World Music: Areas of Negotiation

The simplicity of the term ‘world music’ betrays the enormous scope of what the music industry deems non-Western. Everything that is ‘Other’. Three concepts – westernisation, modernisation, and syncretism – are broadly indicate overarching trends.

The most relevant example of the effects of the West on indigeneity, from an Australian point of view, is Aboriginal music.

If music is an expression of culture, we cannot assume that music will not change, considering that cultures are emergent, not static. The idea of attaching notions of ‘purity’ and ‘authenticity’, which Mitchell (1996) describes as “idealist forms of colonial nostalgia”, to indigenous culture and indigenous music fails to consider that no region is now unaffected by the mass media and Westernisation.

‘Culture’ is not an innate human condition, but an artificial human construct. Globalism, often presented as adverse to indigeneity, has in some ways been inevitable, consequently affecting ideologies, identities, and priorities.

Change, therefore, be it through modernisation or syncretism, should not necessarily be confused with westernisation, or cultural contamination. Change may be essential for the culture to survive.

The bulk of the non-Western music that is available to us is a hybrid of original and Western styles. This is often explained in terms of making the music more accessible for western listeners; like bite-sized samples designed to entice listeners to the exotic smorgasbord beyond.

The level of incorporation of western styles can indicate a broader process of cultural evolution, using these somewhat rudimentary categories of response of westernisation, syncretism and modernisation.

Westernisation usually occurs when a culture/music wishes to enter the western cultural system. Generally, it is the indigenous music that appropriates western styles that are central traits and incompatible with their own.

There are loads of Indian examples. The surge of interest in Bollywood in the west hasn’t resulted in 7-hour long musical films emerging. But it has results in the tra-la-la of the distinctive Indian sounds overlaid on drum beats, dance and lounge music that is as distinctly western as anything.

Modernisation occurs when the indigenous music incorporates non-central but compatible western traits. This means that the idiosyncratic nature of the music remains unchanged. Zimbabwean beats and Zairean beats, for example, are still recognisably distinct.

Modernisation allows the indigenous music to become contemporaneous and widen the audience and awareness of particular issues.

Syncretism results when compatible traits between two musics form a harmonious blend that do not need to subvert each other for allegiance.

An example is Dead Can Dance who combine Irish and African traits, and the emergence of Australian based groups who combine the traits of Irish and Aboriginal music, which share a high degree of compatibility in their traditional forms.

The Rough Guide to World Music (1994) likens the mushrooming of Aboriginal groups in Australia to the punk explosion in Britain in the late 70s and that the “sudden growth of modern Aboriginal music has been a consciousness-raising accompaniment to this political movement”, that is, the call for land rights and an end to discrimination.

Traditionally, Aboriginal music has been a cultural and creative force, and an integral part of the Dreamtime stories. The oldest intact culture is a totemic one and believes that totemic beings sang the world into existence.

“Each Aboriginal clan takes one of these totemic beings as ancestors…” who would sing out the name of everything that crossed their paths.

Hence, culturally, an ancestral song “is both a map and a direction-finder” as the melodic contours of the song “describes the nature of the land over which the song passes… an expert song man, by listening to the order of succession, would count how many times his hero crossed a river or scaled a ridge, and be able to calculate where and how far along a songline he was” (Chatwin, in Rough Guide).

This function of Aboriginal music has a lot in common with African rhythms, which are codes, to be understood between towns (ABC,1997). Yet Aboriginal culture, like all cultures, is emergent, and today there are not as many people that believe in the Dreamtime stories, “so much of that way of life is disappearing” (Drury,1980).

Today, rather, the music has adapted to become a tool in the fight to communicate the Aboriginal story, to end discrimination and to gain land rights. Nor can the traditional music be separated from the contemporary, both speak of the experience of the Aboriginal people and, most importantly, convey the essence of Aboriginal culture: the spiritual connection to the land.

Perhaps the most notable and poular example of this was the 1991 hit ‘Treaty’ by Yothu Yindi. The album it was lifted from, Tribal Voice, marked the most prominent Aboriginal cross-over into the mainstream.

It also indicated an aesthetic change from what most people considered to be Aboriginal music. Aboriginal music is very strong rhythmically and has a traditional emphasis on natural body sounds such as clapping, stomping, and the instantly recognisable deep sound of the didjeridu.

Today, much of Aboriginal music has been modernised, to incorporate traits that are western but compatible, which has meant filling the austere spaces between the ‘natural’ sounds with western instrumentation; predominantly guitars, drums and keyboards. However, the vocal style of the traditional sound has remained, as has the didjeridu and the clapsticks and the chanting. Also, traditional and sacred songs are re-arranged.

Mandaway Yunipingu explained how he devises a song: “I usually centre my melodies around a traditional song. I might then add a reggae beat or whatever, but the whole concept and idea is derived from my understanding of Aboriginal song” (Rough Guide, 1994).

The incorporation of reggae is an interesting feature. Western music was not the first influence on Aboriginal music. In the late 70s, Bob Marley, after touring in 1979, heavily influenced many Aboriginal groups with his songs about freedom and his interesting rhythmic intricacies for western listeners. This follows Nettl’s (1983) idea of musical “energy”, whereby additions to a musical repertory must be balanced by loss.

However, the modernisation has spawned a variety of styles that allow for he identification of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal listeners to the diverse range of Aboriginal contemporary experience.

For example, Tiddas are an a cappella group reflecting urban life, Kev Carmody, Ruby Hunter and Archie Roach adopt acoustic (folk) sounds of guitar and vocals and sing about the assimilation policy and the kidnapping they each endured. Beneficially, these musicians have heightened the profile of contemporary Aboriginal issues, with concerts politically active, and have even facilitated the interest in Aboriginal art.

Yothu Yindi’s successful tours of the United States fascinated American audiences with the culture, and provided information about the continued oppression. Such cultural advances have no doubt helped entice the New York Art Gallery’s exhibitions of Aboriginal art and Sotheby’s (New York) auction of bark art. Extra-musically, the increase in international attention has created demand within audiences in Australia, and groups have small, but faithful, followings.

So far, however, there has been little interest by the big labels, with the exception of Coloured Stone who are on the BMG label. This means that these Aboriginal groups must develop their styles and their audeinces through urban and specialist networks, ABC and Radio National, and at festivals.

The CAAMA also owns a recording label which specialises in Aboriginal music from remote desert areas.

Whether the commercial networks relative disinterest in providing airplay has to do with the sounds being too exotic or too western is open to debate. Each group, for unique purposes, through differing aims and objectives, has negotiated their cultural and hence musical change