The Uses of World Music

In a world in which we are all bombarded by the same media, exist under the same laws and are increasingly dependent on the same technology, we need constant reminders of human difference.

(The following is a guest article from Andrew Clay McGraw, Ph.D. Be sure to read his bio at the end of the feature to learn more about him.)

Growing up in Kansas City and studying in an experimental little college in Massachusetts (Simon’s Rock), I took up percussion and began playing in orchestras and rock, jazz, pop, and experimental bands. Percussion became my window into world music. Any percussionist with an interest in the origins of his/her instruments and repertoire encounters a complex musical history with far flung global connections. While the drumset might be thought of today as a uniquely American instrument, its building blocks hail from every corner of the globe: Turkish cymbals, European (although probably originally African) snares, Chinese tom-toms and blocks. The marimba came to America from Africa via Central America (and was later perfected in Japan). The vibraphone was America’s response to the Indonesian gamelan orchestra. Interest in the origins of “my music” led me to study Ghanaian, Cuban, Turkish, North Indian, South Indian, and Chiapan musics as a graduate student. Today, I am a musician, composer, improviser, and ethnomusicologist specializing in traditional and experimental musics of Southeast Asia. I am currently an assistant professor of ethnomusicology at the University of Richmond.

I am going to speak briefly about the various uses of world music and about the emergence of ethnomusicology as a discipline. By “world music” I mean anything other than Euro-American popular or art music (that simplistic definition will have to work for now). By “uses” I mean to ask how world music has functioned to serve colonial, academic, economic, community, and individual needs in Euro-America. This is going to begin with a rather dense academic introduction (I am an academic, after all), but I will finish with a more plainly stated section in which I explore why world music might be important or useful to anyone reading this.

Musicology, the formal, academic study of European high art music, emerged as a discipline in the middle of the 19th century. Shortly thereafter a subfield called comparative musicology was founded to deal with all of the other music in the world. Colonial officers in the field would transcribe (and later record) native musics, sending this “data” back to enormous colonial archives in Europe to be analyzed by specialized scholars. In the colonial project it became evident that one way to control a people is to claim to know them better than they know themselves, to place historical, scientific and cultural (including musical) authority with the colonizer. In this case, dubious analyses of various world musics were used to confirm pre-existing evolutionary cultural hierarchies which placed Europeans (and their musics) at the top of a ladder of progress.

In the mid 1950s American universities, flush with energy and resources from the post-war economic boom, an influx of new students supported by the GI bill and expert comparative musicology faculty fleeing a ravaged Europe, began offering non-Western music ensembles within their new “ethnomusicology” programs. Ethnomusicology emerged as a discipline which considered as its topic “all musics, anywhere, anytime” and eventually became defined more by its techniques (primarily forms of ethnography) than by the regions it focused upon. Ethnomusicology seeks to balance the playing field in music studies to consider all musics equally from a position of cultural relativity, the notion that cultures should be thought of as equal rather than as existing in a hierarchical, evolutionist model.

In postwar, postcolonial America ethnomusicology and world music was used to satisfy appeals to “multiculturalism” on campus. The increasingly multicultural curriculum in the American liberal arts university emerged for at least two reasons: 1) as a reaction to the increasing ethnic diversity of the American population (and recognition of the diversity within populations previously conceived as either simply “white” or “black”) and 2) a recognition of the emergence of a global economy and the need to train a workforce that could think globally in order to manage and dominate this new system.

These two kinds of multiculturalism can be thought of as: 1) bottom up, and 2) top down.

Top down multiculturalism is complicit with global capitalism. The global economy appeals to multiculturalism (always linked to positive values in liberal American society) when it turns expressions from around the world into commodities: the “world music” CDs at Starbucks, for instance. Here real cultural difference is flattened out to be a slideshow of folklorico for purchase by the world’s upper crust, conditioned to consume these products by an education which valued anything dubbed multicultural. Global capitalism also calls upon multiculturalism when selling its Western products to an ever-expanding global marketplace; remember the “United Colors of Bennetton”?

Bottom up multiculturalism, on the other hand, exists as real communities interacting in the everyday through face-to-face social networks. These groups often use “world music” (or, their music) as a way to maintain cultural identity and memory in multicultural (often urban) settings. Here music is used to assert a group’s place and values within American society and, sometimes, as a conduit through which to “speak back” to the power of totalizing economic systems.

On campus, ethnomusicology and world music straddle both “bottom up” and “top down” multiculturalisms. Examples of the university’s (and by “university” I mean all institutions of secondary education in America) top-down use of multiculturalism include its appeals to diversity in its “branding” and in requiring students to take “diversity” courses (such as world music classes). We could either view this as an innocent attempt to introduce students to the beauty of global cultures and to inculcate cultural tolerance, or as a more strategic move to train a generation of workers, leaders and business owners with a competitive understanding of world networks, an education which positions them to dominate the flows of global capitalism.

