Authenticity vs. Universality

Authenticity vs. Universality

I often have the feeling that when people talk about authenticity in music, they are trying to justify their own work by linking it to a certain part of history. Depending on which part of the past you choose, you can rationalize just about anything. This has had horrifying consequences in the political arena.

Dave Douglas
Photo by Ashley Mitchell

Authenticity is a discussion that has surrounded all sorts of music for many years, and I’m not sure we are any closer to a resolution. As a white American who grew up with jazz and whose music continues to draw on jazz’s lessons for new musical inspirations, I have keenly felt this discussion.

But how do you define a genre like klezmer? Perhaps if we want to talk about the intersections of klezmer and new music, the definitions are less meaningful. Certainly there is the cultural heritage of the music, which has led to intense and valuable personal odysseys for many. There are the references to certain scales and certain instruments. Maybe most of all there is the bittersweet sense of humor combined with aching sadness.

How many elements, if any, need to be present for us to recognize a connection? How do we feel about people using klezmer classics as the basis for further explorations that may result in music with a tenuous connection at best? And does ethnicity provide any justification one way or the other?

Do we need a definition of authenticity and if so what is it? Are there any limits on acceptable practice? How much does an individual musician’s needs take precedence over cultural traditions in music? And who is the arbiter?

By being specific about musical genre, do we sacrifice universality and the ability to speak to everyone?

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