Wednesday, September 25, 2013

380. The Life and Times of A Musical Virus - 38: No Clothes

Well, sorry but . . . While appreciating the insight behind McAllester's "great awakening," and recognizing both the importance of change and the value of much popular music, I must beg to differ with the view that dismisses any concern for threatened traditions as misguided romanticism, or any attempt to distinguish the authentic from the phoney as an offensive "essentialization." Mr. Rogers may like you "just the way you are," but as far as I myself am concerned, I don't particularly like greedy individuals who want to hog everything for themselves and leave nothing for anyone else.

So. In response to the views expressed by McAllester, Strelitz, Moore and Greene (see previous post and post 378):

1. With all due respect to the late David McAllester, my dearly beloved and wise teacher and mentor, the one great constant in human culture is not change. That's an illusion produced in Western culture during a relatively recent historical era, the era of modernism, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and, currently, free market capitalism. For most of human history, and even today, among many  indigenous peoples, the one great constant in human culture has been: tradition. And for cultures steeped in tradition, what is valued above all is not change but adherence to the way of the ancestors, a mindset fiercely resistant to change.

2. Even today, in a time when music seems continually to be changing, with a wide variety of different styles and genres competing for attention, what we find, at base, is not really change at all, but more of the same old same old. The same old guitars; the same old electric basses; the same old drum kits; the same old "bands"; the same old harmonic progressions, originating already long ago, during the 16th century in fact; the same old strophic songs; the same old four square phrasing; the same old refrains; the same old 4/4 or 3/4 meters; the same old "beat," now beaten to death; and as I've been at such pains to demonstrate here over the last several months, the same old rhythm section, tying it all together in the same old way.

And as far as "hybridity" is concerned,

3. Sure, there are a great many perfectly valid and meaningful hybrids in our musical world, but there are also a great many truly traditional and yes, authentic, styles that are not hybrids at all, but show every sign of having survived essentially unchanged for literally thousands of years. Through the length and breadth of aboriginal Australia, for example, we find essentially the same style of singing, featuring solo or unison vocalizations, highly iterative melodies, often with a descending melodic curve and narrow intervals, harsh fairly strident vocal timbres, accompanied almost exclusively with repetitive one-beat or almost one-beat rhythms usually played by beating two sticks, or boomerangs, together, or, in the north, with didjeridoos as well, often playing very intricate rhythms with no pauses for breath. We have no reason to assume that this style was preceded at any time in the recent past by anything very different, because if such a style had existed it would either have survived intact somewhere or at least evolved in certain places into something different from the mainstream style that now dominates everywhere. The same could be said about the very closely related singing styles of the various North American Indian tribes, or for that matter in Europe, where unaccompanied lyric songs and ballads in strophic form can be found literally everywhere, a uniformity which would be impossible to explain if this style hadn't survived over a very long period indeed.

4.  I see no conflict between fierce loyalty to some of the most traditional styles and the enthusiastic acceptance of hybrids, new or old. From where I sit, the "media imperialism thesis" posited by Strelitz is something of a straw man. I know of no one in the field of ethnomusicology who ever questioned the validity of hybrid styles simply because they were hybrids. I certainly don't share that view. One of my all time favorite musical regions is Madagascar, whose music speaks to me on a very deep level despite the fact that just about all of the music of Madagascar is a hybrid of one sort or another. Here's an example of one my favorite types of Madagascar music making, the Hira Gasy:

Hiragasy Sahondrafina Tsangambato

Here we find a fascinating mix of European instruments, African harmonies and rhythms, along with a highly distinctive Madagascar melos and vocal timbre now probably impossible to trace, but clearly unique to Madagascar. Hira Gasy is certainly a hybrid, but also an instantly recognizable, one of a kind style, full of energy and emotion, with a unique contribution to make to the rich mix of world musical traditions celebrated by Lomax -- now very sadly, like so many others, threatened with extinction.

Other distinctive and highly valued hybrids I could mention are: Andean popular music, combining European, African and Amerindian styles; the Tralalero vocal style of northern Italy, combining traditional Italian folk melody with a Baroque harmonic idiom; Indonesian gamelan music, combining several different layers of court and village music originating in both Hindu and Moslem culture; and of course the many types of African American musics, celebrated all over the world, Blues, Afro-Cuban, Caribbean, Gospel, Jazz,  Rock, Hip-Hop, etc. combining elements of African and European music each in its own distinctive way.

