21 November 2011

Reflections on Ethnic Music

This is a brief meditation on ethnicity as a source of all powerful musical styles, as a kind of curse in the contemporary world of nation states, and as an ever more complex puzzle for every student of popular music to solve. Browsing through the Wilfrid Mellers classic, one can browse a long time before finding much on ethnicity  or class as foundations for musicking. Music in a New Found Land simply extends the high culture worldview used in writing about Bach or Beethoven or Orpheus to generously include the best of popular music in a civilization that is ever broader but always universal. Mellers writes from on high, a heavenly perspective, in which sympathetic judgments of everything musical under the sun are dispensed with gusto and St. Peter is encouraged to let all kinds of quality pass the gates, or perhaps we should describe it as an Olympian-situated knowledge that savors the foibles and idiosyncrasies of all the music makers below because the gods and mortals share so many  passions. I know I have enjoyed this recent browsing greatly because I share in almost all the judgments: the appreciation of Thelonius Monk’s fingerings, the disgust with Stan Kenton’s mechanization, the appraisal of Menotti’s emptiness, the disappointments of so many ‘third stream’ syntheses. Mellers gets it right in phrase after phrase, page after page, but almost always by listening intelligently from the top down.

A theoretical or interesting quotation from Mellers on ethnicity per se is hard to find. While he does not 'pronounce' on ethnicity, he does have a lot to say about musics which are often thought of as ethnic - and not only Africans-American and country but other 'primitive' or 'prime' musics of the world as well. The primacy or firstness or originality of these musics seems to be taken for granted as varieties of grist for a universal mill in which 'serious' music, perhaps, is the miller. A few years ago I would have been very offended by this. After all, 'ethnicity' has been an axiom in most of my work, phrased as nationalist perspective in Urban Blues (1992), combined with classlessness in Tiv Song (1979), with class in Polka Happiness (Keil et al., 1992), with class and caste in our work on Greek Macedonian Gypsy musicians (The Instruments with A. V. Keil, in progress). All along, and especially in My Music (Crafts et al., 1993) I have been working from an ethnographic, bottom-up or culture-constituting point of view - where does the music come from? or in My Music how does each person fit music into a life? - rather than from a critical or interpretive, 'here is how I hear it' perspective. At the moment , however, I am very sympathetic to the Mellers variety of intelligent listening to everything from aloft, and more than a little ambivalent about my own past prediction for snipping out identities, both ethnic and idiocultural, from the social fabric, in order to celebrate them.

Much of this ambivalence has grown out of our Gypsy research. Mulling over interviews with the most senior musicians of Iraklia's neighbourhood, it is clear that despite having been settled in this one town for well over a century, the oldest people can think of themselves as having had at least three ethnic identities in addition to being Roma or Gypsies. In the interviews these ethnic identities are presented as choices made or not made in the midst of historical crises. 'When the Turks left this town in 1922 during the exchange of  populations we could have gone with the Turko-Gyftoi because we certainly spoke Turkish fluently.' 'When we were starving during World War II and the occupying Bulgarian forces asked us if we were Bulgarian we probably should have said yes because more of us would have lived and we certainly spoke Bulgarian fluently. I served for two years in a Bulgarian army band playing for the officers.' 'All of our people have been Greek for as long as anyone can remember.' 'We Rom really have no music or folklore of our own, our deepest music for our own weddings is really Turkish.' 'The people who love our music the most are "the pained peoples," the Pontic Greek refugees from around the Black Sea, the Vlachs (a Rumanian speaking minority), the Slavic speaking minority.' I have made up these sentences and I could either make up more or patiently extract from our interview transcripts dozens of similar examples of people testifying to the flexibility of 'ethnicity' in Greek Macedonia.

This may be an extreme case of multiple or overlapped identities, but I suspect that just about every person you or I meet in the street is less mono-ethnic and much more complicated musically, historically, culturally than we think. Who has four grandparents from one tribe any more? Who listens to fewer than a dozen styles music?

From a Gypsy point of view and also from a universal or xenographic perspective outside all specific cultures (assuming for a moment, incorrectly, that such a xenographic vantage point exists), the quite recently invented states, with brand new and variably fascistic definitions of ethnicity in hand, have forced people to join their 'bundle' with defined borders if they want to claim land and citizenship. What had been flexible, fluid, complex, mosaicised identities for both individuals and groups suddenly assume a fixed and layered look as the big lie of a mono-ethnic nation-state becomes naturalized. The Gypsies of northern Greece can choose at times of war, whether or not to be Greek, Bulgarian or Turkish (and may yet be offered these choices again) but they cannot choose to be Rom. Or put it this way, they have less chance of choosing a Rom identity than 20 million Kurds have of choosing a Kurdish identity. Over a hundreds other peoples united on their territories are struggling for states ahead of the scattered Gypsy populations. Only a planned and peaceful reduction of populations in world-governed loose federations might eventually have room for Rom qua Rom, both settled and roaming.

What does all this have to do with 'ethnic' music in the USA? Well, in the past all music has been coming from tribes or 'ethnic groups' until very recently (remember Phrygian, Dorian and Lydian describe how those tribes sang in the era before homer, and rap was strictly a Bronx street corner phenomenon fifteen years ago). In the future I have the deepest desire to restore Gaia's world of maximized cultural and species diversity. But at this historical moment, as the 'cleansing' continues unopposed in Bosnia and the Third World War (Nietschmann, 1987) continues inside dozens of other states, my original title for this essay presented a sequential analysis within the parentheses - '(Black music, country music, others all)' - that is both very logical and completely problematic. Logical because 'Black music' has become virtually all of American music as jazz suffused pop and rhythm and blues became rock; 'country' is the next biggest music in America; 'other' could include every thing from Latin or salsa to the six varieties of polka; and finally, one could argue, 'all' of our music is ethnic - as 'James' puts it My Music, 'everything you hear comes from some kind of ethnic background, and from somewhere. So why do you want to be narrow?' (Crafts et al., 1993, p. 180).

