Monday, September 9, 2013

377. The Life and Times of A Musical Virus - 35: Pissing in the Stream

As an ethnomusicologist specializing in the study of indigenous music, I am particularly disturbed by the effects of globalization on so many of the indigenous traditions I've learned to respect and even, in so many cases, love. Especially disheartening is the common tendency, on the part of some of our most influential musical pundits, to applaud the destruction, and indeed desecration, of such traditions in the name of cultural "reclamation"  or "revitalization."

As one example of many that could be provided, let's consider the following website, focusing on a type of music now popular in New Caledonia, a group of Melanesian islands to the east of Australia: Kaneka: Constructing Identity Through Music. Of course the "construction of identity" is by now a well worn, academically sanctioned bit of postmodern jargon, through which just about any idea or practice can be justified. 
Though relatively young as a style of music, Kaneka music incorporates centuries-old traditional musical influences, combining it with sounds of contemporary music to create a wholly distinct genre. Created by New Caledonian youths during the political struggles of the 1980s, Kaneka music was born of a desire to reclaim a cultural identity that had been threatened through years of colonial rule.
Well. First of all, using the term "Kaneka music" already constitutes an offensive appropriation, since the genre in question is hardly representative of Kaneka music as a whole. Secondly, I don't hear anything in this music that incorporates "centuries-old traditional musical influences" in anything more than the most superficial manner. Thirdly, the reference to "contemporary music" is misleading, since what we actually hear in literally all these songs is not "contemporary music" but, very simply, American style pop-rock.

Moreover, this is not a "wholly distinct genre" at all, but just another instance of the same-old same-old pop-rock heard time and again in different languages but essentially the same  form all over the world. It could not have been "created by New Caledonian youths" since there is nothing new in it to have been created -- though I don't doubt that certain New Caledonian youths, like youths all over the world, were tempted by the lure of rock stardom to defy their elders by putting together their own "garage bands". Finally, though it may indeed have been "born of a desire to reclaim a cultural identity that had been threatened through years of colonial rule," its effect has been to embrace the musical equivalent of neo-colonialism, by promoting the type of music, complete with Western harmonies, rhythm section, star system, etc., so aggressively exported by American media for many years.

Here's a youtube version of this type of "Kaneka music" as it appears on their site:

The claim that "Painstaking efforts were made to resurrect traditional melodies, rhythms and instruments" is misleading. The video opens with what sounds to me like a Christian hymn, possibly based on a traditional Kanak melody, but harmonized Western style, in the manner of any other hymn. In Polynesia this sort of thing came to be known as himene style -- more or less the same sort of singing can now be heard in literally every inhabited island of the Pacific.

What we hear next, predictably enough, is a typically rock-style percussion riff, sounding more like your typical American or British rock band than traditional Kanak drumming, followed by what we would expect from any old rhythm section anywhere in the world. If some traditional instruments are used, and if the melody contains some phrases vaguely reminiscent of traditional Kanak melos, the overall effect is that of the usual sort of heavily globalized "pop-rock" genre. Whatever traces of Kanek tradition that might be present are literally buried alive.

Here's another example of more or less the same type of abomination, labeled, of course, "MUSIQUE TRADITIONNELLE KANAK." Right!


Sorry, but I can't hear one single thing in this performance that's even remotely traditional.

For those of you curious as to what the truly traditional music of New Caledonia might sound like, I strongly recommend the CD New Caledonia: Kanak Dance and Music, which can be previewed here:

Of course, the real thing may take some getting used to, but for me there is simply no comparison between the simple but genuine and the pretentious and phoney. I can't help but be reminded of Alan Lomax's words of extreme indignation, addressed to all those so earnestly and thoughtlessly trying to make more palatable the raw products of age-old traditions: "You are pissing in the stream."

. . . to be continued .  . . .


J.A. B. said...

While I agree completely with your sentiment, calling anything an "abomination" is kind of overdoing it, don't you think? Without wanting to accuse you of conservatism, it makes it hard for me, as a person who always plays "devil's advocate", not to think for a moment that perhaps these new musical "traditions" aren't so bad.

Anyway, what I believe to be the greatest problem is that young people these days find the music of their ancestors boring (I can imagine the same kind of reaction to the traditional Kanak music that you got from the young rock band). It is very important that they be reminded of the immense cultural value of their traditions, before it's too late and nobody knows how to play the old music anymore. Then it will have become a museum piece, something from the past, from another world; dead history, not living history like it is now.

DocG said...

Thanks, J. A. B., for sharing your thoughts. As far as the word "abomination" is concerned, that's one of the nice things about blogging -- you are free to speak from the heart without worrying about some editor who might want to tone you down! :-) I hate to sound like a scold, but when blogging I like to just let my hair down and tell it like I seez it.

What I find "abominable" is not so much the music itself, as the effort to promote it as somehow the exact opposite of what it actually is, which I find "abominably" hypocritical.

That said, one of the things I should have emphasized more is my respect for the many genuinely talented musicians who make all kinds of enjoyable music, whether I "approve" of it or not. From a musical point of view what matters most is that the music connect with others and this music certainly does that, so certainly can't be dismissed.

The question of "native" youth finding their ancestral music boring, and the deeper question of how that music can survive in the face of the realities of a profoundly altered sociocultural context, is extremely difficult and troubling.

However, it is certainly not without precedent in the West. I'd venture to say that the vast majority of European and American youth find "classical" music boring as well. And irrelevant to boot. Yet our classical music manages to survive nevertheless, and in many cases to thrive, because it is so highly valued by so many -- regardless of the fact that the cultures that originally gave rise to it are long gone.

One might say that classical music is perpetuated by an "elite," but there I would strongly disagree. It may have originated in that context, but people from all walks of life appreciate it, just as so many of us love to read the poetry, plays, novels, etc. that are part of our literary heritage.

So as I see it, when the musicologists of today are so willing to give up on non-Western traditions out of fear of promoting a "museum culture," there is a double standard at work. If we have no problem with the "museum culture" that promotes Beethoven, Shakespeare and Michelangelo, why should we discourage the same sort of thing from developing elsewhere?

J.A. B. said...

Yes, I see where you are coming from now. I just figured I would caution you against using language that might be seen as dismissive, because even though this is your personal blog and you are free to say as you please, I think it would be wise to keep your readers (including the ones with different viewpoints) close.

I agree with you about the double standard. I think if more people become interested in the old musical traditions, as they are promoted, there could be a revival of sorts, a renewal of interest.

In fact I am presently writing an email to you about these and other subjects.