The whole world in music

How different cultures find one another: a short history of world music.

Rousing singer-songwriters from Benin and whirling dervishes from the Middle East, swinging brass bands from New Orleans and impressive recitations by a Buddhist nun from Japan – the Elbphilharmonie has so much more to offer than just »classical« music. After all, other continents have produced their own fascinating styles of music, some of which go considerably farther back than Mozart and colleagues. And what better place for all these different types of music to come together than Hamburg, the gateway to the world?

Die beninische Sängerin Angélique Kidjo (8. Dezember 2018) Die beninische Sängerin Angélique Kidjo (8. Dezember 2018) © Daniel Dittus
Die drehenden Derwische aus Damaskus (3. Februar 2019) Die drehenden Derwische aus Damaskus (3. Februar 2019) © Claudia Höhne
Die Hot 8 Brass Band aus New Orleans (17. April 2016) Die Hot 8 Brass Band aus New Orleans (17. April 2016) © Claudia Höhne
Die buddhistische Nonne und Lautenpriesterin Kyokuyo Okada (21. Oktober 2019) Die buddhistische Nonne und Lautenpriesterin Kyokuyo Okada (21. Oktober 2019) © Radek Rudnicki

Beyond expectations

These concerts are often a special experience with some surprises in store – starting, in some cases, with the dress code on stage. Then there are unusual singing techniques, exotic instruments and the tone systems of unfamiliar musical styles, all of which place demands on our Western listening habits. Arab or Indian music, for instance, doesn't have chords like European music, but divides its highly complex scales into at least twice as many pitches. By the same token, ideals of tonal beauty also differ from one culture to another.

The audience finds itself plunged into a musical world for which it would otherwise have to travel to remote Caucasian valleys or to Indonesian islands – where even then it would not be easily accessible. For in many regions of the earth, music is not intended for performance in concerts, but forms an inherent part of religious rituals. It's sometimes quite hard for the Elbphilharmonie staff to arrange such appearances, not to mention the difficulties involved in tracking down and getting in touch with the musicians concerned.

Live experience

The Elbphilharmonie series »Around the World« offers concerts where the programme varies from Indian jazz to modern Balkan beats, while »Klassik der Welt« presents highly-evolved art music from other countries. Additional spotlights are supplied by theme festivals, e.g. featuring music from Caucasia or India.

World music: an early idea

  • The term »world music«

    The term »world music« originated in the 1980s, when record labels were looking for a suitable genre name for this emerging trend. Today, however, the term is tinged with controversy as some people see it as the product of a Euro-centric perspective.

In the final event, the makeshift term »world music« denotes a cultural exchange. The flourishing globalisation in the world of music has always been the object of mutual interest and a source of boundless creativity. Mozart, to name one prominent example, took up Ottoman janissary music in his well-known »Rondo alla Turca« while Puccini tried his hand at Japanese local colour in his opera »Madame Butterfly«.

The world opens up :The 1960s

What we see as »world music« nowadays actually had its origin in the 1960s, when the civil rights movement in the USA and the liberal-minded hippie generation forced the pace of cultural exchange. An increasing interest in African culture, for example, turned South African singer Miriam Makeba into an international pop star.

Tony Scott between America and the Far East

One of the pioneers of world music was the famous American jazz clarinettist Tony Scott. In 1959 he turned his back on the New York scene to live in the Far East for six years, where he helped establish jazz in Asia, teaching and also playing at the first jazz festivals in Hong Kong and Japan.

»I was looking for something new, emotional and spiritual. For me the jazz world had become cold, like there was no passion. In Japan I found the desired warmth.«

Tony Scott (1966)

Tony Scott mit befreundeten Musikern 1951 © Wikimedia Commons

The inspiration worked both ways: the inquisitive Scott absorbed every aspect of Asian music tradition that he encountered. Wherever he went, he sought out people that he could play with – even if it was an entire gamelan ensemble on Bali. In Japan he joined forces with Hozan Yamamato on the shakuhachi (bamboo flute) and Shinichi Yuize on the koto (zither): the three musicians recorded the album »Music for Zen Meditation« together, one of the very first ethno-jazz productions.

Album »Music for Zen Meditation« (1964)


Ravi Shankar: Cultural ambassador from India

Another well-known pioneer of world music was Ravi Shankar. The legendary sitar player was instrumental like no-one else in establishing classic Indian music in concert halls and at festivals all over the world. He spent decades touring Europe and the USA, counted Beatle George Harrison among his pupils, and inspired numerous rock bands to experiment with Indian sounds.

»In India some people thought I was betraying myself by working with George. I was even called the 5th Bealte.«

Ravi Shankar

Ravi Shankar unterrichtet George Harrison
Ravi Shankar unterrichtet George Harrison

A close partnership linked Ravi Shankar with the famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin.They made several records together, and played before the UN assembly. Ravi Shankar, who would have been 100 years old in 2020, also wrote works for sitar and orchestra, thus creating a new, cross-cultural musical tradition.

Peter Gabriel founds the WOMAD Festival :The 1980s

»There's a Slow Food movement. I think I'm part of the Slow Music movement.«

Peter Gabriel

The world-music scene was given its next burst of momentum by Peter Gabriel in the 1980s. The erstwhile front man of the band Genesis founded the WOMAD Festival (World of Music, Arts and Dance) in 1982, which is now one of the biggest world-music festivals with some 150 events in over 20 countries.

Peter Gabriel at the first WOMAD Festival in 1982


Gabriel also set up his own label, »Real World Records«, and equipped studios for the purpose in an old mill building in south-west England. The label provided a springboard for musicians from many different parts of the world, among them Youssou N’Dour and Papa Wemba.

»Artists everywhere steal mercilessly all the time and I think this is healthy.«

Peter Gabriel

Peter Gabriel in den Real World Studios Peter Gabriel in den Real World Studios © Real World Records
Peter Gabriel Peter Gabriel © Wikimedia Commons/Joi
Real World Studios in England, Grafschaft Wiltshire Real World Studios in England, Grafschaft Wiltshire © Rodhullandemu

Synthesis of sounds: World music today

Today, it's impossible to imagine jazz, pop and West European classical music without the influences of musical styles from all over the world. These include pop hits by Shakira, DJ Snake or Lil Dicky, multicultural rap samples and Latin jazz as much as works by successful Japanese composer Toshio Hosokawa, who aims to achieve a synthesis of European avant-garde and tradition Japanese music. Composition competitions such as the »Creole Global Music Contest« encourage new creations in the realm of global music. So the world's different musical styles are not only finding their ways onto the stage, but also growing together.

Text: Julika von Werder, last updated: 25.11.2020

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