Saturday, September 29, 2007
To continue with my "lesson" list from the previous post, I'll summarize the two already presented and then add some more:
1. We need to recognize that indigenous traditions are important for the human race in general, as they are part of a heritage in which we all share. (It should go without saying, by the way, that "our" share in this heritage does not give any single group, nation or business the right to appropriate for its own gain the cultural or intellectual property of any other group.)
2. The protection of indigenous culture need not be an all or nothing proposition. While certain types of change may be inevitable and/or irreversible others are not.
3. Anthropologists and ethnomusicologists tend to cringe at the very thought of "natives" being "trotted out" to perform traditional rituals, dances, etc. for "tourists." Yet we have no problem with all the many tourists flocking into places like New York City or London to partake of characteristically "western" rituals, such as the performance of a play, an opera or a symphony, in which our own "native" artists are "trotted out" for the benefit of anyone with the price of admission. This is yet another example of the double standard I've been discussing. Wherever such performances can enhance the status of indigenous culture, not to mention provide income for indigenous people, they should, as I see it, be encouraged, not disparaged. Anthropologists, ethnomusicologsts and folklorists can make themselves useful by lending their expertise and influence to ensure that such performances are presented in as authentic, meaningful and serious a manner as possible.
4. The worldwide popularity of so many aspects of American culture cannot be dissociated from its role as a global media hub. Yet the importance of the media is rarely considered by those who lament the passing of traditional culture and values. Young people all over the world are profoundly influenced by what's presented to them on radio, television and film (the Internet is a more complex matter that I'll be discussing shortly). If all they see and hear is either western or western influenced, then it's not difficult to understand why they are currently questioning or even belittling their own traditions. The message is all too clear (if mostly subliminal): "This is the voice of the power structure -- if you want to be hip, cool and with it, this is what you must learn to love, this is what you must want to have." Things have gotten so bad in this respect that even when non-western cultures are being depicted, it is usually to patently western style music, usually either rock or classical, with a dollop of occasional bongo drumming to add a bit of "authenticity."
Alan Lomax lobbied hard for an opening of all media to local culture on a regular basis, in the belief that the programming of traditional arts, rituals, crafts, skills and ideas could go a long way toward breaking the global stranglehold of western tastes and values. As a collector, author, broadcaster, record producer, and film documenter, he was well aware of the potential of the various media to alter perspectives and change minds. His own use of the media to spread awareness and appreciation of American traditions had met with enormous success, as is now well understood and appreciated by serious students of folk music, protest music, blues, gospel, country, bluegrass, etc., even rock.
The lesson he learned was the lesson we should all take to heart: when people feel that their traditions are taken seriously by knowledgeable outsiders, they -- and their children -- will take these traditions more seriously as well; when they see and/or hear themselves and their compatriots on the local television, radio, etc., and find themselves turning into local celebrities as a result, the resulting prestige can change everything. On the other hand, when authoritative anthropologists and ethnomusicologists throw up their hands to exclaim that all is hopeless, that "change" is inevitable; when more attention is paid, as is now increasingly common among ethnomusicologists, to the often pathetic efforts of their children to use popular genres such as rock or country music as a catapult to instant fame and fortune; then any hope for the survival of once vital traditions based on centuries of accumulated creativity, imagination, knowledge and wisdom can be forever lost.
5. Not only local but also national media can also make a huge difference, either positive or negative. For a great many years now, public and/or "educational" television has been presenting a long series of always fascinating, but all too often predictable, "nature" programs. The underlying message in almost every case is how "man" is destroying the balance of nature, polluting the wilderness, butchering the wildlife and generally desecrating the planet. While this is indeed a message that we in the developed world should certainly take to heart, the "villains" being portrayed in these documentaries are all too often the local indigenous peoples, whose desperate efforts at survival are typically characterized as "poaching." We hardly ever actually see any of the locals in these shows, but the "insidious" effects of their actions are a constantly recurring theme.
What we hardly ever see on television are programs documenting the lives of the "poachers" who are causing all this grief. And I'm wondering why that is. If PBS and other networks devoted to educational programming would spend more of an effort on the documentation of traditional cultures round the world, so that indigenous people can more often be portrayed in a positive light, in terms of their many impressive acheivements, that could make an enormous difference, for them, their children and our own.
6. With respect to the above situation, one has to wonder why it is that so many animal species are given special status as "endangered," with concomitant efforts at protection, while so many indigenous peoples are literally being tossed to the wolves (of globalization), with hardly a whisper of concern. An especially disturbing example of what can happen when government authorities are convinced by well meaning but naive organizations to passively and unthinkingly follow the wisdom of the day, is the story of what happened to the pygmies of Uganda, kicked out of their own ancestral territories as part of an effort to protect a relatively small group of endangered gorillas.
