World Music: A Brief and Selective Introduction


PHUA Kai Lit, PhD


In this article, I wish to introduce readers of eTHOUGHT to the aural delights of “World Music” or “Worldbeat Music”. I am not an expert on the subject. Instead, I am an enthusiast and great fan of this genre of music.


What is “World Music” or “Worldbeat Music”? I would define it as the synthesis or fusion of the indigenous music of non-Western peoples with Western pop music. (However, it should be noted that some people would also include the fusion of the music of Eastern Europe and Western pop music under this genre). I became a fan of World Music by first listening to Jamaican reggae music, e.g., the music of Bob Marley and the Wailers, Jimmy Cliff and so on. From reggae music, I moved on to South American music and African pop music. World music is often sung in native tongues but this does not prevent one from enjoying the music itself.

I will discuss what I know about World Music from the different regions of the globe next:


The Caribbean


Jamaica is, of course, famous for reggae music and its intoxicating beat. In my opinion, its beat simulates the beating of the human heart (same pace, same tempo etc.) and this is perhaps why it is so stimulating to listen to. Bob Marley and the Wailers can probably be considered the originators of reggae music (which evolved from earlier forms such as “ska” by a slowing down of the ska beat). Bob Marley (1945-1981) was not only a great musician but also wrote moving lyrics for his songs. A follower of Rastafarianism, he sang about love, peace and freedom, “brotherhood” (the Rastas didn’t pay too much attention to women), Pan-Africanism, Third World solidarity and so on. Here is an example of his powerful lyrics (my transcriptions may not be 100% accurate as this is what I think the lyrics are from closely listening to my Bob Marley CD and tape collection):








No sun will shine in my day to day

The high yellow rose won’t come out to play

Darkness has covered my life

And has changed my day into night

Where is the love to be found?


In this concrete jungle

Where the living is hardest

Concrete jungle

Man, you’ve got to do your best


No chains around my feet

But I’m not free

I know I am bound here in captivity

I’ll never know what a sweet caress is

I’ll be always laughing like a clown


In this concrete jungle


(From the song “Concrete Jungle”)


Slave driver, the table is turned

Catch your fire, you’re gonna get burned


Everytime I hear the crack of a whip

My blood runs cold

I remember on the slaveship

How they brutalized our very souls

Today they say that we are free

Only to be chained in poverty

Good God, I think it’s illiteracy

It’s only a machine to make money

Slavedriver ……


(From the song “Slavedriver”)





Powerful lyrics, indeed!


Jimmy Cliff was another early reggae star. Cliff’s songs give voice to the poor and exploited migrant from the rural areas to the big cities of the Third World (in songs like “Many Rivers to Cross” and “Struggling Man”) and the problems of Third World poverty and militarism. For example:


Suffering in the land

It is plain to see we’re in a terrible situation

Nearly half of the world on the verge of starvation

And the children are crying for more education

Suffering in the land


They’re building guns and bombs to set the world on fire!


(From the song “Suffering in the Land”)





And from the band “Inner Circle” (in its early days):


Don’t push the needle up in your arm

By God, it’s evil, it’ll do you such harm

Don’t waste your money buying that dope

By God it’s evil, it’s a cheap cheap hope


Love is the drug that will do you no harm

Removes all evil from inside your heart

Love is the drug


(From the song “Love is the Drug”)


The above are examples of “roots reggae” (early reggae). Today, politically and socially-conscious reggae has degenerated into ragga with its semi-pornographic and anti-social, anti-female lyrics.


Other interesting examples of world music include “zouk” music from the French Antilles played by groups like “Kassav” and “soca” (soul calypso) from the rest of the Caribbean. Soca is characterized by a pounding beat enlivened by accompaniment from the horns section.


South America  


Black Brazilian singer-songwriter Milton Nascimento’s works deal with issues like environmental degradation and discrimination and racism of other Brazilians directed against the Amazon Indians. He has a nice tenor voice. I like his “Green” song called “Txai”.


The Bahia region of Brazil is famous for its music and musical innovations.

One Bahian musician whom I like is Margaret Menezes whose music incorporates the pulsating beat of the Mardi Gras drum and percussion groups. Paul Simon’s album “Rhythm of the Saints” can be considered a Worldbeat fusion of Brazilian music and Western pop music.


