Multicultural Music Education, Cultural Sensitivity, and the Ethnographic Truth: A Response to Cornelius

October 1, 1995

Music is an expression of ethnic and cultural identity, and the United States is a country of many ethnicities and subcultures that are either crying, screaming, and protesting for recognition of their cultural products, or saying "leave it alone." What does this have to do with musical education in American schools, colleges, and universities? Plenty. It has to do with cultural literacy (understanding the products of all human creativity) and cultural awareness (understanding the process of all human creativity). Primary, secondary, and college/university music teachers are today being challenged more than ever before to become engaged in some aspect of teaching multicultural music. Because of the lack of multicultural training of many teachers, however, problems often arise: insufficient knowledge of the material, inability to make it interesting and relevant, teaching misinformation, misrepresenting the culture or the music, ethnocentric approaches, and so forth. On the other hand, because of the depth of multicultural training of many teachers, other dangers may also exist: reverse ethnocentrism or a protectionist viewpoint (i.e., non-Western music must be protected from the "evils" of Western musical comparison), isolationism (i.e., disregard for cross-cultural interaction, borrowing, theft, and other aspects of musical acculturation and exchange), violating the secrets or mores of a culture through its music, treading upon sacred ground, and others.

Steven Cornelius' article, "Issues Regarding the Teaching of Non-Western Performance Traditions Within the College Music Curriculum," relates mostly to the last point (treading upon sacred ground), and raises many important questions that are very close to home for those of us who are performers/teachers. Moreover, it gets to the very core of the state of ethnomusicology today, which exists on a continuum from performance-oriented to word-oriented approaches. In either approach to teaching multicultural topics, the most important rule to follow is, "teach the ethnographic truth."

As a case in point, let me share the following experience. During the final question and answer period of the 1990 MENC pre-conference symposium entitled "Multicultural Music Education," a participant commented that I had taught sexism in my session on Peruvian panpipes, and that such sexism should not be tolerated. The participant was partially correct, sexism should not be tolerated; however, neither should be anything but the ethnographic truth. A study of world music will reveal that female-male dichotomies are found in many cultures, and their ethnographic truths reveal not sexism but cultural stability and social cohesion. When understood within the cultures that produce female-male musical dichotomies, the contexts are beautifully profound, multiculturally relevant, musically interesting, and not sexist. It is only when such dichotomies are viewed and taught within a narrow Eurocentric framework that they may be sexist (e.g., viewing one of the symbolic roles as an indication of gender superiority, joking about it, loosely comparing it to life styles that are neither understood nor relevant, etc.). The problem is not with the ethnographic truth, but with the dominant Eurocentric way of thinking, which is often responsible for creating sexism, racism, and other forms of discrimination. The predominant symbolism of female- and male-related musical characteristics in many parts of the world is dualism and the union of opposites. These two symbolic factors signify a number of attributes found in many human societies. In the most general sense, female-male dichotomy symbolizes power, while more specifically it often symbolizes fertility, completeness, and eternity. Such an understanding of ethnographic truth can only be learned through fieldwork.

Steven Cornelius' study of Cuban Santer and the uses of music and ritual drumming is based on in-depth fieldwork, and he has demonstrated that he is committed to presenting the ethnographic truth, as any ethnomusicologist should be. The difficulty with his topic is, however, that there are several ethnographic truths present, because it is about a cultural phenomenon in dispersion: Afro-Cuban Santería in the United States. Moreover, it is not a phenomenon that exists in isolation, but one that is found in most major American cities, and its presence is also felt in salsa and other popular Afro-Cuban musical forms. The author discusses all of these points with detail and care. The ethnographic truths he presents come from male Cuban Santería musicians in Cuba, from female Cuban Santería musicians in Cuba, from Cuban Santería musicians in North American cities, and so on. There is no single ethnographic truth in this case. The issue, however, is teaching Santería drumming (or teaching the performance of any religious musical tradition) in the college music curriculum—should it be done? Yes, but only if (1) all the ethnographic truths have been ascertained, (2) no carrier of the tradition is offended, and (3) the teacher has credentials (formal or informal) from a respected culture bearer to teach and play the music in public. Is teaching Santería drumming (or teaching the performance of any religious musical tradition) in the college musical curriculum treading upon sacred ground? Not any more than the teaching of any other religious musical tradition is, if it is accomplished faithfully and accurately with total respect, love, and concern for the people who follow that religion.

To understand the ways of cultures requires a willingness to discover the ethnographic truths, and to teach them correctly should be a primary goal. The music educator must be completely knowledgeable about the symbolic and metaphorical musical and cultural behaviors of the people who produce and use them. And we must teach the music and musical ways of all cultures. As Cornelius writes, "we must use all types of musical experience as a lens to understand ourselves," and we must also use them to understand others and, in so doing, create a more compassionate world. Through the medium of musical performance, when carefully taught and realized with the above concerns, true cross-cultural learning and understanding can take place. This should be the ultimate goal of all education.

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