(First published in fRoots 201, March 2000.) Ever since World Music emerged as a useful marketing concept back in 1987, conspiracy theorists have wasted energies on criticising it. ‘Enough!’, says Ian Anderson…

In the New York Times last October, rock star David Byrne penned a feature titled ‘Why I Hate World Music.’ “In my experience, the use of the term world music is a way of dismissing artists or their music as irrelevant to one’s own life,” he avowed. “It’s a way of relegating this ‘thing’ into the realm of something exotic and therefore cute, weird but safe, because exotica is beautiful but irrelevant; they are, by definition, not like us… It groups everything and anything that isn’t ‘us’ into ‘them.’ This grouping is a convenient way of not seeing a band or artist as a creative individual, albeit from a culture somewhat different from that seen on American television. It’s a label for anything at all that is not sung in English or anything that doesn’t fit into the Anglo-Western pop universe this year.”

David Byrne hates World Music. Photo: Steve Gillett

Well, that’s David Byrne’s little local problem, but it is one that has occasionally raised its head among conspiracy theorists ever since the summer of 1987 when the original World Music campaign kicked in. Indeed, hardly had the first press releases settled on journalists’ desks when London’s City Limits magazine ran a knee-jerk featurette penned by Rick Glanville under the heading ‘Bullshit Detector’. “Anybody from the Third World is allowed to join through the paternalistic assumption of rudimentary, exotic and inaccessible qualities. What the punter-friendly moniker fails to do is sidestep the middle class white dominance which spawned it — fRoots magazine has tenaciously trumpeted acts like the Bhundu Boys and Youssou N’Dour when such hi-tech contemporary synth bands have never worn an Aran jumper in their lives.”

Most of that says a lot more about the prejudices of the accuser than it does about the subject itself. In Britain, anything done out of enthusiasm by somebody with the slightest whiff of middle-classedness about them is automatically cause for intense suspicion. If such enthusiastic middle-class activists happen to be white and male too then it’s an automatic conviction and throw away the key. Oddly, many of the people who hold these views are white, male and inescapably middle class too. Similarly, across the Atlantic there is a type of American who views anything done by those nasty ex-colonialist Brits (excluding, of course, the poor down-trodden Celts) as bound to be reprehensible. Of course, they then get very jumpy if we mention Coca Cola, cultural colonialism and the CIA…

All of this was very far from the thoughts of those who instigated the short-term marketing plan that resulted in World Music becoming a ‘genre’. There was nary a subconscious twinge of a thought of ghettoising third world artists as irrelevant exotica or dressing them in Aran sweaters, I promise you.

How did we get to that point in now ancient history? Well, looking at it from personal experience, back in the 1960s it was very hard to find anything in England which wasn’t American or a local copy of it (that’ll teach those ex-colonialists, eh?). In turn, jazz, folk and blues (and later reggae) each had a boom, establishing such sufficiently sizeable niches that you would henceforth find their sections in most record shops. What might actually be put in those sections never needed to be fully defined, not that anybody ever could. The important thing was that you gut-feeling knew what jazz or folk was, even if it wasn’t the same gut-feeling as the next person had. If you thought that was what you liked, then you knew where there might be a chance of finding it. Record shop staff could take a reasonable shot at which box to drop an LP sleeve into. So the stuff sold to the fans who wanted to buy it, and the curious beginner had somewhere to browse.

In the early ’60s, things were a lot less tribal. One night we’d go to see pop R&B bands, another it might be jazz (trad or be-bop, didn’t matter) or folk. My local beatnik coffee bar had a Miriam Makeba record which attracted my attention, and bits of Latin jazz that had less appeal due to personal trumpet phobia. Davy Graham’s early records had intriguing stuff that we were told came from expeditions to North Africa. So when my burrowings into roots musics led me eventually to havens like Collett’s, I’d occasionally impulse-buy albums on Lyrichord, Folkways or Nonesuch. Whilst my main interest at the time was country blues, I slowly accumulated Bauls from Bengal, Egyptian and Chinese instrumental music and Georgian choirs. I even had the mad idea, circa 1969 when I folded up my country blues band, of trying to do some blend of these musics with blues, but I didn’t have the slightest clue where to find the players so my chance of being several decades ahead of my time died on the drawing board. But I was lucky: most people didn’t know about Collett’s and if there was an ‘International’ section in their local record shop it contained Johnny Halliday, Nana Mouskouri, Dorita y Pepe and a Dutch fake Hawaiian called Wout Steenhuis. Not a lot of inspiration to enthusiasm in there.

Dorita y Pepe sing the

As I wasn’t too bright or motivated, I didn’t go to university and thus grew a deep mistrust of people who used terms like ‘ethnomusicology’ and ‘anthropology’. But there were other underground routes to worldly delights. The American magazine Sing Out! was one. I first heard Bai Konte’s kora on one of their flexi-discs in the ’70s, little imagining that I’d one day visit his home and work with his son. At the beginning of the ’80s things gradually started to get better. The information revolution was growing and the world was getting smaller. Not long after this magazine started up, there was another short-lived but vital publication called Collusion, edited by David Toop, Sue Steward and Steve Beresford. Like Blues Unlimited in the ’60s it brought the wonderful realisation that there were other like-questing minds out there, sources for import records — Ali Farka Toure, Les Ambassadeurs, holy shit! — and information.

