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All About World Music

By: Chris Nickson - Updated: 27 Dec 2012 | comments*Discuss
World Music Afrcia Asia America Europe

In one way world music is a bad term, since all music is world music. But generally it refers to music that has at least one foot in its local tradition. It doesn't need to be completely traditional, but needs knowledge of where it came from.


West Africa has one of the richest seams of music; after all, the basis of Western rock can be found there, and the desert blues of Mali shows that link. The entire griot culture (the griot is a storyteller and musician, the repository of history) of West Africa is powerful, with instruments like the harp-like kora or the n'goni, an ancestor of the banjo, in great use throughout the region.

Central Africa has its own musical heritage, such as the rumba that developed as sailors took records back and forth between the Congo and Cuba. That speeded up into soukous, a big dancefloor favourite in the 1980s.

South Africa has a strong choral tradition, evident in its gospel music or the sound of groups like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who have achieved global fame.

Perhaps the strangest music in Africa comes from the huge island of Madagascar. You can hear the influence of East Africa, but the roots of the music come from Indonesia - migrants travelled across the Pacific some 1500 years ago. So the music is a unique hybrid of Polynesian and African.

North Africa was part of the Islamic empire, and that's reflected in the music, much of which derives from classical Arabic music (which can still be found in Iran and Iraq). However, along with that (typified by Egypt's legendary singer Oum Kalthoum), there's also the raw street pop of cha'abi, or Algeria's rai, which has been exported all over the world, and known mostly through the work of Khaled.


India's venerable tradition can be heard in its ragas. But even they differ between the north and south of the country, developing out of the classical tradition into folk music. Perhaps the greatest of its musicians was Ravi Shankar, whose sitar work inspired the Beatles. But India is also home to the thriving Bollywood film industry. The singing there is provided by specific voice talent, and two sisters, Asha Bhosle and Lata Mangeshkar, are its leading lights.

Pakistan has its folk traditions, but the country's greatest performer, the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, sang religious song called Qawwali, ecstatic improvisations on Sufi poetry.

By its very size, China doesn't have a single tradition, but many. However, the pipa lute with its gentle, silky sound is as much a part of China as the cacophony of its opera (which is definitely an acquired taste).

The steppes of Central Asia, specifically Tuva, are home to throat singing, where eerie overtones are produced in the throat. Strange but beautiful, groups like Huun Huur Tu have brought throat singing to the world.

The Americas

Many of South and Central America's traditions come from the days of slavery - they received more slaves than North America. So, in Brazil, for instance, you can hear the past in the rhythms, even in the heartbeat behind samba, the sound of Rio's Carnival. But it's also home to the cool beat of bossa nova and the frantic pace of axé, popular in Salvador, in the North of the country.

In Cuba, too, the sense of Africa remained strong, not only in the santeria religion, but in the raw rhythms, which became overlaid with Spanish melodies. It reached its peak in the 1940s and '50s, with great singers like Benny Moré and powerful, rhythmic orchestras, a sound that was revived with great success by Buena Vista Social Club.

Mexico's heritage is far more Spanish, but filtered through its Indian people. So mariachi music combines the two, for example. But its also taken on other colours. Norteño, or Tex-Mex, with its accordion, derives from German immigrants and the polka.

The United States is a country of immigrants. Even the Native Americans originally arrived from Asia when there was a land bridge, and you can still hear their origins in their singing. But it's mostly on the East Coast that immigrants landed, and filled cities like New York and Boston with music, eventually creating their own hybrids like salsa - which began life in Central America, but grew up in the U.S., or Irish-American, exemplified by Cherish the Ladies.


Europe's traditions run deep. The heart of Spanish music dates back to the days when it was ruled by Islam, and it's there in the Andalusian moods of flamenco, mixed with the sound of Gypsies who left their mark all over Europe, most particularly in the Balkans, where their ensembles, be they string or brass, play wonderfully emotional music at breakneck speed.

Italy is home to several regional traditions, from the more Celtic sounds of the North to the Arabic influence in the South, especially in Sicily. Greece, however, has remained quite insular, with its rembetiko, a music that came up from the underclass, a powerful national sound that the government tried to suppress - but without success.

France is a cultural melting pot these days, and nowhere more than Paris, where Africans and Arabs have added their own flavour to the city, and brought their music. In the 1980s Paris was virtually the centre of African music, as artists recorded there. Arabs, known derisively as beurs, have settled in the Barbès area of the city, and a new generation is making music that draws on French and Arabic ideas.

Ireland has kept its culture strong, and successfully marketed its music to the world. Scotland has followed in its footsteps, and together they've made Celtic music into a big musical genre.

England's folk traditions have undergone ups and downs, but seem secure now. An influx of immigrants from all over the world is slowly changing the face of English music, although a new hybrid has yet to fully emerge.

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