We can't really compare such highly distinctive and richly varied hybrid styles with what is now happening in the popular commercial and semi-commercial mainstream where our musical "virus," the rhythm section, now dominates literally everywhere in the world. Regardless of whether it's being promoted as the "traditional" music of Burma or India or Taiwan or the American Indians or the Australian aboriginals, etc., etc. ad nauseum, what we actually hear, over and over (often following a relatively sedate, vaguely "traditional" intro), is very simply the same old "made-in-the-USA" rock 'n roll, complete with the never to be omitted electric guitar, electric bass, standard drum kit and standard four square, strophic structure, accompanied by the same old well worn chord progressions. I'm sorry, but I fail to see any true hybridity in such music, since any trace of any  traditional elements that the musicians might be trying to squeeze into the mix is almost always completely overwhelmed by rhythm section, rhythm section and more rhythm section -- apparently we simply can't get enough of it.

To make my point as clearly as I can, I'll leave you with an example I find especially troubling:

Yothu Yindi- "Tribal Voice"

Here we have one of the more interesting such groups, "Yothu Yindi," which bills itself in the usual manner, as a socially responsible, if not "revolutionary," effort to express traditional culture in a manner relevant to the needs of "modern" Australian indigenous youth. Here's how they describe themselves:
Yothu Yindi hail from the Yolngu (Aboriginal) homelands on the north-east coast of Australia's Northern Territory, a country the Yolngu have occupied and protected for perhaps 40,000 years or more. The Yolngu members of the band celebrate their deep spiritual connections with the land, connections that are kept alive through song and dance and ceremony, public aspects of which are found within the band's recordings and live performances.
I'm sorry but I fail to find even the faintest trace of any aboriginal Australian musical traditions in this song, ironically titled "Tribal Voice." Aside from a few disconnected toots on a didgeridoo, and some film footage representing traditional costumes and dancing, the song is pure unadulterated rock 'n roll. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but the "Tribal Voice" is exactly what we do not hear in this song. Nor do we hear anything particularly original either. So what, aside from crass commercialism, is the point?

Am I being overly "Western" and ethnocentric in expressing such a negative view of aboriginal musicians simply trying to survive in a competitive dog eat dog world? Am I ignoring the needs of indigenous people, struggling to preserve their identity in a changing economic and social environment? Am I "essentializing" by suggesting that there might be something to the "media imperialism" thesis so strongly opposed by Professor Strelitz? Or am I simply doing what the little boy in the old story did when he noticed, to the consternation of all, that the Emperor had no clothes?

to be continued . . .


Denkof Zwemmen said...

Dear Dr. Grauer,

1) While you are right that “change” is not the one great constant in human culture, it sure is the one great constant – period.

2) The ability of rock and roll (which is not per se the musical virus, but only the carrier of the virus) to overcome old musical traditions is based on the same powerful qualities that have driven many aspects of American culture to overcome many traditions. Rock and roll is to music what Coca Cola is to beverages, candy bars are to food, and narcissism is to character. It would take a book – and a genius of a psycho-sociologist – to explain the mechanism of this cultural conquest, but just as a facile and sketchy shorthand description, let’s say that what we offer is sweet, easy and addictive.

3) The one aspect of American culture that has most undermined other cultures is acquisitiveness. Yothu Yindi, the aboriginal rock group, (like a zillion other rock and roll wannabes) don’t exist to make music but to get on the gravy train. It’s as simple as that.

DocG said...

Greetings, Denkof. Nice to learn that you agree with me. Or is it disagree? Actually I'm not here to drape popular culture in either praise or blame. Nor is it my intention to diss all the very talented musicians who, as you say, are not the virus itself, but only its carriers. I have a great respect for the guild of pop. and rock artists and enjoy their music even when its larger social meaning disturbs me.

And since I'm not "a genius of a psycho-sociologist," I'm not in a position to make sense of it all either. Don't shoot the messenger, sez I.

German Dziebel said...

Hi Victor,

This is off-topic but thought you might be interested:

I trust all is well!


DocG said...

Yes, German, that post is interesting. Also amusing.

This story reminds me of the story of the legendary Iurapuru bird, which sings (theoretically) using the tones of the diatonic scale:

The great Brazilian composer Villa-Lobos wrote a wonderful tone poem based on the song of the Iurapuru:

spiraldance said...

Check out Bernie Krause - on ancient human cultures and biomusic.

Fascinating and true!

The origins of music from nature.

DocG said...

Thanks for those links. Very interesting. Of course a great many animals vocalize, not just humans. But don't forget, we are animals also, and our ancestors very likely vocalized as well. So I don't think we learned to sing from any other animals than our own ancestors. I do think it possible, however, that certain instruments, such as the pipe ensemble (or panpipes as well), could have been created at first in order to lure birds by imitating their calls.

In any case, Krause's work strikes me as extremely valuable and interesting. I'll take a look at his book when I get some time.