In what now seems a relatively short time there came King Sunny Ade, Youssou N’Dour and Thomas Mapfumo to play live before our very eyes, GLC shows, gigs in the park behind behind the Commonwealth Institute, Arts Worldwide events and Womad, Earthworks, GlobeStyle and Stern’s. Alexis Korner, ever broadminded, would play Okinawan records on the radio, Charlie Gillett and Andy Kershaw soon became converts to international sounds, and the 3 Mustaphas 3 popped up on John Peel. Our magazine was able to review more and more records because they were now becoming available on local release or import, and artists came here so we could talk to them. My own little record label emerged at the beginning of the ’80s with a minor hit by Bulgaria’s Nadka Karadjova (entirely, it must be said, because of concentrated novelty airplay by Terry Wogan) and the far more hip indie label 4AD had a mammoth seller with Les Mysteres De Voix Bulgares. But where the hell did you look in your High Street record shop for all this varied music that now had a burgeoning would-be buyer base but no obvious rack to browse?

It was Roger Armstrong and Ben Mandelson from GlobeStyle who called the fateful meeting. For some reason I’ve kept all the minutes. At 7.00pm on Monday June 29th, 1987, what was initially described as an ‘International Pop Label Meeting’ was convened at the Empress Of Russia in St. John Street, Islington (then also the home of Islington Folk Club: recently closed to become a restaurant). “The main aim”, began the suggested agenda, “is to broaden the appeal of our repertoire”, and it listed various points for discussion such as identifying who the target audience were, how to reach them, how to deal with this at retail and, crucially, “Adoption of a campaign/media title”.

The minutes record who was there: Chris Popham, Ben Mandelson, Roger Armstrong and Ted Carroll from GlobeStyle/ Ace; Jonathan Rudnick from Crammed US; Amanda Jones, Thos Brooman and Steve Hadrell from Womad; Charlie Gillett from Oval; Mark Kidel from Channel 4; Ian Anderson and Lisa Warburton from Folk Roots/Rogue Records; Anne Hunt, Mary Farquharson and Nick Gold from Arts Worldwide/World Circuit; Scott Lund and Iain Scott from Stern’s/Triple Earth; Joe Boyd from Hannibal and writer Chris Stapleton — virtually all still involved in this music today. Later meetings also saw participation from Robert Urbanus from Stern’s, Mike Chadwick from Revolver distribution, Mark Stratford from New Routes distribution, John Martin from 11th Hour/Crossing The Border; Gordon Potts and Simon Coe from Virgin Retail; Andrea Lawrence from Cooking Vinyl; Jumbo Vanrenen and Trevor Herman from Earthworks, Nick Carnac from Carnacdisque; Doug Veitch, Owen & Phil from Disc’Afrique, Lucy Duran from the National Sound Archive, and writers Philip Sweeney, Chris Hawkins and Klaus Frederking. But it’s the first night bunch who you can blame for ‘World Music’ as the genre that now exists.

It wasn’t a new name, just one of many that had floated around in the preceding decades. But the logic set out by Roger Armstrong was that an established, unified generic name would give retailers a place where they could confidently rack otherwise unstockable releases, and where customers might both search out items they’d heard on the radio (not knowing how to spell a mis-pronounced or mis-remembered name or title) and browse through wider catalogue. Various titles were discussed including ‘Worldbeat’ (left out anything without drums), ‘Tropical’ (bye bye Bulgarians), ‘Ethnic’ (boring and academic), ‘International Pop’ (the death-by-Johnny-and-Nana syndrome) and ‘Roots’ (left out Johnny and Nana). ‘World Music’ seemed to include the most and omit the least, and got it on a show of hands. Nobody thought of defining it or pretending there was such a beast: it was just to be a box, like jazz, classical or rock…

The plot progressed quickly during that summer. The princely sum of £3500 was contributed by the participants, headed browser dividers were manufactured for distribution to shops along with a co-operative starter pack of some 50 albums that were likely to be stout sellers, freelance press officer Suzanne Parks was hired for a short contract, press releases and information packs were written, Ben Mandelson assembled a compilation cassette for promotion and sale through the NME, and October was designated World Music Month. Somebody much later suggested that our £3500 eventually bought more worldwide column inches and airwave hours pound-for-pound than any other campaign in the history of the music biz: Suzanne Parks got head-hunted by a major label as their press officer.

Co-plotters Roger Armstrong and Ben Mandelson

Nowhere in any of this was there the faintest whiff of exploitation, exclusivity, cliques, ghettoisation, conspiracies, cultural imperialism, racism or any of the other nonsensical -isms that have been chucked at the notion since, often by people who ought to know better and in the end do little more than expose their own foibles. It was simply a great idea, followed up by a lot of unprecedented co-operation between enthusiasts (very few thought of each other as business rivals) who wanted others to have more opportunity to share their enthusiasms. Yes, it was good for business, but by being so it was automatically good for the incomes of the artists too.