On Narrowmindedness in Music and Life: The "KK" Attitudes

Recently I was invited to lecture in a colleague's class entitled The Philosophy of Music (in the Department of Philosophy). I was asked to bring in a multicultural perspective, since the course was dealing only with Western music. I decided to lecture on the music of the Warao wisiratu shaman and two ceremonial dances from Tonga. The purpose was to emphasize two important contexts for music that had not previously been studied in the class: (1) musical instruments as power and (2) music as dance. After what I thought were interesting and relevant points made about the Warao shaman's hebu mataro rattle and the Tongan ma'ulu'ulu and dances (with an actual instrument from the Warao and contextually recorded videos of dances from Tonga), I concluded by asking for comments and/or questions. A young man named Kevin responded by saying "I have a comment. This music is all crap!"

I was stunned by this, and am still not sure how I immediately responded. The outcome of the ensuing discussion was, however, that one culture's music and dance should not be judged by the standards of another culture's music and dance, a conclusion made by another young man in the class. At least some of the students got it, I thought.

Then, several weeks later, a title on the front cover of a magazine caught my eye. It read, "Why Multicultural Courses Suck," and the magazine was The Last Word (February 1999, 5). As I read a little deeper on the cover it said, "The Journal of Conservative and Libertarian Thought at Florida State University. . .With an Independent Perspective." I decided to read the article, entitled "Multicultural Indoctrination," just to see what this young author named Keith was complaining about, and perhaps try to understand why yet another distasteful four letter word was being used to describe something I hold dear. Frankly, his conclusions are not even worth discussing, beyond one that needs a response. This is what he wrote: ". . . the reason that students are required to take some of these courses is to promote a specific agenda." While he was referring to leftist propaganda, which I do not promote, I will admit that I do have a specific agenda. I expressed that agenda (i.e., passion) to Kevin in the philosophy class this way: "If we are able to understand and appreciate a culture's music, then we can probably better understand and appreciate that culture. Only through an understanding of a culture through its expressive arts, can we ever hope to have world peace." I will also quote from a portion of the last two sentences of my book, Music of the Warao: Song People of the Rain Forest (1996, 422): ". . .music. . .is one of the greatest healing forces and communication systems known to humankind. But first we have to listen."

This is why (and I am speaking here to the "KKs"the Kevins and Keiths among us) the music of the Warao and the Tongans and a multitude of other musics suitable for teaching in multicultural courses at our colleges and universities are important. We must listen to, learn about, and try to lovingly accept and appreciate all musics, from every place and every time, so that these "KK" attitudes will not become another KKK situation.

The Trotter Attitudes

Pursuant to this matter, I am inspired by the words of Robert Trotter, the first Board Member for Music in General Studies of CMS and the "remarkable teacher and human spirit" for whom the annual CMS Robert Trotter Lecture is named (Robert Moore Trotter "In Memoriam" by Barbara Reeder Lundquist). In the Spring 1978 issue of the Newsletter (page 7), Trotter wrote six assertions, of which the following three are relevant to this topic:

• It is imperative that we include many examples for study from repertories outside the great classic tradition of Euro-American formal notated music: from global oral traditions, current popular, and esoteric pathfinder styles.

• It is imperative that we help students refine their capacity to support evaluations of compositions and performances, as free as possible from subliminal prejudice, by referring to some explicit norms.

• It is imperative that we include as part of analytical study some concern, on the one hand, with music considered as social behavior in a cultural group, and on the other, with music as an evocative agent, as communication beyond the alphabet of the"inner landscape made audible," so that our emphasis on the analysis of musical elements might take on more genuine meaning in student's lives.

These three assertions, I believe, are possible solutions to the "KK" attitudes that I consider so offensive. They offer some guidance to us on what we should try to communicate in our music (and other) classes, and why we should do so.

Barbara Lundquist also explained (ibid.) that Trotter "facilitated discussion of controversial issues by reassuring those involved that he was `incapable of being offended' by anything said to him." We should all try to develop these "Trotter attitudes" within us and become advocates for making this a better world in which to live, by reaching out to the Kevins and Keiths and showing them that music and dance are indeed two of the greatest healing forces and communication systems known to human beings in all regions of the world.

Trotter also wrote, "Perhaps you will respond to the following assertions and correspond with me about them. I believe such exchange could be useful to the aims of the Society." This is also my belief, and I too will welcome your responses.
 

 

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Dale A. Olsen

Dale A. Olsen is Professor Emeritus at Florida State University, where he taught ethnomusicology for 35 years. He received B.A. and M.A. degrees in historical musicology and flute performance from the University of Minnesota and the Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from UCLA. Dr. Olsen is a recipient of Fulbright-Hays, Guggenheim, National Endowment for the Humanities, Distinguished Research Professor, and many other awards and grants. His major books include Music of the Warao of Venezuela: Song People of the Rain Forest (winner of the 1997 Merriam Prize for the "Most Outstanding Book in Ethnomusicology"); Music of El Dorado: The Ethnomusicology of Ancient South American Cultures; The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, Vol. 2; The Garland Handbook of Latin American Music; The Chrysanthemum and the Song: Music, Memory, and Identity in the South American Japanese Diaspora; and Popular Music of Vietnam: The Politics of Remembering, The Economics of Forgetting. Dr. Olsen was principal flutist in the Philharmonic Orchestra of Chile from 1966-68 and in the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra in 1970. He has traveled, lived, and conducted fieldwork throughout Latin America; East Asia; Southeast Asia; Polynesia; Europe; and North America. He has served on the Council, Board of Directors, and as First Vice President of the Society for Ethnomusicology; as Board Member for Ethnomusicology/World Music and National President of The College Music Society; as President of the Florida Folklore Society; and as President of the Southeastern-Caribbean Chapter of SEM.

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