Discussing Music and Race – a response

Discussing music and race – a response to the Introduction to “Music and the Racial Imagination”, edited by Ronald Radano and Philip V. Bohlman, University of Chicago Press (2001).

If modern musicology is reluctant to properly recognize or address music’s intrinsic role in human culture and history, does this imply, then, that the study of music in the context of race and racial identity is so much more taboo in the hallowed grounds of musical academia?

However, the racial context of music may yet be a basis and foundation of its development and evolution in society within each culture, and beyond cultural and geographical boundaries. Race is an undeniable feature of humanity, yet it seems to be a fact which modern musicology has stubbornly refused to consider objectively.

In the late 1980s, despite some agitations of change within the scholarly ranks to stultified musicological approach and mindset, the Eurocentric aesthetic of “music for music’s sake” still holds sway today, adversely affecting and resisting efforts at new ways of looking at music. Sadly, according to Radano and Bohlman, the hallowed institutions of higher learning remains doggedly Eurocentric in methodology and perspectives, a negative post-colonial insecurity reflected in this adherence to archaic practices, and ignoring, or according little status to other forms of music and musical cultures.

The experience of music in the Eurocentric definition of the ‘civilised’ world is limited largely to the 19th century concert hall setting, where the music and audience are separated by a cold, unwelcoming physical and psychological barrier. A sad irony. In the light of today’s widespread knowledge and recognition of the existence of other cultures and practices, this kind of setting belongs to the minority rather than the majority. Could this be yet another dark reminder of European colonization, the tyranny of the minority over the majority?

Despite efforts by some to break away from the above strongholds of outdated ideology and methodology, fixed concepts and limited perceptions of ethnicity and culture may render these well-meaning efforts limited at best, and at worst impotent. Music scholarship desperately needs to break away from old paradigms of perception, and subject their parameters to drastic and at times violent change, not only in the area of musical study but also in the areas of racial, cultural and social awareness and acceptance.

In the above book “Music , and the Racial Imagination”, racial imagination is defined as “the shifting matrix of ideological constructions of difference associated with body type and colour that have emerged as part of the discourse network of modernity” (p.5). This imagination influences the way music is created, perceived and practiced, determining music’s centrality within the social fabric at the level of race, and the way it is projected into society at large.

Contrary to the unnatural idea of music as an entity on its own, music has always been an inseparable part of human expression. Indeed, music has been the most powerful vehicle of this shared need, at once a uniting force because of its commonality, as well as a dividing force, marked by differences in musical languages, cultural cues, verbal language, use of objects (musical instruments), materials and available methods of dissemination.

Radano and Bohlman point out that every race within cultures possesses a different musical ontology, reflecting the richness of such diversity. In various subdivisions of race or tribes in Africa. music and bodily movements, viewed in the western context as ‘dance’, are inseparable, the fundamental cores of communication and life. The physical element is not foreign to musical traditions of most cultures and races. Other examples are the ‘whirling dervishes’ of the Mevlevi in Turkey, the Spanish Flamenco traditions which originated from the Andalusian sub-culture (race), and various South American musical forms. Racial differences can be very clearly detected in song. Verbal language set to music give the music its particular ‘flavour’ in terms of texture, colour and rhythmic and formal structures. Within the large Western European culture, the way vowels and consonants are articulated in the language of each race, render the music different one from another. For example, French song is different from Italian song not merely in terms of expression but also by virtue of the way the languages are articulated and expressed. Indeed, this writer agrees with Radano and Bohlman that recognising these differences is not a dangerous exercise itself. On the contrary, it is in recognizing differences that we can celebrate the achievements of humanity.

The danger arises when the power of music is used to divide and set apart, and prejudices are born, which lead to acts of destruction. German composer Richard Wagner’s widely publicised anti-semitic sentiments may be one famous example of elitism and racism, but other subtle examples exist till today. Take example the specific strict order rooted in the ‘classical’ traditional music of India. Only the privileged classes (e.g. Brahmins) may perform certain kinds of ritual music or musical instruments. In Kamataka (Carnatic music), the veena (vina, a lute-like instrument with along neck) belonged only to the upper classes, while the lesser classes were relegated to other instruments like the drums etc. Racialism within a culture itself is powered and held together by music, and these differences can easily be used, indeed have been used, to divide humanity in a destructive and oppressive way.

