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Migrations, diasporas & world music

Only humans display migratory behaviour; all other species are closely dependent on particular and often restricted ecosystems”.
Hervé Le Bras, L’âge des migrations (The Age of Migrations - Not translated in English), Ed. Autrement


Cultural identities

What does world music have to do with migration? Everything. While this type of music is an inherent marker of cultural identity due to its links with communities or peoples who have developed long-established social codes, this permanence in no way contradicts the exchanges we can have with our neighbours from the next valley, region or country. Human beings have moved around since the beginning of time because somewhere else looks more appealing. Not simply motivated by economics, reasons of urgency are often to blame: famine, drought, territorial disputes, wars of conquests, world conflicts. And in unprecedented proportions, the twentieth century has shifted the importance of these population movements, making it a major issue, despite the fact it concerns only 3.5% of the world’s population. We have entered an era of mass migration, not only South-North, but also South-South, North-North and North-South. Migrants display a diverse range of statuses: from the expat to the refugee migrant, from the asylum seeker to the seasonal worker, etc. While the right to mobility is considered a global good, two-thirds of the planet is deprived of it. And even if capitalist society rides on the crest of the waves of cosmopolitanism, national migration policies contradict this mantra.


The fact remains that demographic shifts, access to resources, climate change and accelerated urbanisation of the planet are marked trends when it comes to migration. Whatever the case, it is at the crossroads of these realities that world music can and has been appreciated. Human diversity has always sparked exchanges and borrowings between musicians, as well as music lovers and audiences. The same is true of musical modes, repertoires, instruments, choreography, sounds broadcast over the radio and recordings. Phenomena which, consequently, by varying degrees of mimetics or “creolisation” have resulted in a number of musical aesthetic evolutions, serving to emphasise that music does not create an event but supports it, enhances it when it is happy or softens it when it is cruel. Music always defies moral, legal and political boundaries, just as proto-blues travelled in the hold of slave ships. Rebetiko, drawn from the cafe-aman tradition of Smyrna under Ottoman Empire, took root in the taverns of Piraeus near Athens. Fado, at the crossroads of Arab, African, Brazilian and European influences, created a tapestry with Portugal’s maritime trade. Tango fused European and black legacies on the banks of Rio de la Plata. Cajun music and its black version, zydeco, were indebted to the “Great Upheaval” of the Acadians exiled in Louisiana. Klezmer grew from seeds salvaged from Yiddishland. And in the working-class suburbs of Paris, musette wove its language with those of children of the Auvergne, Italy and Gypsies. Each time, migrations gives rise to new genres. The clearest metaphor for this mutant reality is that of the Gypsy diaspora, whose enforced rather than self-motivated nomadism began in India before the year 1000. It went on to spread across the Middle East, North Africa, Europe and Russia, impregnating the music of others with its transhumant memory while formalising a wide range of folklores: Taraf traditions in Romania and Hungary; Siberian Gypsies in Russia; Hilali descent in Egypt; Catalan rumba; “Eastern music” in the Balkans; and, of course, flamenco.

Living music systems

Popular music has been enriched by bartering since time immemorial. Like gastronomy, dress, crafts, expertise, its appeal has seen it come a long way. For example, it was interesting to note that, during the centenary of the First World War (a conflict that involved 72 countries), music, some of it clandestine, was present the length of the front lines and in prison camps. There were violins, mandolins, brass instruments, Russian balalaikas, Austrian zithers, German accordions and bass boom-bas, Auvergnat, Breton, Highland and Hindu bagpipes, Oriental oboes, Bedouin flutes and tom-toms from the African regiments. Music is not only an escape or a consolation. With its vocal, rhythmic, choreographic and scenic characteristics, it is a complete social phenomenon. It serves scholarly, recreational, secular and sacred heritages. It combines values and virtues. It is linked to networks of beliefs and practices from which it derives its substance, its reason for existing. Hence the somewhat vain debates between “ancient” and “modern” when it comes to defining what may or may not be an orthodoxy. A music system is a living organism, affected by centrifugal influences resulting from many transcultural phenomena – including migrations – and by the subjective contributions of successive reformers. Well-constituted systems (Indian, Persian, Arabic, Turkish, Chinese…) are themselves modified by these changes of direction.


Given the global rural exodus, the relationship between music and migration must also be assessed in light of the role played by cities – places where multiculturality develops more strongly. The observation of blues and rock has revealed that their development (as R’n’B, Soul, Pop…) is linked to migratory routes and cities in need of labour and innovation. Similarly, it has been observed that many musical genres have emerged from the transcendence of the inwardly-focused music of several emigrant communities.

Examples include raï and its Bedouin origins, forged in Oran’s melting pot rich in Arabic, Berber, Spanish, French, Maltese and Italian sources. Or the birth of reggae in the suburbs of Kingston; Brazilian samba in the favelas of Rio or Bahia; Congolese rumba, a daughter of Kinshasa; zouglou in Abidjan; benga in Nairobi; the sound of Havana; calypso in Trinidad and Tobago… An entire new list of musical styles labelled under the canon “World Music” falls under this mutant register. The migratory culture of industrialised countries, combined with the prowess of technology, has acquired a strategic position often by using the many new and open notions of belonging. “World cities” – New York, São Paulo, London, Istanbul, Mumbai, Tokyo, Mexico – reveal an unprecedented diversity because they favour music that translates through its hybridisation as the expressions of “hyphenated identities”.

Frank Tenaille

© Bill Akwa Betote


Journalist, Frank Tenaille has been following world music since the beginning of the Seventies, with a focus on communication and memory, often in partnership with the photographer Bill Akwa Betote. He has been editor-in-chief of several magazines, including pan-African monthly newspapers. He is the author of books on music including: Le Printemps de Bourges, histoire des musiques d’aujourd’hui; Chant et polyphonies corsesLe Swing du caméléon, panorama des musiques africaines; Le Raï, entre bâtardise et reconnaissance; Musiques sans visasMusiques et chants d’Occitanie; Le Cabaret sauvage : liberté, cabaret fraternité, Vingt ans d’un lieu ouvert au monde.

A founder member and former president of Zone Franche, he was the artistic director of several festivals including Radio France Montpellier. The art director of Le Chantier (Center for World Musical Creation), he coordinates the world music jury for the Académie Charles-Cros.

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