World Music Reference

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This is meant to be a brief introduction to the greater world of musical styles found in cultures around the globe. This is only the smallest sampling of the incredible forms of music that can be found once you leave the comfort of your own playlist! Dive in, explore, and find a style of music that speaks to you in a way might never have heard otherwise!

North America


The Blues is a genre and form of music that started out in the Deep South of the United States sometime around the 1870s. It was created by African Americans from roots in African musical traditions, African American work songs, and spirituals – an oral tradition that imparted Christian values while also describing the terrible hardships of slavery. Early blues often took the form of a loose story or narrative, usually relating to the discrimination and other hardships African Americans faced.

The Blues form, which is now found throughout jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll, is characterized by a call-and-response pattern, the blues scales, and specific song structure – of which, the 12-bar blues has become the most common.

The Blues is also characterized by its lamenting lyrics, distinctive bass lines, and unique instrumentation. The earliest traditional blues verses used a single line repeated four times. It wouldn’t be until the early part of the 20th century that the most common blues structure currently used became standard: the AAB pattern. This pattern is made up of a line sung over the first four bars, its repetition over the next four, and then a longer concluding line over the last four bars.

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As one of the most undeniably popular genres of music in North America, hip-hop is a cultural and artistic movement that was created by African, Latino, and Caribbean Americans in the Bronx, New York City in the early to mid-1970s. The scene originally rose from neighbourhood block parties thrown by the Black Spades, a group of African Americans who were sometimes described as a gang, a club, or a musical group.

While the term “hip-hop” is usually used to refer to hip-hop music (which can include rap, depending on the definition), hip-hop is generally made up of nine key elements, only four of which are essential to understanding the musical aspects of hip-hop. Those four main pillars of hip-hop culture include:

Emceeing, or rapping, a rhythmic vocal rhyming style.

DJing, or turntablism, which is making music using record players and DJ mixers.

B-boying/b-girling/breakdancing, a distinct form of movement and dance.


The other five elements of hip-hop include knowledge of the movement, beatboxing, which is a percussive vocal style, street entrepreneurship, hip-hop language or slang, and hip-hop fashion and style, among others. Sometimes, though there is often a great deal of debate, street knowledge, fashion, and beatboxing are all considered a fifth pillar of hip-hop.

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South America

Bossa Nova

Developed and popularized in the 1950s and 1960s, bossa nova has become one of the bestknown Brazilian music styles. The name bossa nova literally translates into “new trend” or “new wave,” and featured a lyrical fusion of samba and jazz.

At its core, bossa nova has a rhythm based on samba. Samba features the combination of rhythmic patterns and feel that originated in former African slave communities. Samba uses an emphasis on the second beat, which is carried through to bossa nova. That said, unlike the samba, bossa nova doesn’t have any particular dance steps to accompany it.

When it comes to vocals, bossa nova brought a new style of singing to Brazil. Before bossa nova’s rise Brazilian singers used a brassy, almost operatic style. But once bossa nova’s popularity spiked, the characteristic naval voice production that is a particular trait of the caboclo folk tradition found in northeastern Brazil become popular.

The themes found in bossa nova lyrics usually include women, longing, homesickness, and nature. Bossa nova was typically apolitical, and the musical lyrics of the late 1950s showed off the easy life of the middle to upper-class of Brazil – despite the majority of the population belonging to the working class.

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Originating among the European immigrants in Argentina and Uruguay, tango music and dance have become popular across the globe. Utilizing a 2/4 or 4/4 time signature, tango is traditionally played on a solo guitar, guitar duo, or an ensemble called the orquesta típica, which is made up of at least two violins, a flute, piano, double bass, and at least two bandoneons, a traditional instrument similar to an accordion. Sometimes guitars and a clarinet are invited to join the ensemble, and tango can feature lyrics, or be purely instrumental.

In addition to European influences, early tango was influenced by the locally by the payada, a competitive composing and singing of verses, the milonga, a lively Argentinian and Uruguayan musical genre, and candombe, a style of music and dance that was brought to Uruguay by enslaved Africans.

Tango reached the world, beginning in France, around 1920, with superstars of the genre bringing it to new audiences, especially in the United States thanks to the sensuality of the dance moves. Across Europe and the US, tango moved out of the lower-class clubs, and became the respectable form of music and dance we know it to be today. This led to the golden age of tango from around 1935 to 1952, when tango was performed with ensembles with over a dozen performers.