Sunday, September 23, 2007
The point I'm trying to make here is not that one way of dealing with children is necessarily better or more "equitable" than any other, but that there is a double standard at work in our attitude toward our own traditions vs. those of the "Third World." Indigenous traditions are being allowed to fall by the wayside because indigenous young people are perceived as having "lost interest" in them; yet the traditions of the "west" are being preserved, protected, and in fact lavishly promoted regardless of the indifference or even active opposition of the great majority of our own young people -- and in fact our population as a whole.
In the present context, perhaps the most useful tradition to focus on would be western "classical" music. If you were to conduct a poll, you'd probably find that 90% or more of our school children regard it as boring, pointless and irrelevant, a vestigial remnant of the past that has no meaning whatsoever for them. Yet enormous resources are poured into the perpetuation of this tradition in literally every "First World" country. As of February 2006, according to the Wall Street Journal, conductor/pianist Daniel Barenboim was paid almost $2,000,000 by the Chicago Symphony alone (not counting income from guest and solo appearances); Lorin Maazel was paid $1,900,000 by the New York Philharmonic; James Levine was paid roughly the same amount by the Metropolitan Opera Company. According to Playbill, the Philadelphia Orchestra recently reached an agreement with the union whereby "the minimum annual salary for a Philadelphia Orchestra musician . . . is now $119,600." Base salaries for musicians in the nine major US orchestras are at least $94,000 with most well above $100,000.
Again, please do not misunderstand. I am not advocating for the reduction of anyone's salary, especially when so many of our musicians, classical and otherwise, are severely underpaid. Classical music plays an important role in my life, so I am certainly not suggesting that we ought not support it. But it's important to see the double standard at work here. This tradition, like so many others in our society, is supported so strongly because it is valued, and justly so, as a vital part of our culture. Despite the fact that so many in our society have no interest in it, those who do value it, value it so highly that they are willing to expend considerable resources in maintaining it.
Should we be bothered by the fact that, this tradition was originally associated with a "cultural context" involving the rule of kings and queens -- and the snobbish and indeed elitist attitudes and tastes of a privileged aristocracy, aped by an often ruthless and vulgar middle class? As social scientists we certainly do need to take all of that into consideration. Art can never be completely separated from politics. But no tradition of any real vitality and meaning need be bound forever to the cultural context in which it first arose -- and the importance of classical music in the context of modern democracy is a perfect example of that.
What is the lesson here? 1. We need, first of all, to understand and appreciate the value of indigenous traditions, not only to the indigenous people themselves, but to us -- because these traditions pertain to us as well (see my earlier posts). 2. We need to realize that it is not necessary to completely embrace the culture that gave rise to any particular tradition in order to support it -- any more than we embrace the aristocratic culture that gave rise to classical music. Thus it is unreasonable to insist that such traditions must continue to go hand in hand with certain related practices that we might now find abhorrent, such as human (or animal) sacrifice, the circumcision of females (or males), etc. This notion, that all aspects of culture must be regarded as parts of an indissoluble whole, is one of the most destructive (and demonstrably wrong-headed) dogmas of modern anthropology.
To be continued.
Consequently, again following McAllester's lead, there has been a call for the "acceptance of change" as a natural and pervasive aspect of all cultures, followed by a veritable avalanche of serious studies devoted to the effects of various genres of popular culture throughout the Third World -- along with a concomitant neglect of older, established traditions whose claims to "age-old" provenance are increasingly being challenged by the same sort of (erroneous) arguments that fueled the "revisionist" position in the Kalahari debate (see post 64 et seq.).
On the intellectual front, there has been a parallel movement, fostered by the supposedly liberatory, anti-hegemonic discourse of "post-modern" thinkers, disturbed by the elitism of "high-culture" modernists (most notably T. W. Adorno, who notoriously placed kitsch and jazz in the same dubious category of degraded art, and campaigned strenuously on behalf of the arch-modernist elitism of his mentor, Arnold Schoenberg). The "new" call (now not so new) has been for a breakdown of the supposedly artificial barrier between "serious" and "popular" culture.
It would be amusing, if it were not at the same time so disturbing, to note the profound double standard at work in all of the above discourses. The alleged preferences of indigenous children and other young people of the "undeveloped" Third World, with respect to their education and orientation toward the past, are being taken very seriously by the academics of a First World which offers its own children exactly no say whatsoever with respect to an educational system steeped in the traditions and values of modern "Western" society.
Are the children of the United States bored with such "outdated" and increasingly "irrelevant" topics as math, science, history, government, Shakespeare, Melville, Poe, Steinbeck, etc.? That certainly would seem to be the case. If their interests are turning, thanks to the profound changes currently taking place in the world around us, to aliens from outer space, computer games, footwear (yes, footwear -- see the previous post), cell phones, iPods, email, chat rooms, Hip-Hop, etc., then, in the spirit of the "new age," the same academics should be lobbying for the incorporation of subjects pertaining to these matters in the curricula of our schools and the phasing out of all the old, "traditional" stuff that no longer means much anymore.
