The theory of cultural tourism will be explored by discussing a selection of Western artists who employ Eastern and world music compositional elements in their albums and vice versa. We will examine the critical reaction to these practices, the possible reasons why and if the argument is relevant.

Sting vs. Bjork

Sting and Bjork both use instrumentation, sounds and rhythms and take influence from varied genres of music but why is one derided and the other applauded for this? Both are wealthy Western musicians and have enjoyed decades in the music industry creating ethnically-sourced music yet through perception, marketing or fate Sting appears as a tasteless imposer financially gaining from Spanish/Portuguese language music while the popular consensus of Bjork is one of critically acclaimed innovation.

She is viewed by a great proportion of critics as an easily-bored pixie that flits around taking pleasure in working in different genres of music. Why is that more acceptable than Sting?  Perhaps their countries of origin reveal why they receive opposite critiques. On the periphery of Europe, Iceland is self-contained with almost magical connotations therefore Bjork can be interpreted as an innocent elflike woman while Sting appears as a modern-day colonialist because a mere scratch of England’s history uncovers an imperialist state leaving others bereft in its wake.

Throughout her career she has worked with diverse musicians like Konono No.1, The Icelandic Choir, Sureh Sathe, Talvin Singh, Rahzel, Timbaland, Matmos and RZA.  There is no question that she integrates these artists into her overall sound and they aid her elevation yet it is unlikely that Bjork would flutter around in collaboration with others if she cared more about a strong identifiable brand than creating a mood that changed from each individually crafted album and, certainly, collaboration is the operative phrase. She regularly mentions who she has worked with, acknowledging their involvement. The cynical may interpret it as simply name-dropping but these artists are being recognised by an international performer and introduced to wider audiences. Sting, however, does not often name who has partnered with him and though he desires for it to be known that he is a fan of Latin music there are no substantial specifics of why. ‘Songs From The Labyrinth’, Sting’s 2006 album of Elizabethan lute music was critically derided as the zenith of Sting’s pomposity. It came from such an intangible place it didn’t seem real. It was a futile fusion of a style aged centuries and an unbearable personality targeted at a very, very specific audience.

Bjork and Sting are brought together because each of their albums are diverse affairs but where Bjork sows her influences into the albums’ sounds and champions her guests, Sting’s stand alone and constricted because he is a world music dabbler not a devotee. And that is the problem. Chilean producer Matias Aguayo believes, “…adding a few congas and a ‘Latino’ vocal does not reflect a willingness to learn from other cultures…” Sting’s use of world music is beneficial solely to him and doesn’t demonstrate a respect for the countries he borrows music from because Sting is always the star.

Ethno-techno

Acclaimed South American electronic music artists Ricardo Villalobos, Matias Aguayo, Dinky and Gui Boratto employ the rhythms and sounds from their native countries, Chile and Brazil respectively, for use alongside that very European product, techno. Is it right for them to melt sounds which are not their own into those from their country and should it be accepted when European artists such as Sven Väth flavour techno with South American music?

Matias Aguayo thinks that European artists’ appropriation of ethnic music is cheap “exoticism” and “in most cases, putting samples of traditional songs on a techno beat is in very bad taste… it doesn’t seem very ‘free’ to me.” and rejects the idea that musicians do it because they feel a deep respect for the music. He hears a Western techno producer enforcing order where others hear an exciting cross-pollination of influence. This raises the question: why the double standard – why is it acceptable for Agauyo and others, especially Villalobos, to use electronic music production techniques and sounds in their compositions but objectionable when, for example, a German artist uses South American percussion?

An answer may be found by viewing the relationship history of the two hemispheres. Central and South America were colonised by European invaders. New religions and power structures were imposed, their languages and cultures all but destroyed in the process and poverty is still a factor in the lives of many inhabitants while the first world develops further from them so it is understandable that when Europeans adopt the music of their continent people get edgy. Perhaps, put simply, due to South American history as the subordinates when these artists use North American and European sounds it isn’t considered theft whereas due to these continents having a past of subjugation and suppression it looks again as if they are being exploitative when artists take influence from the places of previous conquests, as Aguayo feels.

The new rush of Western artists maintain they have a deep engagement with the source material and they are not just using a library of samples. The producer who has inspired much of the ethno-techno style is Ricardo Villalobos who employs it to reclaim his lost traditions after his parents fled to Germany after Pinochet’s overthrow and generate audience awareness, while retaining a respect for the music’s spirit.  Respect is a word that appears repeatedly in this argument between the continents. Their histories and ownership dilemmas are important factors to consider in the ethno-techno discussion yet Agauyo and others cannot fairly judge whether or not Western artists truly respect and understand the cultural and musical heritage they are interacting with once they incorporate South American instruments, rhythms and moods into their music. If they utilise them because of a respect and love for the music and culture and want to raise consciousness of it albeit through a techno perspective then it should perhaps be accepted.

