Post-colonial tensions in music-making and learning
A second theme that wove its way through both the Community Music Activity commission seminar and the main ISME conference in Greece this year was that of the (musical) tensions that continue to play out in post-colonial contexts between the former colonisers and the colonised, and the value of indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing alongside Western knowledge. It is a big theme and a complex one, but when I reflected on the two weeks’ presentations it was interesting to see how often it emerged, even if the post-colonial tag wasn’t part of the paper’s title or abstract. My reflections here consider specific projects in Brazil, South Africa, Timor-Leste, indigenous Australia, and Aotearoa/New Zealand.
On the first day at the CMA seminar, we heard about a project in Bahia, Brazil, to give wind players of the many community bands throughout the region some expert tuition in playing their instruments. Presenters Joel Luis Barbosa and Jacob Furtado Cantao explained that these ‘band courses’ are provided by the Brazilian government and involve teachers from the city conservatories and schools of music. However, the experts tend to come from a more formal, ‘concert music’ playing tradition – a legacy of the era of Portuguese colonialism, connected in style and approach to European/Western art music.
In contrast, the community band players are self-taught, or have learned the rudiments of their instrument from other players in the group. They haven’t studied music formally. (We watched some video footage of the bands playing and of individuals playing. The clarinet sound had a wonderful freedom to it – big, solid, bold colours with which they ripped up and down arpeggios, or crooned insouciant melodies).
While the expert teachers found much to adjust in the community band members’ playing styles and techniques, they also noted that the styles and techniques that the players used matched the musical qualities of their bands perfectly! If they adopted the ‘more correct’ approaches to playing, their sound would no longer blend as well, and the sound of the whole band would change. These performance characteristics and unique blends of local tone colour were very much a part of the community bands’ identities.
The dilemma here was about the intention of the band courses, as provided by the Brazilian government. The tuition would change the unique, naturally-evolved musical characteristics of each of the bands. In the longterm it would create a homogeneity of sound. The process would at the same time undermine the inherent quality of the community bands’ work and its artistic value – as perceived by the players themselves, as well as perhaps by others outside. Yet, perhaps the community band members were excited to have this input into their playing. Perhaps these new techniques and approaches to playing would enhance their experience. The ethnomusicological dilemma of preserving without stultifying or making static (because culture is always evolving) is playing out here.
A similar dilemma was depicted in Sylvia Bruinders’ (University of Cape Town) presentation at the ISME main conference about the Christmas bands of the Western Cape, South Africa. These community bands get together every Christmas time for a ‘season’ of performances (from around Christmas Eve to March). There are around 80 Christmas Bands in the Western Cape. They are voluntary groups, seeing themselves as performing a community service. They make street parades, in which they march and play through the streets to different family homes and share food together; they also perform in competitions.
As with the Brazilian community bands, the majority of players only have minimal musical knowledge, and minimal experience outside their Christmas Band playing. Many play by ear or memory (having learned the tunes a long time ago). Some read rhythmic notation with the letter names written above the notes – this is called “playing the ABCs”. But it is a somewhat pejorative term, and reading music in this simplified way looked down upon. Many of the bands believe that reading Western staff notation makes the band look and sound more professional. The Christmas Bands play a role in social aspirations – they are an opportunity to make a respectable presentation of oneself to the world.
The Christmas Band competition program holds a lot of prestige for the players. The competitions include set pieces, and these must be read from notation. When the bands play from notation, their performances change significantly from something lively, spirited and ‘in-the-moment’ to being “quite dull”. Furthermore, the set competition pieces are what dictate the stylistic approach that is most highly scored. Bands want to do well, and so the ability to read staff notation, and the corresponding change in playing style, become desired symbols of sophistication and status.
“Code-switching” is also developing among some of the bands – in competitions, they play in one style, and in the communities they revert to the more uniquely flavoured sounds. This flexibility seems like a highly sophisticated response to the collision of musical cultures/values that is taking place here.
During question time, we learned that someone from the local University Music Department is invited to judge the Christmas Band competitions. “Why not invite someone from within in the community?” the question was then asked. “That way, they would be judging it on its own inherent qualities rather than some imposed from another music culture.” The presenter explained that the University judge is seen by all the bands as ‘neutral’. If a community member were to be given the role of judge, they would be seen as biased, and accused of favoritism.
