Music without Borders

by This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Published in Music Forum magazine, Vol 19 Issue 1 (November 2012)

South African singer-songwriter Vusi Mahlasela once said ‘Good music knows no boundaries.’ In a world where ease of access to the music of cultural groups from all corners of the globe is increasing, this statement couldn’t be more accurate.

For a long time ‘world music’ was seen as an obscure genre relegated to one dusty rack in the corner of the record store holding little commercial value. Whilst rock and pop formed the staple of Australia’s musical diet, world music was struggling to find a solid audience base. Classifying such a wide variety of musical styles under the one title certainly wasn’t helping matters.  

Coined by a group of British and American promoters and independent record companies in the early 1980s, the label ‘world music’ was used as a marketing tool. By formalising one generic description of diverse strands of music from places like Africa, Europe, Asia, South and Central America and the Caribbean, it was believed these independent labels would increase their ability to access record stores and gain media recognition. This worked to a point, but eventually the title began to create boundaries that artists from diverse backgrounds were failing to penetrate.

Today, the perception of what ‘world’ music is has changed considerably. Savvy music consumers have started to see past the djembes and pan flutes to the vast and intoxicating pool of sounds that are defying categorisation. When the seed was first sown to create a platform to market music from culturally diverse spheres here in Melbourne with AWME (Australasian Worldwide Music Expo), part of the event’s vision was to assist in that change and push roots, Indigenous and world music out from the shadows. AWME creates a platform for musicians from all corners of the globe to share quality music, which often also happens to be rich in cultural content, and create a global community that is committed to sharing the best music from all reaches of the world.

For talent from the region, the growth in demand for music that was previously pigeonholed into a niche pocket of the music industry has started to gain standing as a viable commercial entity. Over the last five years, we’ve seen artists like OKA, Gurrumul, Black Arm Band, Frank Yamma, Narasirato, Blue King Brown and Mista Savona break into international markets and establish regular European and North American tours. Suddenly people over the other side of the world are starting to notice that there’s a wealth of talent, unique to the region, waiting to be tapped into.

A prime example of this development is the success of Narasirato. The band consists of a group of farmers and fisherman from the tiny Otermama village in the Solomon Islands who have been keeping the traditional song and dance of the area alive for 75 generations. After performing at AWME in 2009 the group was picked up by a major international booking agent/ manager and has since done two European tours, played at Glastonbury UK, Roskilde in Denmark, and Fuji Rock in Japan, and recently released a superbly produced new album to critical acclaim.

Part of the work that lies ahead for anyone working within the roots, Indigenous and world music scenes is to create an industry that can sustain itself. There is impetus now to push beyond the homogenous brand of pop music being marketed by mainstream music outlets, and to expose new audiences to the wealth of amazing music that can be found by scratching the surface a little.

The strength of our local Indigenous artists is testament to the wealth of talent on our shores. Today the story of Aboriginal Australia is being sung louder than ever before; however, for some Indigenous artists the weight of traditional styles of music and historical contexts can be burdensome. There’s no question that music gives Indigenous artists access to the wider world and tells stories that are pertinent to the development of the country’s collective conscience, but there does exist a degree of frustration in disseminating diverse Indigenous music to a broader global audience without being pigeonholed. Rightly so, Indigenous artists that perform hip-hop, funk, soul, reggae, country, blues or electronic music would prefer to be judged on the quality of their output rather than be pigeonholed into an overarching musical genre.

Here Vusi Mahlasela’s sentiments speak volumes. As the vast musical diaspora continues to grow, the acceptance of music from different cultures ought to be growing alongside it. At an event like AWME audiences can see everything from traditional music from remote Indigenous communities, to Afro-beat outfits, electronic-soul, hip-hop, Latin-funk, flamenco and the list goes on. Labels aside, the one defining characteristic of the artists performing is the quality of their music.

Jess Moretti is the Communications Manager for AWME