Writing about World Music

Section F, Fall 2016

Author: alstrasser

Green Inferno

Over this Thanksgiving break, I watched the 2014 horror movie “Green Inferno.” I think this movie is extremely relevant, specifically in regards to our class discussions on the use of world music in popular culture. The movie takes place, for the most part, in the Peruvian jungle. A group of young activists find themselves being held hostage by a group of cannibalistic natives after a plane crash.

A couple things about this movie caught my ear, specifically in the intro and the later scenes. The first part of the is a sort of credits scene that is presumably shot from a helicopter as it flies over the dense jungle. In the background, drums play to a very pronounced beat that sounds like it has been used in every Jungle movie. Modern, professional drums were clearly used. I could tell that the music was certainly not authentic to any native culture; it was much too banal and typical of a movie of this sort. However, the real shocker came later in the film, when the group had already been captured by the natives. The same drumbeat was playing, even as the camera focused in on a very specific group of native musicians playing native instruments.

After doing some research, I discovered that the tribe portrayed in this movie is completely fictional. Even so, I am not sure it is completely ethical to portray any indigenous peoples as they were in this film. A number of things were completely incorrect. For example, there is no evidence that cannibalism is ritually practiced in any Amazonian culture. Most reports of cannibalism come from Papua New Guinea and other related tribes. Second, the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) plays a large part in the film. Again, FGM is only practiced in the Middle East and in Africa, not in South America. The incorrect music that is played during this film is only icing on the cake; with all the other incorrect assumptions uneducated viewers might make about Amazonian peoples after watching this movie, the music only adds yet another. In addition to being poorly made, this film really reflects the failure of the producers to do even basic research on indigenous peoples in Peru. Let me know what you think, but please refrain from watching the movie.

Researching the Music Culture of Parties

Within the context of our final project for this course, I thought it would be a good idea to update you guys on how my project has been progressing. I’d first say that its been really interesting to observe these type of weekend activities from a scholarly standpoint. Some of you in this class have even come across me when I’m doing these observations. One critical part of doing research this way involves not only watching people and their activities, but also participating in them throughout the night. Something that was continually brought up in my discussion group was the evolution of the party and the music as the night progresses. What sort of differences do we observe about the music at 11pm versus the music at 1am? I feel that one of the best ways to understand these differences is to participate in the very activities themselves: to dance with the crowd, to play drinking games (staying sober if desired) and to talk freely with the other participants. Only then can we really understand how communication occurs at this time; is it mostly physical or verbal communication? In what ways does music affect the crowd and its tendencies? I have been focusing on some of these questions and a few more as my project progresses.

However small, one of the downsides of this project is that I can only observe on Saturday nights (Fridays are tough because I have practice the next morning) and thus I only have a few hours to write and edit my paper before submitting it to Moodle.

I’d be interested to know if anyone else doing this project feels similarly or has other observations they’d like to share!

Confessin’ the Blues with Jackson Allen

Every now and then, when an easy opportunity presents itself, I like to explore different musical genres that I haven’t listened to before. Sometimes, I’ll hear a connection or gain an insight into my usual music that I normally wouldn’t have noticed. Even now, through taking this class, I have been exposed to a great variety of music from around the world. Through Jackson Allen over the last few weeks, I’ve also become acquainted with a domestic style of music (but still rather foreign to me) called the Blues. You see, not only does Jackson have an immense collection of harmonicas, he also has an amp and a microphone to make sure everybody on our hall can hear him. I’ve been interested in Jazz for a while, but after hearing Jackson practice regularly, I think I can say that I am Interested in the Blues now too. As a result, I’ve decided to tune into as much of Jackson’s radio show, “Confessin’ the Blues”, as I can. Even though its only for one hour per week, 15 or 16 different songs are played, and for the most part from different artists. I think that the term “artist” carries significant weight here, because as I’ve listened to these songs, I’ve noticed something different about them. Sure, while the melody, rhythm and chord progression may be very different that what I’m accustomed to, I can sense a unique air of authenticity in the music. In other words, I can tell (and you will certainly understand what I’m talking about if you decide to listen to Jackson’s show) that the people who perform these songs truly love their genre. Whatever your opinion on the music is, I think there will be a general consensus that there is real emotion, heartbreak, and happiness behind each and every one of these compositions. Sometimes, popular music just doesn’t give off the same vibe. Sure, it may sound more familiar, but at the same time it also sounds scripted and rehearsed whilst the Blues sound natural and genuine. So I’d recommend that you give them a listen, and tell Jackson what you think.

