World Music, que veux tu?

August 31, 1997

Members of some tribes in the American West believed that a child did not truly exist until it had acquired a name. For them the answer to the question "What's in a name?" was a matter of great importance.

But what we choose to call something can also betray intractable attitudes yielding to no amount of reason and to which the application of reason may itself be regarded as irrelevant. The meanings of a number of terms which can be found regularly in publications of The College Music Society are not self-evident, may mean the opposite of what they seem to mean, or are used in a very exclusive sense - for example, the term "ethnic." Consulting a dictionary provides scant help because such a word may mean only what the user decides it means. It is impossible to know a priori who is qualified to belong to an "ethnic" group and who therefore may benefit from membership in it.

A term like "Native American," too, is meant to designate peoples who inhabited the U.S. before the arrival of the Europeans and was coined because the term "Indians" was itself a misnomer. Anyone unaware of this exclusive meaning, however, would assume that the term properly refers to anyone born in America, North or South.

Imagine now, student travelers brought up perhaps on the assumption that "music is the universal language," upon returning from a long sojourn in outer space, see frequent references in CMS publications to something called "world music." At the very least they might assume that it referred to all of the musics of the world including those in the most remote corners of the globe. Imagine then the surprise of these travelers when they realize that it does not include a substantial body of music heard and enjoyed throughout the world, but that it does include music in which few have expressed an interest beyond where it originated and where often the people who have practiced it for so long are losing interest in it.

They soon discover on reading further in these publications that many who employ the term insist that we grant places of equal importance to all these musics even as some are disappearing from view or are being preserved only by those dedicated to that end. They wonder why these same advocates are so eager for them to study "world music" when they do not wish to. Why, they ask, is there any necessity to listen to something so alien to their experiences, that they neither care about nor will likely care about, and that only those who have sufficient immersion in the cultures from which the musics came will ever truly understand and appreciate.

Yet our travelers, having the kind of curiosity that we expect from all who work in the university, accept an invitation to study these musics to see whether some or any of them might secure a permanent place in their lives.

In this quest they are seemingly doomed to disappointment because, on the one hand, the Indian master whom they approach insists that only by studying for no less than twelve years can one hope to gain a true understanding of his music while, on the other, the Western teachers who are willing to teach it are usually inadequate in their own understanding of it. They nevertheless discover an Ethiopian musician who has recently earned a doctorate at an American university and is willing to introduce American students to the intricacies of African music.

While attending the course, however, they learn that many of their classmates do not think that the "study" of this music entails the kind of rigorous effort that the instructor expects. Perhaps they thought "study" meant little more than passive listening or "drumming" in the student lounge.

Undeterred, our travelers seek out a course in American folk music taught by an instructor of impeccable credentials who both enjoys the music and teaches it with enthusiasm. When the instructor, however, plays several versions of "Barbara Allen" as sung by men and women and recorded in their homes earlier in the century, they begin to realize that few of their classmates have any real interest in the music of any "folk." What they want is a kind of music composed by other college graduates born and raised in cities whose experiences are scarcely different from their own. They are even annoyed by the condescending attitude that their classmates seem to bring with them to the music which they are listening to.

Fate, however, is not done yet with our cosmic travelers. By chance one day they attend a concert of Japanese court music performed by a master and several of his students. They find the music on the surface strikingly beautiful and can even detect a difference between the accomplished playing of the students and that of the master, which seems, for no reason that they can ascertain, superior. These travelers realize that a certain enjoyment has been experienced although not, they realize, for all of the reasons that the performers themselves might have. But it hardly matters because they have discovered another kind of music with its own intrinsic interest that can be listened to and enjoyed, using, at least for now, only the listening skills and understanding already acquired for the appreciation of Western music. Through years of study, our travelers have learned how to distinguish between good and bad music and with the jazz musician whose acquaintance they made before their trip to outer space that there are basically only these two kinds of music. If they can admit even now to only an incomplete understanding of Western music, what would be needed to acquire even this much understanding of Japanese music? If the attempt were to be made, however, it would require an unwavering commitment to the subject and years of study with an acknowledged master, one acknowledged to be so by other masters. To pursue such a course would at least qualify them to be true amateurs, lovers of art; to do less would qualify them to be little more than dilettantes, dabblers, incapable of ever speaking with or even understanding the authoritative voice with which the artist speaks, the artist, who, from the depths of experience, always sees from the inside out.

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