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What are we listening to? A journey into the definitions of world music

Imagine following an alien reporter sent to Earth to study this thing called “music” that is still unknown on their home planet. Curious about this strange mix of sounds and passions, he opens up the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia and reads this definition: “Music is an art form and cultural activity” whose “common elements are rhythm, pitch, dynamics and timbre”. He considers this definition. Music is an art form so it must have talent, beauty and uniqueness compared to other human activities. It’s also something that is produced, a recipe made up of several ingredients that can be listed. Music is universal, so the alien is told by the humans he meets. Some people use the phrase “world music” to account for the plurality of forms that come under the umbrella of the initial term “music”. All over the world people are producing and listening to it. All over the world it exists, like a link between human societies. 

The alien struggles to understand why some types of the planet’s music are described as “world” while others aren’t. “Well, there is one good thing about all this,” he says to himself. “If I make a quick trip around the world with my suitcase, I can collect lots of it and will have plenty of souvenirs to take back to my planet”. So, he sets off on an adventure, collecting a little bit of everything as he goes. But as his suitcase fills up, the alien starts to wonder. What do they have in common these pieces that he’s gathering here and there? What sets them apart from each other? Do all the humans he has met make music for the same reasons? To answer these questions that eat away at him, the alien decides to take a closer look at some of the samples he’s collected. 

He starts his exploration in the Arab countries. First thing in the morning, he collects melodious songs sung from the top of a minaret by a muezzin. 

These melodies are governed by precise rules concerning intonation and caesurae, which are the subject of a real science called tajwid, a term that reflects the idea of embellishment. They have a specific function as they issue a call to prayer to the faithful. “What magnificent music!” the alien says to himself. But in the Muslim world, the muezzin’s cantillation is a form of melodic prayer expression that does not come under the term “music” at all. Finally, the term “musiqa”, borrowed from ancient Greek, does exist in Arabic but refers exclusively to musical theory in the religious sphere. The alien is annoyed. His urgency to collect everything has prevented him from taking into account the local design and function of this sound object in its production context. 

He then goes to Indonesia and attends a theatrical ceremony in which a male choir of around forty performers is arranged in concentric circles to create a central space in which a scene from the epic poem the Ramayana is played out, its text recited by the actors. The choir sings a polyphony made up only of cries and onomatopoeia, including the syllables ke and cak (pronounced “tcha”). Roused by the power of the performance, the alien struggles to disassociate the vocal percussions from the rest of the ceremony: the text, the recitation, the staging, the movements, the relationship between the performers, and so on. He doesn’t know any more if what he’s putting in his bag really is world music or a collection of things he can no longer find a common name for. 

He then begins to doubt the certainties he’s been told by humans, with their ready-made definitions of music. While he’s sure that all humans produce sounds in an organised way, it no longer seems possible to him that he can find music everywhere, nor to imagine that there’s any homogeneity to it. Of course, all music “sounds”, but the meaning of these sounds cannot prefigure any common cultural or social basis. This is what leads him to lose confidence in his collecting plan. He’s no longer sure if his suitcase contains lots of samples of the same thing, universally recognised as such, as “music”. Finally, “world music” doesn’t seem to him to be shared out properly across the planet. 

In Armenia, among the Yazidi people, he takes part in a conversation between women. When they start talking about longing and grief, one of them begins to cry and her words turn into a melody. This is a specific declamation known as kilamê ser, literally “words about”, based on a free rhythm with themes linked to exile, death and absence. The peculiar melodic outline leads the alien to think that this is “singing”, yet the Yazidis keep the word singing (stran) for danced and measured repertoires of celebration and joy. Here it is the emotion summoned up and its social function that provides a distinction between song and “melodised speech”, which further complicates the spectrum of possibilities that opens up as soon as the alien stops trying to label everything he finds as “music”.  

Next up the alien visits the Inuit. Here, he can’t find a generic term for “music”. Don’t the Inuit have any of this so-called universal art? By now wary of definitions that are too all-embracing, he listens and hears women panting and laughing, their mouths almost glued together. They adopt an unusual vocal technique characterised by the alternation of audible inspiration and expiration, by a guttural and nasal vocal emission, and noisy sounds devoid of determined pitch. If this vocal sparring isn’t music, what is it? It’s a vocal game, a technically very complex form of entertainment produced in a relaxed and intimate setting. 

Finally, the alien visits a very stylish spot called the Philarmonie, where he spends 50 euros on his evening. He is reassured, hoping to be in the right place to listen to music without having to ask himself any more questions. But he’s out of luck; Olivier Messiaen is on the programme tonight and the orchestra is playing a very strange score. The melodies are transcriptions of bird songs that thrill a silent, motionless audience that has come to witness the spectacle of a creative genius who forges an art form out of the sounds of nature. 

The alien decides to bring an end to his jaunt there and then. If all societies have something that sounds to the ears like music, he has understood that his suitcase filled with objects cleansed of their vitality only reveal that he has collected them, instead of bringing out the complexity of the forms that inhabit the Earth. He knows now that definitions of music are as varied as the forms of music he can hear. He then understands that music is not something he can collect, an artefact that can be kept, but a concept that should be understood in relation to the specific features of human societies. He climbs back into his spaceship and leaves Earth, writing in his report that music is one of the games humans play with sound. It would be pointless to try to say any more. Music is whatever people agree to recognise as such.


Marta Amico

Marta Amico
Marta & Ahmed

Marta Amico is lecturer in ethnomusicology at the Université Rennes 2. Her works focus on the creating process, and the musical patrimonialization at work in armed conflicts, mostly in Mali and in the Sahara. She's also interested in the transcultural musical manufacturing composing the "World Music" category. More generally, she's interested in the relationships between music, identity, globalisation, cultural policies and peacekeeping. She recently published the book La fabrique d’une musique touarègue. Un son du désert dans la World Music, (ed Karthala, 2020).

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