World music is an umbrella term encompassing miscellaneous traditional musical genres that are from outside the Western world. Music in this category is typically not widely commercially successful. Some of the more popular genres in this category are the so-called “township jazz” genres from Africa: marabi, kwela, and mbaqanga; as well as rai from Algeria, carnatic from India, and waila music from Native American tribes.
The coining of the phrase “world music” is credited by many to American ethnomusicologist Robert E. Brown, who started using it in the early 1960’s to describe music from around the world that doesn’t follow American-European pop and folk traditions. He went on to found the Center for World Music in 1973.
World music as a designation started to be widely used in the American music industry in the 1980’s, mostly as a way to market music that doesn’t follow the classic Western musical traditions. The firsts of such artists to achieve considerable commercial success was the Irish folk band Clannad and the American Ry Cooder, who played traditional Americana music. In the 1990’s, Thomas Mapfumo from Zimbabwe achieved international success playing mostly music from his local genre, chimurenga music. Also worth noting, in 1986, famous American folk musician Paul Simon put out an album that features songs inspired by non-Western folk music, with the title “Graceland”.
World music is an odd, exclusionary category. Therefore, it is easier to describe what kind of music doesn’t belong in it, rather than what does. Songs with typical American-European popular music features are the ones excluded from it. The most important feature of such songs is the classic European tonality, which is the arrangement of notes into major or minor chords with a root of a tonic chord. Also, most popular Western music is written in the 4/4 time signature.
Some elements from non-Western music have made their ways into popular Western genres. One such example would be the polyrhythmic nature of jazz coming from traditional African music. New Orleans musicians in the late 19th Century got to learn this new musical feature from Afro-Cuban performers traveling to perform in the US. Call-and-response, another feature popular in jazz, but also in soul and funk, is also from African folk music.
Since there is an innumerable number of musical genres that could be included in this category, there is no point in specifying any lyrical themes that are common in any number of them.
Thomas Mapfumo mentioned in the history part of this article is still active, performing live shows around the world. He rose to prominence with his politically themed songs, mainly focusing on criticism of former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe. Mapfumo’s most famous songs are “Moyo Wangu” (1989), “Ngoma Yekwedu” (1996), and “Chikonzero” (1998). Singer-songwriter Youssou N'Dour is also from Africa, from the nation of Senegal.
Sertab Erener does sing on pop and electronic tracks, but also puts out traditional Turkish songs as well. Two of this kind of songs of hers are “Bu Böyle” (2010), and “Kırmızı Gülün Alı Var” (2012). Aruna Sairam sings songs from the traditional Indian genre carnatic. Her biggest hits are “Aigiri Nandini” (2013), “Paiyada” (also 2013), and“Kalinga Nardhana Tillana” (2006). Loreena McKennitt is a singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist from Canada who performs world music with Celtic and Middle Eastern influences. Her 1997 record “The Book of Secrets” is one of the few bestsellers in this music category, having sold around 2.9 million copies worldwide.