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An Unknown Context: New Directions for the Genre Formerly Known as “World Music”

People have called it World 2.0. Music journalists and scholars are thinking about it, the tectonic shift in the Western consumption and understanding of music from elsewhere. The transformative effect of the underground circulation of recordings, often vintage cuts from musicians heavily influenced by Western music but recreating and reimagining it in their home scene. Labels are releasing and bloggers are posting disembodied field recordings, static-filled recordings straight from taxi radios, or battered cassettes from some obscure open-air market. This kind of global music is sneaking into unexpected places, repurposed from an unknown context into a radically divergent one.

The diversity of World 2.0 sounds, as ethnomusicologist Dave Novak points out in a recent essay, share two interesting qualities. Ring

1)      They have a kinship with Western pop aesthetics, either by drawing directly on them, using instrument or effects from them (the wah wah pedal or Farfisa organ, say), or by using traditional elements that happen to fit into Western subcultures (gritty vocals, rebellious or critical lyrics, trance-inducing structures);

2)      They are local productions, turned from analog local phenomena into a worldwide digital experience that can be downloaded, manipulated, remixed.

Novak sees in this process a departure from earlier ethnographic and commercial iterations of the global music market. This is creating new kinds of listeners/consumers, not just new versions of old recordings. As he puts it, “In online networks, earlier imaginaries of local production and musical independence are juxtaposed with technical platforms that offer unprecedented accessibility to cultural material. World Music 2.0, then, is more than just the end point of a chain of misbegotten appropriations. It is the subject of an emergent open source culture of global media.” 

By taking up music from elsewhere and transferring it to the shifting arena of the internet, something new has happened. Something unprecedented by Graceland and Deep Forest: finding and distributing lost or ephemeral global sounds with unknown contexts has a democratic element, Novak argues, that defies past appropriation, be it scholarly or commercial.