During one of the breaks at the COMTA conference at the Conservatorio de Música de Puerto Rico in San Juan, a group performed Andean traditional music on double bass, harp, guitars, panpipes, and percussion.
Decolonizing Our Music

Decolonizing Our Music

Ed. Note: The essay below was presented, in a slightly different form, as the final keynote address at the “Decolonizing Music” conference presented by the Music Council of the Three Americas (Consejo de la música de las Tres Americas – COMTA) at the Conservatorio de Música de Puerto Rico in San Juan.—FJO

Colonization rears its ugly head whenever there is “globalization.” In the 1500s, several European nations were aggressively globalizing, especially Spain, and especially in the Americas. At the time of Christopher Columbus’s westward wanderings, the Americas already had strong indigenous cultures. There was a great fondness for music and dancing, especially for rituals and celebrations.

Alongside the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors came the arrival of Catholic missionaries. The militaries with their governments and the churches with their faith began the process of colonization and, with it, they brought Western music and culture. While indigenous music and Western music have coexisted for sure, Western music became preeminent as the government and the church often imposed a rigid adoption of Western ways, much to the detriment of indigenous music.

Companies with the financial resources and the political clout often impose a uniformity on the consumption of the music they believe is popular and therefore profitable.

The same is true today with digital colonization. The companies with the financial resources and the political clout often impose a uniformity on the consumption of the music they believe is popular and therefore profitable. Given the ubiquity of their total command of the internet, the “world” becomes their colony and the “popular” tastes rule, again to the detriment of the indigenous music, but also to art music and to any other music with a limited audience and appeal.

This scenario has forced indigenous music and even our beloved “classical” music into competing with everything—sports, popular music, even each other.  Unfortunately, indigenous music and classical music were never intended to compete.  In an April 4, 2003 London Financial Times article entitled “Out of Tune,” music critic Andrew Clark postulated that, throughout most of its history, classical music had been able to flourish through a mixture of patronage (government, corporations, private philanthropy) and paternal influence on public policy (e.g. “classical music is good for you”).  Now, neither patronage nor paternalism is certain or sufficient.  Today, corporate, private, and governmental philanthropy continues to decline.  And no one can stand before a Board of Education and use the argument that music must be in the curriculum because it’s good for us.  So now we as supporters of indigenous and classical music are trying to compete where we were never intended to compete in the first place—in the sphere of popular culture.  Add to that mix what Clark describes as “the overwhelming evidence that classical music spent most of the past century in creative implosion, and there seem justifiable grounds for panic.” We face quite a challenge. But back to decolonization.

The common thread of colonization, whether it’s the old kind of colonization or the new, is an “either/or” mentality. One music reigns supreme, while the other is neglected at best or dies away at worst. The either/or colonial approach is not healthy or even desirable for a flourishing culture. Thus, the necessity to “decolonize” our music.

Decolonizing music involves a conscious decision to move away from an “either/or” “colonial” mentality to a “both/and” “decolonized” mentality.

Decolonizing music involves a conscious decision to move away from an “either/or” “colonial” mentality to a “both/and” “decolonized” mentality. Decolonizing music, however, is not about replacing one style or genre with another. Replacing colonial music with indigenous music only perpetuates the either/or mentality that has always been destructive to music, just with a different style becoming preeminent. We must be open and accepting of new music as well as old, of classical music as well as popular, improvised as well as notated, and on it goes.

The great music historian Donald J. Grout, in his magnum opus A History of Western Music, framed this concept in very vivid terms. He observed that “reconciliation of the new with the traditional is the task that confronts every artist in his own generation, and one that can be avoided only at the price of artistic suicide.” Grout’s comments are directed at purely musical issues during the transition between the late Renaissance and the early Baroque. However, the parallels to the issue of “decolonization” are unmistakable.

In order to adequately and effectively “decolonize” music, we must become “reconcilers” or, to use a musical term, “harmonizers.” We must reconcile the new with the traditional, affirming the “both/and” and dismissing the “either/or.” We should not let our traditions swallow up the new, but we should not allow the new to swallow up our traditions. Both the new and the traditional are vital to a healthy state of musical and cultural affairs. We must maintain a creative tension between our traditions on the one hand, and the new on the other.

Our greatest and most immediate challenge will be how we deal with technology. As we all know, the digital age is upon us, utterly transforming all of society with a new cyber-reality.

One of the gurus of contemporary thought is Nicholas Negroponte, a professor and founder of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Negroponte describes the technological revolution in terms of a shift from atoms to bits; that is, a shift from the importance of material objects to the supremacy of digital information. All of life, music included, is in the process of digital transformation. Hence, the description by Swedish composer and acting CEO of the Swedish performing rights society Alfons Karabuda of the newest form of conquering “space.” Not the kind of “space” associated with Star Trek and its motto “To boldly go where no man has gone before,” but the infinite space of the internet and, as Alfons described it, “digital colonization.” The conquering of digital space has shifted colonization from countries to companies. In the past, it was countries like Britain, France, and Spain who amassed land colonies across the world. Today it is companies like Apple, Google, and YouTube (which is owned by Google) who are the great colonizers of digital space, especially in music.

