My Playlist, with Annotations and YouTube Links (The Music of the World is on My IPod, But There Is No World Music)

Here are five representative tracks from my iPod (with YouTube links):

1. Harris Jayaraj, Vaseegara

Everybody knows A. R. Rehman (of Slumdog Millionaire infamy) but Harris Jayaraj is another master of contemporary Tamil film music—soulful and super melodious. Another track of his I could have listed as a favorite is June Ponaal from Unnaale. (If you follow the link, try to ignore the video.)

2. V. Doreswamy Iyengar, Dasara Pada: Pogaadirelo Ranga (Raagam: Shankarabharanam)

The music of my childhood. Classical South Indian music. Idli, sambhar, and coconut trees. Except that the purity of sound produced by Doreswamy Iyengar’s veena defies all cliché.

3. Cheikh Lo, Né la Thiass

Senegalese music with cross-Atlantic touches of jazz and blues. The Black Atlantic sounded out in musical notes. Years ago, I heard Cheikh Lo in Dakar in a club owned by Youssou N’dour. The performance started at 11 PM and ended long past midnight. Wondrous.

4. Bob Marley, No Woman No Cry

Enough said.

5. The Byrds, Mr. Tambournine Man

If ever a cover could rival an original, this one does. A sunny and deceptively naïve rendition by the Byrds of a Bob Dylan classic. Marriage of American moods with the imported sounds of Swinging London that becomes a complete reimagination.

So there they are; but, should I want to, how should I classify them? Perhaps the only truly discernible pattern of my playlist is a highly personal one—one that reflects my personal biography and tastes—but what if I (or you) wanted to look for meaning beyond the idiosyncrasies of the personal?

We like to make comparisons, to look for patterns, to discern design. There is no avoiding this impulse, for it might very well be that all knowing is pattern recognition (though I will leave the final word regarding this to cognitive psychologists). It might, then, be tempting to call (some of) the tracks on the list World Music—as in the section of a music store all the way at the back in which you might find the first three artistes, for example.

Let’s not. World Music, perhaps even more than the similar sounding World Literature, is a sales gimmick—a classification through which music corporations set out to create a market for music that does not in their opinion easily fit into popular existing categories. The challenge for us—as opposed to the corporations—has always been to find ways to talk about the world without reducing it to formula. The world is not formula. Certainly, I have the music of the world on my iPod, but there is no World Music, a designation as absurd as World Literature (about the indubitable absurdity of which I have written at length elsewhere).