Please note that the narrative on world music is preliminary and contains ‘loose ends’ (indicated in bold italic), which we hope readers will help tie up. Like any other subject in the MCA knowledge base, it will be augmented and updated as time goes. However, all things need a beginning to build on, and we hope many will contribute to develop the story. Contributors will be acknowledged.

Defining World Music in Australia

‘World music’ is a term with uncertain boundaries. Everybody’s music is ‘world music’ to someone. In Australia, the term means something like the music of cultures other than the Australian mainstream culture. On that basis, some in China would be entitled to regard all of the Australian mainstream culture as ‘world music’. ‘Australian mainstream culture’ is also a term that probably is fuzzy around the edges, but we take it to mean Western pop music in its various forms, probably out to the edge of electronic experimentation, Western classical music, Anglo-Celtic folk music.

This means that world music for Australians is the music of non-Western cultures and of Western cultures other than the Anglo-Celtic mainstream. Indeed, it probably even includes the traditional musics of the British Isles. It includes the traditional musics of indigenous Australians. For Australians, all of these musics certainly are world musics when they are played in their countries of origin, but they also are world musics when played in Australia by Australians.

This is in a sense about the ‘where’ of world music. There is also the ‘what’. World music includes the traditional musics in their more or less pure form, the changes, developments, evolutions of those musics, the commercial modifications to them intended to win a wider audience, and hybrid forms in which a world music genre or genres is mixed with other genres, whatever their derivation.

Other terms used to identify world music are ‘ethnic music’, ‘multicultural music’, ‘fusion music’. Of these, ‘multicultural music’ seems to be problematical because it is applied not only to hybrid or fusion genres that mix the music of more than one culture, but also to ‘pure’ genres from a single ethnicity.

We notice that some Australian musicians are attempting to distance themselves from the label ‘world music’. There seem to be two reasons. For some people, to be labelled a performer of world music is to be sidelined and cut off from an audience and a living they would like to cultivate. Whether they are realistic in their analysis we cannot say. The reason for the other group seems to be that as the world grows smaller, we all belong to some ethnicity. They are against privileging one ethnicity over another, against inside track vs outside track, against musical ‘self’ vs musical ‘other’ types of distinction.

These may well be substantial issues but they leave us without a term to indicate the distinction felt in some way by most musicians and citizens. So we will persist with the term ‘world music’ until some new fashion of terminology takes over.

Live performance

The Audience

A part of the indigenous population lives in somewhat traditional circumstances and to the extent that the traditional indigenous music is still performed, it would be mostly in that context. There is also interest among some indigenous people in reclaiming traditional cultural practices and some of these people live in metropolitan or regional centres. For more information on these issues, please go to the Australian Indigenous Music section of this knowledge base.

Australia is home to people originating from 160 countries according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Some of these countries have contributed multiple musical genres to Australian musical life. The traditional musics and related forms such as dance are kept alive within many ethnic communities but may not be visible from outside them. This does not mean that there is universal interest in ethnic communities in maintaining these musics within Australia.A young Indian or Lebanese Australian is more likely to want to join the popular mainstream culture and it may only be in the subsequent generation that some have an impulse to revive the ethnic traditions.

For the population as a whole, world music is a niche interest – although taste boundaries are not as rigid as they used to be, so many people may at least make a casual acquaintance with some of the more popular forms.

Finally, mention might be made of school children as audience, since there are programs that take world music performers live into schools.


In a later development of this section, it may be possible to give some guidance in finding world music performances in ethnic communities.

In each of the major state capital cities, there is at least one organisation that presents live performances of a variety of world music genres, normally in one or more regular venues. One objective is to reach and broaden the mainstream audience; another is to make opportunities for world music musicians to reach a wider audience and to receive remuneration. The best known of these presenters are the following. All also offer instructional programs.

Sydney Olympic Park is developing plans to become in some way a centre for world music, with a program of performances and instruction. Details are not yet available.


The largest world music festival in Australia probably is Womadelaide, one of the Womad festivals franchised around the world. It is now an annual festival.

There are many folk music festivals in Australia. These festivals, formerly presenting ‘bush music’ based around Anglo-Celtic traditions, increasingly include the folk musics of immigrant cultures. Among these festivals are:

The Musicians

There must be thousands of ‘world music’ musicians performing at some level in Australia. We mention here, for interest, a number of exceptional achievement. Most of these musicians are masters or mistresses of a tradition but also experiment, in partnerships with musicians of other traditions, in developing new hybrid or fusion forms.

