There is a nice (albeit brief) article about Juan Luis Guerra in the NYT today that addresses the problem of world music (“music whose lyrics we can’t understand”). The music sounds great and perhaps hints at something exotic, different; but without understanding the lyrics we may be missing out on something huge.

Guerra–one of the musicians whose music I most enjoy both listening and dancing to– is an excellent case in point. His music is eminently pleasing to listen to, but did you realize that that infectious dance beat obscures a biting criticism of the state of healthcare? That the deliciously romantic melody and smooth singing belie a striking use of language and poetry? Upon every listening I gain a new insight into the Spanish language, Dominican culture, musicality, and meaning.

When I became fluent in Italian, Italian music was no more “world music” to me, but a whole new world of pop, rock, rap, R&B, folk, and more. When I learned to dance salsa, merengue, cha cha cha, and bachata, and to comprehend the Spanish words, tropical music was no longer “world”– or even “Latin” music to me, but four new distinct genres of music with their own musical and rhythmical structure, and tradition of political expression.

To be honest, the term “world music” rather grates on me, and I avoid its use whenever possible. The same thing has happened to dances not originating in the European or American traditions in the U.S. Anything that does not fit neatly into the categories of ballet, modern, jazz, hip hop, or ballroom dance are “world dances,” discounting the rich tradition and meaning behind each one of them.