
Everybody in the world has a culture
Believe what you believe
Respect your customs
Everybody must do what the heart says
Don’t cause trouble; Treat people well
Be sociable; Exchange ideas
Music is the same the world over
Musicians, too, are cut from the same cloth
We’re aiming to entertain you



Music is often presented as a form of cultural expression that is capable of bringing cultures closer together and teaching about tolerance, a kind of promise to respect and honor cultural diversity.  Steven Feld (2000) argues that discourses about “world music” tend to take one of two forms.

The first, which he refers to as a discourse of anxiety, is critical not only of globalization, but also of its composite elements:  capital, modernity and technology. The second discourse is one of celebration and is interested either in the genius of human spirit (using concepts such as resistance, appropriation and agency) or in the universal potential of humanity, perhaps most fully embodied in the millennial expression “global village”.

Taking Feld’s observations as a starting point, I would like to further explore the discursive patterns that enable promoters of world music to bring this form of music to potential consumers.  The promotion of world music rests on a number of motifs or figures that are not always explicit, but that work together to reinforce a community of taste around this category of music:


Figure 1:  Music as a Universal Language

Given its capacity to represent reality without recourse to language, music is often perceived as being a language in and of itself. From this point of view, music is a universal form of communication that is free from linguistic mediation and that enables contact between human beings by virtue of its ability to act directly upon the senses

Music’s ability to communicate outside of language somehow reduces the time and distance that separate different types of moderns and primitives.   Music’s capacity to bring people together makes us more aware of racism and creates possibilities for imagining new ways of organizing society.

Putumayo’s World Playground Series

From this point of view, the globe is nothing but a huge cultural playground and music gives us unlimited access to a world of play.


Figure 2:  Hybridity as a Form of Authenticity

In the context of world music, hybridity is either presented as a space of liminality between two worlds (neither here nor there, but in between), one that can just as easily be emancipatory or tragic (compare with Homi Bhabha’s notion of “third space”) or as a source of potential strength since cultural hybrids are able to free themselves from the chains of tradition by adding on successive layers of strategic identity.


Hybridity is the new authenticity… (Tim Taylor)


For fans of “world music”, cultural hybridity is valued not only because it combines desirable aspects of several identities (thus representing the possibility of having the “best of all worlds”), but also because it is the protagonist of an epic myth of the future:  a world without racism, without hate, and with a multitude of colors living together in harmony and style.


Figure 3:  Consumption as a Gesture of Solidarity

For many consumers of world music, buying a CD constitutes a gesture of solidarity between the consumer and the artist, who represents (or at least stands for) people that are struggling for economic and political survival.

Youssou N’dour on a Starbucks cup

In this way, participating in the world music phenomenon can be seen as a political and social gesture that enables consumers to project their desire for global social change and express their support, albeit symbolically, for people who struggle every day with the injustice of poverty and underdevelopment.

Consumer Cosmopolitanism

If we take seriously the promotional language of world music, consumers of cosmopolitanism, especially those who accept the ideology of world music without any critical reflection, believe that music is capable of helping us build a better world, either because it breaks down the barriers that separate us or because it values difference, or because it speaks out against injustice.

“The Whole World is My Native Land”

The quest for this type of music places the consumer symbolically on the side of the victims of history, or as some critics of cosmopolitanism might suggest completely outside of history.  I suggest that we see this posture as a promise to act as a “citizen of the world”, one that oversees the principles of cultural diversity, respect and tolerance.  At the same time, however, by assuming this posture the consumer of world music imagines herself in a position of superiority in relation to the provincialism of her compatriots.


Non-essentialist Listening Strategies

It is not enough, in my view, to deconstruct discourses and representations of world music, or even to criticize the abusive practices of artists or industry specialists, since neither of these methodological approaches can be brought to bear on the practices of promotion and consumption that are crucial to the reproduction of world music as a category of knowledge.  Instead, we need to provide models that apply the principles of intellectual curiosity, systematic research, and self-reflexive listening if we want our theoretical work to be truly critical.


Konono no. 1, produced by Vincent Kenis of Crammed Discs


As an experiment in applied cultural criticism, this series of recommendations and warnings—some of which require an additional effort of time and energy—are intended to help the intellectually curious to combat the most problematic aspects of musical essentialism.

  • Question the notion of music as a universal language
  • Be more specific about what is meant by “hybrid”
  • Be aware of clichés
  • Be skeptical of binary oppositions
  • Strive for a balance between similarities and differences
  • Don’t be afraid to talk about sound
  • Pay attention to genre
  • Try to understand the lyrics
  • Speak with real human beings
  • Find out more about a country’s culture, politics and history
  • Question your tastes


Case study:  Womex Promotional Video (2012)


World music is not a problem per se; it becomes a problem when the listener-consumer makes claims about the world via music without making the effort to go beyond the simple projection of a personal listening utopia. 

If there is one promise we should make to the Other it is not to love his or her music; with the seemingly endless amount of different musics available to us today, that would be much too simple.  The promise that we should make to the Other is to do the work to let ourselves be destabilized by what lies behind the music.


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