One of the most notable pioneers in this field was the Hungarian composer Bella Bartok, who was, more than sixty years ago, touring Europe's back yards (Transilvania, Hungarian villages, etc.) with his recording equipment, religiously capturing anything he could lay his hands on. He was, quite naturally, drawing on these influences heavily in his subsequent compositions.
However, the most frantic activity in this field was to happen after the second world war. The huge relief that the ending of that war brought had signaled the beginning of the planet-wide globalization. Suddenly, western artists and intellectuals became extremely interested in learning about the other, largely obscure cultures. Especially during the sixties and the early seventies, the interest in Eastern and African art forms flourished to the unprecedented heights.
The pioneering field for these crossover studies was, not surprisingly, jazz music. Giants like John Coltrane and Miles Davis started incorporating Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Burmese, Middle-Eastern, Tibetan, and many other influences and flavors into their music. This had opened the Pandora's box of variegated musical colors and flavors, and since then no one was able to put the lid back.
It is extremely hard to point to the event that had officially inaugurated the arrival of the world music to the center stage. Back in the forties we had the Afro-Cuban marriage with jazz, which was truly a world music event. Then, in the fifties, many jazz musicians discovered Spanish flamenco music. In the sixties, tenor saxophonist Stan Getz introduced the jazz-meets-Brazilian music (more precisely, bossa nova) craze.
However, all these 'flirtations' with the ethnic music were mostly executed in the context of a pop song. Or, the elements of some musical ethnicity were brought into the predefined framework of a classical, symphony orchestra-based context (i.e. the third stream). Many readers may disagree, but it seems like one of the first organic syntheses of the ethnic and western music forms occurred in 1971, when John McLaughlin released his My Goal's Beyond recording. Two seminal compositions that open that record, "Peace One" and "Peace Two", showcase the most amazing transformation of both western classical (with jazz influences) and eastern traditional musical forms. The resulting form is "greater than the sum of its parts", and does not resemble either jazz nor Indian raga musical forms. This is far from bringing in some superficial exotic sounds just to tickle listeners' imagination. In these compositions, both western and eastern cultures are interlocked so tightly, that it's impossible to discern whether Dave Liebman's sax solo is a pure Nordic cry coming from the glaciers of the Northern fjords, or a pure Vedantic cry coming down as a cool wind from the heights of Himalayas.
The incessant pioneering efforts of many
of the fusion musicians during the seventies and the eighties has
resulted in a totally unexpected flurry of the world music recordings in
the eighties and especially in the nineties. Here is a list of some of
the most successful and most popular world musicians today: