Lungu Lungu: Where Does It All Fit?


Ghana-based Benjamin Lebrave speaks fluent French and English, and can schmooze in Spanish and Portuguese. He’ll report on new African music every other week. This week, in anticipation of his talk at the World Music Expo, he looks at the state of “world music” and future of the sounds he loves.

This week I’m going to WOMEX, the largest trade show devoted to world music. Every time I attend WOMEX, I wonder what hat I should be wearing. I don’t feel like world music is an accurate description of the music I’m interested in. Beyond semantics, my experience has been that only a sliver of what I like and work with intersects with what I can push at WOMEX.

Still, WOMEX is making a significant effort to expand and challenge its guests’ musical horizons: it now showcases DJs and acts relying mostly on electronics to create their music. It also hosts a number of interesting panels and talks. Even as I question my role and objectives at the conference, I’ve been given the opportunity to open up the dialogue and host a conversation on world music, global bass and the future of hybrid music. I think many of this column’s readers would enjoy chiming into the conversation, so I wanted to outline a few of the ideas behind it here.

Back in the 1980s, following Bob Marley’s international success, music producers turned to new territories in search of the next big thing. The idea was to reproduce Chris Blackwell’s enormous success with Marley: find artists rooted in some local tradition, and shape their music into products palatable for a Western audience. The labels produced so much music that a new section needed to be created in record stores. Moguls and marketing wizards had a series of meetings, and they came up with the term world music.

Fast forward to today: there is a lot of diverse music being recorded all over the world, and a lot of it is made without involving the West in the creative process. In Africa alone, as this column proves, there is a whole lot—from Wawesh‘s beats to BIG FKN GUN‘s raps—that does not to fit the standard world music bill. Some of the music I’ve shared in this column, as well as some of the music I’ve released on my label Akwaaba, fits into what many are calling global bass. This seems to be the unifying term to refer to electronic music made on both sides of the southern Atlantic, or inspired by such genres: cumbia, Funk Carioca, kwaito, kuduro, or any of the hybrids created by hordes of beatmakers all over the globe, spearheaded by Diplo, Buraka and the like.

You may have noticed that I practically never used the terms world music, global bass or afrobeats in the 30+ posts I’ve written for Lungu Lungu. I have the immense privilege of experiencing many of the genres I talk about first hand, so I always make sure to situate the songs and artists I focus on within their local context. I do my best to translate the various local realities into something you can relate to and understand. I use the songs to explain what genres are emerging, dominating local scenes or branching out beyond borders. So I use words like azonto, kuduro, gbema or cool catché. Or even kwatsiru and trance jazz.

I leave it to each one of you to decide where the songs in Lungu Lungu fit into your playlists. Although a kuduro fanatic in Luanda will show very little interest in British dubstep, a dubstep head in London or Chennai will probably appreciate kuduro, maybe even Shangaan or gbema. This is not to say that Luandan kuduro lovers are less open-minded. Rather, kuduro is a lot more than just a style—it’s a dance, it’s a movement, and it cannot be substituted for something with a similar beat as easily in Angola as it does in clubs all over the globe, where it is only perceived as music.

For those people listening to music abroad, where the songs inevitably lose part of their local context, bunching genres together does make sense. That is why world music or global bass are convenient catchalls for foreign fans. Most Ethiopian jazz fans I know also enjoy Brazilian forró or Gipsy music, most kuduro enthusiasts like baile funk or moombahton. These people are typically world music fans, or global bass heads.

But I see two major shifts that will challenge these categories, and more generally challenge how music is perceived and marketed all over the world.

First, the disappearance of record stores has partially eroded the need to fit into a specific category. Shops are the reason why the expression world music was coined, but now that shelf space and access to information are virtually infinite, is there really such a strong need to bundle all this music together? So the diversity of music increases everywhere I look. Just A Band are from Kenya, Saba is from Ethiopia, Alec Lomami from the Democratic Congo. There is no musical unity, no matter how you look at it. If these artists don’t fit into global bass or world music, it’s because they don’t need to.

Second, there are more and more countries with an adequate economy in which to build a vibrant music scene. Not only are people recording more music, there are more circuits for artists to make a living without needing to tour Western countries. This means that how the music is perceived in London or New York is less and less relevant, both from a creative and from an economic standpoint.

