Writing about World Music

Davidson College, Fall 2015

Author: mastockdale

Lip Sync Battle ft. the crew team


For anyone who didn’t see, here’s a video of my group participating in the 1st annual lip sync battle. I think Union Board got the idea from Jimmy Fallon, but it was so much fun. President Quillen was one of the “celebrity judges” along with professor Lozada. It was a really fun idea, and I was surprised at how many people showed up. Basically, the event was divided into three rounds with battles between the 8 participating groups. It was a bracket, so for round two there were 4 groups, and then two in the final round. The directions said to prepare three one-minute excerpts from different songs. We actually didn’t know the structure of the event until we got there, so we thought we would be performing all our songs at once. My group went with a One Direction theme, and we called ourselves Made in the (5:30) A.M. (1D’s new album is called made in the am and crew practices at 5:30). We only made it to the second round, but it was definitely cool to participate in a musical event that brought together so many people (Serena also competed and her group won…no hard feelings though….).

Adele saves Thanksgiving!

Adele shocked the world and broke NSYNC’s record for most CD (yes physical CDs) sales in one week with the release of her third album, 25. It is amazing. Adele has done it once again. The album’s first single, “Hello,” released Oct. 24, has since clogged the airways and become kind of an Internet sensation. It seems like everyone knows all of the lyrics, obsesses over Adele’s perfect contour and winged eyeliner in the video, and makes fun of her flip phone. SNL hopped on the bandwagon with this pretty hilarious video about using the power of music, specifically Adele’s, to unify family members. Pretty much everyone  has that one racist aunt or a grandpa who doesn’t have a filter and, according to SNL, we can all get together and use excessive hand motions while we sing along to this cultural phenomenon. More than just being funny, I think this skit speaks to the universality of music. Even though Adele’s album isn’t available on any kind of streaming service, supposedly out of reach for any of us millennials, we all know her songs regardless of age, gender, or political alignment.

My musical memories

Waxer’s book focuses a lot on memory, so I thought I’d share some of my memories about music. My first “crush” was actually Elvis Presley. I remember in Pre-K we had to make these like glitter collages and I did mine on Elvis. I thought he looked like my dad, which looking back on it was definitely kinda weird. The first music I remember owning was actually not on a CD or cassette tape but on hit clips, those weird key chain things that played like minute long sections of songs, and I’m pretty sure it was either “Come Clean” by Hillary Duff or “Complicated” by Avril Lavigne. My first concert was Aaron Carter when I was in like 2nd or 3rd grade. It was after he was popular so he was touring all these weird venues. This one was at the children’s stage at a festival in upstate New York, but the best live performances I’ve ever seen are Fun., Childish Gambino, and Coldplay (I’m not a huge fan but their production value is off the charts). In 2nd grade my sister and I danced to “Sisters” from the movie White Christmas, then later that summer we started a band with our cousin. We performed hits such as the Full House and Scooby-Doo theme songs. In middle school I went through a really embarrassing hipster phase, where I stopped listening to pop music and only listened to really obscure bands. Every night I’d fall asleep listening to my local college radio station (^: I’ve been in two musicals, Rent and Urinetown. Right now, my favorite things to listen to are Adele, Nicki Minaj, and Mariah Carey’s christmas album (I’m definitely NOT listening to One Direction right now……)

I’ve definitely embarrassed myself enough for now. Comment some of your ~musical memories~

Becoming a Musician in 10,000 hours

This week’s reading by Neuman: “Becoming a Musician,” discussed, in detail, much of the practice time required for a person to put in before he/she even is considered a musician. Neuman describes how the other musicians would examine his fingernails for dents to see how much he was practicing. He even went so far as to consider faking the indentations: “I sometimes seriously considered cutting grooves in my nails with a file, so that I would look more accomplished than I was.” Neuman describes the practice style of esteemed musician Ustad Ahmed Jan Thirakwa, who would often spend entire nights practicing without sleep. Neuman explained that in many ways, talent was less important than dedication, which meant that musicians who practiced more were respected more.