  • Ian Cleworth, Japanese taiko drumming master (Founded Taikoz).
  • Lou Kiek, plucked string instruments of the Balkan countries, often performing with his wife Mara.
  • Mara Kiek, as a solo singer or as leader of her choir, Mara!, performing music of Bulgaria and its region.
  • Riley Lee, shakuhachi master.
  • Satsuko Odumura, koto. Also experiments with the tradition, and performs fusion music with the trio Waratah.
  • ][Linsey Pollack]], multi-instrumentalist. Macedonian bagpipes among others.
  • Ashok Roy, sarod master. Artistic Director of the Australian Institute for Eastern Music until his death in 200?.
  • Bobby Singh, tabla.
  • Taikoz. Japanese taiko drumming ensemble.
  • Joseph Tawadros, oud in the Egyptian tradition.

Other Matters


[Need to discover what is in the school curricula. Can anyone help? RL] A number of organisations offer a multicultural program of performances and workshops for schools. Please check the list at XXX in this wiki (not yet done). Probably the largest presenter of this type of offering is Pan Events, through its program Cultural Diffusion, offered in most states. The nation-wide program Musica Viva in Schools also includes world music. There is no tertiary institution in Australia that offers a broad specialist program in world music along the lines of some in other countries (e.g. the World Music & Dance Centre of the Rotterdam Conservatoire). However, some tertiary institutions do offer instruction in some world music forms. They include:

Some institutions offer courses in ethnomusicology. They include (can anyone help fill gaps?)

  • The Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music at the University of Adelaide offers instruction in traditional and contemporary forms to Aboriginal students.
  • The Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS)(drw: I don’t think they teach)
  • ???


To our knowledge, the only specialist radio station for world music is the public national SBS-FM network. It is our understanding that the program segments of this service are in the hands of the various ethnic communities and the emphasis given to music varies according to their interest. Generally, the musical performances are from the ‘homeland’ and while there is a network policy to support Australian performers it is not clear how vigorously it is supported.

Otherwise, world music programs are dotted around the state and community radio stations. World music would be at best a rarity on commercial radio. The ‘Daily Planet’ program is heard twice daily on weekdays on ABC Radio National, – a good program, but by and large, it is not strong on non-Western music.


Most Australian world music recordings are self-released. In the absence of a substantial commitment by any Australian record company, the supply appears to be limited and not easily accessible. The Music Council’s magazine, Music Forum, reviews all Australian world music recordings that come to hand, and reviews from past issues can be found on the MCA website by using the search engine to search for specific genres.

Policy and Funding

The Australia Council for the Arts, the Commonwealth arts funding and policy body, has a policy, Arts in a Multicultural Australia, to guide and encourage multicultural funding support by its boards. (states, local government?)

Asialink is a non-profit organisation that supports artist exchanges, including exchanges of musicians, between Australia and Asian countries.


There is global concern for the protection and promotion of cultural diversity and musical diversity. This has led recently to the formulation and promulgation of the UNESCO Convention for the Promotion and Protection of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions. On 18 December 2006, UNESCO announced that more than the necessary minimum of 30 countries had adopted the Convention. It will enter into force three months later, on 18 March 2007.

A research paper for the International Music Council and UNESCO, titled The Protection and Promotion of Musical Diversity, has as its last section a compendium of the challenges facing musical diversity globally. You will find a link to the study at 1. The appendices are also very interesting.

The Diversity of Cultural Expressions News is published by email by the government of Quebec, Canada, and gives news of the progress of the UNESCO Convention, along with other issues. The International Music Council, to which the Music Council of Australia is the national affiliate, works on these matters through its Many Musics Action Plan.

For a summary of the global threats to musical diversity, click here.


Richard Letts. Last updated 8 January 2007.

Dr Richard Letts AM is the founder and Director of The Music Trust, founder and former Executive Director of the Music Council of Australia (now Music Australia) and Past President of the International Music Council. He has held senior positions in music and culture in Australia and the United States, advocated for music and music education, conducted research, written policy documents, edited four periodicals, published four books and hundreds of articles.

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