Exploring history and human rights through world music

We often misunderstand what music is to other cultures simply because we impose our own interpretation of music – our own ontology – onto it.

In Western tradition, music is a tangible ‘thing’: we have works of music, made up of separate musical notes: music can be read, critiqued and discussed. But for a number of cultures, music is an altogether different thing. The Muslim Hausa people of northern Nigeria have no specific word for ‘music’, despite their distinguished musical tradition. In Japanese musical tradition, a pause or silence in the middle of a piece of music is known as a ma, rather than a simple ‘absence of sound/music’, as we interpret it. To the uninitiated westerner, the Muslim recitation of the Qur’an – the qir?’ah – sounds like a sung piece of music, but in Islam it is never considered to be music.

Although every culture has music, not every culture sees or understands music in the same way. The rise of a ‘world music’ tradition, in scholarly halls as well as sections in record shops, goes some way towards removing the perception of a ‘universal language of music’. Although music is universal in the sense that every human society has a form of it, there is no mysterious, magical musical language that transcends cultural boundaries. Cultures create their own distinct musical languages: often these musical languages intersect, but at times they are so different from one another that gathering all these forms under the umbrella term ‘music’ seems like wishful thinking.

This module will explore a selection of different musical forms from across the globe. It is not meant to be an exhaustive list of musicians or musical styles, nor does it seek to provide a complete history of development and human rights through music. What we hope it will do is help you to explore new musical styles, introduce you to musicians you might otherwise never have heard of, and start thinking about music as a reflection of culture, politics and history.

We’ve purposely structured this module in order for you to dip in and out of it at your leisure. You might want to read about the way music can reflect a culture’s political history (see ‘History Through Music’) on one day, but simply feel like exploring Indian traditional music (see ‘Indian music’) the next.

Table of Contents


We might be used to thinking of music as something which punctuates the silences of our lives: something we listen to while waiting for the bus, something to sing along to while in the shower or dance to on the weekends. But a culture’s music and its musical tradition can tell us a huge amount about that culture’s history, its struggles and its evolution over the centuries.

Did you know, for example, that you can trace a line from modern-day hip-hop to 1800 West Africa? In the late 1700s and early 1800s, American landowners began to plunder West Africa for slaves. Thousands of Africans were traded into slavery and shipped across the Atlantic in order to work the cotton fields of the ‘New World’. And while they had no possessions, they brought memories of their music with them. They introduced instruments like the banjo and tambourine, and sang their traditional songs as they slaved in the fields.

Each generation of slaves modified the music of its predecessors, as they themselves changed. Many were converted to Christianity, and began to sing about their new religion. Others used songs as a way of making their hard work more tolerable. After sunset, when their work was done, they would gather together and sing their own songs – often they were songs of nostalgia and longing for a better life.

Those Christian songs would evolve into what we nowadays call Gospel music: the repeat verses and alternating singers of the field songs sung by those slaves can still be heard in many modern-day rap songs; and the songs they sang at the end of the day became the core of all modern-day African-American music. The sadder, downbeat music became the Blues. The faster, more communal sounds grew into Jazz.

Over the decades, these styles have evolved into the music we nowadays hear on our radios every day. One quick example: in the 1930s, a black guitarist called Robert Johnson began to sing and play some of the blues songs he had grown up with. [Listen to him singing ‘ Me and the Devil Blues’ or ‘Crossroads’]. Meanwhile, another black musician, Jimmy Yancey, was adapting the jazz tunes of his childhood to the piano [Listen to him playing ‘ Rolling the Stone‘ and ‘Midnight Stomp’].

A few decades later, and Chuck Berry was revolutionising music with his new rock’n’roll style. You can clearly hear the influence musicians like Jimmy Yancey had on him [Listen to ‘Johnny B. Goode’ or ‘Maybellene’]. Meanwhile, musicians like John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf were taking Robert Johnson’s mournful blues into the 1960s [ Listen to ‘ ‘How Many More Years’ or ‘Hobo Blues’ ].

Fifteen years later, and those blues were blended with the hippie movement by black musicians like Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, George Clinton and Gil Scott Heron [listen to ‘Voodoo Chile’ or If You Want Me To Stay’ or Home Is Where The Hatred Is’ ].

If the music from that last track is familiar, it’s because Kanye West sampled it on his track My Way Home’ . And remember Robert Johnson’s ‘Me and the Devil Blues’? Gil Scott Heron has his own 2010 version of it .

The funk-blues of Sly Stone and George Clinton were moulded into a half-talking, half-singing style which became known as ‘rapping’ [Watch Kurtis Blow sing ‘Christmas Rapping’ in 1980, or Grandmaster Flash with The ‘Message’ in 1982]. From there, it’s a short journey to Rakim, Run-DMC and Wu-Tang Clan, and then another to Nas, Eminem and other modern-day rappers.

And what about the old gospel songs that were being sung by the slaves in the cotton plantations? They also evolved and can be heard in modern-day music – developing from gospel to soul to R&B and hip-hop: from the hymns of the cotton fields to the protests of ‘We Shall Overcome‘, to Ray Charles’ soul [‘ Georgia on my mind ‘], to Stevie Wonder’s funk [‘Higher Ground‘],Marvin Gaye’s R&B [‘ What’s Going On‘], and, more recently, Kanye West’s modern rap/gospel classic, ‘ Jesus Walks‘. Prince, Justin Timberlake, Alicia Keys, Mary J Blige and Usher all come out of this pedigree.


In the developed world, where the majority of the population is literate or has access to a television or radio, music’s educational qualities tend to be forgotten. But for large swathes of human history, songs were the most effective way of recording history and spreading news – before the printing press and universal schooling made written histories possible, people depended on oral forms, from poems to songs.

