Community Music – on masters and other matters

Readers, you would be forgiven for thinking that my recent time in China was just one big bout of tourist dallying. But no, the ISME conferences I attended (the Community Music Activity Commission Seminar in Hangzhou and the Main Conference in Beijing) were full days, filled with ideas and discussions, papers and note-taking, and the excitement of being in China took up what little spare time was left.

But I’ve been processing and digesting all those ideas.The next few posts will look at some of the things that particularly caught my imagination, in relation to my current work and the work I am about to undertake in Timor-Leste.

The ‘master’ in Community Music

I started off in Hangzhou at the Community Music Activity Commission’s seminar. On the first day, several presentations looked at the way the music knowledge is transferred in community music settings, including wind bands in Bahia, Brazil, and the learning models of Capoeira Angola. Both presentations referred to the word ‘master’ (as in ‘master teacher’ or ‘band master’ or to be synonymous with ‘expert’). This opened up some interesting discussion on words like ‘master’, in particular when they are used in a community music context that may otherwise be intending to reduce or sidestep traditional hierarchical walls. “How can we ‘reload’ this term?” Lee Higgins (Boston University) asked. When does a word or notion like ‘master’ support the intentions of the work, and when could it (knowingly or unknowingly) undermine them? It bestows power upon an individual and power can be misused, so it is important to frame the word or establish its meaning in context.

In Capoeira, we saw the high level of heterogeneity in the group sessions – multi-age and multi-level – where the master practitioners often work alongside the newest and youngest members of the group, rather than only among other expert peers. Learning takes place in all directions in this kind of setting, with participants acting as teachers and guides for each other, depending on the work being undertaken. Everyone in the group is always participating – dancing (play-fighting), playing instruments, or singing. This full participation is part of the tradition, and essential, I imagine, to the effectiveness of the knowledge transferral. The masters here are working at the grass roots level and provide a model and example to newer members, both in terms of their practical work, and the values that they embody and adhere to, in demonstrating the importance and significance of every individual’s contribution.

One delegate spoke about the ethics of the master-student relationship being key, and that these need to be carefully considered and understood. He spoke of what he has coined the ‘relational pedagogies’ that are at the heart of this kind of relationship, that the relationships in community music projects (and indeed, more widely than that) are always shifting, and how you respond to these shifts will determine the health of the relational transaction. There is a continuum, he suggested, where music as a means of social control is at one end, and a freely responsive, personal approach to music-making is at the other.

The delegate from South Africa spoke of the fact that in indigenous arts, the word ‘master’ denotes respect. It is used in the way ‘professor’ is used within the academy. The indigenous arts don’t have a formal educational structure, and the recognition of a practitioner as a master is an acknowledgment of performance experience, the number of years you have been plying your craft, and the expertise you show among your peers. The word ‘master’ is not used to make others feel inferior, and it is important to retain the indigenous terminology of the practice because terminology is derived from human values.

Community Music in China

The first day of the seminar also included presentations from China. We learned that community music is particularly valued and growing in importance in China because of the rapidly increasing population of older people. Community music is considered an important and valuable activity for their society’s elders. In the ensuing discussion, one delegate raised the question of definitions. He suggested there can be differences between community music activity – for example, there is community music education (opportunities to learn music within a community/non-formal setting), amateur music-making (following familiar and defined models of music-making, eg. orchestras), and then there is ‘community music’ which he suggested that, in the UK in particular, often refers to the practice of music in response to community need, where the music-making may double as a kind of intervention, perhaps, or a way of addressing inequality, access, or social issues. In China, will they try and tackle social problems with music activity? he asked.

One of the Chinese delegates responded with a discussion of the way that songs from the ‘war period’ in China (1930s-1940s) were attracting many young people today. Are these protest songs, I wondered? Perhaps she was suggesting that these are a way of social mobilisation for young people today. I didn’t feel we got a completely straight answer to this question (at least, not one that I noted – and this might have been an issue of not getting my simultaneous translation headphones onto my head quickly enough). But it is an interesting question – who decides what determines community music activity, and who decides how it is defined, for that matter? The history of community music in the UK is strongly linked to the community arts and social inclusion/access movements that developed in the 60s and 70s, and it seems that community music there has always occupied a position where it offers significant and meaningful engagement to people who may otherwise be on the margins or outside the mainstream of society.

Every delegate to the ISME main conference received a special edition of the International Journal of Community Music with three articles in both English and Chinese. I’ve started reading through this, and the articles tackle this question of definitions, and the way that understanding of what community music is has changed over the years, and some of the social and political events that have influenced those changes. This is a new area for me to think about (I’ve just been a practitioner all these years, without a particularly clear-cut way of labeling myself… perhaps I am simply a community musician! It’s something I plan to ponder in later posts), and hopefully the translated journal will encourage many of the 3000+ Chinese delegates (as well as the 1000 delegates from other countries around the world) to also consider their work in this context.

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