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World Music and Ethnic Pop


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World music caters to the international or Western market and ethnic pop to national audiences. They have a similar dilemma:

  • On one extreme, the exoticism and orientalism of both world music and ethnic pop can promote racist stereotypes, and at times exploit musicians and musical traditions of the global south. Ethnic pop for instance reiterates the widespread prejudice that ‘ethnic minorities’ and aboriginal peoples are wild, promiscuous and better in singing and dancing, whereas Han-Chinese majorities are sophisticated, timid and restrained.
  • On the other extreme world music and ethnic pop can be seen as enabling encounters and facilitating mutual understanding. They promote the ideal of a pluralized society where people of different ethnic backgrounds are welcome, equal and happy (or hippy). World music and ethnic pop also have proven to be one of the few effective strategies for musicians with disadvantaged ethnic backgrounds to make their voices heard in the mainstream media, and to find a market.

Like traveling and tourism, the sonic tourism of world music and ethnic pop negotiates this dilemma. They introduce mainstream Chinese and/or Western audiences to a different worldview (or ‘worldsound’) without going so far as to challenge the privileged position of these audiences. Singers may also manipulate this dilemma to their advantage. The wild and sexy sounds and images of the Taiwanese singer A-mei were not deemed improper in the late 1990s, because she has an aboriginal (puyuma) background, on which she reflects in a number of songs.

Mainstream successes

The German project Enigma scored a hit with the song “Return to Innocence” in 1994. The song contains an unauthorized sample of the aboriginal Taiwanese singers Kuo Ying-nan and Kuo Hsiu-chu. In 1998 these singers of the Ami ethnicity sued Enigma, after which the matter was settled out of court.

Shortly after this, China joined the band wagon of world beat and new age. In 1988 Wind Records started as a distributor of new age and Buddhist music in Taiwan. After successes with albums of the American Matthew Lien in 1995, the company started to produce its own albums.

More or less simultaneously on the mainland, the composer He Xuntian of the Shanghai conservatory used extensive field recordings and the latest MIDI technology to produce the album Sister Drum  (1995). The album was sung by the Cantonese singer Zhu Zheqin (aka Dadawa), whose wide vocal range and abundant inflections and vibratos are as reminiscent of Enya and even Faye Wong as they are of Tibetan folksong. Still the album was marketed both inside and outside China in reference to those mysterious and spiritual highlands.

Sa Dingding won the Asia/Pacific World Music Award from BBC Radio 3 in 2008 with her debut Alive (2007). Like Zhu Zheqin, Sa Dingding is a Han-Chinese singer posing as a sensual exotic beauty. Alive evokes a esoteric and spiritual Tibet and the subsequent album Harmony (2010) samples ethnic sounds of Yunnan province.


  • Whereas Zhu Zheqin and Sa Dingding market femininities, the folk rock band Hanggai displays a machismo that is reminiscent of Rammstein. This is in style with their (inner) Mongolian roots. The band’s songs celebrate a nomadic existence, the prairies, meat-eating, horse-riding and drinking. During the many international festival tours members often wear semi-traditional leather outfits.
  • The music also doesn’t rely on samples and midi but is a live sound that fuses rock with Mongolian and Chinese acoustic instruments (such as the horse-head fiddle) and vocal techniques (such as overtone singing). Band leader Ilchi (a Han-Chinese from Inner Mongolia) started Hanggai after a renewed interest in folk music swept the Beijing rock scene in the early 2000s. They were also influenced by the band IZ (aka jiaoyin, led by Mamu’r), which performed its new arrangements of Kazakh and Xinjiang folk music in Beijing.
  • With the help of the Britons Robin Haller and Matteo Scumaci Hanggai recorded their first album in 2008 and performed in England, where the Dutch music company Earth Beat saw them. Earth Beat was able to plug Hanggai at world music, rock and metal festivals all over the world.
  • No Chinese rock band or pop singer performs as much internationally as Hanggai. Since 2010 they have invested in their success in China. Although they are well known in the band scene, it has proven difficult for them to get exposure in the mainstream media, where their Mongolian background is not an asset. Still they have organized a successful festival in Beijing in 2012, explicitly framing their efforts as world music rather than Mongolian music, Chinese music or (folk) rock.


The above-mentioned singers and bands make world music, and some of them use this label themselves. By contrast, ethnic pop is my term and as a genre it is almost indistinguishable from mainstream pop.

  • Only music that represents an exotic sound in a national mainstream is ethnic pop. In this view, Taike rock (in Taiwan) and Tibetan pop (for Tibetans) are not by definition ethnic pop. Songs in these styles can be if they engage in self-exoticism.
  • Ethnic minority singers don’t always make their heritage explicit, which is the case with Cui Jian (Beijing born Korean) and Zhang Zhenyue (Taipei born Amei).
  • Most of the successful ethnic pop songs are by singers that predominantly sing mainstream pop. This includes Zheng Jun’s “Return to Lhasa” (1994) and a number of A-mei’s songs (mentioned above).
  • A number of the PRC’s most successful propaganda singers have an ethnic background, including Tengge’er (Mongolian), Han Hong (Tibetan) and Song Zuying (Hmong). Their ethnicity is subordinate to the celebration of the nation (see Mass and Propaganda Music).
  • Finally, singers such as Dao Lang (in 2002) and the duo Phoenix Legend (after 2005) have been   hugely successful with a sound inspired by ethnic music, relating to Xinjiang and Inner-Mongolia respectively. Because the success of these musicians is in China’s second and third tier cities and their sound is relatively conservative, they are not always given due credit.


For the complete chapter, please download the PDF below