Melbourne unwittingly became home to an astonishing diversity of musical styles and musicians from outside the mainstream Western traditions following World War II and the major diasporas of the second half of the 20th century, from the Mediterranean, the Middle East, the Baltic states, the Horn of Africa, South-East Asia, Central and South America, East Timor and the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Ethnic music has always been performed in the private domain by and for the communities which give it meaning, at weddings, seasonal and other culturally specific celebrations, for religious purposes, in private homes for entertainment or instruction, in community-based Saturday morning cultural maintenance schools and at sporting clubs, restaurants, nightclubs and fund-raising events. Ethnic music-making in Melbourne can be as diverse as the performance of traditional North and South Indian raga, Hmong funeral chants, a Macedonian women's choir, productions of Chinese and Vietnamese opera, Arabic taqsim (improvisation), an Indonesian gamelan played by Australian students, or an Italian mandolin trio.
'Ethnic' music, of course, theoretically comprises all the musical forms which found their way to Australia following the invasion of the continent by non-indigenous peoples. However, to ears accustomed to Western classical and popular music, 'ethnic' music is best identified by its use of unfamiliar instruments, vocal productions, tonal systems and rhythms, as well as by its characteristic lack of interest in harmonic structures. Ethnic musics are also typified by symbiotic relationships with their socio-political and cultural contexts and by the oral transmission of musical knowledge between generations. Ethnic music in Melbourne is rarely to be found in the places and spaces of the Western art traditions. It is not significant at indoors events at Southbank, for example, and it is not usually present in the mainstream press processes of advertising, feature or review.
The visibility of ethnic music in Melbourne has varied according to prevailing federal and State immigration policies. In the pre-Whitlam era assimilationist policy meant that ethnic music-making was largely hidden from the mainstream public. Subsequent multicultural policies led to the inclusion of ethnic music and dance in a variety of public spectacles including the former Shell Folkloric Festival, the former Festival of All Nations and the now defunct Piccolo Spoleto. Nowadays Moomba, local suburban street festivals, the celebration of Chinese New Year in Richmond, Springvale and Footscray and outdoor events at Southbank are public outdoor events at which the populace can witness the city's multicultural flavour in music and movement. Entrepreneurial organisations such as the Boîte, which has been based in the inner-city suburb of Fitzroy since 1979, and community-based organisations such as the Footscray Community Arts Centre and CERES, have also been active in promoting ethnic music to mainstream audiences. Ethnic music and musicians can be heard on CDs and cassettes which they produce themselves as well as on various community radio programs and ABC Radio National's long-running program Music Deli, and the Daily and Nightly Planet.