Take J Martins or P-Square. Surely, they do go to London to play big shows once in a while, but that’s not how they make a living. Endorsements at home are what keeps their rims shiny. This reality is spreading to other countries. 3ball is becoming mainstream in Mexico, Windeck is now the name of a popular telenovela in Angola and Ghana’s azonto craze is spreading all over the world.

So, my dear Lungu Lungu readers, I hope you appreciate the diversity of music I’ve shared with you here. I’m actually quite curious to know who likes what and how it all fits into what you listen to. Feel free to let me know. Also, if this conversation is of interest to you, please join the dialogue by posting questions under comments here. The most relevant questions will be addressed during the panel at WOMEX this Friday.

POSTED October 17, 2012 12:05PM IN Lungu Lungu, MUSIC Comments (8) TAGS: , ,




  1. Danny says:

    As a fan of music from all over first noted in discovering Argentina’s ZZK followed by Angola’s Os Lambas, and as I currently work in Rwanda with the Peace Corps, my main concern is the loss of these branches of music internationally, their solidarity and their heart. Like you say they’re being grouped and revalorized. Aside from the major cities and the internet how do you suppose these movements (because they’re more than genres) can best spread internationally while still being true to heart.

    PS Thanks for adding the free download section to your label’s website. SERIOUSLY appreciated!

  2. Martin says:

    It’s important to understand that “Global Bass” (or synonyms like Tropical Bass, Ghetto whatever) is not the brandnew funky urban genre name for World Music, it’s even not a genre at all! It’s a certain way of making music, a mind set – a commitment that we are not talking anymore of a traditional music which exists since a very long period (although I strongly believe that this is the big lie of “World Music”).
    The genres you named do not have clear and obvious local roots anymore.. its global music. Often it’s a local phenomenon or movement, but it only exists in a globalised context (or let’s be cynical and just say thank you youtube).

  3. dj zhao says:

    i think this conversation can only be skin deep unless some of the more foundational, underlying, and structural perceptual modes which shape our collective ideas of the world are addressed — a foundation and structure created during colonialism, and based on the false science and logic invented to justify it: Racism.

    In the Victorian era a progressive view of world cultures arose, from the “primitive” or “historically immature”, to the “advanced” and “civilized”, measured according to a Western-centric yard stick. And today, this is still very much the basis of our thinking — for instance dance music in general is still not taken as seriously as “serious” music, which means European Classical and related. Might be hard to see from the street, but just look at the allocation of Arts Funding in European culture institutions. This directly stems from the fact that in Europe Rhythm itself was for hundreds of years, and in many instances still is, regarded as expressive of base, animalistic, and primitive drives, characterizing the music of savages and the under class.

    the above is only a small example of the much bigger roots of the disease which gives expression to symptoms such as the marginalization of all non-western music into the single minor category of “World Music”, a dynamic which continues in the ghettoization of all non-western music today under less condescending but still restrictive umbrella terms such as those you have mentioned.

    and present day cultural imperialism and its destructive effects must be made clear: in my recent trip to South Africa, i found that everyone knows Top-40 American (C)Rap, but have literally ZERO knowledge of new music happening in other African countries, never mind Colombia or Haiti. South Africans often value American exports much more than their own home-grown musical products (the empty posturing of Jay Z is worth much more than the sophisticated expression of Shangaan, which is regarded as very not-cool by locals). This kind of cultural hegemony, backed by nothing other than economic might, is pure systematic brain washing: it asserts cultural dominance, erases local narratives, and disrupts South to South dialog.

    we are very much living not only in the intellectual shadow of colonialism, but experiencing the effects of current neo-colonialism; and i think it is both important and urgent, that some of these more foundational as well as immediate conditions which give rise to our present situation are addressed.

    keep up the good work Ben! i hope to see you out there soon!


  4. Dj Zhao says:


    i take issue with your statement:

    “The genres you named do not have clear and obvious local roots anymore. ”

    it is simply and very much false — of course they do! and very very strong ones at that.

  5. Martin says:

    DJ Zhao: don’t get me wrong here. No doubt that the influence of the local traditions is usually very strong, but would e.g. Kwaito be possible without the knowledge of House music?