While western music still retains some of this educational function (many songs have a ‘message’ to share), in many cases this message comes secondary to the music. We now have so many other ways of learning and sharing knowledge – from newspaper articles to books, lectures to press conferences, online forums to blogs – that using songs to teach might strike some as odd.

In many parts of Africa, however, music still plays an important educational function. Staff Benda Bilili are a group of Congolese street musicians who sing about a variety of social issues. Their song ‘Polio‘ encourages listeners to get vaccinated against Polio – it is especially poignant because all four band members are victims of polio, confined to tricycle-cum-wheelchairs.

In Nigeria, the Kano Boys are a boy band that sing about HIV and AIDS and other health issues, trying to educate their fans as well as entertain them. Dobet Gnahoré, from the Ivory Coast, uses her music as a means of educating her audiences: from gender equality (‘Mousso Tilou‘) and environmental destruction (‘Inyembezi Zam‘).

Similarly, in Zimbabwe Oliver Mtukudzi uses his fame as a musician to warn of the dangers of polygamy, drugs and inheritance rituals in spreading HIV and AIDS. In South Africa, Lucky Dube used his reggae music to bring black and white communities closer together. His song ‘ Together as One‘ was the first song by a black artist to be played on a white radio station in South Africa.

The case of Simon Bikindi, one of Rwanda’s most famous singers, shows the power that music can have in a negative sense. In 2008 Bikindi was sentenced to 15 years in prison for inciting violence during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Bikindi sang songs which incited hatred and violence against the Tutsi’s.


Note: Although this section is naturally heavily weighted towards English songs and singers, remember that there are songs in all languages, and from all cultures, which deal with political, rights-based issues.

There have been thousands of musicians, singers and songs inspired by injustice or human rights, and while it would be impossible to list them all, we have included a selection of musicians and songs which deal with a variety of human rights issues.

Race and Racial Discrimination

Decades before the American Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King or Malcolm X, music was already challenging issues of race. In 1935, a high school teacher in New York witnessed the horrific lynching (hanging by a tree) of two black men. He wrote a poem, called ‘Strange Fruit’, about the event, and Billie Holiday’s version of it quickly became legendary. In December 1999, Time Magazine named ‘Strange Fruit’ its song of the century.

Bob Dylan wrote “Blowin’ In the Wind” out of anger and impatience with segregated America. Sam Cooke was so moved by the song that he wrote a song of his own – ‘ A Change Is Gonna Come‘, which became an anthem of the American Civil Rights Movement.

Police brutality inspired Obie Benson and Al Cleveland to write “What’s Going On“, which then became one of Marvin Gaye’s greatest hits. Neil Young condemned the racism of the American south and the Ku Klux Klan in ‘Southern Man’.

Tupac rapped about racial discrimination on his hit song  Changes ‘, which was itself an adaptation of Bruce Hornsby’s 1986 song ‘The Way It Is’.

And for something different, check out Akala’s freestyle, where he encourages young black men to re-evaluate their priorities and not glorify the gangsta lifestyle of modern-day rap.

Women and Female Empowerment

Unfortunately, a lot of modern-day popular music portrays women in an unfavourable light, either as ditzy bimbos only interested in shoes and cocktails, or as bikini-clad ornaments whose sole purpose is to be seduced by the macho (male) singer.

But there are a number of songs which deal with women and women’s rights. The American and European feminist wave of the 1960s and 70s was reflected in the music of the time – Aretha Franklin famously sang about women demanding ‘Respect’, and Lesley Gore’s classic ‘You Don’t Own Me‘ said what many women of the time felt. The contraceptive pill was so revolutionary for women that Loretta Lynn sang a song about it – the song was promptly banned from the radio.

More recently, Saving Jane’s ‘ One Girl Revolution‘ is a rejection of female stereotypes; Pink’s hit song ‘ Stupid Girl‘ encourages women to aspire to intelligence rather than ditzy celebrities; Ani DiFranco’s ‘Gratitude’ is about a woman who is being pressured into having sex [‘What does my body have to do with my gratitude?’]; Tracy Chapman’s ‘Behind the Wall’ describes a man repeatedly beating his wife; The Cardigans’ song ‘ And Then You Kissed Me’ is also about an abusive relationship.


War has long been one of music’s most popular themes, and there are hundreds of anti-war songs – far too many to list. Nevertheless, the following paragraph mentions a few of these songs. We have tried to include a variety of genres, from heavy metal to rap, a number of themes and songs from different historical periods.

The Vietnam war inspired a flurry of anti-war songs. Perhaps one of the most famous anti-war songs of all time, Bob Dylan’s ‘ Masters of War‘ is still as relevant today as it was 45 years ago. Around the same time, Donovan was singing ‘Universal Soldier’ (written by Buffy Sainte-Marie) and Phil Ochs was singing ‘ I Ain’t Marching Anymore‘. Jimi Hendrix combined the Vietnam war and the civil rights movement in ‘Machine Gun’.

15 years later the Dead Kennedys sang about the fate of the Vietnamese in ‘Chicken Farm’, and even in the 1990s Vietnam was still being sung about: REM’s hit song ‘Orange Crush’ is about Agent Orange, a killer pesticide which was sprayed on large stretches of Vietnamese jungle during the war and led to 400,000 deaths and disabilities, and half a million children born with birth defects.

The Beastie Boys sang about the destruction of war in ‘Something’s Got To Give’; Eric Bogle wrote of the horrors of the First World War in ‘The Green Fields of France’ [this version is by the Dropkick Murphys]. Bogle wrote another classic anti-war anthem, ‘And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda’, which honoured the fallen soldiers at Gallipoli during the First World War.

