Travelling Without Moving: Exploring the World Through Music

Want to experience other cultures but lacking the means to travel? One writer takes a musical approach to exploring the world

Feature by Ian Paterson | 05 Jan 2018

Take a look at your phone, laptop or whatever device it is you’re using to listen to music at the moment. Now be honest with yourself – do you notice a pattern? It hit me one night when I was having my dinner. I was eating a lovingly prepared Malaysian laksa. The night before that, I’d had pizza. The night before that was stir-fry. I’m not normally the kind of person who can remember what I had last night for my dinner but this time, it was important. I looked down at my phone. Pretty much all of the music on it was from the UK or USA, whereas the food we eat is from a wide variety of countries. Why is it that we are more open to the world’s food culture, than we are to its music?

We are living in turbulent times globally, and world leaders are more often the cause of international tensions (Brexit, Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, North Korea, Jerusalem or the European migrant crisis for example) than the ones finding solutions. If leaders don’t inspire much confidence, then it may be left to regular folk like us to build cultural bridges, from the ground up.

Travel, at its best, encourages respect between different cultures. To visit another country and see it with your own eyes is to understand something of it, first hand. Media organisations with overt political allegiances make it impossible to take what we hear about the world through them at face value. In some cases, it is their aim to guide us surreptitiously to find enemies abroad; to influence our opinions, rather than present the facts in an open and transparent manner.

Of course, travel isn’t feasible for everyone. It is expensive and time-consuming. At its worst, it is an elitist pursuit. In recent years, extensive travel has increasingly become the exclusive hobby of the Baby Boomers whose riches have grown over the last couple of decades. As the younger Gen-X and Millennial generations’ fortunes worsen, their travel plans have been forced to shrink to fit.

It is possible, however, to engage with different cultures regularly, in an inexpensive way, without even leaving the house. You will find a more nuanced account of Syria from listening to the music of Omar Souleyman, for example, than you would from picking up a UK newspaper. It says a lot about the Syrian respect for marriage that their most internationally recognised musician is a humble wedding singer (and farmer) who sings exclusively on the topic of eternal love. Our media may present only one aspect of the Syrian nation but Souleyman is a lover, not a fighter.

With these thoughts in mind, I set about a project to immerse myself as much as I could in the world’s music. As a huge music fan, traveller and former music blogger, understanding the world through music makes a lot of sense to me. And so I began scouring the internet, looking up music blogs from different countries, listening to Spotify playlists from around the globe. It became an all-consuming process and one that I soon realised was more difficult than I thought, due to how music is presented to us.

The music industry is structured in such a way as to make it more likely that I heard the music that I have on my phone. Only three major music companies – Universal, Sony, Warner – hold a 70% global market share, running an effective monopoly over what music you’re able and likely to hear. None of them even has an office in any of the poorest half of global nations. They use their influence to get their artists heard first, so it is the music they sell that you are most likely to hear and most of their artists are – you guessed it – British or North American.

I realised I needed some help – it was time to enlist the help of music and travel bloggers I knew from around the world, to collaborate with music from their respective nations.

In came travel bloggers like Kristin Addis – who has lived in Berlin for four years – and contributed her knowledge of the city’s electronic scene. Freelance music and travel journo Zoe Macfarlane answered the call to provide insight into the music of her homeland, New Zealand. New music blogs like Sweden’s Sounds of a Tired City or Germany’s We Love That Sound picked the tracks that helped us get under the skin of their respective countries. Friends I’d met on my own travels started to chip in too, adding the knowledge needed to collate great examples of music from around the globe.

You can find the playlists collectively curated so far on the Resfeber Travel Blog; please do delve into these carefully curated cultural collections. To a music fan, learning about the world through music makes so much sense. Yes, they might be singing in a different language but you needn’t look any further than Glasgow’s own Mogwai, to tell you “music is bigger than words and wider than pictures” and god damn right it is.

It’s impossible to expect you to fall for every band from every country, but with an open mind, we can at the very least learn something from each. So far, I’ve learned that I’d happily pay £20 for a ticket to go and see transcendental Mongolian folk band, Huun-Huur-Tu. I’d gladly miss the last bus home in favour of moshing through an encore at one of Chilean indie band Dënver’s gigs. I’ve discovered that with a population similar to Inverness, Greenland’s isolated location and cold weather actually helps them to produce a quality of music you’d expect from a country of millions.

I’m loath to use the term ‘world music’ to describe these sounds. I mean, we wouldn’t describe a band from the USA that way, so why should we use the term to describe a band from South America?

Listen to our African Music Playlist, which features a huge proportion of its music from the thriving Malian scene, one of the many nations under-represented by the major labels. Surely with internationally acclaimed acts like Tinariwen, Amadou & Mariam and Salif Keita, that’s a scene worth nurturing?

Some tips on approaching your musical journey: when researching different music cultures, come at it from the angle of a travel enthusiast. You wouldn’t travel to a country that doesn’t have what you think is interesting culture, would you? Check out the music from the places that pique your interest. Immerse yourself in the music of a place you’ve always wanted to visit. Travel without moving. It can be a transcendental experience.

For example, ever since watching the BBC documentary How to Stay Young, I’ve been hooked. It featured the lifestyles of the Okinawan people – the longest living people in the world – from southern Japan. Their culture, lifestyle and health regimes are fascinating. Why do they live so long? What’s even more interesting is when listening to their music, you can feel you can hear the vibrancy of their lifestyles transmit directly into the incredible folk music they create. It’s powerful heartfelt music, as if their ultra-healthiness gives them an added creative glow – healthy body, healthy mind, so they say. It’s powerfully evocative music and why several Okinawan folk tracks appear on Resfeber's Japanese Music Playlist. If you’re interested in exploring a feast of international delights, maybe even promoting global equality, now might be your chance.