Appreciating racial diversity in music can also lead to hybridity: a blending of ‘mine’ and ‘yours’ into something we all can share and enjoy, and yet it still may remain distinctly ‘mine’ because ‘I’ created it. Music is a weapon for colonization, but music is also the power wielded by the oppressed to ‘strike back’ and defeat, in a subtler way, the oppressor. The imported music of the colonial masters were assimilated by the colonized peoples, injected and imbued with their unique racial imaginations, and new genres were created. Salsa music is just one of the plethora of hybrid music from the South Americas to emerge in modem times that now enjoy a dominant part of popular musical repertoire worldwide and markedly so in the musical cultures of their former colonial masters. In India, as a result of British colonization, European musical harmonies and elements have found their way into Indian popular music, producing the energetic modern version of Bhangra, originally a traditional harvest music of the Punjabi people. Bhangra is now a top-spinner in dance clubs all over Britain.

Racial discrimination and the dichotomous nature of the power of music to shake, make and break is no more apparent than in the history of African-American music. African slaves abducted and brought to America into a life of captivity and subjugation found comfort and refuge in the music of their oppressors. Injecting their racial imaginations into this music, they produced a new genre of religious music with a vast repertoire of immeasurable value, beginning with the ‘Negro Spirituals’ (the term negro itself began as a derogatory term) and now ‘Black Gospel’ music.

In an ironic twist of poetic justice, this music, once shunned as ‘low’ or ‘base’ by the white Christian community, largely out of sheer racial intolerance, but even amongst the sympathetic white community for its unfamiliar rhythms, harmonic and melodic structures and intensity of expression, has slowly but very surely influenced the modem Christian musical repertory and religious culture in an overwhelming way. There is hardly an evangelical Church meeting nowadays where this powerful impact is not evident, right down to the ‘overt’ gestures and gesticulations of the body as the music is sung or played.

In the secular arena of popular music, there is no need to launch into the importance of jazz music throughout the world. The mere mention of the term ‘jazz’, even amongst the least informed, conjures up an unmistakable distinct image of a race of dark-skinned people from America. ‘Black’ music now enjoys a lofty position, with prestigious commercial awards in honour of the different categories of this music, spawned from the racial imaginations of a subjugated minority. This music is now of far greater economic value than traditional Western European music, powerfully impacting the daily lives of people on the microcosmic level, as well as human society and the development of human history at large. Any examination of popular music today will easily reveal ‘Black’ elements. No Britney Spears or Madonna song is safe from this influence.

Black music has found its way across the globe, not merely as ‘good listening’ but as a cogent force for reinvention. Black Rap music in particular has now embedded itself inextricably into the lives of Malay youth culture in Malaysia and Singapore, inspiring a whole new genre of ‘bahasa’ pop. Through the power of this music, a powerful new racial-musical identity is being formed among a totally unrelated ethnic group of people. During the years of colonization of South East Asia, Western European harmonies made its way into the music of Malaysia and Indonesia, as can be seen in the Keroncong, a dance music with blended diatonic harmonies, gamelan sonority and mixed rhythmic patterns. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Beatles and Rolling Stones dominated the popular music cultures across the world. Now a different racial imagination is at work.

In the last 20 years, ‘Black’ music has replaced the music of the Western colonizers as the overriding influence worldwide, inspiring more and more musical hybridity, especially in South East Asia among the Malay subculture. ‘Black’ music has brought along with it its inextricable social and racial traits, which may have dark overtones for the societies in which the adoptive racial groups exist. The elements of oppression and protest against subjugation are dangerously strong in the developing musical hybrids. The power of racial imagination in music is a potent and often tempestuous. Musicologists and ethnomusicologists alike would do well to sit up and take serious notice.

At the heart of all humanity, there lies the intrinsic insidious trait of prejudice, a predisposition towards suspicion of anything or anyone seen as ‘different’. If cultural differences trigger this deep-seated tendency, the issue of race is an even more intense and sensitive one. It is not surprising then, that the study of music within these parameters is so fraught with difficulty and invisible walls of resistance.

Music inexorably evolves regardless of humanity’s pettiness, as can be seen in the powerful hybrid music being produced by different races within wider cultural demarcations. Perhaps the omnipresent power of music, as discussed in this essay, may yet be the key to unraveling this vicious knot of racial discrimination and suspicion? The egocentric ‘holy-huddle’ of musical academia and stubborn adherents to the exaltation of Western Art Music aesthetics have isolated them from the rest of the world in the same way as their concert hall experiential setting has isolated the audience from the music itself.

A change is desperately needed in the way higher learning approaches the development and evolution of music in this changing wond, It is now in danger of being left behind and soon extinction will follow, resulting in the breakdown of all learning of any kind. Would it not follow, then, that it is the responsibility of those in the higher echelons of learning is to wield this vast power of music to move away from archaic discriminatory methodology and forge a ‘new’ perception and direction for the study of music?

This may be a simplistic case of wishful thinking. However, although no ideal is without its limitations or drawbacks, yet if ideals are not pursued because of potential drawbacks, then there can be no progress, and regression will spell a very dark and gloomy future for humanity.

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