Neuman’s ethnography made me think of one of the main discussion points in Malcolm Gladwell’s self-help book Outliers. In his book, Gladwell points out the few overlapping qualities that extraordinarily successful people have in common. Other than luck (being born in the right place at the right time), one such quality is practice. Gladwell notes that people who have spent a minimum of 10,000 hours practicing their crafts have become experts. Some examples he gives are professional hockey players, programers like Bill Gates, and, slightly more relevant, Mozart. Perhaps, music culture in India takes this “practice makes perfect” model a little to the extreme, but it still makes me wish I spent a little more time on my saxophone practice logs in fifth grade.

Gender Festivities

So, earlier I posted about my search for women featured prominently in musical cultures. I still have yet to find exactly what I was looking for, but in my ongoing research I came across some information about all-female music festivals in Iran. This struck my interest because when I (or probably most Americans because of our countries’ history) think of Iran, I don’t think music festivals and I DEFINITELY don’t think about all female music festivals. In fact, there is a ban on solo female performances in public in front of mixed gender audiences , which many women openly protest (which would also make an interesting post, but I digress). As I learned, however, the existence of these festivals is not necessarily a good thing.

The article which enlightened me about this cultural occurrence is called “Enveloping Music in Gender, Nation, and Islam: Women’s music festivals in post-revolutionary Iran,” and it was written by Wendy S. DeBano for Iranian Studies journal. DeBano points out that it is difficult for any Iranian, but especially women, to feel like they can escape the watchful eye of the government, even in a cultural setting: “Symbols of nation and images of Iranian leaders, contemporary and posthumous, greet musicians, audiences, and indeed, the entire Iranian citizenry every day, several times a day. With few exceptions, these images and symbols are male.” Even the concert halls in Tehran have portraits of former and current government officials looming over performers. DeBano specifically discusses the Fourth Jasmine Festival and how the states presence is always felt.

Another issue DeBano points out is the extreme gendering of these events—from programs to ticket designs. She explains this is a problem because it means a lot of the events are overlooked. She discusses in detail the emblem of the festival and how it is problematic: “the musical symbol that defines the concert materials for Fourth Jasmine Festival is, in effect, invisible … just as the musical content and performances are invisible and inaudible to those on the city streets.” She also notes that on these advertisements, women themselves aren’t pictured, but are instead replaced with feminine images.

I think, as evidenced here, that Iran represents a widespread example, albeit a pretty radical one, on how women are by and large erased from music. The idea of a women’s music festival seems pretty inclusive, but the practice of it proves that, in the case of Iran, it is only furthering the marginalization of women in society.


Hearing Modernity: Comparing televangelists with ethical listening

After reading Hearing Modernity: Egypt, Islam, and the Pious Ear, I couldn’t help but note the differences in Christianity’s evangelical sermon recordings (like the ones you see at 5 am on Sunday morning when you accidentally flip the channel) and Islam’s ‘ilm al-balagha. Hirschkind explains that until recently, Muslim scholars weren’t even interested in developing a preacher’s persuasiveness in rhetoric. In christianity, however, preachers were using persuasive sermons popularly in the 16th and 17th century, and missions started developing as early as the 4th century.

Islam is a much younger religion, at least 700 years, which probably contributes to its later dependency on these kinds of rhetoric. It could also be due, as Hirschkind points out, to the nature of Islam itself: “As the miraculous word of God, the divine message convinces, not via an artifice of persuasion—the rhetorical labor of skillful human speakers—but by its own perfect unification of beauty and truth. When humans fail to be convinced by this word, the fault lies not in the words but in the organ of reception, the human heart.” This analysis may indicate that Islam holds an individuals interpretation of the Qur’an sacred because it reflects the individual’s ability to hear and believe in God.

