What Is World Music?

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Ethnomusicology is the academic study of World Music. Usually, an ethnomusicology program has a dual approach that combines both music and anthropology. The musical component involves theory -- analyzing the music itself as well as exploring the instruments used to create it -- while the anthropological study involved the culture itself, using music as the framework: what is the history behind the music? what role does music play in this particular society? what are the unique cultural aspects of this society which gave way to this kind of music being created and performed?

These aren't easy questions to answer, and often require a total immersion into the particular culture (referred to as "field work"), which includes living among the people, sometimes for years, and learning their language. An ethnomusicologist become a participant, not just a member of an audience.

We are all participants in our respective cultures (usually). There is music around us at all times if we stop to listen. Even in North America, the blare of rap music from sports cars, the frenzy stirred up at a Backstreet Boys concert, the sound of "Pomp and Circumstance" at a graduation ceremony -- these are all defining characteristics of our society. An ethnomusicologist born and raised in an African village would have plenty of material to chew through if he or she lived among us for a while.

In other words, "World Music" often depends on your vantage point. The clay gourd banging I mentioned earlier is part of day to day life for those villagers, as cabaret was in Berlin during the 1930's, and like salsa and merengue is part of the Latin culture. What we take for granted as typical, commercial Top 40, in another country defines what they may think about America. When a kind of music crosses over into World Music, no matter what genre from which the music originates, is when the listener starts to gain a perspective of the culture behind the music.

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