In the past, it was countries like Britain, France, and Spain who amassed land colonies across the world. Today it is companies like Apple, Google, and YouTube (which is owned by Google) who are the great colonizers of digital space, especially in music.

Yes, technology is the driving force today. Technological innovations have changed the way we work and live and think. We cannot imagine our lives without computers or the internet. But neither can we imagine life, especially musical life, without personal interactions, human conversation, or, for that matter and very important for me, music studios without a living, breathing teacher.

Prominent technology essayist and literary critic Sven Birkerts warns, “I would urge that we not fall all over ourselves in our haste to filter all of our experiences through circuitry.” Otherwise, he says, the end result of cyber-reality may well be loss of meaning under a tide of endless information and computer bytes.

I know this was a long diversion into technology. But I believe it is central to our ability to be reconcilers. Technology and the internet open up all sorts of possibilities for “decolonized” indigenous music to be heard, experienced, and enjoyed by more people than ever thought possible. But at the same time, it presents a potent tool for “digital colonization” by the companies who control who and what gets heard and whose only motive is profit from the popular.

So, what is the point of all of this talk of decolonization and reconciliation? The point is that it is up to each of us individually and all of us collectively to ensure that both indigenous music as well as popular music flourishes. As individuals, we must adopt the decolonized reconciler mindset. More importantly, we must unify our message through the music organizations that represent us in each of our own countries, as well as around the world.

The central reason for all of our associations, societies, and councils is empowerment. As members of groups like these, we are able to exert an influence on these companies that control who and what gets heard in the media. This is not possible by individuals acting alone. To use a musical metaphor, organizations like the Music Council of the Three Americas and the International Music Council represent a unified voice, rather than several voices singing their own tunes. Individuals who act independently can become just noise that can be dismissed or played against each other by the companies and policy makers. A unified voice gets heard. And good things happen when groups of people are empowered to speak with one voice.

We must use the empowerment and collective strength of all of us who are committed to “decolonizing” music, to reconciling the new with the traditional, to changing the paradigm from “either/or” to “both/and,” and to ensuring the viability and availability of all music to all people.


Photo of Gary Ingle

Gary Ingle. (Photo courtesy of MTNA)

Gary Ingle is the executive director and CEO of Music Teachers National Association in the United States, as well as the president of the National Music Council of the U.S. and a vice president of COMTA.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

2 thoughts on “Decolonizing Our Music

  1. Mark Nowakowski

    “And no one can stand before a Board of Education and use the argument that music must be in the curriculum because it’s good for us.”
    ….Why not? Such an argument lies close to the heart of why we have music in the first place, and why a healthy culture with healthy persons has an interest in cultivating.

    Reply
  2. Peter Flint

    While I fully support your basic premise that we need to respect and integrate both the indigenous and the “Western”, I do think it was never a digital either/or choice historically. Western music may have dominated the culture, but a quick look into just about any era of the Western classical repertoire shows the influence of the indigenous, from the slavic folk tunes in Chopin to middle eastern scales and modes in Spanish composers to the rhythms of Africa in Cuban and South American composers and so on. This doesn’t even take into account the indigenous styles that grew into more popular forms of music – from the African Sub-Saharan and Middle East into the Blues into Jazz into Rock. Or the blending of the African with the Western classical in Cuba which gave us Danzon and Son and ultimately Salsa and a pan-Western “Latin”music. More recently the indigenous and the Western have been blending in Cumbia, a style that grew out of the mixing of western and indigenous in Columbia and the central highlands of South America and has now become a worldwide trend, cutting across cultures and appearing in a wide range of other styles.

    Now you may say these are popular styles and not related to the more restricted community of classical music, but just about every living composer I know is blending at least some of this broad range of indigenously inspired musics into their own works. It may not be direct or overt in every case, but the influence is there. This is not to say that indigenous music and musicians weren’t suppressed, lost, destroyed, persecuted, and ignored in history; they certainly were. But I argue that their influence on the colonizing societies has been far greater in the musical realm than it was in other areas of the broader culture.

    What this means in the digital realm is that the “indigenous” is probably likely to have an outsized influence as we learn to live with this new domain as well. We are going to have to struggle still for the “both/and” and there will be setbacks and progress will not be linear. Still musicians today have access to a broader, richer, more diverse, and more fascinating range of music than at anytime in history and this can’t help but send our music off into more unexpected and interesting directions. So I think what you’re arguing for is already happening and has been for a long time.

    Finally, as a side note, people ARE standing before school boards and arguing that music is good for you. Not everywhere and maybe not as a dominant trend yet, and certainly we’re not approaching the golden era of the 20th century when most school has orchestras and full music programs. But weekly and monthly we see studies showing the positive influence on learning, education, brain development, cultural harmony, etc etc. And with this ammunition education advocates are having some successes rebuilding arts programs. I won’t say everything is rosy and there is tons of work to be done clearly. There’s nothing inevitable about the continuation of this trend. But it’s not quite as bleak as you might paint it.

    Reply

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