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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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