Examples of the university’s engagement with bottom up multiculturalism are seen in its efforts to send some (a vast minority) of its students out into the “Third” or “Southern” world to experience first hand the grinding poverty that has been the result of globalization and the devastating “Development” that has been wreaked upon the world through the policies of the WTO and the IMF. Furthermore, ethnomusicologists introduce students to a world of “real difference,” sounds that cannot, or have not yet, been appropriated by the Big Four world record companies: sounds that are still too odd for Starbucks. Ethnomusicologists bring to campus Brazilian capoeiristas who discuss oppositional music, dance and theater forms, Zimbabwean musicians singing of radical politics, American taiko drummers who seek to forge a stronger Asian-American identity. Here world music is used as a kind of critique of global hegemonic systems.

Ethnomusicologists also bring to campus world music performance ensembles. At the University of Richmond I direct a “Global Music Ensemble” (including Ghanaian and Indonesian music) for students, and a community-based Balinese gamelan orchestra, Gamelan Raga Kusuma.

I want to conclude this essay by telling you how the performance of world music by cultural outsiders can be useful as a kind of cultural critique. American students almost invariably learn Ghanaian music more quickly than they do Indonesian music; not because it is easier but because it is culturally closer. And therein is the lesson. Why do we pick up West African patterns more quickly? Because most of what we call “American music” comes from Africa and many of these rhythms are already in my students’ bones. That might seem like common sense to many reading this but it is an important, humbling and almost shocking revelation to the majority of my students from the white upper middle class. The realization that the aesthetic life of the ruling class has its roots in the oppositional sounds of the underclass has broad political and philosophical implications.

But Indonesian music presents a different challenge to outsiders. Balinese approaches towards tempo, groove, tuning, melody construction, etc. – basically, its entire aesthetic is quite often far removed from anything my students have ever heard before. Why is this useful or important? It is important just because it is different. Different ways to organize sounds symbolize different ways of being in the world. It suggests that life can be lived differently, that we can hear and feel differently. A music that is ordered differently suggests that life itself could be ordered differently and that the structures of living that we take for granted are not the only possibilities. World music is, for anyone in America, inherently counter-hegemonic. In a world in which we are all bombarded by the same media, exist under the same laws and are increasingly dependent on the same technology, we need constant reminders of human difference. The alternative is the Matrix.

This then is the secret politics of ethnomusicology. It is a continuation of a long series of struggles against cultural (intellectual, aesthetic, ethical, economic) homogenization that were started with the first European avant-garde. When the Dadaist Marcel duChamp placed a urinal in a museum and suggested it was art what he was really saying was: “What is art? How have you been duped into thinking art is art? How can we imagine alternatives to art, to life? How can we imagine?” But then the avant-garde was brilliantly co-opted by the very capitalist elite it was criticizing and now the best of that tradition hangs in the board rooms of the world’s largest transnationals and sells for millions of dollars in auction.

But through the study and performance of “other” musics we are provided with the kinds of aesthetic, existential, and intellectual alternatives and challenges that were offered by the avant-garde and we engage as a community, a real community (with all of its problems), not a Facebook group. Gamelan Raga Kusuma members, for instance, range in age from 6 to 60, include university students, local middle and high school students, and cut across ethnic, class, and gender lines. In studying these traditions, nearly all of which are oral and rely and memorization rather than musical notation, players exercise their brains and extend their social networks, and we’ve all heard of the many emerging medical studies which have linked brain health and social networks to emotional health and increased longevity. By studying other modes of expression we need not fear a loss of self or a devolution into romantic orientalism or exoticism. Studying the arts of another culture does not require us to abandon our own aesthetics or beliefs, but we can all learn from how others have structured and interpreted the world, in sound.

And so, log off, get out there, do something different. It is good for you, your health, your brain, your soul, and bad for a system that attempts to turn you into rational, predictable consumers. Richmond has plenty to offer: find Olumide’s Senegalese drumming and dance groups at The Camel, join Mestre Panao’s Brazilian capoeira sessions, dance to Kevin Harding’s bossa groups, look up one of the several master South Asian musicians in town, or stop by a Gamelan Raga Kusuma rehearsal.

A ethnomusicologist, performer, percussionist, improviser and composer specializing in contemporary music, intercultural composition, and traditional and avant-garde musics of Southeast Asia, Andrew Clay McGraw received his Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from Wesleyan University in 2005. He is currently an assistant professor at the University of Richmond where he teaches courses on world music, ethnomusicology, humanities, Asian music, globalization, and directs a Balinese gamelan ensemble for students and the community. Learn more about him and his work here.

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