  6. dj Zhao says:

    Martin: i see what you mean – emphasis on words “clear” and “obvious”.

    of course hybridity is often part of the equation, as well as strong local roots.

    But there is also the big problem of western journalists exaggerating western influence and marginalizing local tradition: does my fucking head in, the number of times i’ve heard Kwaito explained as “slowed down house music” — NO. I would say Kwaito is 90% local tradition, springing, and heavily borrowing from traditions such as Shangaan Disco, Township Jive, South African Jazz — and 10% Chicago house influence.

  7. Pamela Owusu says:

    Thank you Benjamin. It’s always good to read your Lungu Lungu column.

    I can only relate to your article ‘Where does it all fit’ from a music listener and lover perspective. (non-professional).

    I had been introduced to the term ‘world music’ about 2 years ago. Before that, I can’t remember hearing it very often or ever, so I guess, it is more or less a discussion among people working in the music biz.

    The bigger question that you are trying to address in your article is “Do we need labels/terms and if yes, is the term ‘world music’ adequate?

    I am myself very much in two minds about it.

    Do we need terms?
    As you write in your article “shops are disappearing “ and “ access to information is virtually infinite. YES.
    It’s true that through the internet it is practically possible to find music from all over the world – LIMITLESS, but that in itself is a problem – music surplus.
    What should an average consumer/listener tip into Google to find music from Africa, if he has no clue about the different genres? African music? Not better!! Still today, people relate to Africa as a country, and not to as a continent with 54 countries. So how to remember the different genres? And now we are only talking about Africa! So YEP, there should exist an umbrella word to make it kinda easier to find it. I agree, world music is not a good term. Time for something new!!!

    Me, myself, now that I am more familiar with music from Africa, I try to make an effort explaining music to people by using their origin names, at least as much as I can.

    Now that you held the panel @Womex, it would be interesting to read, what people shared with you on that particular question in Thessaloniki. Maybe you have the chance to write about it and sum it up again.

    On all your travels within Africa or South America, have you ever heard people using the term ‘world music’ to describe their own music?

    @Zhao: love your definition for Kwaito.

    You mentioned some heavy words: neo-colonialism, brain washing, racism. I mainly agree with you.

    Neo-colonialism: Never forget, there are always the ones who “colonize” and those that allow it.
    I really appreciate everything that you, Benjamin and like-minded do to promote non-western music, but it is time for Africans to promote and fight for their own music, traditions and values. I know it is already happening, but in my eyes not enough. The population of Africa reaches an estimate # of 1,070,000,000. If they all jump on the bandwagon, the outcome would be stronger, faster, more efficient and more “authentic”.

    But there comes ‘brain washing’ into play. Many people I met in Ghana and also people from other African countries, don’t believe in there on values and traditions (music, art, film, fashion etc.) Still many people believe that everything that comes from US or Britain is better than that what their own people create. So first that has to chance – believing in their own abilities, more self-esteem. Dont think not knowing the music from their neigboring countries is a good indicator for the issue here, because in Europe it is the same. i live in Germany and can tell you ZERO about recent trends in Holland or France.

    I recently read a nice article in the Times, which supports my argument. The author pose the question ‘Why for the first time after 8 South African Idols seasons, a black SA won in a country with 80% blacks? One explanation between several was that black South Africans tend to sing contemporary pop hits and classics not from South Africa. Instead singing Miriam Mbembki, Hugh Masakela or Ladysmith Black Mambazo, they favor singing Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston etc. Let alone music like Kwaito, Afro pop, which in reverse young blacks – the potential voters – listen to. So they don’t call or even watch the series.
    So my advice is more Miriam or Ruby Gold than Mariah or Whitney.

    I am curious about your next question or issue u will raise in your article, and of course about the vivid discussion.

  8. Benjamin says:

    Thank you all for your comments. Too many points to address, many good ones, a few I disagree with, but here is my 3 second answer: The idea here is not to dwell over terms which inevitably carry flaws, and reflect social, cultural and economical imbalances. We can’t erase everything, history, how colonialism or capitalism have shaped this world.

    Instead, as the title suggests, I’m trying to figure out where the music fits. All of you are either DJs or surrounded by DJs, all of you have your eyes and ears open to other parts of the world, so I ask you: Who listens to this music? Where does it fit into their playlists and lifestyles?