beyond the pale

MusicWatch Weekly: Living traditions

A week of “world music” concerts

In the coming weeks, we’ll be running a series of essays exploring “living traditions” through the lens of several recent and upcoming concerts across a handful of genres and subgenres, most of which stray into the phantom zone of “world music.” To get you primed for that, we’d like to discuss what we mean by “living traditions”–and direct you to some upcoming concerts that will demonstrate our meaning while keeping your mind limber.

We love problematizing genre, and “world music” is one of our favorites–it’s one of those genre terms that means everything and nothing, like “classical.” You know exactly what I mean by “world music” (no doubt you’re already imagining sitars and gongs), but you probably also realize the contradiction in the term: which “world” are we talking about? Are Mozart and The Beatles not part of “the world?” Are Irish fiddle tunes “world music” or “folk music”–and why? And what makes Ravi Shankar and A.R. Rahman “world music,” exactly?

The label makes life easier for record stores, which have to put that stuff somewhere, and the truth is that “the west” does have quite an appetite for these global musics. But we westerners tend to fetishize these global musics as something other, something from elsewhere, perhaps something we’ve lost or forgotten in “our” musics. In some ways, we define “our” musics by their differences with musics from “other” cultures; such “exotic” features raise questions about what western music doesn’t do and generally isn’t comfortable with. Music theory nerds might consider the abolition of the augmented second and the centuries-long disintegration of tonality; all others might consider the relationship between “dance” and “folk” and “classical” and “popular” musics within the western tradition, and why they all seem so uneasy around each other.

Continues…