misappropriation vs. folk process

My personal catalogue of musical influences includes Tex-Mex, Musica Popular Brasileira, Nigerian Juju, German and British hard-folk-rock, Hindi film music and on and on. I just like music, and when it connects with me, it becomes part of my mental reference library and works its way into my own style.

This is what happens in the so-called “folk process”. That’s the manner in which orally transmitted folk music is preserved and, at the same time, evolves. As it moves from person to person, it may be “improved on”, expanded, adapted, misremembered, misunderstood, etc. etc. But, inevitably, it changes. And that change is viewed as an organic part of the process.

Similar things happen when any music (or other cultural artifacts) are transmitted between people in different cultures. A lot of African pop music is heavily influenced by Cuban or Brazilian pop music, not to mention American and European rock. Hindi film music is a delightful blend of Indian folk and classical styles with Amero/Euro pop styles. Today’s Native American music is heavily influenced by rock, blues and reggae.

I doubt anyone would try to convince the adherents of the Cargo Cult to abandon their faith because they “misunderstood” and “misappropriated” the events leading up to their Creation Story (DC-3s dropping military supplies on their beaches).

I doubt anyone would try to eradicate today’s Mexican Norteño music because 19th century musicians “misappropriated” the German polka style and instrumentation on which it is based.

And so, I look on this well-intentioned, carefully considered page of advice as just wrongheaded. Well-meaning and heartfelt, but wrongheaded.

If I play Bob Marley’s “One Love” in a worship service, I honor the fact that he’s talking about Ja, but I don’t try to represent myself as a Rastafarian, or trivialize the message or the faith behind it. I don’t affect a Jamaican accent or put on a dreadlock wig. I present the song as something that spoke to me in the ways I am able to understand it. And I don’t worry whether Marley misappropriated Curtis Mayfield’s gospel song “People Get Ready” in his song.

Hans Jauss called the intersection between one’s experience and something artistically new and challenging the “horizon of expectations”. A fancy way of saying “everything you encounter interacts with your past experiences”.

The horizon of expectations is different for each person, different for various populations, different for people from dissimilar cultures. And so the experience of a song, ceremony, or prayer will be different for each person. What they take away from that experience is by nature valid for them, and it does not diminish the thing experienced nor the people who created that thing.

Regardless of what arrogant European imperialists did in previous centuries, our experiences of other cultures are by definition valid today. Regardless of previously held simplistic stereotypes, romanticization or exoticization, our experiences are valid. It is our intention in repeating them that makes the difference.

Music is said to be the “universal language”. What you understand from it is what you understand. If that touches you in some way, there it is. Don’t stereotype, trivialize, or romanticize the source. But don’t imagine that the effect it has on you is somehow inauthentic simply because someone from another culture created it.

The creator’s mind and your mind have met on your horizon of expectations, and have exchanged something of worth. Honor it, understand it as you are able, cherish it.


About liberalreligiongetsloud

Contemporary Music and Worship Director (retired), First Unitarian, Albuquerque NM
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3 Responses to misappropriation vs. folk process

  1. I leave comparisons to outrage over drawings of Muhammad to the reader.

  2. Dan says:

    Well, OK, but that page of advice you refer to, by noted music educator Judith Cook Tucker, is not aimed at worship leaders. She’s aiming her advice at music educators who are going to use one of her culturally sensitive arrangements in their classroom or with their school chorus. Given that context, of course we want the kids who are singing the music to have some idea of the culture it came from. She’s not talking to worship leaders, so of course her advice seems strange to you.

    Also, to describe the way you integrate different musical influences as a folk process is somewhat inaccurate. Strictly speaking, the folk process refers to the way music (and other forms of folklore) are transmitted within a given cultural context, from one person to another and from one generation to another. Learning a song from a CD, or from attending a paid concert where you are a more or less passive audience, is very different than Jean Ritchie sitting next to her father and learning how to play play-party songs on the mountain dulcimer. I know some performers in the urban folk revival mention the folk process during their concerts, but generally speaking they were doing so from the standpoint of having done some scholarship into folklore, and also having gone and visited folk musicians within those musicians’ cultural context. But there is no folk process per se for, e.g., Hindi film music. I suggest it’s more accurate to say that as a postmodern Western musician, you are engaging in what for you is a culturally appropriate practice, integrating into your own music various musical styles which other musicians have sent out into the globalized world.

    And I’m sorry you don’t like Judith Cook Tucker’s work — it has proven to be incredibly useful to me in helping introduce religious liberals to various world musics.

    • Good points, Dan. When educating people about others’ musical style and culture, as an educational exercise, it makes lots of sense to put it in as much context as possible.

      That page was linked in a post to the UU Musicians’ Network, though, and as such I took it as advice to us about using music in worship. And in that context, I find it most unhelpful.

      I hope everyone took some time to listen to all the music I linked in my “catalogue of influences”. Every one of them was a melange of musical styles and influences. It’s happening (and has happened for generations).

      Although I think maybe the phenomenon predates modernism and post-modernism, your comment about it being a post-modern global style is a great way to summarize it.

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