Writing about World Music

Davidson College, Spring 2016

Author: jobost

How do you discover music?

I find that I never really seek out new music; rather, I just end up listening to whatever happens to fall into my lap by way of radio or whatever my friends happen to be listening to. I guess I don’t really mind this, because I enjoy the music I do listen to, but at the same time I’m sure there’s an ocean of music out there that I would enjoy if I was exposed to it. My problem is, I’m not really sure how one goes about discovering less popular songs and artists without sinking an excessive amount of time into searching. Additionally, I saw Leonie mention in her post that we would never be exposed to the musics we discussed in this course if ethnomusicologists didn’t actively seek it out. However, they do such things for a living, which really isn’t an option for us. So then, how does one go about discovering new music?

Like I said, this is something I don’t do particularly well with, so maybe take my answers with a grain of salt. A few things that I have imagined working, although I haven’t acted upon them at any great length, are listening to something like Pandora or Apple radio, both of which will play songs/artists similar to ones you like and/or choose, or searching through playlists people create on Spotify. Discover Weekly is a good place to start, but that’s just 30 songs a week, many of which you may already know or may end up disliking. I find that one of the main ways I’m exposed to new music (new to me, anyway) is by listening to other people’s playlists and then looking them up afterwards and taking songs that I like. Again though, that’s hit or miss, and it requires lots of luck and quite some time as well. Im still sure there are better ways to discover new music that may require some more active effort, I’m just not really sure what they are. The benefit of listening to radio or playlists is that they require minimal effort, but I’d be willing to put in some effort if it meant I could discover music as a much faster rate; I’m just not sure where to start. Any suggestions?

When is Censorship Appropriate?

In reading about Dangdut and its place in the national spotlight, we’ve read a lot about various times when the Indonesian Government has censored artists. Rhoma Irama was banned from television for 11 years, but later went on to support a movement to censor Inul, a movement that was supported by other devout followers of Islam in Indonesia. Weintraub tells us that Inul was often dressed much more revealingly for live performances than for television performances, because she was forced to be presentable for a national audience. Additionally, Weintraub contrasts “Oh My Dear,” a song which reinforces family values, with “Are You a Virgin or Not,” a song which deals with promiscuity and seduction. The Indonesian Government opposed the airing of the latter, due to the supposedly negative values which it promoted.

These cases cause one to wonder, when and to what extent is censorship justifiable? Most people are okay with censorship, even from the government, on some levels–in America, the FCC prevents things like nudity and excessive vulgarity from airing on cable television or during daytime hours. Additionally, we have move ratings which prevent children of too young an age from seeing certain movies deemed inappropriate for them. However, there is definitely a level at which censorship by the government is frowned upon; Americans often clutch dearly to the rights guaranteed by the 1st Amendment in order to justify their actions and state that the government has no power to stop them. The vast majority of Americans would certainly oppose censorship that serves to block out values and beliefs which don’t serve the government, so the attempted censoring of “Are You a Virgin or Not” would likely be opposed by most Americans. The benefit of this is that artists have more freedom, the public can choose what they wish to support, and the government cannot solely advance its propaganda and move towards some type of dictatorship. One might argue that there are downsides, too, though, in disallowing censorship and thus letting certain types of messages through, which may have a negative influence on its audience. Either way, if this debate was happening in America, I’m sure the majority of participants would strongly oppose any attempts by the government to censor artists’ messages, regardless of what those messages might be. They might not be quite as opposed on forcing Inul to dress more conservatively for television than she does during live performances, though

While applying the Indonesian debates to American values just creates a made-up hypothetical situation, ideas on censorship are certainly debated in America, and apply to a great number of situations. People question the government’s ability to censor things on the internet or pornography of especially graphic/vile nature, and people believe very strongly in one side or the other. While it seems certain to me that the Indonesian government in the time period which Weintraub describes took censorship too far, I don’t believe all censorship is necessarily bad or unjustifiable, and deciding on an appropriate extent to which censorship can be applied is nigh on impossible in an ideologically diverse society like ours.

