Monday, March 14, 2011

Reflections on traditional music versus modern music

Learning about traditional music goes a long way in helping me understand a place that I have visited, as well as have a greater appreciation for the cultural diversity that exists in the world. For the most part, what seems to identify a region and separate it from its neighbors is a particular style of music. Usually, the older the style is, the more it represents its region because the earlier difficulties of transportation from one place to another tended to foster the development of a particular style of traditional music distinct from the surrounding regions. Styles that have come into vogue later on tend to be more pan-regional and often don't provide this sort of insight, with a few notable exceptions, such as the brand of salsa that has developed in Cali, Colombia.

When I began to listen to traditional music, there were a lot of styles that I didn't enjoy listening to because they were made by societies that didn't have the benefit of technology to make refined instruments, plus the melodies were often repetitious and sounded strange to my Western ears. Over time, however, I began to appreciate the context in which these styles were created and didn't allow my earlier prejudices to prevent me from embracing those styles as the authentic expression of the people.

As these traditional styles have evolved, there have been tendencies for the people to make certain adjustments based on the possibilities that technology offers. Dancers often like recorded music because the beats are more predictable and easier to dance to than a live group that may not play to a rhythm conducive to dancing. I had a direct experience with this situation as an organizer of a cultural event in Philadelphia in which a group of tango dancers struggled to adjust to the shifting rhythms of the local Argentinian music group and found a recording much easier to follow. The compromise was using the musicians for some songs and the recordings for others. Also, modern musicians often prefer electronic instruments to acoustic instruments because they are sometimes easier to transport, plug into sound systems directly instead of having to be amplified by a microphone, and appeal more to contemporary audiences. For example, musicians may add the electric bass in situations where the tradition didn't have a bass or had a rudimentary bass, as is the case with many Colombian "vallenato" groups (a type of music from the Caribbean coast) like the one shown above. At least one writer has decried this modification as only serving to drown out the percussion, but the more traditional vallenato groups with only three instruments - the accordion, scraper and drum - still exist alongside their larger, electrified counterparts. The venue dictates which type of group will take precedence.

Despite this evolution, pop music is seen as a competitor to traditional and regional music, and with the huge marketing resources that pop music has at its disposal, the playing field is very uneven. There are differences of opinion among those promoters of regional music as to how to deal with this situation. The late folklorist Alan Lomax gave this assessment: "We now have cultural machines so powerful that one singer can reach everybody in the world, and make all the other singers feel inferior because they're not like him. Once that gets started, he gets backed by so much cash and so much power that he becomes a monstrous invader from outer space, crushing the life out of all the other human possibilities. My life has been devoted to opposing that tendency." I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Lomax that the incredible variety of human expression that is represented in folklore should not be extinguished by a  money machine. Where I see divergence is how those representatives of their local cultures choose to deal with the situation.

I have heard some local musicians complain about how they are passed over in representing their region in festivals in favor of singers who represent a style foreign to their particular area. While I certainly sympathize with them and realize that they often need an advocate to increase their influence, the end result often is the fading of the traditional style as their most storied proponents pass away. Another approach is similar to the saying "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" but is more like "If you can't beat 'em, meet 'em halfway." Realizing the enormous reach and influence of popular music, some promoters of the traditional style try to incorporate certain elements of pop music into their repertoire, or perform in both traditional groups and fusion groups, so that they do not sell out to pop. For example, in a conversation with a traditional Colombian Pacific Coast music group at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 2009, one of the musicians mentioned that he was looking for a fusion of his local music with popular music that could serve as a "hook" to get their young people more interested in the local traditions. I couldn't answer his question at that time, but a few weeks later I traveled to Bogota, Colombia and found the answer: a group that developed a fusion of that same style with rap. It sounded great and represented the best that both the Pacific Coast music and rap had to offer. I personally prefer the acoustic sound of the traditional music, but felt that the fusion group had done a very good job of respecting the roots music and may have provided a bridge so that people could appreciate the tradition better. The debate is not likely to go away, but I am hesitant to disagree with anyone who has faced a decline in popularity of their regional style and would like a wider audience to appreciate it so that the style does not disappear completely. Ultimately, the standard bearers of the tradition should be the ones to decide.

Check out the article on Latin music on my website for more information.
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