After all, why do you need to learn math if you can do it better on a calculator or computer? Why do math at all in the age of automated checkout and income tax software? Why learn history if you can look up any facts you need over the Internet? Why study Shakespeare, the theater or the novel if it's all available now on cable, Direct TV, DVD, etc.? For that matter, why take the kids out to a fine restaurant when all they really want is whatever "special" is currently being offered by McDonalds, Burger King, Colonel Sanders, etc.? Don't the kids have the right idea? Isn't it elitist to insist on "good" food -- or "fine" wine? If there is no longer any real difference between "high" and "low" in the realm of music and art, then surely there is no real difference between "fine dining" and McDonalds either -- except for the price. So why not save yourself a few bucks, Professor?
As far as music is concerned, one could ask some very similar questions. Why bother anymore with "classical" music, with all its embarrassingly elitist and even undemocratic associations? Didn't classical music develop as part and parcel of the culture of the European aristocracy of centuries past? How could it possibly still be relevant for us today, in the world of American democracy?
The fact remains, however, that we of the "West," regardless of the opinions of our children (who count far more to our tastemakers as consumers than culture mavens), continue to value our own traditions -- educational, culinary, artistic, etc. -- however "outdated" and elitist they may appear to be -- and continue to promote them -- lavishly; while at the same time questioning the value and importance of the traditions of indigenous and other "undeveloped" peoples in the world around us.
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
Before answering that question, those reading here should think a bit about their own cultural background, and the extent to which they themselves have become independent of their parents, and their own particular "ethnic," "tribal," and/or religious heritage. Many of us had certain opportunities to free ourselves from our ethnic past, and, with very little hesitation, took them. I know I did. So why shouldn't the same opportunities be afforded to all children everywhere, regardless of how impoverished -- or indigenous -- they might be?
This appears to be the thinking behind the latest and greatest scheme of Nicholas Negroponte, "visionary" director of the MIT Media Lab, who wants every child in the "underdeveloped" world to have a laptop computer. You can find the Mission Statement for his "One Laptop Per Child" program here. No one is asking the parents of these children for either their input into this program or their opinion of its worth. They are, of course, too "backward" to understand.
But their children "get it," don't they? Every kid wants a computer, no? After all there are some great games, unlimited opportunities to chat with ones pals, and all sorts of wonderful websites, devoted to such "educational" matters as shoe ads, music downloads and -- well -- shoe ads and music downloads. If the "shoe ads" bit puzzles you, I can understand. It puzzled me as well, when I learned (from the horse's mouth) that the number one Internet target for middle and high school children, at least in Pittsburgh, was websites featuring ads for footwear. Not porn! Not Hip-Hop! Footwear!!! I'm talking boys, by the way, not girls. Boys!
Is "One Computer Per Child" an educational program? or the cleverest global marketing scheme ever devised? Or, better yet (since it includes both in one neat package) the cleverest brainwashing method ever devised? Does it really matter? Because you know and I know that nothing is going to stop this juggernaut from polluting the already fragile cultural environment big-time. Lomax's words seem as relevant now as when he first pecked them, using his inimitable two-finger technique, onto his old-fashioned manual typewriter: "A mismanaged, over‑centralized electronic communication system is imposing a few standardized, mass‑produced and cheapened cultures everywhere."
So, yes, all children everywhere are entitled to an equal opportunity. But an opportunity for what? If Negroponte gets his way and millions of impoverished children are able to access the internet via cheap (by our standards, not theirs) laptops -- and, moreover, by some miracle, large percentages of these children are able, as a result, to actually become "educated" by western standards, and even have the opportunity to go to college, then what percent of these children, do you suppose, will have any sort of chance whatsoever to actually participate in some meaningful way in "the global economy" -- or any economy whatever, besides the same economy of subordination, exploitation, slavery and crime the great majority are already engulfed in? Why not do something to improve that economy first, before attempting to sell them on the phony dream of participation in an elite that already neither needs nor wants more than the smallest percentage of the masses of over educated adults currently on the labor market?
Meanwhile what is to be done? Are the children of indigenous peoples victims of their culture's underdevelopment and backwardness (reinforced by the "romantic" notions of "essentializing" anthropologists), who must at all costs be rescued, by missionary groups, well-meaning charities, nationally sponsored educational programs (ala "Rabbit-Proof Fence"), or pie-in-the-sky "visionaries" such as Negroponte? Or are they victims, rather, of an aggrandizing, hegemonic, greedy, deceptively "egalitarian," but in truth ruthlessly exploitive, global capitalist system; hapless pawns, who must at all costs be rescued by essentializing, romantic anthropologists, so they can be returned to the bosom of their "native" society, to struggle for survival in communities that are, tragically, and far too often: sexist, homophobic, exploitive, alcoholic, drug-addicted, selfish, greedy, impoverished, ill, dysfunctional, dis-spirited, disinherited, displaced, disheartened, doomed to irrelevance in the brave new world of "today."