I am also a great fan of Latin American music which is influenced by the “Indians” of the Andes Mountains.  One beautiful and famous example of Andean music is, of course, “El Condor Pasa” or “The Condor Passes”.

Another wonderful melody is “Lake Titicaca”. The Nueva Cancion (New Song) movement of the 1960s and 1970s was formed by Latin American musicians who were determined to recover their native pre-Columbian roots by incorporating Indian melodies into their music. They also used indigenous musical instruments like the charango – a guitar made from the shell of the armadillo. The Nueva Cancion musicians wanted to develop a politically and socially conscious music. The best examples of these musicians are Victor Jara and Violeta Parra. Victor Jarra was tortured and murdered by the Chilean military regime of Augusto Pinochet after the foreign-instigated coup of 1973 that overthrew the government of Dr Salvador Allende. Torturers from the regime broke Jarra’s hands (a truly cruel act since Jarra used to play the guitar as he sang his populist songs) before murdering him. Violeta Parra’s song “Gracias a la Vida” (“Thank you for Life”) is wonderful to listen to. Today, groups like Inti-Illimani are carrying on the tradition of the Neuva Cancion musicians.


African and Middle Eastern Pop Music


West African pop music (music from Senegal, Mali, Guinea etc) are particularly interesting. These countries have the griot tradition of musician cum praise-singers. Thus, modern singers like Salif Keita, Mory Kante, Youssou N’dour and so on are continuing this tradition. The West African pop musicians often incorporate the traditional instrument called the kora in their music. From Nigeria, we have King Sunny Ade’s “juju” music and Fela Kuti’s “Afrobeat” music. West African pop music is quite popular in France but, unfortunately, this is not the case in Britain and the United States.


South African music is another aspect of World Music worth exploring. Again, Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album is an example of fusion of South African township music and Western pop music. I particularly like the music of “Johnny Clegg and Savuka”. Clegg is a White South African anthropology lecturer who is fluent in the Zulu language and who later became a political activist-cum-musician. His multi-racial musical group played songs which broadcasted messages that the pre-1994 apartheid regime disliked. An example of one of his songs:


Woman be my country

Till my country can be mine

Hide me deep inside your borders

In these dark and troubled times


Remember me my innocence

Before I drown in a sea of lies

Woman be my country

Till my country can be mine


Woman be my country

Till my country can be mine

I have no flag, I sing no anthem

I no longer carry an Armalite

Bathe me in your sweet rivers

Anoint me with your touch and your smile

To your colours I give my allegiance

I lay it on the line


Be my country

Be my country tonight

Be my country

So many wasting away

Be my country

I lay it on the line

Be my country


(From the song “Woman Be My Country”)


Further north and just across the border in Zimbabwe, we find

the musician named Thomas Mapfumo, also popularly known as the “Lion of Zimbabwe”. Mapfumo’s “chimurenga” music played an important role in mobilizing the black African majority against the white minority regime of Ian Smith. What is interesting about Mapfumo’s music is his use of Western instruments like the electric guitar and the drums to emulate native Shona rhythms, sounds and traditional instruments like the mbira (“thumb piano”), gourd shakers and so on. 


I will end this essay by briefly mentioning the music of Israeli pop star Ofra Haza. Haza is of Yemeni Jewish descent and her music reflects her heritage. Although her lyrics are, honestly speaking, lightweight in nature, her music is quite interesting and worth a try.


All in all, Worldbeat music is definitely worth listening to. In fact, Worldbeat music has come to Malaysia: we have the musician Zainal Abidin who is attempting to create a Malaysian form of Worldbeat music and we also have the Rainforest World Music Festival held recently in Sarawak. Listen and enjoy and rediscover the rich cultural heritage of the peoples of the Third World long denigrated and suppressed by others! (For example, the Spanish conquistadors tried to suppress Andean “Indian” music because they associated it with the “religions of the Devil”).


KL Phua is a medical sociologist who wishes he has the musical talent to come up with a Malaysian form of World Music

Read article on Nigeria's Fela Kuti




Hanly, Francis and Tim May eds., 1989 “Rhythms of the World”

London: BBC Books 


Broughton, Simon et al. eds., 1994 “World Music: The Rough Guide”

London: The Rough Guides