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Strictly speaking, flamenco is actually an art form that is based on a variety of musical traditions found in southern Spain. Speaking more broadly, flamenco is often used to refer to a variety of Spanish musical styles.

The exact origin of what we all flamenco today is unknown, and the subject of much debate. The most widespread and accepted belief is that flamenco was developed through the crosscultural exchanges between the Romani people of Spain during the 16th century, and primarily credits the Spanish Romani as the direct creators of the style. Manuel Ríos Ruiz noted that the development of flamenco is well known: “the theatre movement of sainetes (one-act plays) and tonadillas, popular song books and song sheets, customs, studies of dances, and toques, perfection, newspapers, graphic documents in paintings and engravings….in continuous evolution together with rhythm, the poetic stanzas, and the ambiance.”

Since then, flamenco has become popular around the world, including the United States, and in particular, Japan, where there are now more flamenco academies than there are in Spain. Thanks to this global popularity, on November 16, 2010, UNESCO declared flamenco one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

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Originally a genre of music and dance to go with it from the Czech Republic, polka has become familiar throughout all of Europe and the Americas. Originating in the middle 1800s in Bohemia, now a part of the Czech Republic, today the polka remains a popular form of folk music in many European and American countries and is performed by countless folk artists (and at least one popular parody musician!)

The rise in popularity for polka and its dance is generally attributed to a young woman named Anna Slezáková. Her dance teacher, Josef Neruda, noticed her dancing oddly to a local folk song in 1830. Legend has it she named the dance Maděra, or “Madeira wine,” because of its liveliness and energy. Neruda then took her dance, put the song to paper, and went on to teach it to others.

By 1835, the polka had made its way to the ballrooms of Prague, and then on to Vienna by 1839. And finally, in 1840 it was introduced to Paris by a Prague dance teacher named Raab. There, is was so popular there was a bit of “polkamania” that help spread the genre and dance to London and then the Americas. It remained a popular ballroom dance up until the latter part of the 19th century, when it was replaced by the two-step and the newer ragtime dances.

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A pennywhistle-based form of street music, kwela is characterized by jazzy underpinnings and a distinctive beat. Evolving out of marabi, another South African musical style, kwela brought South African music to the international stage in the 1950s.

With roots in southern Africa, kwela has influenced and been influenced by western music. This fusion has helped to give modern South African music, especially jazz, a lot of its distinctive and swinging strut.

As for why its performers use the pennywhistle so prominently, one simple answer is the low cost and portability of the instrument. The pennywhistle is also great for both solos and as a part of an ensemble. What’s more, the popularity of the pennywhistle may simply be an evolution of the fact that flutes of different kinds have been traditional instruments among the people of South Africa for centuries. The pennywhistle was therefore a logical way to quickly adapt folk tune into the new marabi-influenced popular music.

The word “kwela” itself is often thought to have come from the Zulu word for “climb.” With that in mind, the name could be meant as an invitation to join in on the dance!

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Tswana music

Traditional Tswana music, performed by the Tswana people, is reserved for feasts and special occasions, like beer gatherings, weddings, and initiation ceremonies. While under colonial rule, the music of the Tswana people was suppressed, but since independence for Botswana the folk music has seen a revival. Although most popular music in Botswana comes from other places in Africa (especially South Africa), Europe, and the US, Tswana music’s popularity is on the rise. This is thanks to the fact that many contemporary artists in Botswana are performing Tswana music and dance today.

This traditional music uses a variety of instruments, including the segaba, a violin-like instrument with only one string hooked to a tin, and the setinkane, which is made with varying forks and played with a keyboard.

The Tswana people categorize their music as “dipina,” or songs, based on what their purpose is within their culture. For example, music created for initiation ceremonies is called “moamo.” Much of the performance of these dipina is related to the seasons of the year:

Lethafula (Autumn): “To renew life,” a time for hoeing song and work-party songs.

Mariga (Winter): “Shade,” a time for children’ story songs sung by the fire.

Dikgakologo (Spring): “To melt away,” when women and children sing in the fields.

Selemo (Summer): “To salvage fallen crops from loose soil,” the time for beerbrewing, along with beer-songs and beer-dances.

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Filmi (literally “of films”) music are soundtracks produced for India’s motion picture industry and are written and performed for Indian cinema. What makes this genre so interesting is that despite essentially being film soundtracks, the genre represents 72% of the music sales market in India.