Pardon the sarcasm, but just thinking about this stuff makes me dizzy with a sense of frustration and hopelessness, warping my brain. Clearly, the issues facing the children of indigenous (and/or "underdeveloped") peoples are indeed some of the most complex issues faced by anyone in the world today. It might surprise you to learn that I have no solutions to offer (aside from the one about improving the economic conditions of impoverished and exploited peoples generally). The situations faced by these children are indeed dire. These are just some of the excruciatingly complex problems that Peter Jones is routinely struggling with on his Indigenous Issues Today blog, and I admire his courage and intelligence in discussing them with such compassion, wisdom, insight, knowledge and fairness. I also offer him my sympathy, because he has a truly daunting task before him.
As for me, all I can do at this point is return to the principal matter at hand in this blog, the issue of cultural survival, which is thankfully, by comparison, far simpler to evaluate -- and rectify.
Thursday, September 13, 2007
However! From the viewpoint of "equity" as investment, as a great spiritual treasure stored up for all of us by countless generations of ancestors, creating and painstakingly passing down, from generation to generation, the accumulated art, wisdom and spiritual power of the species, all types of music can not be regarded as of equal value, because it is only among the most traditional peoples that we find the most faithful custodians of this treasure. Here is where the special significance of indigenous music, dance, art, ritual, etc. comes in and this is why it is so important that each such tradition be both protected and encouraged to develop, in its own way, according to its own standards, norms and stylistic constraints.
The real difficulty comes next, however, when we ask ourselves how to go about protecting and encouraging these peoples and their traditions in the face of so many of the pressures brought about by globalization, "development," "modernization," the media onslaught highlighted by Lomax, etc. In other words, what can be done to instill in the younger generation a sense of the importance, both to them and the world at learge, of the traditions they see disintegrating around them? Peter Jones has stated that "Indigenous peoples’ issues are perhaps some of the most complex issues in the human rights arena today." Among the most complex of all these complex issues are the issues centering on indigenous youth.
What role does the dominant society play in the education (or, more cynically, indoctrination) of indigenous children? What role ought it to play? There is a long, painful and sometimes truly disturbing history here. The film Rabbit-Proof Fence tells the heartbreaking story of Australian children of mixed parentage, part aboriginal, part "white," torn from their aborigine mothers to live and be "educated" in "modern" schools, where, thanks to their "white" ancestry, they can be given the dubious advantage of a western-style, "enlightened" education. A larger part of this truly horrendous story, prompted by the best of intentions, can be read in the report, Bringing Them Home, from the Reconciliation and Social Justice Library.
On the opposite side of this "rabbit proof fence," we have the very disturbing and very real stories of childhood labor and even enslavement, with the complicity of "traditions" that too often give parents no choice but to, in effect, sell their children into a life of endless toil and exploitation. Not only children, but women also can be victimized by traditions that operate for the benefit of one group at the expense of all others. "Tradition" in and for itself is clearly no more of an answer than exploitive "modernization." For this reason many have become convinced that "human rights" should include the right of all children to spend their chilhood being educated rather than put to work -- or worse.
But what is education if not a hidden (and sometimes not so hidden) form of indoctrination -- into the mindset, value system and, yes, tradition, of the educators? I recall being horrified some years ago, while sitting beside my ex-wife at her church, at the sight of a choir made up of young African orphans, singing their hearts out for love of a "Jesus" who had clearly won their hearts by way of their stomaches. The missionary group that may well have saved them from all sorts of very real evils, from starvation to soldiering, was extremely proud of what it had done with these young minds and souls. I felt seriously indignant, however, at the idea that anyone, no matter what the reason, would stoop so low as to exploit the plight of these poor victims by taking the opportunity to indoctrinate them with their own creed -- and in effect turn them into brainwashed disciples.
Nevertheless -- to clarify my position with respect to the examples I cited, Rebekah Moore celebrates a type of music that I (not she) would regard as "commodified," and, in a twist of logic that is by no means easy to grasp, seems to be actually arguing for this "commodified," watered-down, amateurish (in my view), "world beat" style as itself an expression of "indigeneity." In other words, far from questioning such music as a compromised, commodified product of Western imperialism (as I might very well do), she is presenting it as a model of how young Saamis are actually asserting their indigenous identity. Similarly, the Ethnomusicology Society's panel on "Global Rock" celebrates the power of rock music to advocate for "marginalized voices" rather than holding it accountable for its complicity with the marginalizing, hegemonic forces of global capitalism.
It's easy to see how Peter could get confused, because this is not the position one might expect from people deeply involved in the study of musical traditions, as one would assume ethnomusicologists to be. There is a long history here, during which as I see it, the field has begun to lose its center, led astray by the same complexities of post-modern pseudo-philosophy that have led so many others astray, precipitating an unfortunate backlash against the whole notion of indigeneity as a hopelessly romantic essentialization of the "underdeveloped" third world and its peoples. (For more on this issue, see my earlier posts on the Kalahari Debate.)