Against the Honor Code

As I was surfing the internet the other day, I came across an interesting blog authored by none other than our professor, Dr. Weinstein. I’ve included the link at the bottom of this post if any of you are interested. The very latest post caught my attention with its title “Against the Honor Code.” Upon reading it, I discovered that the post was made in response to I comment that I believe I made in class within the first few weeks. The discussion in class that day way about plagiarism, and reasons to avoid it. I made the remark that students at Davidson should strive to avoid plagiarism because the honor code forbids it. While the honor code is a result of integrity, it should never be a reason to remain honest. The desire to produce original work should come from within oneself instead of from a institution’s policy.

As I’ve pondered this, I realized that such a mindset can also be useful when composing music. Often, the difference between original and plagiarized music can be quite subjective and thus hard to define. Some will say that merely 8 copied notes, in pitch and rhythm, constitute a violation of the law. However, such cases are very rarely publicized if they even occur. I wish to consider the difference between music created for the purpose of enterprise and music created for the purpose of research/academia. Popular music is little more than another item to be bought and sold in today’s global economy, and so more stringent copyright rules should apply. The music industry (Sony and other major record labels) tends to be very competitive, with little room for new artists. Yet I’m sure we’ve all heard of the “same four chords” that somehow find their way into every pop song. Wouldn’t this constitute a violation of integrity? Listen to an old Justin Beiber, Taylor Swift, or Cody Simpson song and you’ll hear what I’m talking about.  What if you have the same four chords but in a different key? A different octave, even? I wonder about this whenever someone claims that all pop music sounds similar or that all country music sounds similar. How can we counteract this?


Britain’s Illegal Rave Parties

Where do English teenagers in the London area go to party when their favorites clubs have been shut down? Over the previous 10 years, police have gone to work shutting down the city’s favorite legitimate and illegitimate rave sites. From licensed clubs to impromptu field parties, all types of electronic music venues have been forced to shut down or relocate outside city borders.

In response to this persecution, active young adults have taken to throwing parties in London’s industrial, dilapidated east side. The ingenious concept behind this idea comes from a section of British law that would sound ludicrous to many Americans. Essentially, any non-residential property that is not currently occupied may be inhabited by so-called “squatters” for a short period of time. Some stipulations apply; for example, squatters cannot use any electricity, even if the building is equipped (doing so is considered stealing from the energy companies). Also, the residence must not show any evidence of breaking-and-entering.

Experienced scouts will search for potential locations after sundown. When an acceptable one is found, the scout will alert the musicians (DJs), who will post the location and invites on social media. Sometimes, a location isn’t found until 10 pm. Everything moves quickly after the discovery. Soon, the DJs are wheeling their speakers into the building and setting up as the crowd files in and patiently waits for the lights to be set up and balloons to be blown (at least one of the party-goers will bring a generator).

The police often make appearances, however the experienced party-goers will often go outside to speak with them and assure them that the occupation of the property is completely legal. Nevertheless, some incidents still occur. A portion of those in attendance will certainly be using hard drugs, which often gives police the warrants they need to shut down the rave.

I think its interesting that a desire to listen to music in this manner will drive people to go to extremes such as this. That said, I definitely hope to be lucky enough to attend one of these one day. EDM is probably my favorite genre of popular music; it composes about half of my Spotify songs list. If you have the time, I would recommend watching the Vice documentary that covers this topic:

Who owns this song?

