So You Think You Can Rock… World Music?!

A Crash Course in World Music

Music marketing companies attempt to categorize different types of music that do not fit into typical western categorization, fabricated the genre World Music.

This ‘faux’ genre was created as an effort to have a rack in the music store separated from western popular music. This area of the music shop was populated with exotic scales and languages that contemporary music vendors didn’t know where to put it. In turn, lumping many different types of music into one category.

In an article written by music legend David Byrne titled Crossing Music’s Borders: ‘I Hate World Music’ published in the New York Times, October 3, 1999, Byrne states:

“the use of the term world music is a way of dismissing artists or their music as irrelevant to one’s own life. 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. Maybe that’s why I hate the term. 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.”


Now that we all know that World Music is not a very ‘organic’ genre, I can move on. I wanted to use this article to shed light on some famous musicians from outside contemporary western music. One individual that needs naming is Fela Kuti.

Fela Anikulapo Kuti was an amazing man who led an incredible life chronicled by his musical output. Kuti, a multi-instrumentalist, single handedly created the genre Afrobeat and shook up politics in Africa, almost becoming president but forever changing history.

Fela, a Nigerian by birth, went to London in his early years to study medicine like some of his siblings who became doctors. Instead of pursuing medical school, he decided to study music at Trinity College of Music. When he got out of school, he returned to Nigeria and had a successful band, with which he toured the U.S. After discovering the Black Panther movement going on in the U.S., Fela was inspired to use his music to bring attention to the tumultuous social climate of Nigeria. This is when Fela formed his most famous musical incarnation Fela Anikulapo Kuti and the Afrika ’70.

Fela began gaining momentum politically, because of his widespread musical popularity and admiration. He founded his own compound, which consisted of himself, his many wives, the band and friends. Felas’ began to sing in Pidgin or Broken English in order for all to understand since many African languages vary greatly but millions of Africans spoke Pidgin English. His politically motivated musical themes started to turn heads.

The song Zombie was a direct criticism of the Nigerian Army. In turn, the government of Nigeria sent an army to his compound, killed his mother, destroyed all possessions and beat Fela within inches of his life before sparing him. Fela regrouped with his band and began playing live again, this time with a very specific agenda – to gain the presidential seat in Nigeria. When his band mates found out about his intention to use band revenue to fuel his campaign, many saw it as a sure fire way of being killed or worse.

Fela then pushed further by forming is own political party and entered his name into the presidential race for almost a dozen years, consistently having his candidacy refused. Fela then formed a group called the Egypt ’80, toured and continually put out music. Fela then found himself under attack again from the Nigerian government and they put him on trial for a trumped up charge of currency smuggling. Several civil rights groups became aware of his plight and helped him to be release from jail, where he had spent almost two years.

Fela continued to tour and put out new music until the early 90’s when he eventually succumbed to a health complication due to not receiving treatment for AIDS.

What has he left us?

Fela has left us audiophiles with a sizable catalog of music that truly defines who he was and his social surroundings. Although much of his music is politically motivated, he does not bore. Fela knew that his music was more than a soapbox; it had to be the music at parties, playing on the radio and infusing itself into culture.

These songs, however simplistic, are amazing to jam on with guitar/drum/bass or even throw in a sax!

Must listen list:


Equalization of Trousers and Pants

Opposite People

Question Jam Answer

Also check out the band Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra to check out some contemporary Afrobeat. Antibalas is also the house band for the Broadway production of FELA! A musical about Fela’s life and legacy. Check out their songs Si, Se, Puede and N.E.S.T.A. for awesome jam ideas.

Next installment of crash course in World Music

Umm Kulthum is as revered as the zenith in Arabic singing. As a consequence of being widely loved and admired throughout the Arabic world, she too became involved in politics and is said to have played a key hand in a revolution… stay tuned so SMG for more on this.

Mike Kolbenson is a staff writer at SMG. Mike is a recent graduate from Purchase College, SUNY and absolutely in love with all things guitar. Email:

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