Producer/musician Endeguena Mulu shares this brilliant artist statement on why the term ‘world music’ (and its ugly cousin ‘ethnic music’) should be banned from our vocabulary.

There are a few things that I hold dear and believe in when it comes to my music. First, I don’t like to give a strict definition about Ethiopiyawi electronic, because it is in its very beginnings and I don’t want to put it in a box. Keep in mind my definition might not be the definition of my fellow Ethiopiyawi electronic musicians. And yes, it is Ethiopiyawi electronic and not just Ethiopiyawi by itself. Ethiopiyawi means Ethiopian in Amharic.

It is a genre that uses modern technology to make music that is deeply rooted in the music from all over Ethiopia. It does not see traditional musicians as some exotic brand. It’s not ‘world music’. And it tries to break the cycle of tribal fetishism and ethnocentrism. It is not just people from the western world who do this. People from my country do this. People from my continent do this. It is patronising and condescending to try to label artists in such a manner.

Traditional music is not a thing of the past; it is very much alive. Contemporary artists are still performing. Some are performing it as it used to be performed, keeping the things that have been passed down to them intact. Others are trying to innovate. Both are pushing culture and tradition forward. At the end of the day all music is traditional: new traditions, old traditions, non-changing, ever changing.

I am sure we can all find better ways to label and categorise musicians from all over the world, other than putting them in ‘catch-all’ labels like ‘world music’.

The term ‘world music’ has no place – and never had a place – in the world in which we live.

When a washint player from the highlands of Ethiopia is playing his instrument, he is like any other musician from any other background. He is making sounds that are arranged and played to express what he feels or what he sees around him. And sometimes you might not even see this washint player playing for an audience. He might be playing for himself and the trees and animals around him.

The term ‘world music’ has no place – and never had a place – in the world in which we live. It might have been created with the best of intentions but it is not a representative and universal term. It segregates music.

Terms such as ‘ethnic music’ are even worse. Just think about the etymology of that combination of words: ethnic music. It tells you all you need to know about what’s wrong with the term ‘world music’ and all its friends and the – probably subconscious – mentality behind it.

It’s born from the untrue, unsaid, unexpressed thought that everything that comes from the west is the pinnacle of everything; that it is the one thing that is happening in the world that is worth taking the time to enjoy; the only way forward; the only way to the future.

Not only are these labels confusing, they are offensive and unnecessary.

Again if it were only in the West and by Westerners this view were held, it wouldn’t bother me much. But thanks to education and entertainment all over the world being heavily westernised, it is people – who are owners of the cultures that are being diminished – who also hold these views, looking down on their own ‘third world’ culture and praising above all the ‘first and second worlds’.

Not only are these labels confusing, they are offensive and unnecessary, and they do more harm than good. They perpetuate the idea that music that influences everything else around it should be treated with respect and all seriousness. On the other hand the music that comes from the other places, from the ‘colonised places’ can all be put in one category, one basket, because it is something you play at a dinner party to impress your very important guests. It then becomes music from the ‘land of the slaves’, the ‘help’, the ‘dangerous ethnic tribal mysterious lands out there somewhere’, ‘lands that we don’t know about and that we fear and wonder about’, ‘the only adventurers dare to go to’… that’s the ill feeling that these terms give me.

Ethiopian Records playing a set.

If one wants to label a piece of music, how about labelling it as it should be (if it even needs to be labelled at all) and not put all that music in one basket in order to sell it and make it more understandable or exotic or exciting for ‘this and that’ audience. Each piece of music is unique and has its own characteristic; by using these ‘catch-all’ labels they are robbing themselves from actually discovering and enjoying the music organically and in a true beautiful and pure way.

When you can do that, more or less free from all the things that have been installed in your head – all the forged stereotypes, all the untrue definitions and perceptions clouding the space between us and that energy, between humans trying to connect to each other ourselves and to all that’s around – that’s when you will be able to share and to experience what has been shared with you. At least that’s what I have always believed and what I have always tried to achieve in all that I do. It’s not about where you are from, or what you have been listening to all your life, or what you have been told to listen to by someone else, it’s about what is being said to you, about that message, that feeling, that purpose, that lesson that has been tailor made for you in this life. Open your ears, your eyes, your hearts.

One culture can’t influence everyone else’s. Cultures have to feed off each other. That’s how they grow.

The beauty of this century is that you can do so much with so little equipment. Of course the lack of finances and infrastructure does not make things easier but they are easier than they were 10 years ago. That’s the power of music technology; you can do a lot with very little.

What’s on the ground is lacking. Understanding needs to grow in order for things to grow. People everywhere have to be able to have their music reach everywhere it can possibly reach. Just like most music from elsewhere reaches Algiers, Luanda, Cape Town, and Addis Ababa. Young people and old people have to be able to play in this big field we call the globalised world. If the world is going to be better, it can’t just be a one-way road. One culture can’t influence everyone else’s. Cultures have to feed off each other. That’s how they grow, by learning and understanding each other, not by one or a chosen few telling all the rest it’s the best one and everything else is wrong or just there to spice things up. Love and understanding: that’s the only way things are going to change for the better.

Keep your ears peeled for TRUE Africa’s upcoming series of mixes by Ethiopian Records and friends.