Big Big World

  • The List
  • 17 October 2006

The world at your feet

How much is the whole notion of world music just about cultural tokenism and easing western consciences? Mark Robertson asks Big Big World curator Billy Kelly.

This month, Big Big World returns to Glasgow. The well-established, and, to be fair, excellent series of live shows showcases talent from all around the world, this year’s attraction coming from Scotland, Iran, Canada, Cuba, India, the US and all over Africa.

Isn’t it easy to become cynical though? In this age of global economies and the internet isn’t all music technically world music? There is also the danger of tokenism. Punters can be seen as ‘broadminded’ by dabbling, rather like stretching to a few glasses of sangria on a Spanish package holiday. Does organising an event showcasing music from all over the world and branding it as such simply give people an opportunity to sample a bit of the other in a sterile, safe environment?

I put these thoughts to Billy Kelly, the man who for more than a decade has been bringing acts from all over the globe under the BBW banner. My thoughts were, to be honest, made from more of a devil’s advocate’s position, trying to get some kind of reaction but Kelly, who, in his own unpretentious, enthusiastic way, has simple but effective arguments as to why events like BBW not only should, but need to exist.

‘I always worry about our desire to try and analyse everything instead of just accepting the great gifts that come our way,’ says Kelly. ‘We find a large number of people who come along to Big Big World events are open-minded folks who just want to dip their toe in and hopefully savour a new experience. We spend too much time attempting to pigeonhole music in this country, steering people towards something they might feel ‘safe’ with if they are already ‘into’ a particular narrow field of focus.

‘The World Music tag is a catch-all heading which simply confirms that artistes come from many wide and varied backgrounds. Some of the music originates from strong traditions going back many generations, while some may have started out with those threads but been moulded through innovation, imagination and virtuosity to become something very distinctly different in much the same way that you find in the jazz world.

‘World music gives all of us, more than any other genre, a chance to embrace other cultures and step out of the box for a few moments. We all need to do that from time to time. It has a unique ability too, to lure diehards over from the jazz, folk, rock, pop, Celtic and classical scenes to come together under the one roof. I know. I’ve seen them. That’s a healthy situation.’

The point inevitably, is about taking a chance on something new, not for the ‘we feel we should’ or because it eases our political or social conscience or reflects our liberal credentials, but because, like all music from wild, experimental metal to the most oblique and troubled folk music, it forces us to listen and take in something not only new and perhaps unfamiliar. It may have a different crowd perhaps but the principles behind BBW mirror those of say, Instal, Soundings or Free RadiCCAls - events revelling in the joy of the other.

Various venues, Glasgow, 22-28 Oct. See Folk, Jazz and Rock listings for full details.

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