Our show Music City Roots had a theme this week, in that all four artists were included on the new Putumayo Presents Bluegrass compilation, released May 22 by the famous Putumayo World Music label. The company’s founder and CEO Dan Storper came in for the show, which was an honor, and I enjoyed a 20-minute interview with him pre-show, which I’ll post very soon. I had a lot of questions about the past and future of the “world music” category, because it’s been controversial, as we’ll soon see.
So imagine my surprise when I got in my car after the show to drive home and the wonderful show Q from the CBC, aired here on WPLN-FM, launched into a spirited debate about whether it was time to retire the term world music. The spark was an editorial in the Guardian by Ian Birrell, who argued the term, once well-intentioned and perhaps effective, is now “outdated and offensive.”
For a start, it implies cultural superiority. Artists from America and Europe tend not to get stuck in the world section, just those that don't speak English or come from "exotic" parts of the world. They can be consigned safely to the world music ghetto, ignored by the mainstream and drooled over by those who approach music as an offshoot of anthropology.
The piece had echoes of a column by the great David Byrne back in 1999 about world music. He thought it was patronizing and limiting as well.
In the on-air debate last night, (and it truly was a smart, respectful debate of the kind we rarely get to hear in American media), Birrell was pitted against Derek Andrews, a Toronto-based concert promoter, folk and blues expert and Juno Award committee member. It’s definitely worth a listen.
What struck me were the similarities to debates I hear about the term Americana.
But I’m a champion of Americana music myself (the annual convention and festival is coming up Sept 12-15 in Nashville and a better festival value I do not think you could find), and I find most critics, including Birrell, just sort of over-wrought and concerned about semantics or political correctness that really doesn’t affect the actual marketplace.
Americana and world music are not and never were meant to be thought of as genres of music. They are signifiers and market filters pointing to a place where one can find a roughly screened selection of quality music from a bundle of traditions or cultures. The fuzzy boundaries of those ideas don’t trouble me and shouldn’t trouble anyone, because even very precise genres are permeable. The terms are just handy marketing labels that orient the music fan and invites browsing in a sub-set of the totality of all the music in the universe. Putumayo put out a collection of Americana several years ago, suggesting it’s healthy and proper to consider Americana a world music, just like bluegrass. They have cultural grounding and they’re an artful blending of folk traditions with commercial aspirations. This should ease the charge of cultural chauvinism.
Even if the occasional consumer misses a discovery - say a great world music artist like the late Cesaria Evora or a great Americana artist like Hayes Carll – because of some bias against some term, they’re likely not to have had open enough ears to begin with. Or they’d just as easily discover the artist through some other channel on some other day. The rigidity of the labels would have been a greater concern in the record store era when artists had to be categorized into bins that only self-selected consumers would browse. Now that most folks get their music tips via YouTube, word of mouth and social media, genre or label has become almost invisible in the discovery transaction. The Grammy Award categories ARE a concern, but so is most everything about the Grammy Awards. But day to day, contrary to what we’d love to believe, most of the world does not walk around seeing their cultural options through a filter called Americana or world music. But more or less behind the scenes, the associations for and advocates of world music and Americana tend to the markets for those huge bundles of music, elevating the art and putting its finest exemplars in new places and in front of new ears.