One of Black Sabbath’s most popular hits, ‘War Pigs’, is an angry indictment of war, while Kate Bush’s ‘ Army Dreamers‘ is the soft, sad story of a young man who joins the army because he doesn’t know what else to do, and is then killed in battle. The sentiments behind U2’s hit ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ referred to a specific event, but could be applied to any conflict. The Dire Straits classic ‘Brothers in Arms’ is one of the most iconic anti-war songs of all time; ‘World Wide Suicide’, by Pearl Jam, is about the Iraq War and people’s indifference to it; similarly, the Gorillaz hit ‘ Dirty Harry‘ is about the misery of being a soldier in Iraq, and Nas raps against all war and human conflict in ‘Rule’.


West Africa

Senegal: Youssou N’Dour

Certainly Senegal’s most celebrated son, and perhaps one of the most famous singers in all of Africa. Youssou N’Dour has developed a style of music known as mbalax, which is best described as a fusion between Western musical styles (from jazz to pop and soul) and traditional Senegalese sabar. Mbalax relies heavily on percussions and beat-based rhythms. He has performed worldwide, has won a Grammy and is one of the greatest African artists of the past century.

Some samples of his music include: Brima, Nelson Mandela

Mali: Amadou & Mariam


Amadou & Mariam by Môsieur J.

‘The blind couple from Mali’ have been playing their funky Afro-blues for over 30 years, although it’s only in the past decade or so that they’ve cracked the western market and become popular across Europe. Their music blends Malian roots music with blues-y guitar riffs and a western pop sensibility.

Samples include: Je Pense a Toi, A Radio Mogo, Sibali

Mali: Ali Farka Toure Ali Farka Toure by Flykr

Widely considered to be one of the greatest guitarists in the world, Ali Farka Toure was the godfather of African blues music. Martin Scorsese has called him “the DNA of the blues”, and his collaboration with American roots guitarist Ry Cooder won him a Grammy in 1995. He died in 2006, but his sound lives on in the music of his son, Vieux Farka Toure.

Samples include: M’baudy, Amandrai [live]

Ali Farka Toure by Flykr

Cape Verde: Cesaria Evora

It took 47 years for this Cape Verdean to record her first album, but once she had, success and international acclaim soon followed. She always performs onstage barefoot (hence her nickname ‘The barefoot diva’) as a sign of solidarity with Cape Verde’s poor, and much of her music talks of slavery, emigration and poverty in Cape Verde. Evora is the best-known morna artist in the world. Morna is a traditional Cape Verde form of music, generally played using a guitar (“violão”) and/or violin (“rabeca”), and characterised by its monotonic nature and lento tempo.

Samples of her music include: Sodade [live], Beijo Roubado, Miss Perfumado [live]

Nigeria: Fela Kuti

Together with Youssou N’Dour and Papa Wemba, Fela Kuti is probably the most famous African musician of all time. He pioneered Afrobeat, a fusion of jazz, psychedelic funk and traditional West African singing. He often used 2 baritone saxophones as opposed to the more usual 1, and refused to sing in pure Yoruba or English, opting for pidgin English in order to reach the widest possible audience. His live performances were legendary, as he and his band, Afrika 70 (and later Egypt 80) would freestyle and mould songs into 45 minute medleys, building to a blistering crescendo.

Fela lived his life the same way he played his songs – with pomp, reckless abandon and a fierce passion. He was an advocate of a united African republic, openly polygamous, a human rights activist and a forthright critic of Nigerian governments and military juntas. That he is name-checked as an inspiration by so many contemporary musicians is a testament to his talent. Erykah Badu, Alicia Keys, Mos Def, The Roots, Brian Eno, David Bowie and David Byrne have all cited Fela and his Afrobeat sound as influences.

Samples of his music include: Zombie, Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense [live], Water No Get Enemy, Sorrow Tears and Blood

The Ethiopian Golden Age


Ethiopia’s music mirrors its politics: conservative but diverse. Arabic melodies blend with ancient Coptic Christian influences, Muslim mazuma are sung in the northeast of the country, while in the Highlands azmaris (minstrels) play secular music to crowds in taverns and town squares.

The 1960s are considered the Golden Age of Ethiopian music, with artists such as Mulatu Astatke, Mahmoud Ahmed, Alemayehu Eshete and Tilahun Gessesse (all profiled below) developing new sounds by fusing jazz, funk, soul and traditional Ethiopian singing styles. What Buena Vista Social Club did to Cuban music, the Golden Age of the 1960s did to the music scene of the Horn of Africa.

Unfortunately, this ‘golden generation’ never attained the fame (even on underground circuits) that contemporaries such as Fela Kuti from Nigeria or Ali Farka Toure did. The lack of international acclaim had nothing to do with their talent or musical merits – it was simply a wrong twist of political fate. Under the rule of Haile Selassie, musical performances were officially barred unless royal permission had been granted. The Mengitsu regime was even more restrictive on artists and performers, forcing musicians into underground bars and clubs and robbing them of the chance of making a name for themselves in the wider music scene.

Mulatu AstatkeMulatu Astatke by oemebamo

Mulatu Astatke by Oemebamo

Probably the greatest Ethiopian musician of the 20th century, and considered to be the father of Ethio-jazz. Having studied music in London, Boston and New York throughout the 1960s, he grew to love Latin jazz and blended it (and its instruments) with traditional Ethiopian sounds. The result, which he called Ethio-jazz, is a fusion of congas, bongos, guitars and percussions, with swirling saxophones reminiscent of John Coltrane in the background. He has written operas, been a fellow at Harvard and MIT, and produced music for fellow Ethiopian musician Mahmoud Ahmed (see below).

Samples of his music: Yegelle Tezeta, Cha Cha, Gubelye [live]

Mahmoud Ahmed

A true African rags-to-riches success story. As a young man, Ahmed was a shoe shiner in Addis Ababa – the capital of Ethiopia – singing in underground clubs when musical performances were barred under Emperor Haille Selassie. His jazz and funk vibes spearheaded the Ethiopian ‘Golden Age’ of the 60s and 70s, but despite being a legend amongst his countrymen, Ethiopia’s authoritarian regimes meant that he never had the opportunity to crack the European market the way Ali Farka Toure or Youssou N’Dour did.

