Why isn’t Asian music more popular?

Quick: name your top five favorite Asian bands. Can’t do it? How about your top three? One? If you’re like most Westerners, you probably aren’t too familiar with the popular music from the world’s most populous continent. But why not? Is Asian music really that bad?

The prevailing view of Asian music– at least from the Western perspective– is, well, yes. Asian music really is that bad. P.J. O’Rourke once described Asia as “the continent that rhythm forgot.” He wrote, “At best Asian music is off-brand American pop, like Sonny Bono in a karaoke bar. At worst Asian music sounds as if a truck full of wind chimes collided with a stack of empty oil drums during a birdcall contest.”

So that’s the stereotype, but don’t stereotypes sometimes contain at least a kernel of truth? A lot of Asian music– to the untrained ear anyway– does sound like the work of an atonal band of screeching cats.

African music, on the other hand, sounds much more familiar to the Western ear. It uses the many of the same scales and rhythms as Western music, and it has had a much greater influence on Western music, at least partly due to the Slave Trade.

In a recent post at Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen offered one explanation as to why Asian music isn’t more popular. “Many Asian musics, such as some of the major styles of China and Japan, emphasize timbre. That makes them a) often too subtle, and b) very hard to translate to disc or to radio. African-derived musics are perfect for radio or for the car.”

Still, he writes that “it’s a shame if you haven’t trained your ear by now to like the stuff. It’s some of the world’s finest music.”

So how about some recommendations? Well, there’s the fantastic Cambodian band called Dengue Fever, a talented Vietnamese chanteuse named Huong Thanh, and a band from Japan named The Boom, just to name a few. Then there’s still all the great music of India and the Middle East. Simply put: if you can’t find any good Asian music to listen to, you’re not looking.

Got any more recommendations, readers?