A visit to any large record store suggests "world music" and "world beat" discs and cassettes are big sellers. So long, American isolationism.
At a time when U.S. pop music has conquered the world as never before, Americans in unprecedented numbers have discovered foreign pop and folk music. This is different from the weekend polka or bouzouki jamborees on ethnic radio stations. "World music" listeners typically have no ethnic connection to the music they want to hear.
"World music" is authentic ethnic music from foreign countries; "world beat" is crossover music like Brazilian bossa nova or certain types of rhythmic and harmonic creations based on West African highlife music.
The latter genre has been so widely adopted that some 15 years ago the Voice of America started a program for Africa that played nothing but Afropop. That program, renamed "Afropop Worldwide," now is carried by the U.S. National Public Radio and includes music from Africa as well as from its diaspora.
"World music" ranges from Celtic fiddling and Scottish bagpipes to soulful Portuguese fado and Andean folkloric music. The boeremusik [farmers' music] of white South Africans also belongs to that genre, as does Swiss yodeling and Indian and Arab music. All these are typically stocked by leading record stores. (Some genres also have sites on the World Wide Web).
"World music" shows how the world has shrunk in recent years. Songs that once were deemed to be merely strange-sounding today have appeal far beyond their core audiences. Even if this proves to be a short-lived fad, it's surely an intriguing one.