Con-fusion

Jazz - Sholto Byrnes says that what passes for world music is often a sham

Programmes for the forthcoming London Jazz Festival have been flopping on to doormats all over the country, and there have already been grumbles about one aspect of the programme - the presence of many artists who fall under the category of "world music". Are there two words more likely to depress the spirits than this catch-all description? Take a conga and a sitar, say, add them on to any kind of music you care, and - hey presto - you've got a band that qualifies for this title, instantly allowing its practitioners unlimited critical leeway and conferring on the listeners the badge of tolerance and general right-on-ness.

Criticising world music is unfashionable. But let me be clear. By "world music", I do not mean the authentic musical traditions from around the globe. They have their own terms, and to lump them together under one heading is arbitrary, not to say rude. I'm talking about the result of adding music from the western classical, jazz or pop genres to music from places without those forms, which generally means poorer, less materially developed countries. Because of this, saying you don't like world music, or, even more bravely, casting relativism aside and saying you think it has nothing lasting and serious to offer, is like attacking Amnesty International or Friends of the Earth - only lunatics with an unhealthy taste for controversy dare challenge the orthodoxy that it is self-evidently worthy.

While acknowledging the UN line - that using music to learn about different cultures is beneficial - one must still judge the result of this pick 'n' mix approach on its musical merit. And the suggestion that a jazz quartet, or, for that matter, a classical string quartet, is automatically improved by the addition of an ethnic instrument is unjustified nonsense.

Underlying the idea that something "different" is produced by what can be a jarring juxtaposition, and that that "difference" must be good, is a patronising and insidious attitude - either of the "aren't the natives quaint" variety; or one related to the backpackers' desire to escape their own cultural moorings, in so doing unquestionably embracing anything "other" and elevating it above the boring traditions they hope to leave behind, a process customarily aided by a healthy draw on a chillum.

This relativist cultural cringe has led to a whole raft of third- and fourth-rate bands being greeted with wild acclaim just because, for instance, they wear traditional Innuit clothing while playing the electric guitar. All too often, this is what world music is: bland semi-electric pap lent respectability by a dusting of exotic spice.

As the music critic Michael Church has pointed out, this is gravely insulting to the traditions of the countries from where this supermarket-strength spice has been extracted. Do we think we're doing anyone any favours if we reduce the devotional music of India or Japan to the equivalent of Hooked on Classics? Is the music of the Andes really best represented by those pan-pipe bands that seem to pop up whenever three Chileans who need a bit of spare change are gathered together?

There are, of course, successful fusions - and even those of lesser depth may tempt the listener to discover the glory of the constituent parts. But as in cooking, it takes a master to infuse one tradition with elements of another; and while Pacific Rim cuisine produced by the right kitchens is a treat for the palate, its forerunner, let us not forget, was the gammon steak garnished by a pineapple ring.

There is nothing wrong with exploring other traditions. The experiments that work best, however, are those strongly rooted in one or another. Thus the Scottish musicians taking part in the "Tossing the Caber" set at the London Jazz Festival and the French saxophonist Julien Lourau incorporate Celtic and North African influences respectively but remain clearly within the broad parameters of jazz, and all the better for it.

There's far too much emphasis on "straddling" or "overcoming" boundaries, as though that were some great end in itself. If jazz (or any other form) has any confidence in its past and its ability to move forward, it has no need of gimmicks. Listen to "world music" if you like, just as you might - just might - dance to S Club Seven if you're at a club. But don't pretend it's serious music.

The London Jazz Festival runs from 15-24 November. Details from www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/jazzfest2002

Sholto Byrnes is a staff writer on the Independent and the Independent on Sunday