21 June 2011

Fusion Music?

For several years the annual Music For Youth Festivals in the UK ran a section for “World Music”.  It offered a musical showcase for those schools with a large immigrant community and, in the days before cheap budget air travel and wall-to-wall travel documentaries on TV (admittedly jostling for space among the wall-to-wall programmes on sharks and on cooking), gave adventurous music teachers the chance to encourage their students to explore foreign cultures.  It even gave schools outside the south east of England a chance to explore their own cultural identity through local folk tunes and dances, but few ever availed themselves of that; the thought that there might be something of equal value in a British locality to that of an impoverished African tribe or a ghetto in the West Indies an anathema to most British school teachers, chronically embarrassed by their failure to be anything other than white, wealthy and well educated.

Unfortunately, despite the very good intentions behind the World Music category, it mostly degenerated into a few predominantly middle-class schools (usually, it seemed, girls’ preparatory schools in Surrey) presenting their steel pan bands on stage, invariably performing incongruous arrangements of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven or, incredibly daringly, The Beatles.  They played on custom-made, state-of-the-art steel pans, delivered to the performance venue in a fleet of top-of-the-range urban four-wheel drives.  Quite what the children thought this had to do with the Caribbean slums where, devoid of any other luxuries, the people would bash and bang on used oil drums to accompany their dancing I was never allowed to ask, but I did get quite animated when anyone suggested they were getting involved in a legitimate world music exercise.

The serious study of world music – or ethnomusicology – as an academic subject only really started while I was at university.  I remember my tutor, coughing eloquently over his unceasing chain of Capstan Full Strength, pouring scorn over it; but then he had done his doctorate on the incidence of a certain musical interval on Menstruation Motets of the 11th century (or some such terminally boring subject – no wonder he took to the fags so rabidly) so regarded anything so wide-ranging as academically suspect.  I remember feeling that it would have been an interesting area to study, but there was more than enough in the area I was working on at the time (analysis of European choral music from 1918 to 1968) to keep me occupied, and I had no desire to delve into the murky world of Polynesian nose flutes or Chilean maracas.

Ironically, two of my first musical jobs were in the ethnomusicological sector.  As Head of Musical Instrument research for the Welsh Folk Museum (I was based at the exotically named Ystrad Mynach College of Further Education) I spent a year delving into the musical lives of the South Wales valleys, going way back to the wealth of ethnic music which actually existed in abundance until the non-conformists came along and wreaked their devastation on cultures who didn’t have the benefit of existing after the birth of Calvin.

Even more exotic, was my appointment as director of a project to identify and record the music of the indigenous tribes of Borneo, due to be collectively re-housed (and effectively broken up) by the lunatic decision to build the mega Bakun Dam – a plan which was quickly shelved when Malaysia won the right to host the Commonwealth Games in 1998 and realised it had to build a new airport instead in Kuala Lumpur).  Environmental Protestors had started making noises about the loss of the Sarawakian tribes, so a retired politician armed with a large sum of money and an instruction to do something to keep the EPs off the government’s back, decided to create a company which would record and preserve as much of their indigenous art as possible.  I was charged with finding a way of preserving the music and I spent several months investigating it before getting hold of an experienced Ethno music record producer and getting it all put on to a CD (you can still buy it  it’s called “Sawaku – the Music of Sarawak” and is on the Dutch Pan Records label). I can’t say it sold me on to ethnomusic and I’m quite happy to keep it as a peripheral interest, occasionally going to hear examples when I’m travelling and sometimes buying ethnic instruments as a kind of souvenir from local makers.

But what I learnt from these two ventures into the field was that ethnic music differed from what we call “Western” Art Music and Pop in two significant ways.  Firstly it was very tribe specific, belonging uniquely to one group of people who passed it down from generation to generation by word of mouth and example, not in any written or formalised means, and secondly it was functional.  The music was not entertainment or absolute, it served a very specific purpose.  Whether to attract rains, to scare away birds, to celebrate courtship or worship a particular deity, it couldn’t just be turned on and off; it needed a purpose to be performed.  We memorably had one musician on our Borneo project who refused to record to order, saying that it was the wrong time of year for his song.

Since then, of course, ethnomusic has exploded into the largest growth area in music at the moment.  There are festivals all around the world, not the least of which is the Rainforest in Sarawak – something of a by-product of our original work – which starts next month.  But with this sudden popularisation of ethnic music comes a very real danger that it will destroy itself.  Reading today’s edition of The Hindu, I have come across an article which highlights this danger vividly.  “Seven years ago”, runs the article, “Ganesh Govindswamy chanced upon a djembe and had an irresistible urge to master the new wonder.  Acquiring one of the skin-covered drums for himself, he founded the Bangalore-based African trance tribal group Beat Gurus”.

Now that gets alarm bells ringing!  Illustrated with a picture of seven dark-skinned Indians dressed in colourful South African garb and holding African drums and spears we have such a confusing mix of ethnicities, I’m not surprised that Govindswamy recalls that “At first, I was received with a little scepticism”.  But he seems to have started a trend and we read that “classical Carnatic troupes such as Bangalore-based Layatharanga also use the djembe in a few compositions”.  It’s controversial and an “artiste who did not want to be identified” observed to The Hindu’s reporter; “Some bands just place tribal drums on stage just to get a good reaction from the audience”. 

Here we see both African and Indian cultures being diluted in the name of the latest buzz word, “Fusion”. And if we are seeing the growth of a new musical genre called “Fusion Music” than I’ve bad news; it’s been around since before the 17th century, only we call it Western “Classical” Music.  

Cross-fertilization is the bread and butter of Western Classical Music.  We can point to Messiaen getting his rhythms from Hindu culture, Debussy from Javanese Gamelan, and even Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven were happy to draw from what they labelled “Turkish” back in the 18th century.  It’s part and parcel of what the genre is all about and it’s what makes it so universal and accessible to all cultures.  And being in Goa I can’t overlook the huge influence Indian music had on the pop music of the 60s and 70s, what with George Harrison and the gang having flocked to absorb sitar, yoga and mind-bending substances on top of an Indian mountain. 

But both pop and classical music can do this because they are not culture, race or tribal specific; the music is designed to be played in any circumstances (and certainly is).  But if you have cross-fertilisation in ethnic music, surely it no longer becomes ethnic music.  The sight of seven Indians pretending to be Africans might seem “ethnic” to European whites, but it has as much validity as Surrey schoolgirls pretending to be Caribbean slum-dwellers.  To me it borders on the offensive.

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