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Subject: Re: Roots Music
From: "[log in to unmask]" <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:Irish Traditional Music List <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Mon, 25 Mar 1996 11:16:12 +0000

text/plain (135 lines)

On Fri, 22 Mar 1996 20:54:08 GMT wrote...
>Can anyone provide a definition of "roots music"?  The name suggests a
>form of some musical tradition - Irish, blues, Appalachian, whatever.  But
>Janet, in discussing Capercaillie, seems to be contrasting their current
>"roots" phase with their earlier "traditional" phase.  So what is it, if
>not really traditional?  Or is it just a marketing term, like Celtic?
>Mike Wilson
I can give you my definition of it--I think you'd be hard pressed to come
across an "original" definition of it anywhere, but I'm sure someone knows
the stories surrounding the origins of its use for those who are into
origins things (I generally view origins arguments with great
suspicion--see below origins of "world" music for a good example of why
origins arguments are considered problematical by many scholars these
To me, roots music is music that merges cross-cultural traditional musical
genres (often the one that is the musicians' "native" musical language,
i.e. Irish or Ghanian or whatever) with modern European and American music
genres.  I think its safe to say it is more than just a marketing term (and
the term Celtic definitely didn't start out as a marketing term, but as an
academic term for defining a group of peoples based on linguistic,
anthropological & archaelogical evidence).  It is a term being used to
define a new kind of music that has evolved among traditional musicians
from around the world who have been influenced by one another, and by
European & American music.  The "roots" musicians are not from any specific
culture, but the inference is that they come from a traditonal music
culture indigenous to their homeland, wherever that might be.
Another term commonly used (which I find to be pretty worthless, since I
can't figure out what it means) is "world" music, which clearly was coined
as a marketing phrase, as you'll see below.  Now that term gets bandied
about with "roots" music too.  The recent book "The Rough Guide to World
Music" says in the Intro:
"Although many of the music styles that we have featured are long
established in their home territories, WORLD MUSIC as a concept is less
than a decade old.  The name was dreamed up in 1987 by the heads of a
number of small London-based record labels who found their releases from
African, Latin American and other international artists were not finding
rack space because record stores had no obvious place to put them.  And so
the world music tag was hit upon, initially as a month-long marketing
campaign to impress on the music shops, the critics, and buyers that here
were sounds worth listening to.  The name stuck, however, and was swiftly
adopted at records stores and festivals, in magazines and books, on both
sides of the Atlantic.  The Germans caught on too, coining the more lively
weltbeat.  There's a purist argument that world music is a "ghetto" term,
and another that the term is next to meaningless, so broad is its
interpretation.  Alternatives abound:  roots, international, ethnic.  But
the music industry feels at home with the world music tag, and whatever we
think about it, at least we all know what the term means, don't we?"
The intro then goes on to say their 700 pg book covers "just about every
strand of global popular music;" that world music has been the single
biggest growth area in record stores in the 1990s, and has resulted in an
explosion of world music clubs, concerts and festivals throughout  Europe
and North America; that much of the credit for the entire world music
phenomenon "is due to the WOMAD organization, who produced their first,
pioneering festival--bringing together groups from Burundi, China, Egypt
and Ireland--in Somerset, England in 1982."
And if those definitions sort of sound like the music of the world revolves
around England and empire, well, you probably have a good grasp of what
WOMAD is all about.  They were soundly and roundly trashed by a lot of
musicians I know here in the States, and by a good number of music
critics as well, when they last toured here.  There was BIG controversy
over pay differentials of Peter Gabriel and other white European and
American rock stars (you know--the ones they had to have to draw the
audiences)and everyone else, i.e. the musicians of color on the tour.  I
hadn't heard such trashing of a tour since the Sting tour for Amnesty.
Some people were also a bit chagrined (this is a common criticism I hear
from people in the progressive music community here in the Cities, which
does most the organizing of concerts here that include Native AMerican,
environmental, etc benefit gigs) that the English had now "discovered" the
music of the rest of the world and were now going to sell it back to us.
To give you an idea of the bias of this book and the "world" music movement
generally (which is dictated and lead without taking prisoners by British
folk patriarch Ian Anderson of Folk Roots magazine & Rogue Records, and
rock patriarch Peter Gabriel who commands the troops at WOMAD & Real World
Records), there are numerous advertisements at the back of this book.  They
are from:
WOMAD (the global festival branch)
WOMEX (the "European Forum of Worldwide Music Festivals" conference)
Real World Records
Folk Roots Magazine
Rogue Records
Sterns Music Shop
World Circuit Music Shop
A plug for the Rough Guide CD (presented by the World Music Network)
JVC World Sounds
All of the above (with the exception of JVC) are London based interests,
mostly revolving around Ian and Peter, the current reigning monarchs of
the "world" music movement, that exists largely in their own minds and
marketing strategies.  Am I too cynical do you suppose?
I used the term "roots" in reference to the Capercaillie CD 1) because I at
least can figure out what it means, and 2) that is the term the band itself
uses referring to their musical influences & current musical styles.  I
should add, most of the musicians I know doing this kind of music identify
the genre and themselves as "roots" music/musicians, not "world"
music/musicians.  Whether that is an attempt on their part to resist the
"world" music label or not, I don't know.  But around here its still very
much "roots, rock, reggae" and not "world" music.
I think most people, when they hear the term "world" music go "Huh?"
Whereas, as you alluded to above Mike--the term "roots" suggested something
of traditional music to you, which is much more realistic, and close to a
description of musicians like Capercaillie, Eileen Ivers, etc.
Finally (another one of my epic posts here--sorry!), I think we have to
keep in mind that the way we define music is changing all the time--while
we generally define Altan as a very traditional band, in fact, there isn't
much traditional in a solo music tradition about any kind of a band.  But
there are definite correlations to be made to the ceili band, which grew
out of the traditional music culture of Ireland, as we've seen here in
previous threads & discussions about particular bands and musicians.
Defining music seems like a pretty futile effort at best, and the musicians
themselves often reject the definitions or accept them based on their own
perceptions of how they think we want to view them, how they want to be
viewed by us, self-interests, etc.--and all those factors change over time.
Suppose Ian Anderson will publish my critique of the "world" music movement
in Folk Roots magazine?  I am so evil sometimes, aren't I? ;-)

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