While Europe is the birthplace of Western classical music, and the home of one of the most developed pop-music markets in the world, the continent also hosts a wealth of ethnic and folk traditions. Tucked away in forgotten regional niches or hiding in plain sight, such emphatically European genres as Greek rembetika or Spanish flamenco make the "Old World" a world music superpower.
A quick overview of traditional music in Europe reveals an impressive diversity: traditional Gaelic music in Ireland; brass bands in the Balkans; alpenmusik in Germany, Switzerland and Austria; Basque music in Spain and France; fado in Portugal; polska in Sweden; British folk-rock in the U.K.; the yoik tradition of the Sami of Finland; and a welter of smaller regional styles that stretch from the Mediterranean to the Baltic and from the Atlantic to the Urals.
In fact, all European folk traditions are intensely regional, and even musical styles emblematic of entire nations, such as France's bal musette or Portugal's fado are always rooted in a specific locality. Often, there are stylistic variations within regions, with each town and village putting it's own peculiar spin on a music, as is often the case in Romania, where village musicians share a common repertoire yet rarely play the same tune the same way as their colleagues in the village down the road.
Two peoples of Europe, however, have managed to carve out musical and cultural diasporas that extend across geographic and political borders: the Celts and the Roma (or Gypsies). The Celts are one of Europe's oldest cultures, with a range that once extended from Austria and the Czech Republic into France, Spain, Belgium, Britain and Ireland. Though the old tribes have long been absorbed into modern European nation states, their culture and especially their music live on in concentrated pockets: Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Galicia, etc. While Irish and Scottish immigrants have brought Celtic traditions as far afield as the Americas and Australia.
The Roma people enjoy an even greater reputation as music makers. Ever since these nomadic people arrived on the European scene in the Middle Ages (coming originally from Rajasthan in India), Roma have been famous for their music. From the fearsome military bands of the Ottoman Empire, to Spain's fiery flamenco music, to the hard-driving cimbolom bands of Eastern Europe, to the sophisticated Parisian jazz of Django Reinhardt, Roma music has been one of Europe's greatest musical treasures.
Traditional music has also had an important impact on the development of European Classical Music and Opera, too. Especially in the 19th century, when the Romantic composers looked for inspiration in the rapidly vanishing rural folk cultures of Europe. Composers such as Hungary's Béla Bartók, Poland's Frédéric Chopin and the Czech Bedrich Smetana all incorporated local folk songs and traditions into their work. Bartók went so far as to do documentary field research in the Magyar-speaking hinterlands of Romania and Hungary.
While the Romantic movement did much to instill national pride into the peoples of Eastern and Central Europe, the darker side of European nationalism was colonialism, which provided the raw materials and markets for the continent's rapid industrial expansion. One of the unintended side effects of colonialism was the export European music and musical instruments worldwide. Missionaries, settlers and sailors brought everything from hymns to harmonicas to every corner of the globe, impacting how music was made and experienced locally.
In the second half of the 20th century, as Europe's old colonies began to achieve independence one by one, buoyant new sounds began to travel back to the former "mother countries." Ska and reggae traveled from Jamaica and found a home among England's growing West Indian communities; rai found it's way to Paris from Algeria; and Congolese soukous took Belgium and France by storm.
Today, Europe is a bubbling cauldron of postcolonial pop, traditional folkloric music and all kinds of fusions and cultural crossovers, such as the U.K.'s eclectic Afro-Celt Sound System or France's favorite genre-bending rebels Manu Chao and Rachid Taha. These artists represent a new face of Europe: multiethnic and multifaceted, happy to work with the best sounds from around the globe.-Tom Pryor