Samples of his music include: Ere Mela Mela, Habo

Alemayehu Eshete

Eshete is considered by many Ethiopians to be the voice of Ethiopian music. His ethno-jazz has electrified Ethiopian crowds for 30 years, although like Ahmed, restrictive Ethiopian laws meant that he never achieved the international fame he would have otherwise enjoyed. In his youth he was often called the ‘Abyssinian Elvis’ thanks to his slick dance moves and smooth voice.

Samples of his music: Yeweyn Haregitu, Addis Ababa bete

Tilahun Gessesse

Perhaps the most beloved of the Golden Generation’s musicians, Tilahun and his music were the soundtrack of many Ethiopians’ lives. He was the lead singer of the Imperial Bodyguard Band, and unlike Eshete and Ahmed, he succeeded in gaining the government’s trust and even sang to Haile Selassie on several occasions.

Samples: Yena Mastawesha, Amsalu

Southern Africa

South Africa: Zola

One of South Africa’s biggest musical stars, Zola is a Kwaito singer who has introduced socially-aware lyrics into Kwaito music. Kwaito is a South African blend of hip-hop, house and percussion-driven African rhythms such as mbaqanga. Kwaito has its roots in the Chicago house that became popular across South Africa following the fall of apartheid, and continues to grow in popularity. Zola is Kwaito’s biggest star, and has done much to improve the public’s perception of Kwaito and its stars (Kwaito is to South Africa what Gangsta Rap is to the USA).

Samples include: Mdlwembe [from the Tsotsi OST], Ehlala

Somalia: K’Naan


Knaan in Ottawa by Chris Holden

Somali rap, anyone? K’Naan is based in Canada, but he grew up on the streets of Mogadishu in the midst of the Somali civil war. His mother obtained an exit visa for herself and K’Naan, then a boy, and they left Somalia for the USA on the last civilian flight out of the country. The family soon moved to Canada, where K’Naan learnt English by rapping along to Nas and Rakim.

K’Naan is now considered to be one of the most exciting up-and-coming talents to emerge on the rap scene over the past few years. Although his delivery is reminiscent of Eminem, his work is openly political, writing about the war in Iraq, Somalia and its civil wars, racism in Canada and the US (“You know those socially inadequate Somalis/Who walk in uninvited to your VIP” he raps sarcastically on ‘I Come Prepared‘).

He has also introduced several African musical elements into his music – from rapping in Somali to openly acknowledging the influences of Ethiopian musical legends Alemayehu Eshete and Tilahun Gessesse on his musical style. There’s every likelihood that within a few years K’Naan will be known across the world – his song ‘ Waving Flag‘ was picked by FIFA as the official song of the 2010 World Cup.

Samples include: In the Beginning, ABCs

DRC: Papa Wemba

Pape Wemba is one of Africa’s most popular musicians, and probably the most famous soukous (or Congolese rumba, as it is sometimes called) artist in the world.

Soukous was created in the late 1930s, when Congolese musicians began incorporating Caribbean and South American rumba sounds into their traditional music forms. Antoine Kolosoy, better known as Papa Wendo, popularised soukous and became an African star in his own right. Papa Wendo continued performing until well into his 80s, and his death in 2008 was mourned throughout central and west Africa.

It would be Papa Wemba, however, to popularise soukous outside Africa. He attained significant fame within the Congo in 1969 at the age of 20 as one of the founder members of Zaiko Langa Langa, and has been a star ever since. His influence on Congolese culture is immense: his sharp, dandy clothes were a form of social rebellion, and continues to be imitated to this day by young trendy Congolese, who are known as Sapeurs. His experimentation with traditional soukous sounds have turned him into a world music star across Europe (especially in France and Belgium), and he continues to enjoy both domestic and international success.

Samples: Fula Ngenge, Show me the way, Awa Yo Okeyi [Live]

South Africa: Brenda Fassie

‘Queen of kwaito, ‘MaBrrr’, ‘Madonna of the Townships’ – Brenda Fassie certainly never lacked for nicknames. One of the most popular as well as controversial artists to emerge from South Africa, Brenda was a cultural icon loved by people from all walks of life. Her outrageous antics often stole the headlines, but her music veered effortlessly from mindless fun to sombre reflection: from the disco vibes of her 80s hit ‘ Weekend Special‘ to singing about the death of the post-apartheid dream in ‘Black President’. Brenda’s excesses finally got the better of her in 2004, when she died following a cocaine-induced asthma attack.

Samples: Nomakhanjani, Vulindlela

South Africa: Hugh Masekela

One of the first musicians to make it big internationally as a ‘world music’ artist way back in the 1960s and 1970s, Hugh Masekela needs less of an introduction than many other musicians listed here. Chances are that even if you don’t know him by name, you’ll recognise his signature flugelhorn and trumpet sound as soon as you hear them. Masekela, together with Fela Kuti, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Miriam Makeba is one of southern Africa’s superstar musicians – singers everyone, young and old, has heard of. Masekela was discovered by Trevor Huddlestone, a priest and outspoken anti-apartheid campaigner in South Africa. He left repressive South Africa and went into exile, where he remained until the end of apartheid. His track ‘ Bring Him Back Home‘ became an anti-apartheid anthem and cemented his reputation as not only a supremely talented jazz musician and Afro-Beat legend, but also a father of pan-African music.

North African music

The Maghreb region has a long musical tradition, with Algeria, Morocco and Egypt being especially renowned for their musical cultures. Much of the Maghreb’s music is eclectic in its origin, reflecting the diverse political history of the region. Algeria’s raï music has French, Spanish and Arab influences, as does Moroccan chaabi. Both have distinct Andalusian influences (the home of flamenco). Nevertheless, ethnic minorities in the region have developed their own distinct musical forms, as can be seen by the very different musical styles of the Tuareg and Berber.

This section touches upon some of the Maghreb’s most influential musicians of the past 50 years, from Muslim-inspired songs (check out Umm Kulthum’s legendary singing voice ) to modern-day raï  crossed with techno beats (Rachid Taha, who has played at some of the world’s biggest music festivals – his track ‘Barra Barra‘ was also featured on the Black Hawk Down original soundtrack), the hypnotic trance of the Berber (the world-famous Master Musicians of Jajouka) and the soul rebel blues of the Tuareg’s Tinariwen.

Egypt: Umm Kulthum

One of the most influential Arabic singers of all time, the ‘Star of the East’ was a singing virtuoso who for over 40 years enchanted the entire Middle East with her singing. Politicians associated themselves with her in order to curry favour amongst the masses (Colonel Nasser, Egypt’s ruler in the 1960s, often gave his public broadcasts immediately after an Umm Kulthum concert, when people were feeling uplifted and more amenable.) As pan-Arabic nationalism grew, Umm Kulhum’s a??la – her authenticity – simply made her more popular than ever. A number of her songs, despite being over 40 years old, have been remixed into popular dance tracks.

Berber: Master Musicians of Jajouka

Master Musicians Of Jajouka by Wonker

Forget the Rolling Stones, Rush or ZZ Top – compared to the Master Musicians of Jajouka, these bands are mere spring chickens. William Burroughs famously called them “a 4000 year old rock band”, and from the historical evidence available, he wasn’t all that far off the mark. The Berber village of Jajouka has been spiritually tied to its music since its foundation thousands of years ago, and its Master Musicians were the Imperial Pipers of the Sultan until 1912, when Morocco became a French Protectorate.

Musicians from Jajouka are taught a complex music, unique to Jajouka, from early childhood. It takes several years before they can become Malim (Masters). Each generation’s few Master Musicians pass on their secret musical knowledge to the next generation of musicians, and so the music of Jajouka lives on through the ages.

Describing the Master Musicians’ music is difficult; imagine a mix of highly complex folk and sufi-trance rhythms and melodies backed by woodwinds and you’ll have a (basic) idea of what to expect. They use a lira (a form of flute), an oboe-like instrument called a rhaita, and a variety of goat-skin drums. Legend has it that thousands of years ago, a half-goat half-man creature (similar to the Pan of Greek mythology) appeared to the first Attar of Jajouka clan and danced to his music.

In the late 1960s a visit by Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones resulted in an album, Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Joujouka (here’s a sample track ), and won the Master Musicians broader fame. Despite this increased recognition, the Master Musicians struggled to keep afloat until Bachir Attar took over the leadership reigns in the 1980s. They have played festivals across the world, recorded a track with the Rolling Stones, and their music has featured on a number of big-budget film soundtracks.

Touareg: Tinariwen


Soul rebels down to a ‘T’, these Tuareg nomads are as rock-and-roll as you can get. Lead singer Ibrahim Ag Alhabib grew up in various refugee camps and built his first guitar out of a tin can, stick and bicycle wire. Discovering that several other Touareg shared his musical, poetic and political sensibilities, he formed the group Tinariwen.

Tinariwen is not so much a fixed band as a musical collective: being a nomadic people, it is hard for a pre-defined line-up to stick together. Members come and go, with a core of 4 members remaining the same. Their desert blues are a rallying cry for the Touareg people, a musical, if not literal, call to arms for Touareg self-determination.

Like many Touareg, the members of Tinariwen fervently believe in the right of an independent homeland for the Touareg people. Not only are the members of Tinariwen nomads – they are also trained soldiers who fought in the Touareg rebellions of 1990.

With appearances at Glastonbury and plaudits from the likes of the Rolling Stones and Coldplay, Tinariwen have come a long way from their tin can guitars.

Morocco: Rachid Taha

Rachid Taha is what you get when you cross rock, punk, techno and Algerian rai, the result of western electronic beats joined with more traditional Maghreb sounds. In his own words, ‘I read western music from right to left’, and it is this fusion of east and west that makes Taha and his music so exciting. He had a hit with a cover of The Clash’s ‘Rock the Casbah‘ , but you should also check out tracks such as ‘Ya Rayah‘ or ‘ Meftuh‘ which reveal a more mystical sound, as Taha’s rai background comes to the fore.

Israel: Yasmin Levy

It is hard to categorise Yasmin Levy and her music. She is Israeli, but with Sephardic roots (Sephardic Jews were Jews who were expelled from what is today called Spain). She is a classically trained musician who mixes instruments like the violin and cello with the Arabic oud, includes Arabic and Turkish flourishes in her music, blends Middle Eastern music with gypsy flamenco, but sings in Spanish and Ladino (Judeo-Spanish).

Turkey: Mercan Dede

A Turkish newspaper described Mercan Dede (who has performed under numerous other names, most notably as Arkin Allen) as a “dervish for the modern world”, and the description is an apt one. Mercan Dede grew up fascinated by the Sufi musical tradition, and when he relocated to Canada in his 20s he began working these Sufi-inspired sounds into his techno & tribal DJ sets in clubs.

He has refined this fusion of musical styles, incorporating the ney (a flute-like instrument which features strongly in Sufi musical tradition, and which is one of the oldest musical instruments still in use), oud (a pear-shaped stringed instrument which is often considered to be a predecessor to the lute) and percussions into his electronic DJ sets.


Pakistan: Qawwali

Qawwali is a form of Sufi devotional music, popular within the Punjab region of Pakistan and parts of Northern India. Its origins can be traced back to 8th century Persia (modern-day Iran), taking root in South Asia when Sufis migrated to the region in the 11th century.

