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Administrative aversion to the idea of 'world music' is international

From 19 to 23 October, more than two thousand music professionals gathered in Santiago de Compostella for the 22nd World Music Expo (WOMEX). I was there and came back with mixed feelings.

My first music fair experience was the WOMEX in Rotterdam. In 2001, the Maas city was the cultural capital of Europe and therefore had extra resources at its disposal. The Berlin organiser of the WOMEX, Piranha, chose De Doelen as the epicentre for their annual party. This was the edition where Senegalese formation Orchestre Baobab played for the first time in decades.


Sharply I remember my bewilderment at the fact that behind that obscure music I so revered, there was apparently a deadly marketplace. Supply (much) and demand (little), hard doekoe and agencies looking for a chance: it didn't quite fit my image of tragically forgotten, non-Western musicians whose all that unprecedentedly intense music is collected and reissued only by artistically motivated collectors, on small, independent labels nobody knows about.

So that first edition was a coming of age experience 'in the somewhat larger men's sizes', as the late Martin van Amerongen would say. At subsequent editions, though, that suit became increasingly fine. After all, this is the annual moment to talk to authorities on developments, such as Joe Boyd[hints]discoverer of the likes of. Pink Floyd, Nick Drake and Toumani Diabaté, record executive, world music pioneer and outstanding writer[/hints], Robert Urbanus[hints]record executive of Stern's Africa, say the Blue Note of African music[/hints], Nick Gold[hints]record executive of World Circuit, the label behind Buena Vista Social Club[/hints], Simon Broughton[hints]editor-in-chief of Songlines[/hints], Ian Anderson[hints]editor-in-chief of fROOTS[/hints] and Ben Mandelson[hints]musician of 3 Mustaphas 3 and former record boss of Globestyle[/hints]. And although there is debate every year about the quality and urgency of the showcases, are indispensable for a music programmer.

This year again, I saw some excellent groups that I hope will come to the Netherlands soon. The film programme in the afternoon is getting more and more interesting, and for some time now there have also been night programmes with DJs. At the same time, I was tormented by a pink elephant of size, which kept poking annoyingly in my head.


In and around the Netherlands, the infrastructure for world music has been decimated in recent years. Whereas you could previously enjoy this music throughout the year in venues such as Tropentheater, de Regentes and de Evenaar, they have all disbanded[hints]DNR has reopened by volunteers, unfortunately without a programme budget[/hints]. RASA in Utrecht will cease operating on 1 January 2017. The beautiful Zuiderpershuis in Antwerp has been axed before. Administrative aversion to the idea of 'world music' is international.

Now, there are many nuances to this seemingly chilly closure of an entire structure. In part, this world music drama is part of festivalisation: it is now financially easier for a festival than a venue to programme 'risky offerings', as it is euphemistically called. Between the headliners of a festival you can cherry-pick more easily. On a weeknight in an expensively staffed venue, the counter immediately starts running and too much has to be recouped by an as-yet unknown group with no audience.

Festivals like Le Guess Who? and Welcome to the Village are presenting more and more non-Western music, and Paradiso, with a series in the Tolhuistuin, is also trying to give that music a lasting chance. Last summer, Dekmantel (festival for electronic music) presented Tony Allen, the Nigerian drummer and co-architect of Fela Kuti's afrobeat, pontifically on the bill as headliner, probably reaching more people for afrobeat than the world music halls of yesteryear. As soon as Lowlands books a non-Western group, all doors fly open after that and a club tour is suddenly possible. So do I see problems where there aren't any?

Fat Mahlers

It is a bon mot among professionals that world music is called world music until it becomes successful, then it is suddenly called pop music. However, apart from the obvious factor that only accessible, swinging world music can take this 'pop route', there is something to be said for the 'easy going' managerial thinking that this music will automatically find a place elsewhere. The venues of yesteryear also broke many a lance for genres that demand a bit more from a listener. These listening varieties of world music have been swept away, and whichever way you look at it: that is an impoverishment. Imagine the Concertgebouw suddenly doing only fat Mahlers.

The thorny situation of this 'tricky' world music bears similarities to the situation in which jazz, impro and contemporary music have found themselves for years. As a matter of fact, November Music seems to cherish this as a starting point, as all these genres take centre stage during this wonderful festival in Den Bosch. Indeed, in festival format. And without that darned word.


Let me conclude this musing ambiguously. During this WOMEX, I was again annoyed by the way more and more non-Western musicians put themselves through an imaginary festival mould that squeezes out all idiosyncratic expression. A cultural pessimist can take heart from a WOMEX: musical expressions of the world seem to be becoming increasingly uniform. At the same time, now that the term 'world music' has been officially declared dead by all governments, there may actually be more opportunities by seeking connections with other 'troublesome' genres.

The heavy-handed cloud of benevolent, mostly cultural-political associations that hangs around the term world music is something anyone working in music would rather lose than lose. But on artistic grounds, the connections between those troublesome genres are obvious. On the contrary, the appeal of world music is greater than ever. Jazz musicians worldwide are immersing themselves in Arabic music, which offers them a way out of false nostalgia. Likewise, pop musicians are delving into African music for new inspiration. Even for classical concert halls, there are still worlds to be won in the classical traditions of the non-Western world. Probably also for a paying expat concert audience.


While I was in Santiago dancing to an excellent Ugandan DJ, I thought this: in Amsterdam, more than 300,000 people walk around Amsterdam Dance Event, including many professionals. Wouldn't it be good if these Rachael would be heard? Online streaming music has radically axed the root of long-standing, hierarchical thinking about genre-specific venues and unified canon. Now we need the underlying business and venues.

Good to know
November Music, from 4 to 13 November in Den Bosch. The Rotterdam stage Grounds is celebrating its tenth anniversary with a two-day symposium on 4 and 5 November, more information is in here. At the founding of Grounds, I wrote for the Groene Amsterdammer this report.

Jaïr Tchong

Formerly cultural journalist and music programmer (Tolhuistuin, Melkweg) in the Netherlands. Since 1 December 2019, music programmer for arts centre KAAP. KAAP organises two annual collaborations in Bruges and Ostend. In Ostend in its own venue by the sea, in Bruges nomadically throughout the city and with partners such as Concertgebouw Brugge, Cactus, CC Brugge and De Republiek. KAAP also organises festivals: Push the Button, Dansand, Jazz Brugge and AMOK.View Author posts

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