Epistemology of Frolics

Assuming you don’t live under a rock, you probably heard a whole lot of blaring music this past weekend. And depending on who you are, you might not particularly enjoy much of the music that was played. I know one of my friends repeatedly complained about the music as being really low-quality (not his exact words) and an actual hindrance or annoyance. On some levels, I believe he’s probably right. It doesn’t take much searching to find music with more staying power or aesthetic beauty than the music that is commonly played at parties at this campus and others. All the same, I do believe my friend was missing the point when he made these complaints. In music, as in life, there is a time and a place for everything, and Frolics requires music that large groups of drunk people can dance to and enjoy without thinking too much. In other words, a particular type of music was necessary to sustain the vibe, and this same music is not the type of music that most people would listen to by themselves just to relax, or put on in the background just to enjoy. Music was at the forefront of everyone’s attention, and the music had to fulfill its specific intended role, so that the atmosphere could be sustained and the partygoers kept happy. While we all may have missed out on getting to listen to especially moving music, we did get exactly what we were looking for in most cases, and the music, regardless of its quality, functioned effectively. In a totally different vein, my friend and I listened to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon to chill in his room before partaking in the night’s festivities. As great as this album is, its uses only go so far; it’s great to just lie down and listen to in a quiet room, but it would have been terribly out of place at the parties down the hill.

Opposing situations like these give us one of the many reasons as to why it’s not really possibly to give music any sort of objective value. Two different songs might have been composed with very different objectives, and any differences between the two are more easily explained by the different objectives than by any supposition of musical superiority. Comparing two songs from different genres is like asking which is better between movies like The Dark Knight and something like The Fault in Our Stars; the two movies have entirely different objectives, so asking which is better doesn’t really make any sense, and whatever answer someone gives you tells you more about them and their interests than it does about the actual movies. Even for songs in the same genre, it’s still a question of subjectivity. It’s like asking if someone prefers Spiderman or Batman; you can’t invalidate their answer or prove they’re wrong, much like you can’t tell somebody they’re incorrect for liking certain songs or certain genres. Music is merely intended to fulfill some role, and you can’t devalue it if it manages to meaningfully accomplish some such role for some listeners.

Nationalism and the Eurovision Contest

In class Thursday, we discussed the way music functions to represent a nation at the Eurovision contest and in some other contexts. As far as Eurovision is concerned, blatant nationalism is counterproductive to the goal of winning the contest; Dr. Weinstein mentioned how songs with obvious references to the nation of origin rarely win the contest, and the point was made with Celine Dion’s entrance winning for Switzerland and Finland’s hair metal performance also winning the contest for them. The accepted strategy, then, is to just put forth the best music possible, regardless of whether or not it represents the country submitting it. This is something that I find somewhat strange, given how important the contest is for each country. Winning seems to be a big point of pride for whichever country does so, so why shouldn’t the songs have any nationalistic aspects? A contest that pits countries against other countries (just like the Olympics) must be closely intertwined with nationalism, and yet this nationalism is not reflected, and in fact discouraged, in the voting process.

On the one hand, I can see why this might be the case. Voters for the contest come from every country involved, and voters from other countries may not appreciate overt nationalism in another country’s music. More moderate music designed for wider audiences will understandably garner more praise from opposing countries. It certainly makes sense that if a country makes music specifically to appeal to its own countrymen, it will not do as well with other countries. On the other hand, one might say that discarding nationalistic aspects in favor a more neutral performance is just a tactic for pandering to voters. If a country really aims to receive some sort of validation through winning Eurovision, it certainly sacrifices something by masking its identity in its music. If every country was to submit a song that represented itself, then there wouldn’t be any of the more neutral entries to win a larger portion of the vote; nationalism would then have forced its way into the music and become an inseparable part of the contest. Of course, it’s impossible to say if such a change would be for the better or the worse. Perhaps it would lower the quality of the music, or make voting more political than it already is. Perhaps the nationalistic music should be left within the individual nations and not submitted to international competitions featuring countries with wildly different political and social settings. But then again, maybe not. There are certainly some legitimate arguments to be made for more overt nationalism in the entries, but if no one is dissatisfied with the current state of affairs, maybe there’s no need to change them.