The word qawwali is derived from the Arabic qual, meaning “utterance of the Prophet”. As an qawwali sings, he often reaches a state of trance-like ecstasy, known as wajad. Quals are, by western standards, incredibly long – an average qawwali song can last between 15 and 30 minutes, with some reaching the hour mark.

Quals are generally performed by a group of eight or nine men, one of them being the lead singer. Generally two percussionists are involved, one playing the table (a set of Indian hand drums).

Qawwali would probably unknown outside of southern Asia if it wasn’t for Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. A legend in his homeland Pakistan and neighbouring countries, and probably the most revered qawwali musician of the past century, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s music – and qawwali in general – is now known across the globe.

Revered in his homeland Pakistan, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s career led him to international fame and spanned the globe. He collaborated with Peter Gabriel, Alanis Morisette, Eddie Veder and many others; Jeff Buckley idolised him to the point of learning some of his songs off by heart and singing them live – in Urdu.

Mongolia: Tuvan overtone singing

Few people have heard of the republic of Tuva, situated in Southern Siberia (just above Mongolia) but their overtone throat-singing technique has attracted the attention of singers and voice specialists from across the globe.

Overtone singing involves manipulating the resonances of air as it passes through their throat, which means that singers can essentially sing more than one note at the same time. The sound that results is unlike any other sound made by a human voice.

Ethnomusicologists who have studied Tuvan culture believe their throat singing to have sprung out of the spiritual reverence Tuvans have for nature; throat singing was an attempt at mimicking the sounds of nature.

Different types of overtone singing exist, from khorekteer (“chest voice”) to khoomeii (which is often likened to the sound of wind swirling amongst rocks) and sygyt, (a more harmonic form of overtone singing which seeks to imitate the sound of a gentle summer breeze and birdsong).

One of the most fascinating things about overtone singing is its onomatopoeic nature – the singing actually sounds like the landscape it is describing. Singers attempt to replicate the sound of the wind, the clap of horse hooves, chirping birds, clapping thunder and other such sounds of nature.

Although overtone singing is also practiced in other small pockets of Siberia and parts of Mongolia, it is mostly associated with Tuva and its people. Huun Huur Tu is probably the most well-known Tuvan band around: besides overtone singing, the band use traditional Tuva instruments such as the lute-like doshpuluur, the igil (a bowed string instrument), Tuvan drums and khomus (sometimes called a Jaw harp).

Yat-Kha, led by an ex member of Huun Huur Tu, mixes traditional Tuvan folklore with western rock influences. Check out their covers of ‘ Love Will Tear Us Apart‘ and ‘ Black Magic Woman!

Indian music

Summarising the music of a country as large, diverse and historically rich as India is impossible, so this section will only focus on a few of India’s musical genres.

Carnatic music is a form of Indian classical music, mainly found in the south of India. Unlike western classical music, there is a strong vocal tradition within carnatic music – it is generally written to be sung. It is considered to be one of the oldest musical systems in the world, and as with most forms of traditional Indian music, carnatic music is believed to have been divinely inspired [click here for an explanation of carnatic music by Sowmya, a famous carnatic singer]. It is renowned for its theoretical complexity, with its 72 melodic scales (called ragas) and 7 rhythmic cyles (talas).

Most westerners are probably more familiar with the other form of Indian classical music, Hindustani music. It is more widespread than its carnatic cousin, with its popularity stretching across Northern India into Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and even Afghanistan [click here for a Pandit Jasraj performance]. As with carnatic music, Hindustani classical music has a significant vocal focus, and there are dozens of different compositional Hindustani styles. Despite its vocal focus, a variety of instruments are generally used. These range from the sitar (used by both the Beatles and Rolling Stones in the 1960s) to the surbahar (a sort of bass sitar), bansuri (a bamboo flute) or tabla (Indian hand drums).

Filmi music is undoubtedly contemporary India’s most popular music style. As its name suggests, this is music that originates from India’s massive film industry. Filmi songs are generally sung by playback singers, with popular actors and actresses then lip-synching the songs and popularising them. Some filmi songs have crossed over into western cinema, with Baz Luhrmann using ‘ Chamma Chamma‘ in Moulin Rouge and Spike Lee including ‘ Chaiyya Chaiyya‘ on Inside Man. Many of you probably know the Pussycat Dolls’ song “Jai Ho”. What you might not know is that this is originally an Indian filmi song, and the Pussycat Dolls simply adapted and translated it. You can listen to the original here.

India’s folk music traditions vary from one geographic region to another. To mention some of the more popular styles: Bengal has itsBaul minstrels, Maharashtra is famous for its Lavani music and Rajasthan is renowned for its eclectic collection of musical styles.

Many Europeans will not be familiar with any individual Indian musicians, with the possible exception of British-born Indians such as Panjabi MC (famous for his track Mundian To Bach Ke) or Asian Dub Foundation.

Suggested listening (but by no means exhaustive) includes: Asha Boshle, Sanjay Misrah, Bauls du Bengale.


As with India, China’s musical history stretches back several thousand years: the first ever musical scale in recorded history was discovered here. The xun (a globular flute) was created 7000 years ago and was designed around the minor third interval. To this day, the minor third interval continues to be one of the organising principles of all traditional Chinese music.

Music in contemporary China can be roughly divided into four categories: classical, folk, patriotic and pop. Let’s take a brief look at each of these musical forms.


Generally played by small ensembles of stringed instruments, flutes, cymbals, gongs and drums, with a melodic focus rather than a harmonic one. Instruments such as the pipa (a form of fretted lute), erhu (akin to a two-stringed violin) and yangqin (a hammered dulcimer) are often used in classical music performances. The guqin (a plucked seven-stringed instrument associated with Confucius) is another much-respected instrument. Vocals are often sung in a falsetto voice, with choral arrangements rare.