As with my response to the Brazilian bands dilemma, I found myself torn in my reaction. On the one hand, I want the naturally-evolved sound of the Christmas bands, with all its rawness and energy, to be valued and loved and appreciated, and acknowledged for its unique colour and quality. It shares something authentic about that community with us. At the same time, the musicians themselves desire more knowledge, seek to educate themselves and to learn skills that will enable them interact with others in the broader social culture, and this needs to be their choice to make.
But why is the knowledge deemed to be so desirable? Is it because the roots of discontent have been sown long ago, when the oppressors and powerful of their society let it be known that their way was the way of the sophisticated and civilised, and the local way was somewhat lesser in status? These are the post-colonial tensions playing out, and they create discomfort and challenges for me.
My own presentations at both the CMA and ISME main conferences looked at different strands of work that were part of my Asialink artist residency in Timor-Leste, looking at the way my status as ‘outsider’ and ‘visitor’ could both privilege me and cause me to be viewed with mistrust. In a country like Timor-Leste, where foreigners have played dominant role for many centuries now (500 years Portuguese colonialism, 24 years Indonesian occupation, 13 years of UN presence and international NGOs), an outside person might be seen as both helpful and as imposing their own ideas/rules/values/language on the local population. It can lead to complex relationships where one is both welcomed and welcome, but also expected to assume certain roles, know when to step forward and when to step back. The intricacies of these forward and backward steps are not necessarily explained to you – you don’t know what you don’t know, much of the time! This legacy can play out in the setting up of new projects and partnerships, and also in people’s relationship with their own music and the music from outside. My presentations were project reports so I did not dwell on this tension in any detail, but it was present as an underlying theme throughout.
Another CMA colleague, Brydie-Leigh Bartleet described the experience of taking tertiary music students to stay and work with an Indigenous community in outback Australia for two weeks, as part of a community service learning project in music. She described some of the significant intercultural learning that took place, and some of the careful steps taken to ensure this project was of lasting benefit to the community, undertaken with their active involvement, steering and guidance. One of the CMA themes this year was of ‘bridging community music environments’, and this project considered the bridges formed between the university’s community of students and the outback town’s Indigenous community, the cross-cultural learning and collaboration that evolved, and the understanding that this ‘bridge’ gave to all involved. Brydie’s presentation was in some ways about practical reconciliation in action – collaboration, learning, listening, sharing knowledge. The students have to document their experiences as video diaries, and these are viewable on Youtube, the Desert Music Stories channel.
On the last day of the CMA gathering, we heard a particularly inspiring presentation from New Zealand, describing a program of vocal coaching focused on the traditional Maori performance art of Kapa Haka. Colonisation leaves many scars, many burdens, and through the imposition of the ruling power’s culture, destroys or renders extremely fragile many aspects of intangible culture; in Aotearoa/New Zealand, many performance and cultural traditions had been eroded or damaged. Today, Maori culture is celebrated and prioritised, but the effects of colonisation and globalisation still need to be countered. The performance traditions of the Kapa Haka have changed as Maori have embraced the western sound aesthetic, as their language has evolved due to being learned anew by a younger generation determined to regenerate it, and due to the eroding of cultural knowledge through the European colonisation process. Presenter (and singer) Te Oti Rekena (University of Auckland) described a research project that aimed to share the research wealth of his university vocal department with the indigenous community to support the development of the Kapa Haka performance tradition and ensure performers could sustain vocal health and optimal vocal quality in their performances. The researchers explored the performance cultures of the South Pacific, identifying acoustic strategies that had lost value among the Maori community in recent decades, and used practical workshops to re-interpret and recontextualise this information and knowledge in order to apply it to the local setting.
This has been a long post, but I wanted to draw my reflections from the conference together under this theme. It is an area of interest that continues to grow for me; I think that the way post-colonial tensions play out in music education, in what is taught and included and valued, and what is left out or treated differently, will be an area of my PhD study, the proposal for which I am currently writing.