As I hope I made clear in post 86, I have no serious problem with any type of music per se, certainly no problem with hybrid music, not even the most amateurish and/or "commodified," so long as it is valued by some segment of the human race; but also: so long as it makes room for all the other types of music that are also valued. In this sense, Peter is perfectly right in characterizing me as "an ethnomusicologist who is interested in all forms of musical heritage; he does not seem to accord more cultural equity to so-called “traditional” forms of music than hybrid or modern forms." What bothers me, however, as it did Lomax, is the tendency of the commodification process to promote a very narrowly defined and limited musical paradigm at the expense of all other types of musical expression, including the most traditional types associated with certain localized, regional, and/or indigenous cultures.
In his last two paragraphs, Peter makes clear that we are, indeed, in agreement on what is essential. Which returns us both to the issue I left hanging at the end of post 85, the issue of the rights of young people with respect to both the traditions of their elders and the "call" of modernity in the form of global culture. In Peter's words:
The question that remains to be tackled in the next post is how we are to view and understand cultural equity in the contemporary world. How are we to grapple with the fact that “culture” no longer carries its historic meaning of pseudo-objectivity, but rather now refers to something that is diaphanous, ephemeral, non-local?
Monday, September 10, 2007
On the other hand: yes, the music of these cultures is in fact bounded by certain constraints, stylistic and other, that must be respected -- just as the need for strophic forms, regular meters, diatonic melodies, standard chords, rhythm sections, etc., etc., etc. in "our" popular music must be respected. I've tried on several occasions, by the way, to convince students and other young musicians of my acquaintance that they don't really need to have the drums or the bass go on continuously (as in "continuo"); that they can from time to time let one or both drop out; that they don't need to have either guitars or electric basses in their band at all; that they can really just do whatever they like, as long as they find a way to do it in an interesting and convincing manner -- and they look at me as though I'm from Mars, or worse, that I'm trying to convince them to do something "far out," the sort of thing that would mean losing their audience (what audience?) and wrecking their chances for "rock stardom" (right, lots of luck guys). All I'm doing is trying to help you be creative and original, folks. Isn't that what it's all about? Give me a break! (Oops, I forgot: it's really all about being "free," fighting "conformity," bucking "the system," dissing "the man," protesting whatever, and promoting "The Revolution.")
Sorry if I managed to get just a bit carried away, folks. To get back on task: yes, indigenous cultures and their music can be complex, creative and innovative -- within certain boundaries -- just as with us "moderns." Back in the early 20th Century, the Balinese gamelan tradition was shaken by a "completely new" style of performance called "Kebyar," in which the stately pace of the traditional court ensembles was replaced by rapid tempi, stunning virtuosity and a whole "new" sound. If you've ever heard the remarkable composition "Golden Rain," you'll know what I mean. Traditionalists complained, but Kebyar eventually took its place as part of that tradition, to the point that many fans of Balinese music consider it typical of the tradition as a whole. It isn't, but who cares? Its authenticity is based on a continuity with the older tradition that has remained unbroken, despite all the innovations.
I've made a special example of Pygmy and Bushmen style as the survival of a musical tradition that might well be as old as humankind itself. Yet, according to Michelle Kisliuk (in her book Seize the Dance), who spend a considerable amount of time living among and learning from the Aka Pygmies, new music, new dances and new types of music and dance are continually being created among them. She tells the story of how she wanted to learn one such dance and had to track down its originator in a neighboring village -- and pay a fee -- in order to receive the proper instruction. Aka music and dance are by no means ossified, "frozen in time" or in some sort of rut. All aspects of their culture fit into the norms of their tradition, just as ours do. Within those norms, they are just as creative and innovative (probably moreso, actually) as any other indigenous -- or non-indigenous -- people.
If by "cultural equity" we simply mean "fairness" to various and sundry remote and exotic cultures, each seen as both unique and also set apart, "frozen in time" in a world of its own, then one might feel a responsibility to preserve each of these separate worlds in its own pristine "authenticity." If, however, we see "cultural equity" as something in which we too hold a stake (i.e., equity), as a spiritual investment made by generations of ancestors, going all the way back to the beginnings of our species -- which, if we are to believe the geneticists, does appear to have a common source, and, therefore, a common cultural heritage -- then we cannot separate indigenous peoples off from ourselves in exotic and remote worlds of their own, but must see them as part of a dynamic ongoing process that concerns everyone now alive -- and our descendants after us. This is especially significant in view of the fact that it is the same so-called "indigenes" who have been most concerned, if not obsessed, with both the preservation and cultivation of tradition.
The need to understand and appreciate such interconnections is, I think, the point Peter is making by quoting the song by Jimmy Cliff. Not literally that "we are all one" in any ordinary sense, but that deep down at our core we all connected via our common heritage, both genetic and cultural.
