Purity and authenticity in music of other cultures

This conference has been pretty stimulating so far, and I have been to some presentations that have felt very relevant to my work. I am finding that certain themes seem to resonate each day, so I will focus on these in each of my posts.

On Monday I went to a paper given by Carolyn Burns who has completed a study on children’s responses to learning African-American slave children’s songs. The project was particularly interesting in that she taught the songs to Xhosa children in a small school in South Africa. She did a pilot study first, teaching the same songs to American (non African-American) children in her own school in Montana.

Burns talked about how she sourced the songs that she taught – they were from the Georgia Sea Islands (off the coast of Georgia, USA) and she was able to access sources (people, as well as early research) that ensured she learned the songs in a ‘pure’ form. They were ‘authentic’.

I was interested in this emphasis. Firstly, I wondered what difference this ‘purity’ made to the children to whom she taught the songs. Possibly none, as she spoke of how they went on to make small changes and variations on the song anyway – including into their own language.

Then, I wondered if perhaps this ‘purity’ cut out a variable of some kind in her research. The purer the song, the more she could identify and analyse the Xhosa children’s responses to the African American slave children’s songs (as opposed to their response to her interpretation of the songs she taught). Perhaps from a research point of view, the purity of the songs allowed her to be more invisible in her role as teacher of the songs.

However, there may also have been an element there that suggests that their response to the songs would in part be because they were being taught by a newcomer to their school, and indeed, to their township and country. This newcomer might teach in a new way for them. She might have a very different communication style. (I remember a young girl in Russian school I worked in saying to me, somewhat wide-eyed with surprise, “You are very… kind!” And I was, superficially at least, compared to the sterner communication styles of the Russian teachers).

I suspect the period of time for the presentation (only 30 minutes) would not have allowed Burns to go into detail about aspects such as these.

Part of me feels a little wary, and sometimes a little frustrated, with arguments that place high importance on purity and authentic sounds in performance of music of other cultures, by performers who are not from that culture. I remember feeling incredibly blocked in Bosnia, learning to play the beautiful, haunting sevdah tunes of that culture on my clarinet, when Bosnian musician friends told disparagingly, “You don’t sound Bosnian at all, when you play that. It is wrong.” I felt defensive – why would I sound Bosnian? I’m Australian! I am hearing this music for the first time. Of course I will play it with an accent, just as I speak their language with an accent, and with errors.

But I also wanted question – does this matter? I want to explore this music in my own way, to experience it and enjoy it, and discover its interpretations in my own time, in an organic way. If this means I will not sound authentic, does this matter?

In some cases, it is a question of the appropriateness of the performance, or an understanding of, and sympathy with, the intentions the music has for the culture it comes from, and its place in their society. In last week’s Policy Commission, the topic of the study and raising of status of indigenous musics was discussed in several papers. Music from Australian Aboriginal nations was an early topic, and the complexity and potential fragility of the music and the way it is embedded in their culture was a good place to start.

In the indigenous peoples’ music of Australia, music is woven into the spiritual life of the people. Music is connected to place, to ceremony, to rituals and traditions. There are many many different nationalities and cultural groups among Australian Aborigines, and the music from one cultural group may not be shared with another. Even within a cultural group, there will be some restrictions on who can hear or participate in different musical performances.

(I want add here that I feel uncomfortable even trying to write about this, as I am not an expert. It is not something I have studied. It seems it can be easy to offend people when you attempt to summarise something complex and multi-layered in just a few sentences. If I do cause offense, or frustrate others with greater knowledge than me who may read this and be horrified at such errors being so widely accessible, I’m sorry, and I welcome your corrections via the Comments section).

Therefore, inappropriate performance of Aboriginal music should be avoided. How do I feel about this? Again, part of me feels concerned that a lack of expertise means a whole world of music should be cut off from me or my students. Is a little exploration, a dipping of the toe into the water, better than nothing?

Another paper I heard was about spirituality in music – which suggested that spirituality is present when the three domains of values, expression and materials all resonate with each other to a great level of intensity. Transience of experience, transformation, transcendence. Authenticity being a point of the individual coming to a peace with their own inner voices, and those of others.

This created a bigger picture for me, about why we play music, and for whom. In fact it is something that many other cultures of the world seem to accept and embrace in their music more that those of us in the West seem to – that sense of the spiritual in music, of playing in order to connect with a greater power, whether we play in a group (where, for me, it is most evident) or on our own (though again, I know I have experienced this sense of the spiritual in my own personal practise and playing).


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