Popular at family gatherings, weddings and funerals, Chinese folk music varies in style according to geography. In northern China, ensembles of mouth organs, flutes and percussions are common; in the south, Nanguan is more common. Nanguan is typically a slow, melodic style of music, with an ensemble of five instruments. These are the pie (a wooden clapper), pipa, samhen (a long-necked lute), xiao (vertical flute) and lihen (a two-stringed bowed instrument). Many nanguan are sorrowful in tone.


A relatively modern style of music, created in the 1920s following the collapse of China’s last dynasty and encouraged over the past 60 year by the ruling Communist Party. This form of music is known as Guoyue and is generally revolutionary music, which generally idolises an individual, government, or political ideal.

Most guoyue music is grandiose, consisting of large ensembles or fully-fledged orchestras. In many songs, western instruments such as the violin and trumpets are combined with traditional Chinese instruments such as the erhu. Guoyue music is widely taught in musical conservatories across China.


Although originally used to describe Chinese popular music, C-Pop is often used as an umbrella term to refer to all forms of mainstream Chinese music, from Chinese R&B to pop, rock and ballad music.

Resistance from within the Communist Party meant that the C-Pop industry moved to Hong Kong and Taiwan, despite its popularity amongst many urban Chinese. Over the past decade, Chinese authorities have been more willing to grant vending licences to online C-Pop distributors, although censorship continues to occur on a regular basis.

Chinese rock music is relatively new, with its first underground hits in the 1980s. In 1984 Cui Jian’s ‘ Nothing To My Name‘ was the first Chinese rock hit; five years later, during the Tiananmen Square protests, the song was resurrected and quickly became the disillusioned student protestors’ anthem [ this video clip explains some of the song’s significance:

Following the Tiananmen Square protests, Chinese popular music grew increasingly diverse. Nowadays, contemporary Chinese music includes anything from punk rock (Hang in the Box) to thrash metal (Suffocated). Chinese hip-hop and rap have also grown massively in popularity over the past decade.



European and western music has grown increasingly homogenous over the past 50 years. Although individual countries have maintained their own traditional music structures, popular music has intermeshed across the continent: the charts in Italy may contain different songs to those in the UK, Germany or Greece, but they are likely to sound relatively similar.

Nevertheless, thousands of singers and bands continue to compose and play music in unusual styles, often blending local musical styles with more exotic influences. Almamegretta, for example, are an Italian dub/reggae band who sing in Neapolitan while incorporating various African rhythms into their songs. In a similar vein, Afro-Celt Sound System blend (as their name suggests) African beats and traditional Celtic music, overlaying it with a wall of electronica. Oi Va Voi are a British band whose music reflects the diverse backgrounds of its various members: Jewish, Latino, Hungarian folk all fit into electronic-based mesh they create. Ojos de Brujo, a band from Barcelona, blend traditional flamenco sounds with hip-hop and Catalan rumba. Their songs often focus on social issues: Na En La Nevera (‘Nothing in the fridge’) is about poverty, Naita deals with inequality, Piedras vs Tanques (‘Stones vs Tanks’) talks about war.

This is not to say that all (non-commercial) European bands have taken to this blending of genres. Several musicians have embraced their traditional musical heritage, breathing new life into musical styles that have existed for generations. Ferran Savall, for example, is a young Catalan singer whose jazz arrangements of traditional Catalan songs are well worth listening to. On the other end of the Mediterranean, in Greece, George Dalaras has succeeded in reigniting interest in rebetika music amongst Greeks. Rebetika music came to prominence in the 1940s, when Greece was destroyed by war, ravaged by poverty and politically unstable. The music reflected the disillusionment that Greeks felt in their country and life in general: poverty, drug use, alienation, alcohol abuse and violence all feature heavily. Rebetika has sometimes been described as Greece’s equivalent of blues music.

Romani Music and the Balkans

The Romani people – more commonly referred to, sometimes pejoratively, as gypsies – have been playing music for as long as they have travelled and their music has taken root wherever they have roamed. Describing Romani music is difficult, since it varies according to geographical region. The flamenco music of Andalucía in southern Spain is perhaps the most popular genre of Romani music (flamenco is traditionally associated with the Gitanos – Spanish Romani people). In parts of Eastern Europe (Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania especially) and the Balkans, the Romani musical influence is perhaps even stronger.

The music of the Balkans, for example, is littered with Romani influences. Horns and brass sounds, accordions, cymbals and especially the violin are characteristic of the music; much of it is upbeat. Goran Bregovic, perhaps one of the Balkan region’s best-known musicians, typifies the eclectic musical styles of the region, with Romani and Latino memes infusing his music. In Macedonia, Esma Redžepova and her ensemble have been entertaining Balkan audiences with their music for decades. Boban Marokovi and his brass ensemble have won numerous international awards, and Markovi is widely considered to be amongst the best trumpet players in the world.

Taraf de Haïdouks are amongst the most interesting musicians in the region: a troupe of Romanian musicians whose performances are more akin to a circus show than traditional concert, they are master musicians who play with such energy that Johnny Depp insisted they play at The Viper Room club in Los Angeles. You can watch them tell the story of their LA visit here. Their Romanian name – Taraful Haiducilor – roughly translates to ‘band of outlaws’, is as good a description of them as any. One thing that brings all of the above-mentioned musicians together is Romani music. Esma Redžepova and Taraf de Haïdouks are Romani themselves; Goran Bregovic and Boban Marokovi? have openly acknowledged the debt their music owes to Romani culture.


Latin America

The music of Latin America is danced, sung and loved the world over: few people have never heard of the tango, salsa or samba. The region’s music is distinctly its own, with European, African and Indigenous influences all playing a part in forming the rhythms and beats typical of the region. Latin people are musical by nature; music blares out of cars, shops and houses everywhere you go, and dancefloors in nightclubs are constantly packed all across the continent. Brazil on its own is one of musical powerhouses of the world: samba, bossa nova, tropic´lia, forro and many many more genres of music have their origin here.