All well and good, one might say, but when we get down to specifics we seem to be confronted with an enormous number of totally different traditions, each appearing to us as something rigid, indeed "'frozen in time," sometimes irrational, often fragile and even brittle, difficult to understand and even more difficult, therefore, to connect with. The problem is indeed immense, and there are many different ways of addressing it.
Lomax saw Cantometrics, Choreometrics and Parlametrics* as tools that could help us understand the many underlying connections between and among all these seemingly isolated islands of culture. By focusing on style, thus emphasizing the medium in which something is expressed, as opposed to the specific message of each individual utterance or tradition, it is indeed much easier to sort all the many types of cultural practice into a relatively small set of families. And what I am now trying to do is extend the Cantometrics approach to explore certain possible ways all these families might inter-relate, both with each other and with "us."
An important lesson to be learned from the Cantometric approach is that even the most dynamic and apparently ever-changing cultures are invariably constrained by underlying stylistic forces of which they may be only dimly aware, forces reminiscent of what political philosophers often refer to as "ideology." The global musical scene of today, in all its complexity, involving all sorts of genres, from classical to jazz, to every variety of "pop," from rock to country to reggae to hip-hop, from New Age to World-Beat, from Nashville to Hollywood to Bollywood, may well be among the most dynamic and bewilderingly complex cultural manifestations in history. When we step back, however, to survey this riot of apparently unrestrained creativity from the broad comparative perspective fostered by Cantometrics, only a very few basic performance models emerge. Basic to just about every popular medium is an array of musical practices combining European melodic and rhythmic models (such as strophic form; a standardized, unvarying metric (usually 4/4); "standard" bass-oriented harmonic progressions based on triads and seventh chords; diatonic melodies; emphasis on chorded, plucked string instruments, etc.) with certain expressive modes characteristic of Sub-Saharan Africa (such as call and response; vocal polyphony; tight rhythmic blend; anticipation of the beat; cross-rhythms and syncopation; continual drumming; pentatonic scale elements (producing so-called "blue notes" when overlaid with diatonic scales); open-throated vocalizing, etc.).
Absolutely fundamental to literally all forms and genres of both jazz and popular music (with the notable exception of Hip-Hop), in literally every variant in every part of the world, is the so-called "rhythm section," combining a bass instrument with at least one chording instrument (piano, guitar, banjo, cymbalom, accordian, etc.), and standard European drum set, playing standard triadic chord progressions in a manner strongly suggestive in many respects of the "continuo" section so important in European music of the "Baroque" period. (Whether or not this particular connection is meaningful or fortuitous is an extremely interesting question I can't pursue here.)
Given such extremely tight constraints, as imposed on just about any form of popular music in the world today, could we characterize our current global musical culture as rigidly circumscribed by tradition and, indeed, "frozen in time"? From the perspective of someone not caught up in the system, but observing from outside, that might certainly appear to be the case.
*Choreometrics is a system, based on the Cantometrics approach, for encoding certain aspects of movement and dance style. Parlametrics is a similarly stylistic approach to the study of speech and spoken interaction.
He also wants it understood that he is not "arguing for indigenous peoples’ cultures to be frozen in time, locked in some romantic fiction that never existed."
We must be very careful in how we wield the “cultural equity” baton, for we do not want to allow for reverse cultural equity to take place, substituting what is valued now with another thing in some form of post-colonial role reversal. Rather, as Lomax and Victor argue – and I concur – we must simply strive for equal voice, equal rights, equal cultural appreciation and value.
What's at stake here are two related issues of great importance that have been and continue to be a source of considerable misunderstanding: 1. is the popular music of today, or any other time, to be dismissed as invalid, inauthentic "pollution," to be rooted out and replaced with what is "truly" valid and authentic, in some sort of "cultural cleansing" operation? 2. does the evidence that certain aspects of indigenous culture are rooted in age-old traditions mean that the only way to preserve and protect such traditions is to freeze them in place, like exhibits in a museum showcase?
Many of Lomax's critics have much too quickly jumped to the conclusion that his call for cultural equity, in the face of a "mismanaged, over‑centralized electronic communication system . . . imposing a few standardized, mass‑produced and cheapened cultures everywhere," represents a narrowly purist or even elitist view. Anyone who knows much about Lomax's history will realize how unjust such a characterization is. Unlike so many folklorists and ethnomusicologists of his generation, who focused exclusively on what they perceived as the oldest and purest manifestations of tradition, Lomax was open to a wide range of cultural expressions, both "folk" and popular, both "purely" traditional and hybrid. He loved the traditional music of Africa, Britain and Europe no more than its many hybrid offshoots in the Americas, from the work songs of the Caribbean and the southern prisons to spirituals and gospel, from Santeria to Afro-Cuban and "Latin," from Mississippi Delta Blues to New Orleans Jazz and Cajun, from Rhythm and Blues to Rock 'n Roll, from backwoods ballads to banjo picking to Bluegrass, and beyond.