With wide appeal across India, Nepal, Pakistan, and overseas, filmi songs are performed on screen by playback singers, whose signing is prerecorded for use in the film, and is lip-synced by the actors on screen. These singers are generally known more for their singing ability than their performance charisma, and their success and appeal is directly connected to their involvement with popular film soundtracks.

In the earliest years of filmi, the music was essentially Indian, with influences from classical Carnatic, Hindustani, and village folk. However, as the films themselves become more diverse over time, so too did their soundtracks, which sometimes fuses genres or reverts entirely to classical music.

Today, filmi music has found some success beyond the usual Indian audiences, with many Western music stores now offering Indian musical compilations. What’s more, filmi music has had an influence on Western music since at least the late 1970s, with Devo’s 1988 hit “Disco Dancer” as just one example. The song was inspired by “I am a Disco Dancer,” a song from the Bollywood film Disco Dancer (1982).

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Short for Korean pop, K-pop is a massively popular genre of music from South Korea. K-pop has been influenced by music from around the world, including but not limited to experimental, rock, jazz, gospel, hip hop, R&B, reggae, electronic dance, folk, country, and classical, on top of its traditional Korean music roots.

The modern incarnation of K-pop began in the early 1990s with the group Seo Taiji and Boys. This early K-pop group experimented with a variety of styles and genres, as well as integrated elements of music from other parts of the planet, which helped reshape and guide South Korea’s modern music scene.

Starting in the early 2000s, a new generation of K-pop stars emerged, breaking into the Japanese music market, and then continued to popularize K-pop around the world. And since, thanks to the popularity of social media, K-pop, and Korean entertainment in general, is seeing something of a “Korean Wave,” becoming popular in East Asia, Southeast Asia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Latin America, North Africa, Southern Africa, the Middle East, and throughout the Western World.

In fact, K-pop now enjoys a global audience with fans from all walks of life, and in 2019, Kpop was ranked at number six among the top ten music markets worldwide according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry’s “Global Music Report 2019”, with groups BTS and Blackpink credited as the artists leading the explosion in popularity.

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Indigenous Music

The indigenous music of Australia includes the music of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of Australia. This includes several traditional forms of performance and musician instrumentation what are unique to specific areas or Aboriginal Australian groups.

The indigenous musical heritage of Australia became heavily influenced by European colonizers throughout the 18th century. Ever since, Indigenous Australian musicians have adopted and reimagined many aspects of the Western styles that have been imported. Similarly, popular contemporary musicians in rock and roll, country, rap, hip hop, and reggae have all used and sampled Indigenous styles and instruments.

And perhaps the most famous instrument associated with Indigenous Australian music is the didgeridoo. One of the oldest instruments still in use today, the didgeridoo consists of a long, simple tube that the player blows through. Sometimes a mouthpiece of beeswax is fitted into place, but there are never any finger holes. Traditionally the didgeridoo was played only by men, who use an impressive circular breathing technique to maintain a distinctive continuous sound. Although the instrument was traditionally only played by aboriginal groups in the northerly areas, it has become a world renowned and truly unique instrument.

Today, modern Indigenous music utilizes the earlier traditions, while also representing a fusion with global mainstream musical genres, like rock and country music. The use of traditional instruments like the didgeridoo and clapstick give the music a distinctive sound.

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Bush Ballad

Bush ballads, performed by bush bands, are a style of poetry or folk music that showcase the life, character, and landscape of the Australian bush. Usually using a simple and straightforward rhyme structure, bush ballads use colourful language to tell a story, usually of action and adventure.

The tone of bush ballads can range from funny to mournful, and usually explore themes from Australian folklore, like life on the frontier, cattle drives, droughts, and floods. This tradition dates back to the early days of European colonization, when mostly British and Irish colonists brought their folk music to Australia with them. In fact, many of the first bush ballad poems were created by people in Australia’s convict system. From there, it evolved into something new and finally gained widespread popularity around the end of the 19th century.

Bush ballads as a genre has faded in popularity since the beginning of the 20th century, but works from the time leading up to Australia’s Federation are still among the best-known and loved poems in Australian culture, with giants of the genre, known as “bush bards,” such as Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson considered masters of Australian literature. Even today, clubs and festivals centered around bush ballads and poetry occur every year throughout the country, and the genre remains a popular form of folk music.

Learn more about the Blues here.

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