Studies of world music tend to focus on its peak in the 1980-1990s and related genres such as “world beat” and New Wave.1 By the 1980s, record executives had come to realize that there was a significant market for non-western music and that consumers of world music overlapped quite a bit with consumers of rock music.2 With an overwhelming array of new musicians bursting onto the scene, collaborations between western artists and musicians from the global South, and high-profile groups appropriating non-western musical styles, the market quickly became saturated.3 But by analyzing the emergence of world music as a genre in the 1950s and 1960s when the LP was ascendant, we can better understand how and why the genre and the format became so pervasive and culturally significant later in the twentieth century. The global phenomenon of “world music” hinged on developments in earlier decades, when the LP made non-western music a commodity that European and North American listeners would come to crave.
From the beginning, recording technology has been linked to the preservation, circulation, and fetishization of indigenous and “non-western” musics. Even before commercial recordings were widespread, “lore collectors,” such as Jesse Walter Fewkes, Alice Fletcher, Frances Densmore, and Franz Boas, wielded wax cylinders to preserve “dying” indigenous musical cultures in the United States.4 Similarly, European anthropologists took phonographs on research expeditions to other parts of the world, often in support of colonial agendas. Soon, institutions such as the Berlin Phonogramm-Archiv, the Musée de l’Homme, and the British Museum amassed thousands of recordings of music from communities in Asia, South America, Africa, and the Middle East.5 Meanwhile, by the 1930s, musical recording technology had become thoroughly commodified for the mass market, and European and North American demand for “foreign” music increased. For example, the French phonographic firm Pathé collaborated with the Musée de l’Homme to sell recordings of “colonial music and dialects” that coincided with the 1931 Exposition Coloniale.6
The demand for non-western music boomed with the development of the LP in the 1950s, as postwar nostalgia and interest in anthropological exploration led listeners to embrace new forms of musical exoticism. After so many veterans had been stationed abroad in places like the South Pacific during the world wars, music from the African and Asian continents no longer seemed as foreign as it once did.7 Meanwhile, these consumers also found themselves turning to non-western music for comfort during the Cold War. Appreciating music from countries outside of the western bloc8 suggested the possibility of harmonious world order without the threat of nuclear annihilation.9 LPs of non-western music were a perfect vehicle for this kind of sentimental listening, which evoked the sites of Allied military success while looking forward to utopian visions of a world united under democracy.
These recordings also appealed to western listeners’ curiosity about other parts of the world, allowing them to embark on sonic explorations without leaving their living rooms. Although most mid-century vinyl owners were unaware of turn-of-the-century anthropologists’ recording expeditions, they shared a propensity for amassing collections of non-western music with lore-collectors of the past. Liner notes reinforced the association between anthropology and the LP for ordinary consumers. For example, 1950s albums of Polynesian and Hawaiian “Tiki” music sold in the United States often included references to influential early twentieth-century anthropological texts, such as Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa or Bronisław Malinowski’s Argonauts of the South Pacific (both reprinted during the decade).10 World music’s affiliation with anthropology grew stronger throughout the second half of the twentieth century. LPs released by the French world music label Ocora Records in the 1960s came with booklets filled with photographs and articles describing instrumentation, genres, and performance practices.11 Similarly, Nonesuch’s Explorer Series, which entered into circulation around the same time as Ocora, advertised that its albums featured field recordings made by ethnomusicologists.12
Anthropological interest in other musical cultures and wartime nostalgia led western listening publics to demand a new form of exoticism from recordings of non-western music that corresponded to their ideas of foreign places, not reality. While albums used references to anthropology to authenticate their recordings, these allusions merely served to legitimize western listeners’ own fantasies, rather than confirm faithfulness to the musical cultures that they claimed to represent. In the early days of recording, “tone tests” juxtaposed live performances with phonographic reproductions of the same repertoire in an attempt to show audiences that there was no difference between live performance and recording.13 By the time the LP was introduced, however, listeners were habituated to the recording medium, and they no longer needed the reassurance of a tone test that showed the recording’s equivalence to a live performance. LPs of non-western music traded on fidelity to the listener’s imagination, rather than similarity to the recording’s “original” source. The emergence of “world music” as a term for non-western music in the 1960s reflected this aesthetic shift toward imaginative world-making.14
All these factors habituated North American and European listeners to the sounds of non-western music and spurred global demand, but aspects of the LP’s format—such as its expanded playing time and enhanced sound quality—opened up new possibilities for the types and quantity of music that could be effectively reproduced. Prior to the LP, records could only hold a few minutes of music per side, which made it difficult for listeners to contextualize unfamiliar repertoires. The LP afforded ample time to appreciate the new sounds captured in its grooves. Just as Theodor Adorno believed that the removal of visual stimuli and the ability to repeat long-playing records would allow the listener to develop a greater familiarity with operatic repertoire, the ability to replay and focus on the sounds emanating from their speakers allowed western audiences to develop a taste for this music at a distance from its cultural context.15
With thanks to Benjamin Brady, Brian V. Sengdala, and Gavin Steingo for their helpful feedback.