But from ethnographic perspectives 'ethnicity' is completely problematic, too. Black musicians and leaders usually do not want to be considered 'ethnic' because it lumps the black experience within all the other immigrant experiences as if everyone volunteered to come over here; glossing over the middle passage, slavery and racism is the last thing they want to do. Country musicians would probably scratch their heads in puzzlement over the 'ethnic' label since country is just plain old everyday American music; hell, Charlie Pride sounds like a good ol' boy, ain't nothin' ethnic about it, we're singin' the songs of the unsilent majority. Most of the 'others' - German-Americans, Italian-Americans, Polish-Americans, Slovenian-Americans, etc. etc. - have been leaving the ethnic urban neighborhoods for the more anonymous suburbs just as fast as they can get the money together to buy a home and a monocultural lawn (no dandelions or clovers please). We are certainly 'all' ethnic, but it is ironic to realize this just as the 'all' has disappeared into the shopping mall.

Should analysts, both humanist and social scientific, continue to draw tight circles around people and call them members of a culture or subculture? We have just published a book about Polish-American polka music (Keil et al., 1992) but only two or three per cent of the Polish-Americans in western New York are enthusiastic enough about Polka dances to go to one every so often; have we falsely characterized this community by putting Polka music in an emblematic pose, the soul music of an ethnic working class community? When I drew a circle around the fans of B.B. King, Bobby Bland and Junior Parker in Chicago circa 1963 I did not pay any attention at all to other musicians and musics they were  hearing and loving; no notice of Motown, a word or two for James Brown, and I hate to think how many of B's fans could have talked to me eloquently about country music if I has asked. In other words, reifying culture and simplifying the identities of people has been standard practice in the American academy for a long time now.

So perhaps I should quit my unannounced and largely unfought battle with the British critics and the cultural studies movement over people's music as something different from high, mass or folk music (see Feld and Keil, 1994, chapter 5); something different from the various fusions of high, mass and folk that Mellers in his closing pages (1964, pp. 436-7) wants to hear consummated in the new found land. It has long seemed to me that British and Canadian colleagues are always talking about mass culture or popular culture, sometimes in relation to high culture, but almost never talking about people's culture and music: brass bands, singing in pubs, amateur string quartets, and so forth. The universalizing, the globalization of culture and the trend toward a single civilization is certainly moving along at an ever-quickening pace; scholarship celebrating what people do for themselves in any given locality does seem more and more folkloric and quixotic. Postmodernists have been assuring me that globalization and localization of culture go hand in hand, the global economy eroding the old nation-sate identifies and leaving space for local communities to reassert themselves. I do not see or hear it in Buffalo yet. Each new mall in the suburbs is bigger and more appalling than the one before; the city shrinks and there is less and less live music. I find it harder and harder to locate local cultures and to do this ethnographic or documentary work in many other parts of the world. And conversely, it seems more and more urgent to participate in local musicking with the aim of creating a culture or cultures for this watershed, this echo-niche, that will do what music used to do so well - bind people, their beliefs and the natural world together in a specific time and place.

I think of the work we do at MUSE (Musicians United for Superior Education) Incorporated as experiments in ethnogenesis, culture creation, retribalisation, planting the seeds for new ethnicities. We raise money and send teams of African-American, Afro-Latin, Native American musicians and dancers to schools and community centres on a regular weekly basis to see if they can instigate self-sustaining music-dance styles in which the older children are able to teach the younger ones the traditions of their particular school or centre. After a few years of this work I cannot say with complete confidence that a new tradition has been invented or taken hold at a school yet, but suddenly there is a circle dance at an earth day celebration at one school or a demand from students at another school for an afterschool club that would let the bomba really blossom. Will the earth day celebration be repeated with variations next year? Will the afterschool club continue and spawn new lyrics, new dance steps, new events that become annual? Cultural invention is one thing; reliable transmission and annual rites take a lot of time to establish themselves.

I have no idea if my own musicking or these muse incorporating experiments will work, but high culture art has seemed dead to me for decades by now, mass culture commodities are ever more spectacularly stultifying, and the diverse people’s musics increasingly either ratified, commodified or marginalized as residual, ethclass folk music. In any case, it is more fun to invent oneself as a possible ancestor of new tribes than to document the pain and repression of the old ones.

Crafts, S., Cavicchi, D. and Keil, C. (1993). My music: Explorations of music in daily life. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.
Feld S. and Keil, C. (1994). Music grooves: Essays and dialogues. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Keil, C. (1992). Urban blues. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Keil, C. (1979). Tiv song: The sociology of art in a classless society. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Keil, A. V., Keil, C. and Blau, R. (1992). Polka happiness. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Mellers,W. (1964). Music in a new found land: Themes and developments in the history of American music. London: Barrie and Rockliff.
Nietschmann, B. (1987). The third world war. Cultural Survival, 11(3), 1-16.

[This essay was written by Charles Keil and was originally published in 1994 under the title '"Ethnic" music traditions in the USA (black music; country music; others; all)' in Popular Music (Vol. 13, No. 2, pp. 175-78). It has been slightly edited for reprinting here. Keil is a recent recipient of the Koizumi Fumio Prize for his achievements in ethnomusicology. A full text of his prize lecture is available here.]

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