The historically diverse ethnic groups that populate Latin America each have their own distinct musical traditions. In Belize, the Creole (or Kriol as they are referred to locally) population dance to rhythms of brukdown and its king, Wilfred Peters.

The Garifuna people of Central America’s Caribbean coast, essentially neighbours of Belize’s Kriols, have their own music – punta. Punta is unlike any other Latin American music style, with a rhythm and dancing style that is more reminiscent of West African beats than other Latin music. Although customarily played at funerals and wakes using traditional Garifuna instruments (maracas, conch shells, drums and hardwood sticks), in the 1970s a new generation of Garifuna musicians reinvented punta using electrical instruments and brought this traditional genre of music back to life. Musicians such as Andy Palacios have led the Garifuna revival and reacquainted new generations of listeners to Garifuna melodies.


Brazil has a long, illustrious relationship with music, having given the world some of its most successful and renowned forms. Samba, with its syncopated rhythms and up-tempo beats, is perhaps the most well-known of the various Brazilian musical genres. It is the sound of a Brazilian street party, forever associated with Rio de Janeiro’s carnival. Samba dates back to the beginning of the 20th century, although the funky, frenetic samba rhythms we are accustomed to today differ significantly from the slower, more romantic samba of the 1920s.

The samba of earlier years evolved in two opposing directions in the mid-20th century: one strand moulded traditional samba with rock, jazz and other genres (creating the samba familiar to many listeners today); while another strand of samba grew more minimalist, with accentuated melodies and slower rhythms. This second strand would grow into what is now known as bossa nova.

Bossa nova’s slower pace was initially ridiculed by Brazilian music critics, but the innovative jazz tones of musicians such as Celso Machedo and João Gilberto (who had an international hit with ‘ Garota de Ipanema‘ in 1964) made critics sit up and take notice. Frank Sinatra’s hit single The Girl With Ipanema was heavily influenced by the bossa nova movement, and turned the genre into an international sensation.

Just as bossa nova peaked, an avant-garde artistic movement took Brazil by storm. Tropicalismo was overtly political and rebellious, and despite being extremely short-lived, left a huge impact upon Brazilian politics and culture [You can watch a BBC documentary on tropicalismo here]. Tropicalismo was inspired by the philosophy of Oswaldo de Andrade, who argued that Brazil should adopt a ‘cultural cannibalism’, integrating pieces of European culture into a Brazilian setting. Musically, the result (known as tropicália) was a blend of avant-garde poetry with unusual time signatures, psychedelic rock and a rebellious, anti-dictatorial message. Tropicália introduced two of Brazil’s preeminent musicians to the world in the forms of Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. Both quickly became underground icons, jailed by the authoritarian government and fled Brazil into exile.

Tropicalismo is unusual in that it experienced a huge revival at the beginning of the 21st century, as modern-day musicians and bands such as Devendra Banhart , Beck, Of Montreal and others rediscovered tropicália and encouraged their fans to do likewise. The circle was completed when Gilberto Gil, once a political prisoner, was made Brazilian Minister of Culture in 2003.

Latin American folk: Nueva Canción & Victor Jara

Nueva Canción (Spanish for ‘New Song’) was a folk revival movement that spread across Latin America in the 1960s. Closely associated with left-wing politics, nueva canción songs often touched upon social justice, poverty, human rights and other such topics. The movement grew out of the political turmoil and instability that many Latin American countries were experiencing at the time. Musicians took their cue from the folk protest revival that was occurring in the USA, where singers like Pete Seeger and a young Bob Dylan had picked up Woody Gutherie’s mantle and continued the folk protest tradition.

The movement took root across Latin America: in Argentina, a group of folk musicians and poets headed by Mercedes Sosa and Armando Tejada Gómez officially launched the Nueva Cancionero movement in 1963 by issuing a manifesto. They sought to create a more egalitarian, ‘Argentinian’ music which all Argentineans could identify with. In Cuba, Nueva Trova Cubana (as it was known there) reflected the ideals and preoccupations of post-revolutionary Cuba. Similar nueva cancion movements sprung up in Peru, Venezuela and Uruguay.

It was in Chile, however, that nueva cancion reached its apex. What began with Violeta Parra – the mother of Latin American folk who spearheaded the nueva cancion movement – resulted in Victor Jara and his music. Victor Jara took the folk structure which Violeta Parra had perfected, and moulded it to suit the urban, industrialised age that Chile was easing into. He sang about the life of factory workers, of political scandals and human rights while campaigning for the socialist Salvador Allende to win the Chilean presidency. When Allende’s government was overthrown by Augusto Pinochet’s military coup in 1973, Victor Jara was one of the first dissidents to be arrested. According to various testimonies, over subsequent weeks Jara was imprisoned, tortured and eventually killed by Pinochet’s henchmen [Ireland’s own Christy Moore recorded a song in honour of Jara].


Cumbia is amongst Colombia’s most recognisable musical genres. It is also one of Colombia’s most successful musical exports, with adapted versions of cumbia thriving in Mexico, Panama, Peru and other Latin American countries.

Cumbia’s history can be traced back to the period of Spanish colonisation. Spain ‘imported’ a number of slaves from Western Africa, and the music they brought with them influenced the local Colombian population. Amerindian (native American) flutes and percussion instruments were added to drums and claves (wooden sticks which are knocked together) to create cumbia.

Although historically derided by the upper classes of Colombian society, in modern-day Colombia cumbia is treasured and celebrated. Cumbia festivals are held across the country, and modern cumbia (which mixes cumbia sounds with salsa, vallenato or rock) is regularly played in bars and nightclubs.


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