Though most music fans have a favorite genre of music, there are many benefits to listening to music styles from cultures unlike your own. Listening to music from different countries, even when performed in a language that you don’t understand, can help expand your perception of the world, bridge gaps between cultures, and even introduce you to a new favorite music style that you may not have otherwise discovered.
For those interested in learning about music outside of the western world, check out the following five international music styles that are widely enjoyed on other continents.
Already massively popular in its home country of South Korea, K-pop music has steadily gained a dedicated international fan base in recent years, including in parts of Europe, the Middle East, South America, and the United States. This upbeat music style is a blend of hip-hop, pop, and electronic music and is characterized by family-friendly lyrics with song hooks written to be blatantly catchy. K-pop music is almost always performed by all-female or all-male-fronted bands who release exciting, big budget music videos featuring extensive choreography and colorful, fashion-forward costumes. One of the first K-pop songs to receive widespread radio play in western countries was the song “Gangnam Style” by the artist PSY, who released the hit tune in 2012.
Calypso music is native to the Caribbean islands and most prominently performed in Trinidad. First developed in the early years of the 20th century, Calypso is influenced by both West African rhythm and European folk music. It relies heavily on stringed instruments like the guitar and banjo combined with steady percussion from instruments such as maracas or tamboo-bamboos. The lyrics of Calypso songs originally served as a way of spreading current events throughout the island of Trinidad in the early 1900s, especially news that was political in nature. However, the political climate at the time that Calypso music was first established required musicians to deliver the divisive subject matter through carefully-constructed lyrics that were typically witty and rooted in satire. This lyrical tradition continues in the genre today. Though not technically a Calypso musician, the singer Harry Belafonte helped popularize the genre through the release of “Banana Boat Song (Day-O)” in 1956.
The origins of qawwali date back more than 700 years to India and the south of Pakistan. Usually performed by Sufi Muslim men, the music is a tool through which the musicians, known as qawwals, can inspire congregations. It is a powerful form of music that incorporates poetic lyrics and percussive instruments like the harmonium, tabla, and dholak to move its listeners to a state of heightened spiritual union with God, or Allah. The typical qawwali ensembles includes one singer or pair of lead singers accompanied by a chorus of individuals who sing the song’s refrains and support the percussion with rhythmic hand-clapping. Though it remains predominantly religious in nature, the style has expanded beyond the devout Sufi demographic, in a manner similar to Gospel music in the United States. The late musician Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is considered to be the individual responsible for expanding the popularity of qawwali outside of its traditional roots.
A style developed in the northern African country of Algeria, raï combines popular western-style music with that of the nomadic desert-dwelling people known as the Bedouins. While early versions of this musical style incorporated flutes and hand drums, the modern iteration of the genre is heavily influenced by pop and dance music and features a wide range of instruments, from saxophones and trumpets to drum synthesizers and electric guitars. One thing that has remained unchanged about raï music from its inception through modern day is the blunt nature of its lyrics, which are sung in Arabic or French. Song lyrics address the ups and downs of everyday life in a direct and occasionally vulgar fashion, and singers sometimes improvise during performances in the way of American blues musicians. The most famous raï singer of today is a performer named Khaled, who is commonly known as “the King of Raï.”
Known alternatively as baile funk, funk carioca is a beat-heavy music style that developed in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in the 1980s. By bringing American funk music, hip-hop, and freestyle rap music together and combining them with older Brazilian songs, DJs in Rio de Janeiro created a new genre that became ideal for dancing and popular among the country’s youth. Lyrics in funk carioca music are known for addressing taboo subjects, including poverty, social injustice, sex, and the violence occurring within Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, or shantytowns. The melody of funk carioca songs is typically sampled from an older tune, and may be instrumental or feature rapping and/or singing, often in Portuguese. One of the more popular funk carioca-inspired artists to find success outside of the original fan base in Rio is the rapper M.I.A., who is not Brazilian but is heavily influenced by the style, as evidenced by many songs on her 2005 album Arular.