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What are we listening to ? We take a journey into the heart of 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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