Sunday, April 08, 2012

Does ‘world music choir’ actually mean anything?

When I’m promoting a singing workshop or recruiting for a choir, I want a shorthand way of describing the kind of songs I teach.

Photo by Amir Taj

There is such a range of different ‘choirs’ out there (which is great!), that we need to distinguish between them so people can make an informed choice. But does ‘world music choir’ actually mean anything useful?

is the term ‘world music’ is outdated?

There was a recent article in The Guardian entitled The term ‘world music’ is outdated and offensive.

It’s an argument that is regularly brought up (see also World Music history in fRoots mag from March 2000) with no clear resolution. But what does it mean in the context of choirs and choral singing?

When I posted links to these articles on Facebook it generated quite a debate!

There were comments like:

  • “as opposed to ‘rest of the world’ music?”
  • “helps otherwise lazy people to discover music”
  • “the term flattens and homogenises the world, and smacks of white, Western dominating culture”
  • “nobody wants to be pigeonholed and yet without some sort of description it's difficult to explain to people what music sounds like”
  • “I love the term ‘world music’. What could be more inclusive?”
  • “I don’t really know what ‘world music’ means!

World music’ seems to be a term that people either love or hate (or have no idea what it means!).

what might ‘world music’ mean?

If it simply means “all of the music of the world”, then it doesn’t really help us. Although that definition does imply that we won’t be restricting ourselves to Western classical music.

If it means “non-Western music” then that rules out all those amazing songs from Europe and the USA.

If it means “somebody else’s local music” it depends on where we are in order to define “somebody else” and “local”.

For me, the term ‘world music’ means

“the traditional music or folk music of a culture that is closely related to the region it comes from”.

So I can include British folk, US roots music, songs from the Pacific Islands, Latvian folk songs, etc. But not songs from the shows, pop songs, modern compositions from Italy, etc.

Yes, I know, even the word ‘traditional’ is open to interpretation, but at least it gets us in the right ball park.

For the work that I do, I limit the songs I choose to countries which have a harmony singing tradition so we can sing in different parts. That immediately excludes quite a few countries (see Why don’t you sing songs from India?).

does it sum things up well?

What do you think? Would you know what to expect if you joined a ‘world music choir’? Can you think of a better shorthand? If you sing traditional songs from around the world, what do you call what you do?

Do leave a comment and let me know your thoughts.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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