The East adopts Western influences

It isn’t Westerners alone who adopt ideas, sounds and rhythms from African, Asian and South American culture. Since the 1960s artists, bands and composers living on these continents have taken elements from Western cultures. Fela Kuti (Nigerian band leader and inventor of the Afrobeat genre), Mulatu Astatke (originator of Ethio-Jazz, a fusion of jazz and traditional Ethiopian music) and A.R. Rahman (critically acclaimed Indian composer who introduced Bollywood and India to Western sounds) have studied music performance and composition in America and the UK and adapted and incorporated Western disciplines, ideas and sounds into their music.

Kuti, like many Nigerian and Ghanaian musicians, adopted the strong African-American musical influence of jazz and funk and married it to high life, a popular regional genre that is composed of a diverse range of styles like waltz and swing music, Trinidadian calypso and Liberian sailor songs. Astatke applied his jazz teachings and the American psychedelic funk heard in America to traditional Ethiopian melodies, harmonies and dusty atmospheres to create a deeply unique style. After becoming fascinated with a synthesizer his father, a composer, arranger and conductor for Malayalam films, had bought when Rahman was a young child he studied at Trinity College of Music (part of Oxford University) and combined his love of technology, music studies and traditional Indian upbringing to revolutionise Bollywood soundtracks.

Why does it appear that there is no criticism of these musicians and their contemporaries’ practices? Is it acceptable for them to raid Western music? Other than the odd disapproval levelled at some world music adaptations for sounding clichéd, criticisms of Third World musicians utilising Western musical forms are rare. I could suggest this is because critics believe they will be barracked into withdrawing their points and white guilt may play a part in their decision whether or not to critique works yet though this may be a factor, the problem is more complex.

Lost in a web of misconceptions and expectations about ‘world music’, it is difficult to approach and truly understand. Even when world music ideas have been simplified, unravelling the myriad of musical forms is challenging. These cultural traditions and musical forms often stretch back hundreds of years before Western civilisations formally documented their own and are further complicated by most only being passed down generations through word of mouth. Critics face an uphill struggle negotiating the complications and restrictions to tackle the music and understand it sufficiently to make a qualified summary.

Intimidating mountains of research and history aside perhaps the biggest problem is awareness. Do we still perceive these artists as people crouching in the dirt playing skin drums, sitars and other traditional instruments? I would like to think I am an intelligent and open minded person but I was disappointed with the music and myself when after a great deal of reading I finally listened to afrobeat music, particularly Fela Kuti. I had expected to be greeted by tribal drums accompanied by funk bass and searing brass, what I got was akin to jazz fusion. However, after further reading and exposure to African music old and new my ideas changed and I am now not dissatisfied as I understand what afrobeat is and how it came into existence. The ‘afro’ in afrobeat refers not to ancient tribal rhythms but subtle incorporations of high life guitar melodies, chanted lyrics and Afro-Caribbean calypso music influences. This is an example of the kind of misperception that can hinder world music, which stems from an ideological colonialism meaning we impose ideas of what it should be instead of what it actually is. World music is at our mercy, an obedient slave to outmoded cultural notions.

So this realisation renders us unable to level criticism at the world music genre and all that it histrionically represents. White guilt, misperception, false expectations and prejudices become our undoing. Add to this, well meaning misconceptions about its musical purity and authenticity compared to Western music yet it and Eastern music can be equally amazing and unequivocally shit, where an artist is born and which culture they come from bears little importance on whether they produce great music or not. Similarities can be drawn between Eastern and Western music, which bands such as Vampire Weekend have seized upon. They saw a link between the jangly guitar of American and English alternative rock and that of Nigerian high life and they knew they were not risking alienating their hipster fanbase while creating a neat Unique Selling Point for themselves. Links and similarities prove how ridiculous it is to suggest that world music has a greater sense of authenticity or rootsiness and that it is not an alternative to Western popular music but the non-Western equivalent. That isn’t to suggest that either is worth less than the other but they are in fact equals and thus should be treated as such critically.

As evidenced by the complex and moral problems explored in this piece it’s easy to become over-involved in these ideas and forget about what’s really important… the music. A vital function of music is the enjoyment of discovery however that is made, accidental, recommendation, record company marketing or otherwise and wherever it originates. There is definitely a discussion to have about the (mis)appropriation of music influences and fundamentals by Westerners whom often have a colonial history in the countries and continents their musicians mine.

But set aside those sceptical opinions and regrettable events that happened before we were born and able to object. We live in world where we can experience these musical hybrids and the increased awareness and cultural prominence of world music allows us to interact with other cultures if not fully appreciate and understand them. We don’t disrespect them by listening to and enjoying them, our life experience and that of Easterners, South Americans and Africans can be enriched by engaging with a diverse range of cultures from the past (Kuti, Astatke, Rahman, etc) and the present (Omar Souleyman, Konono No.1, Ricardo Villalobos etc) and through collaboration we can be introduced to these genres with brilliant results like Bjork’s ‘Earth Intruders’.

Getting lost in the murky waters and twisting tunnels of morality will never replace that feeling of experiencing a new piece or style of music so turn it on, turn it up and open yourself up to all the possibilities the world of music offers.

By Liam Flanagan and Vier (first collaboration for Sonic Fiction)

Spotify playlist (HTTP link, then Spotify link):

Cultural Tourism playlist

Cultural Tourism playlist

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