Culture Vultures

My son (BJW) and I have had on going discussions for many years about when is it appropriate to plunder another culture. My son is now in his late thirties and works for an authentication software company. The job requires a significant amount of travel that exposes him to many different cultural mixes. So the discussion continues. This is a recent email exchange that kicked off with the following:

BJW: “The home of the blues is ……….. of course Finland” and the attached link

My (RW) response: “A reasonable cover but why do they bother? That stuff has been done to death over the past 50 years. She’s not black, she not a share cropper, she’s not oppressed, except perhaps as a woman,  and has no cultural connection to the material. And, besides, its has all been done before. Finland and Scandanavia have a great musical heritage (check out VARTTINA in the link below). After all Finland gave the world the great classical composer Jean Sibelius.  I have a problem when artists step outside their true cultural envelope. Brazilian musicians doing heavy metal, rap and hip-hop; Canadian musicians with great technical skill doing bluegrass and singing about Kentucky in fake down home accents. What a waste of talent. For myself I am very careful, even in the Celtic bag, to avoid being fake Irish. There are enough common songs and tunes that have spread across the Anglo/ Celtic world that it is not too much of a problem, and on top of that, there is a huge reservoir of down east fiddle tunes. Most of my material is deeply rooted in my Canadian / Australian / Irish / Scottish heritage.

(If I was Finnish why would I bother with hand me down blues interpretations)

BJW: .yeeeeah. I mean I get what you’re saying in terms of people doing the musical equivalent of dressing up in blackface. However, I don’t think anyone can see the world in strict terms of who “should” do particular varieties of music. All art is derivative. While I agree that I’m not too fond of people dressing themselves up in other cultures, you have to remember the old Clark Terry adage: Imitate, Assimilate, Innovate. Without the co-opting of jazz, we would not have the blues; without the co-opting of blues, we would not have rock. Without the co-opting of African drum / beat centric music, we would not have the drum/percussion centric drive behind rap. Without the co-opting of Irish / Celtic music, you would not have bluegrass. Every new generation of music steals from the old, as with all art. People steal it because it speaks to them, and then they make it their own.

In a global community, what does it mean to be a part of a “true cultural envelope”? The tribes are global. Examples:

  • I went to a club in Korea on one of my last trips – one of the top electronic music clubs in the world. The part that was most interesting was that the musical and cultural touchstones were identical in Korea to the ones I’d seen in Germany (where much of electronic music started with the avant-garde minimalist electronic music of Kraftwerk), England (which perfected the “house” brand of electronic music popular in the 1990s), and even the raves in the US and Canada. Were these people outside their “true cultural envelope”? I’d argue they weren’t – it just so happened that their true “cultural envelope” spans continents and language.
  • Yesterday, while we were in the “Christmas in the park” in San Jose, there were a bunch of teenagers in cosplay – dressed up as characters from a cartoon. A cartoon from Japan.
  • A buddy of mine was in India a while ago, in Goa. He went out to a bar with some of his Indian co-workers, and they were trading stories about where they grew up. When he mentioned Canada, they asked if he knew “Robin Sparkles” – a fictitious Canadian character on the American series “How I met your mother”, popular with a particular tribe of nerds. This is a show that isn’t even broadcast in India.
  • On my last trip to Korea, I ended up at a bar in Gangnam. I was tired of Korean food, so I picked a German brewhaus. Picture it: I’m a Canadian, born in Australia, working for an American company, drinking an English beer, in the German-style beerhaus, in Seoul. Oh, and then I have a call after that beer to sync with my Armenian and Indian development teams.
Cultural envelope is irrelevant. It’s like asking scientists to not bother being aware of other areas outside of their discipline that may have cross over benefits. Watson and Crick were successful specifically because of their experience across biology, physics, and chemistry. They beat the woman working on the problem of the form of DNA in terms of pure X-ray crystallography specifically because of their divergence from their “cultural envelope”. If there’s one thing nature has taught us, it’s that to simply continue to color within the lines is to stagnate. If DNA were a perfect replication process, we would have no evolution.  ……. Such is the same with music.
RW: I am a great believer in the benefits of cultural mixing. It is how new styles and musical adventures come about. That’s why I am constantly trying to pull other stuff into my own musical mix trying to create something that I can own. I just get a bit disheartened when musicians are incapable of recognizing their own and adding it to the mix. There seems to be an assumption that if its ours it can’t be worth anything.
 I have a friend who is a  musician with great musical chops in rock, country and bluegrass. A few years back he pulled together a cover band and I went along to hear it. After the performance he asked me what I thought and I gave him what he wanted to hear …. they were good and, truly they were good. But privately I thought “why bother, it had all been done before and done much better”. I am dying to hear what he could really do if he stepped out of the box..

I have another young friend at the moment who is into Nick Drake, who along with Michael Hedges, in my opinion are grossly over rated. Nick Drake wasn’t a success in his day simply because, in my mind, his music was uninteresting. So this young friend is busy trying to replicate Nick Drake’s recorded material. Once again, what’s the point. No matter how much time and effort he puts into the music it can never be as good (or as mediocre) as the original. He is not Nick Drake.  I would encourage him to, by all means experiment, with the open C tunings etc but come up with something that is original and something that he can  own. Which brings me back to the Finnish girl playing the blues …… What’s the point?

ps. Of course I disagree with your sentiments that  the cultural envelope is irrelevant. It is the basic building block of who you are and no matter how much you try you can’t really escape it. It is baggage, for good or ill, that always goes with you.”

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Because it is my blog I have the last word. I really believe in that  old Clark Terry adage  (one of the great jazz trumpeter soloist of the past 60 years): Imitate, Assimilate, Innovate. The problem as I see it is that there is a lot of attempted imitation, some assimilation and not too much innovation. The current state of Rock is a case in point   ….. has there been anything truly new since the days of “Classic Rock” ?

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