What bothered him was not the existence of popular or hybrid expressions, but the manner in which certain very limited and yes, in some cases cheapened, popular forms were being promoted to the exclusion of all else, and literally jammed down everyone's throat, whether they liked it or not. What Lomax really objected to, and I fully concur, was not any particular musical genre, format or tradition per se, but the hegemony of a ruthlessly centralized, insensitive and unresponsive, out-of-control global marketing system, hogging the media and indeed the very air we breath, and pushing every alternative means of expression into the background and beyond, into oblivion.
The exemplary case is that of the Italian village where everyone used to gather in the plaza each evening to sing together. One day a television set appears, sitting on a platform in the center of the plaza. Everyone gathers around to sing together along with the music on the television. Over the next few years, more and more television sets appear in individual homes and fewer and fewer people gather at the plaza. Finally everyone is spending the evening at home silently staring at the boob tube and the plaza is empty. A beautiful age-old tradition that had brought everyone together has been destroyed, to be replaced by -- well, that's a whole other story for another day.
To respond specifically, therefore, to Peter's first concern, we must indeed be careful to avoid promoting some sort of colonialism in reverse, a cultural cleansing that would root out whatever might seem inauthentic or unworthy to some self-appointed group of cultural purists. Any type of music has value if there are people who enjoy it and support it -- and that is certainly the case for all forms of popular music, rock, country, punk, disco, rap, even Liberace and Lawrence Welk, whether you or I or anyone else happens to like it or not. What Lomax was calling for was not a return to some ideal past, in which anything he didn't approve of would be eliminated, but simply a system that would promote "equity," in the form of equal air time, equal funding, equal attention, equal respect from journalists, academics etc., on behalf of traditions presently being stifled if not snuffed completely out of existence.
I'll deal with Peter's second, equally important, concern in my next post.
Thursday, September 6, 2007
To continue from where I left off in post 83, I must register my extreme disappointment with the views expressed by a man from whom I’ve learned so much and been so inspired by so many times in the past. First of all, David McAllester, like Michelle Kisliuk and so many others in ethnomusicology now actively proselytizing for “change,” is simply wrong. There is nothing “natural” or “constant” about change. According to noted evolutionary theorist Stephen Jay Gould, “The oldest truth of paleontology proclaimed that the vast majority of species appear fully formed in the fossil record and do not change substantially during the long period of their later existence (average durations for marine invertebrate species may be as high as 5 to 10 million years).” Homo habilis fossils span a period of 500,000 to 750,000 years without significant change in either their physical appearance or their toolkit. The Neanderthal toolkit also remained essentially the same over a period of roughly 250,000 years. (See http://www.ecotao.com/holism/hu_evo_intro.htm, which includes an extensive list of sources.)
Secondly, McAllester sometimes appears to be implying that the changes he celebrates are a “zero sum game,” in which weakly supported traditional practices must inevitably give way to newer and stronger ones, through a process dangerously akin to social Darwinism. I knew McAllester well enough to know how alarmed he’d be at such an interpretation, but for many younger colleagues influenced by him, social Darwinism was only a launching pad. It took hardly any time at all for me to find the following all too typical pronouncement during a cursory Google search on something like “ethnomusicology AND popular music”: “Popular music performance is a special context for the public construction and evocation of indigenism; through popular music many indigenous performers employ musical and cultural signifiers to reinforce their status, illustrate commonalities between indigenous communities, and challenge western demands for cultural authenticity. . . I argue that the issue of representation in ethnomusicology is directly challenged by these complex constructions of identity in musical performance, and by a new understanding of the world music aesthetic employed by many indigenous performers” (from an abstract for the MACSEM meetings of 2005: "Sámi Popular Music and Identity in the New Millennium," by Rebekah E. Moore, University of Maryland).
Whereas McAllester noted with astonishment the transfer of interest from authentically indigenous to popular music, Moore celebrates the use of popular music as itself a tool for the “construction and evocation of indigenism”; and moreso, as an effective means for indigenous performers to “challenge western demands for cultural authenticity” (my emphasis). The example of “world beat” music she offers as a “complex construction of identity” and a challenge to “the issue of representation in ethnomusicology” in the hands of “indigenous performers” looks suspiciously to me like a variant of some of the most naïve forms of “new age” dilettantism as practiced by individuals, “indigenous” or not, seeking a safe and hopefully lucrative niche in the global marketplace. As for “western” demands for cultural authenticity, this sort of typically “postmodern” rhetoric is particularly unfortunate, as it effectively marginalizes any truly indigenous voices that might still remain to speak on behalf of their own dying traditions, with or without the support of “western” sympathizers.
