Broadly speaking, music of the world’s cultures. In the 1980s the term was adopted to characterise non-English recordings that were released in Great Britain and the United States. Employed primarily by the media and record stores, this controversial category amalgamated the music of such diverse sources as Tuvan throat singers, Zimbabwean guitar bands, and Pakistani qawwalī (Sufi-music) singers, as well as nonmainstream Western folk musicians such as Cajun fiddlers and Hawaiian slack-key guitarists. Previously, international music had limited currency as a catchall term that ranged from tourist souvenir records to field recordings made by ethnomusicologists in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere. Although purists argued that no musical style could be identified as “world music,” the term was coined to bring “foreign” music closer to the mainstream of Western popular music. In many ways the history of world music is the storey of the marketing of foreign music by Western record companies. Despite these commercial origins, by the early 1990s the term had precipitated a change in the consciousness of musicians and producers, and world music had become a bona fide musical genre.
The birth of world music can be dated to 1982–83, when British and American promoters, record companies, distributors, and stores, as well as some journalists and broadcasters, began to promote music from other countries, especially African music, which for a time was virtually synonymous with world music. The clearest sign of the growing interest in African music was the success of Nigerian juju bandleader King Sunny Ade, whose first two internationally released albums for Island Records sold more than 100,000 copies each in the United States in 1983–84. This figure—less than half of Ade’s sales in Nigeria and much less than the millions in sales that defined success for Western popular performers—established a benchmark for the many new companies that emerged in response to the attention attracted by world music. The phrase world music was adopted by a group of British independent labels who believed they would get better access to record stores and more media recognition if they could agree to formalise one generic description. Their hope was to bring together the diverse strands that included music from not only all areas of Africa but also eastern Europe, Asia, South and Central America, and the Caribbean.
World music in Britain and the United States
Most of the world music labels launched in Britain between 1983 and 1986 had much lower sales horizons and only a few survived, notably Hannibal, Stern’s Africa, World Circuit, and rock singer Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records. Gabriel’s support had been instrumental in the formation and survival of the annual World of Music, Arts and Dance (WOMAD) festivals, which began in 1982 and played a vital role in introducing many artists who later became leading world music figures, including Youssou N’Dour and Pakistani qawwalī singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.