Simon Frith, “The Discourse of World Music” in Western Music and Its Others: Difference, Representation, and Appropriation in Music, eds. Georgina Born and David Hesmondhalgh (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 305–22.
K. Goldschmitt, “Brazilian Music as World Music in the Late 1980s,” in K. Goldschmitt, Bossa Mundo: Brazilian Music in Transnational Media Industries (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019) gives an excellent account of the growth of the international world music market during this period with particular focus on Brazilian music in Anglophone contexts.
Erika Brady, “Collectors and the Phonograph: “Save, Save the Lore!,’” in A Spiral Way: How the Phonograph Changed Ethnography (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1999), 52–88; Roshanak Kheshti, “The Female Sound Collector and Her Talking Machine,” in Modernity’s Ear: Listening to Race and Gender in World Music (New York: NYU Press, 2015),15–38; Jonathan Sterne, “A Resonant Tomb–The Voices of Dying Culture,” in The Audible Past (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 311–33.
Martin Clayton, “Ethnographic Wax Cylinders at the British Library National Sound Archive: A Brief History and Description of the Collection,” in British Journal of Ethnomusicology 5 (1996): 67–92; Lars-Christian Koch, Albrecht Wiedmann and Susanne Ziegler, “The Berlin Phonogramm-Archiv: A Treasury of Sound Recordings,” in Acoustic Science and Technology 25, No. 4 (2004): 227-231; Julia Kursell, “Listening to More Than Sounds: Carl Stumpf and the Experimental Recordings of the Berlin Phonogramm-Archiv,” in Technology and Culture 60, No. 2 (April 2019): S39–S63.
Pascal Cordereix. “Les enregistrements du musée de la Parole et du Geste à l’Exposition coloniale: Entre science, propagande et commerce,” in Vingtième Siècle. Revue d’histoire 92 (October-December 2006), 47–59.
Francesco Adinolfi. Mondo Exotica: Sounds, Visions, Obsessions of the Cocktail Generation, trans. Karen Pinkus and Jason Vivrette (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 64.
It is unsurprising that music from Eastern European and Soviet bloc countries was frequently featured in world music catalogues, alongside offerings from countries in Asia, Africa, and South America.
Karen Pinkus, “Preface,” in Francesco Adinolfi, Mondo Exotica: Sounds, Visions, Obsessions of the Cocktail Generation, xi.
Francesco Adinolfi, Mondo Exotica. See also Janet Borgerson and Jonathan Schroeder, Designed for Hi-Fi Living: The Vinyl LP in Midcentury America (Cambridge, MA: The MIT University Press, 2017).
For more on Ocora Records, see Émilie Da Lage. “La Collection de disques de “musiques du monde”: exemple de pratiques de médiation.” Études de communication 21 (September 1998): 67–81; Da Lage. “Les Collections de disques de musiques du monde entre patrimonialisation et marchandisation,” in Culture et Musées 1 (2003): 89–107; Étienne Menu, “Ethnofiction ou audiovérité: une histoire partiale d’Ocora,” Audimat 2, No. 4 (2015): 91–128.
Anastasia Tsioulcas. “Latitudes: 50 Years of Nonesuch, 10 Essential Recordings,” NPR, 30 September 2014: https://www.npr.org/2014/09/30/352542137/latitudes-50-years-of-nonesuch-10-essential-recordings.
Emily Thompson. “Machines, Music, and the Quest for Fidelity: Marketing the Edison Phonograph in America, 1877-1925,” in The Musical Quarterly 79, No. 1 (Spring 1995):131–71. For a theorization of the concept of “fidelity” as it relates to sound reproduction, see Jonathan Sterne The Audible Past, 218–20.
Ethnomusicologist Robert E. Brown is credited with coining the term “world music” in the 1960s: Jack Williams, “Obituary: Robert E. Brown; brought world music to San Diego schools,” San Diego Union Tribune, 11 December 2005.
Theodor W. Adorno. “Opera and the Long-Playing Record,” trans. Thomas Y. Levin. October 55 (1990): 64–65.