The History Of The Grammy Award For Best Global Music Album

The category has been around for decades, but what does ‘global music’ really mean?
A set of violins exemplifying the Grammys global music category

The Grammys are the pre-eminent awards for recording artists in the United States. Each year, they recognize works from across the world of sound, from the top musical artists of the year to the best packaging for a recording (though not all of these categories make it onto the televised proceedings). And while American and European artists have historically gotten nearly all of the attention, there’s one exception: the Grammy Award for Best Global Music Album.

The global music category, like many of the awards at the Grammys, has a slightly complicated — and at times controversial — history. Trying to distill the entirety of music into a handful of genres is a nearly impossible task, which is why the Grammys have been constantly adjusting its categories. The global music category tells the story of an institution trying to address a huge world of music that lies outside the mainstream of the United States.

The History Of The Global Music Category

The Grammys — originally called the Gramophone Awards — were first held in 1959, celebrating the music that came out the previous year. At the time, the Emmys (for television) and the Oscars (for movies) had been around for years, but there wasn’t a comparable award for the recording industry. In its first year, the Grammys had the regular overall awards as well as a few specific genres (classical, rhythm & blues, country & western, jazz and children’s music), though it had nowhere near as many awards as the modern ceremony. Coincidentally, the only time a non-English song has ever won the Grammy Award for Song of the Year was at the First Annual Grammy Awards; it was Domenico Modugno’s Nel Blu, Dipinto Di Blu.”

The Grammy Award for Best World Music Album wouldn’t appear for a while after. It was first presented to percussionist Mickey Hart for his album Global Drum in 1992, though you might be more familiar with Hart for his work as the drummer for the Grateful Dead. 

Even in the early years of the award, there was some discussion of what exactly it meant. A 1997 article in the Los Angeles Times questioned why some musicians are put in the World Music category while some aren’t. The article credits these complications to attempting to put too much pressure on a single category to capture a huge swath of the music that’s out there. At the time, the category was originally meant to be for “non-European, indigenous traditions” of music, and a few years later it expanded to include “non-Western classical music.”

In 2003, the Recording Academy split the world music category into two: Best Traditional World Music Album and Best Contemporary World Music Album. In 2011, however, the decision was reversed and it returned to being a single Best World Music Album award.

The most recent change to the award was a semantic one. In 2020, the Recording Academy decided to change the word “world” in the category title to “global.” In a statement, the academy said, “The change symbolises a departure from the connotations of colonialism, folk, and ‘non-American’ that the former term embodied while adapting to current listening trends and cultural evolution among the diverse communities it may represent.” This has followed an industry-wide trend of change, as the term “world music” — coined in 1987 in an attempt to champion non-Western artists — has gone out of use.

The future of the global music category is uncertain. Amid the discussions of changing the name of the award, there was also talk of whether it should be kept around at all. The argument at the heart of why artists dislike “world music” wasn’t so much the word “world” itself as the way that the category is reductive and doesn’t tell you much about what the music really sounds like. In a column for The Guardian, music critic Ammar Kalia said that the label “global music” is necessary because “in the glorious tyranny of endless internet-fuelled musical choice, marginalised music still needs championing and signposting in the West.”

What Qualifies For The Global Music Category?

While the meaning of global music has historically been vague, the Recording Academy now lists the exact eligibility requirements for each category on its website. As of 2021, the category is defined as follows:

This category recognizes excellence in albums of global music, including recordings of international non-Western classical music, international non-American and non-British traditional folk music, international cross-cultural music based on the previously mentioned genres as well as international recordings of global beat, global jazz (with a higher percentage of global than jazz music), global pop, and cross-cultural music. 

Albums of reggae, Latin or European pop music are not eligible in this category and should be entered in other categories as appropriate.

What is most significant is that neither language nor nationality are explicitly referenced in these rules. The eligibility is entirely based on whether the music itself is part of a musical tradition that is non-Western and non-European. This has positives and negatives. On the one hand, a nationality or language requirement could exclude certain people for arbitrary reasons. The Golden Globes were recently mired in controversy because of their requirement that a movie must be mostly in English to qualify for best picture. On the other hand, the looser definition of Global Music means that the Recording Academy is making somewhat subjective decisions on what gets included.

Who Has Won The Global Music Category?

In the nearly three decades since the award was first given out, the Grammy for Best Global Music Album has gone to individuals and groups from across the world. Angélique Kidjo, a Beninese-American musician, has won the award the most times, receiving it in 2015, 2016 and 2020. The only other people who have gotten the award more than once are Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar, South African male choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo and American musician Ry Cooder, all of whom received it twice.

To look more generally at who has won the award, we’ve broken down the numbers by the performers’ nationalities (excluding the years when the award was broken out into contemporary and traditional). 

  1. Brazil (5 times)
  2. The United States (4 times)
  3. India (3 times)
  4. Benin (3 times)
  5. South Africa (3 times)
  6. Mali (2 times)
  7. France (2 times)
  8. Ireland (1 time)
  9. Panama (1 time)

Listen To The Winners (And Nominees)

This is a story about music, so we would be remiss to not listen to any. Below, we’ve compiled a playlist featuring a couple songs from all of the albums that won the Grammy for Best Global Music Album. At the end, we also included one song from each of the nominees for the award at the 64th Annual Grammy Awards, which are being held on March 14, 2021.

Learn a new language today.
Try Babbel