The Politicization of the Qu’ran

Charles Hirschkind discusses at length the politicization of the Qu’ran in his essay “Hearing Cultures”. He describes this history of the Islamic document, which for a long time was delivered in sermons which emphasized solely the message of the Qu’ran and not the manner in which he sermon was given. The aesthetic beauty of the words themselves was said to be such that the message would be clearly received by all who were pure of heart; the act of reception was to be performed by the listener, and failure to receive the message was characteristic of an impure heart. That, however, has changed in modern times, as the Egyptian government has introduced politics and modern ideology into the realm of religion. Sermons are monitored by the state as they attempt to change the message of sermons and repurpose them. This change in purpose has been accompanied by a change in duty on the part of the listener. Now the successful delivering of a message depends just as much on the speaker as it does on the listener; failure to give the right message in the best way will result in a failed sermon, in contrast with the previous responsibility falling entirely on the shoulders of the listener.

This transformation is no doubt a large change; the question is, is this change for the better or worse? While I was reading the article, it struck me as a perversion of the Qu’ran, and I wrote off the modernization as solely a bad thing and a political change. It seems like a perversion of the Qu’ran and a deterioration of the purity of Islam. However, it occurred to me in reflection that there are arguably some benefits to this change. One proponent of the change mentions that those who refuse to modernize their sermons are stuck in outdated ideologies, and he specifically mentions the idea that women need to cover up their skin as one of these ideologies. There may be something to be said for a progressive movement that puts certain countries more in line with more widely accepted viewpoints in the world today. While the movement seems like it’s violating the sanctity of the religion, it’s entirely possible that it could keep the main beliefs and tenets of Islam while inspiring some relatively progressive ideas in its followers. This progressive movement may be a bad thing to some people even if it doesn’t come at the expense of the religion, but to those who support it, they may believe certain traditions of the sermon to be a worthy price to pay for ideological advances. I’m still not sure how I feel about the movement, and I don’t support such heavy involvement by the state in religion, but with more thought on the matter, I believe it’s not as unequivocally bad as it had initially struck me to be.

Hirschkind, Charles. Hearing Cultures: Essays on Sound, Listening, and Modernity. New York: n.p., 2004. 136. Print.

Music in Different Cultures

When we consider world music and its universality or lack thereof, we often think about how different cultures produce different music with different components or methods. In other words, to separate music by culture, it is often easiest to think about the difference in ontology between cultures. However, Lortat-Jacob mentions in Sardinian Chronicles his experience with a serenade in Sardinia. The serenade took place at three in the morning, was performed by a group of the serenaded man’s friends, and culminated in a discussion about “everything, except marriage and women” (67). It’s interesting to see that even in the context of a serenade, a concept we’re familiar with in western society, the execution and function of the performance was so wildly different from what we’re accustomed to. The experience gives us an idea of how epistemology can also show separation between cultures. Serenades as we think of them are intended to be romantic, and to win the affection of the recipient; this serenade was meant to chastise the recipient and pressure him into considering marriage before he grew too old.

This difference in epistemology between cultures poses some questions as to how universal music can be. For western individuals, it is difficult to hear the term “serenade” and understand it to mean what it means to the Sardinians, and vise versa. Is the problem merely that we lack language with which to properly describe music and distinguish between its varying forms? That doesn’t really seem to be the case; the Sardinians clearly serenaded their friend, they just have a very different idea of what a serenade is and what it ought to accomplish. But the fact that people from outside Sardinia wouldn’t necessarily interpret the act in the same way seems to cast some doubt over the idea that music is a universal language or universal means of communication. It can convey different things to different people, or even convey nothing at all, and in that respect it seems to lack universality.

Works Cited
Lortat-Jacob, Bernard. Sardinian Chronicles. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1995. Print.

My Musical Introduction

I’m afraid I’ve never had any talent for playing or performing music;  I spent two years in middle school playing the alto saxophone, but quit because my high school did not have a band, and have not taken up any instruments since that time.  I’m also not good at singing and so I haven’t performed at all in a musical context for many years.  I think that these disadvantages have actually deepened my appreciation for music, though.  I find that I have great respect and admiration for people with the talent and dedication to hone musical talents, being someone who never had the patience required to excel in music.  Additionally, my inability to perform has not lessened my enjoyment of music;  I’ve spent about half of my life in urban Massachusetts and the other half in rural southwest Virginia, and in crossing cultural boundaries I’ve had to experience and learn to enjoy vastly different styles of music.  I’m glad that this is the case, because I now know of a wide array of music and am able to listen to different genres and styles based on how I feel and whether I want to just have music in the background or do nothing but listen to music and only concentrate on the sounds and the feelings they transmit.  Here’s a song I like to listen to just mellow out and decompress after dealing with whatever stress crops up in my life.