One finds similar sentiments expressed almost routinely in the ethno literature these days; for example, in the following abstract, by Professor Paul Greene of Penn State, for a panel on “Global Rock” at the annual meetings of the Ethnomusicology Society in 2005: “The panel thus not only offers new research directions; it also inspires much needed reflection on the past and future of our field, and a reflection on the efficacy of rock music as a vehicle of self-advocacy for marginalized voices around the world today.” Marginalized by whom, one is tempted to ask. Could rock music itself be part and parcel of the same global forces responsible for the same marginalization? Just raising such a question would already brand one as an “elitist” in this milieu.
One thing I particularly like about Peter Jones (see previous post) is his unusual combination of compassion and sense of justice on the one hand, and hard-nosed critical thinking on the other, a clear headed sophistication that prevents him from falling into some of the traps encountered by well meaning, but often naïve and overly idealistic, advocates. As he states in a recent post, in which he takes a native American group to task for manipulating the legal system to its own advantage, “Indigenous peoples’ issues are perhaps some of the most complex issues in the human rights arena today.” A good example of such difficulties arises when one considers what sort of policy one might want to recommend with respect to the traditional musical cultures of indigenous peoples, threatened by globalization in the form of the mass marketing of commodities such as “Rock,” “Country,” etc. – and the valorization of this process by the academic establishment.
There’s no point, of course, in ranting and railing over the triumph of what Lomax would call “cultural pollution” (or, perhaps, in more timely fashion: “Global Yawning”). What’s most important is not whether Rock or Country is more or less valid, meaningful or “authentic” than any other type of music, but what sort of role it plays in today’s world, and especially the world of the young. And in this case one is forced to admit that, for whatever reason -- marketing, aesthetics, crisis of identity -- young people all over the world are drawn to Western values, products, mass media – and music. If traditions are to have a future, it must be among the young, the younger generation must become involved. This is as true of courting practices, marriage customs, dietary habits, etc. as it is for music. The older generation may be set in its ways and unwilling to change, but their children seem to have another idea these days. If there is such a thing as “human rights” or “cultural rights,” then what about the rights of young people to choose for themselves the type of culture and the type of society they’d prefer?
How are we to think about that? What can be done? What should be done?
I have some ideas on the above but am curious to see what Peter might have to say – and of course anyone else who might want to chime in with a comment.
Monday, September 3, 2007
I'm currently working on my part of the collaborative post, which will be a continuation of the previous one, but in the meantime I thought it would be useful if I posted the following as an introductory statement, from an email I sent Peter in early August:
Hello Peter -- Your last emails have been very much on my mind lately and I've been trying to think of what the best strategy for some joint writing and also action might be. I read a post of yours a while back, the one dealing with certain UN proposals and efforts to water them down, which you oppose. The post is very thoughtful and meaningful and has given me a lot to mull over. I see your point, and yes there is the possibility that the UN statement will be watered down so badly as to have no real effect. On the other hand, some of the issues raised in the cautionary statement you cite are exactly the sort of issues that have led to some really horrible violence in the past. I'm thinking of the sort of thing that happened in former Yugoslavia for example, where the "indigenous rights" of the Croatians and "Moslems" as opposed to the "dominant" Serbs were supported by the Western powers, with disastrous results that have still not been resolved even after all these years. I visited Yugoslavia during the Tito years and as far as I could see it was the best run country I'd ever been in -- no poverty, no slums, no beggars, no signs of repression -- though there WERE signs of unresolved tensions and mistrust, no doubt stemming from WWII related conflicts.
While I'm sure there were things going on the background of which I was ignorant, I do think there was an effort by the central govt. to balance the various claims of all the various "indigenous" groups in a manner that seemed fair and seemed to work. I think this should be the goal, rather than the
breakup of certain already shaky governments into even smaller and shakier political entities, based on ethnic divisions, no matter how compelling the claims. I have a feeling you agree, but there IS a danger that pushing too hard for certain political "rights" and land claims could lead to conflicts similar to what happened in Yugoslavia.I'm thinking that maybe the most practical and nonviolent approach to such problems should be via a stress (at least at first) on cultural rather than land-rights issues, on the question of cultural identity, cultural rights -- and also responsibility on the part of anyone wanting to claim indigenous status for protecting, enriching, and disseminating
his/her own "native" heritage. There's a lot more I could say on all this, but this will give you an idea of where my thoughts have been drifting lately. I'm planning a new post on my blog, hopefully soon, to be entitled "Cultural Equity," a phrase I got from Alan Lomax, whose written a lot of good things on
this topic -- and even founded an organization on that basis -- "The Association for Cultural Equity" (ACE), now run by his daughter, Anna. I'm thinking "equity" in terms of equality, naturally, but also in the sense of an investment, i.e.,
the investment of our common ancestors as well as those currently taking responsibility for the integrity of their own traditions.
A good example might be the little girl in the film "Whale Rider" who identifies so strongly with her Maori heritage, in spite of the opposition of certain "traditionalists," even her grandfather. I think that story has great meaning for those who like us are
trying to sort out what is valuable about tradition, what is destructive about it, and why the differences are so important.