I believe it would be interesting if we were to discuss the problem of ownership: in particular, ownership of traditional folk songs. When a researcher records a song, does the song belong to him or to the singer? While such a question may seem to be facetious, several aspects of the song should be considered. One should first find the origins of the song; was the song composed by the singer? Can the song be considered the intellectual property of the singer if it was composed by another, perhaps unknown person? Second, how has oral tradition changed the song? Over generations, songs passed down by mouth almost certainly change. If that is the case, how can anyone begin to determine ownership of the song. Third, the song’s purpose must be included in the discussion. Some cultures believe that music is the respective property of the culture’s god. Finally, the purpose for which the song is recorded is important.

I will use “World Music” by Philip Bohlman to illustrate an interesting example. Take the photograph on page 25 and the description of the photograph on page 23. The woman singing into the recorder is singing “ancient songs” (Bohlman 23). In other words, she certainly did not write the song itself. Would it be proper to say that the song is her property? I do not believe so. To say that it would be her song would be tantamount to saying that because a sixth grader can perform Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” on the piano, the child owns the song. If the song is truly ancient, then the woman certainly doesn’t know the original composer. Then who owns the song? Would it be her family, her village, or even the entirety of the French people? The composer may be unknown, but that certainly fails to give any credence to the idea that a song is the property of the singer.

Second, we have no idea if the song is part of an oral tradition. Third, we have no idea what the song was about. Finally, we do know that Louis Pinck, the priest recording the song, had no intention of selling the song for a profit. So did he steal the song from her? Have other ethnographers committed the same sin? I must express my doubt here. What do you think?

Works Cited:
Bohlman, Philip V. World Music: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002. Print.

Good Cooks Eat Alot!

My baptism into the world of music began nearly 11 years ago with a conversation between my mother and I. As with most any second-grader, my thoughts were completely concerned with friends, cartoons, and sports. As with most any mother, she was concerned with raising me to be a polite, well-rounded, and educated young man. The premise of the conversation was, of course, music lessons. To be more specific, my mother wanted me to learn how to play the piano. In her youth, she had also learned to play at the suggestion of her mother. So now it was my turn.

I never resisted those lessons, and to this day I am thankful I did not. My teacher, Mrs. Chiou, came to our home once a week on Mondays for a period of nearly ten years. She started with the basics, and patiently waited for me to become more experienced so that we could progress to more complex, classical music. Recitals were not uncommon as I participated in about two or three per year. Parents and siblings would sit in our living room as each of us students went up to the piano and performed our songs. These memories are some of my most treasured.



But alas, a threshold had been reached by the time I was a junior in high school. Taking AP Music Theory, I began to understand the piano–and music in general–as being more concerned with production of beautiful music than with the memorization and repetition of beautiful music. Essentially, my studies in AP Music Theory showed me how to improvise music. I was no longer concerned with spending hours practicing a classical piece until I knew it by heart; instead, I fell in love with the ability to produce harmonious music instantly using the skills I had sharpened under Dr. Alan Hirsh, my AP teacher. Learning about chords, cadences, and modulations in an academic environment changed my entire musical outlook.



So where does that leave me currently? Well I stopped taking regular piano lessons and began to teach myself songs I wanted to learn on the piano (songs such as “River Flows in you” and other popular songs). Last year, on black Friday, I bought myself a massively discounted ukulele. Who doesn’t enjoy the soft, tropical sound of the distinctly Pacific four-stringed instrument that is the ukulele? I learned a few chords on the instrument and came up with a few songs to boot. The strings on the ukulele are tuned to G, C, E, and A, thus resulting in the mnemonic “Good Cooks Eat Alot.” With this class, I intend to further my knowledge of world music, particularly in Southeast Asian, Eastern Asian, and Pacific styles. I hope that the curriculum will allow my ukulele to make an appearance or two!

-Alex Strasser