Most people couldn’t care less about old world
music. This music is strange, difficult, dull; it’s not
played on the radio and doesn’t make the charts; it’s
tucked away in the “Specialist” section at the record
store (which just closed down). This music is all
screeching, wailing and crackly recordings. A more
unpopular music would be difficult to imagine.
This perception is both correct and incorrect. This
music is actually the most beautiful, moving,
diverse, subtle, powerful and interesting music
in the world. The problem is how people think about
it. For the skeptical, afraid and over-familiar, the
following 9 points set the record straight. This
commentary is designed to make old world music
better understood, more accessible and more
1) 80% of old world music is rubbish. Just as with
any other musical genre (and, of course, vintage world music
is really multiple genres), much is mediocre, derivative and
not worth a second listen.
2) The music most people listen to is a fraction of
the whole. Old world music constitutes the mass of
humanity’s musical knowledge and experience that supports
the popular and art music we focus on today. Old world
music has the same enrichment potential as international
cuisine and international travel. See Graphic #1
3) Contemporary world music is too limited and
under considerable globalization pressure. This is not a
slight- but rather an affirmation that it is old world music
where diversity, style, innovation and musical maturity are
most powerful, and most neglected.
|How to Listen to Old World Music
|How to Listen- 9 Point Guide
4) Old world music is music first. This is where
world music enthusiasts get confused. This music is
associated with cultural change, not least the relentless
loss of cultural diversity in the face of Westernization.
Enthusiasts often enjoy this music as part of some mental
resistance to Westernization. The music is held up as
evidence of the vibrancy of particular non-Western
cultures under threat, with any consideration of musical
merit very much an after thought.
5) Old world music is popular music. Much of it
was created, performed and heard as popular music.
This music is for dancing and romance, laughing, wonder
and sorrow. It evokes the same emotional range as any
other music, popular or otherwise. This is why you like
6) Old world music represents the whole world.
This music is often identified with non-Western music- as
if the “world” is some primitive contrast to the
sophistication of the West. Old world music is historical
popular music from every country and culture in the world,
both Western and non-Western.
7) Old world music has been ripped from its
cultural setting. This is a point of fact, not a criticism.
It would be foolish to pretend that the 21st century
listener in the United States can fully appreciate the
meaning captured on a 1920s recording from Ethiopia.
But it is equally foolish to think that recordings cannot
transcend time and place, sometimes in unimagined
ways that can continue to inspire.
8) Old world music is a commodity- especially
today. Let's acknowledge this fact, and celebrate the
unprecedented musical riches within our reach. Let's
focus on what this access might enable us to do, and
not just bemoan loss and exploitation. See Graphic #2
9) It’s OK to like old world music and western
popular or classical music. Diversity is enlightening
and refreshing. More is more.
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