A kind of disturbing similarity I found was the use of the sermons as a tool of propaganda to justify actions of the government. We see this application of Christian sermons across pretty much the entire history of Christianity, and in the United States, particularly, to justify the genocide and displacement of Native Americans, slavery, and more recently the opposition of same-sex marriage. In Egypt, Islamic sermons have been used to support cultural standards of reform, and often coincided with mass media: “Preachers were seen to offer the state a preestablished channel of direct communication between itself and the population under its management. Sermons would now provide both useful information and an oratorical form geared to the moral improvement of an Egyptian population still seen to be bound by the idealogical constraints of deep-rooted traditionalism.”

This similarity concerns me because the United States doesn’t explicitly state the source of justification of these ills, as we are supposed to be a nation free from an established religion, nor is our government directly involved, but the message travels across the country as well as the state supported messages of Islam do in Egypt, a theocratic state.



Teaching the world to sing world music

One of the more recent advertisements that utilized evoked a sort of worldliness was Coca-Cola’s 2014 Super Bowl commercial entitled, “It’s Beautiful.” The ad features many soloists, that I’ve now realized are all women or children, singing America the Beautiful in various languages. The singing is played over several vignettes of people from different countries around the world doing mostly leisurely activities like dancing, purchasing street food, and riding a horse. This ad has a lot of similarities to the ones we read about in Taylor’s article—the aforementioned chorus of women and children and the vague concept of otherness, but it also has some pretty noticeable differences as well. The first difference I noticed was the absence of drums, or any instrument for that matter, but what is most interesting is that Coca-Cola decided to use real languages and places, defining the “Other.”

Personally, I think this commercial is brilliant. To me, it evokes a sense of togetherness and it plays off of Coke’s old message: “I want to teach the world to sing.” Others, however, found the ad to be offensive and un-American, which is perhaps the result of Coke’s decision to not mask the “Other.” Former Republican Congressman Allen West wrote a blog post saying, “If we cannot be proud enough as a country to sing “American the Beautiful” in English in a commercial during the Super Bowl, by a company as American as they come — doggone we are on the road to perdition.” People followed, expressing similar sentiments and even starting a hashtag trend #BoycottCoke. The ad also faced backlash for featuring a homosexual couple.

English, contrary to the belief of many, is not the official language of America. In fact, we don’t even have one. It is startling to me that an advertisement using made-up, nonsensical words is less controversially than one that utilizes actual language, but I suppose that’s what Taylor was referencing when he was talking about western audiences desires to experience the world “safely,” without having to actually encounter the “scary natives.”


Where the women at?

I felt like Sardinian Chronicles did a great job exploring the impact of music on Sardinian culture, but it left me curious to find cultures in which women make music. This actually proved to be a very difficult task because in a lot of non-western cultures, women really don’t participate in the music making process. What I did found, however, was that in many countries, women can make music in the home. Lullabies, for instance, are traditionally performed by a woman for her children and almost always occur in the home. Additionally, women have been very successful in genres like Opera and musical theatre, but I wanted to find some non-western cultures that focused on women making music. I found a list of matrilineal societies , and decided to look at some of them for ladies making music.

I thought the most interesting ones were the Mosou people and the Garu people. The Mosou live in China, near Tibet, and have no institutional marriage. Much of the music making takes place around the “walking marriage” ceremonies and the Moon New Year festival, but I couldn’t find anything about who makes the music so I don’t know for sure if it is women. The Garo have a variety of popular group songs, but again I’m not sure who makes the music or if women are involved.

If anyone can find any cultures where women are the ones who predominately make the music comment here and let me know!

Swift generalizations

I am a huge Taylor Swift fan. I have all of her CDs, know nearly every lyric, know both Taylor’s astrological sign (Sagittarius) and her Myers-Briggs type (ISFJ). All-in-all I really like Taylor Swift. A lot. That being said, Taylor can sometimes be slightly problematic. Swift’s video for her newest single Wildest Dreams has faced some severe scrutiny since its release last Sunday, namely for racist undertones.

The video, filmed in Africa and California, is supposed to depict Colonial Africa, an aesthetic that Swift emulates in nearly all aspects of the video except for one slightly important area—all of the leads in the video are white.  In an NPR article entitled “Taylor Swift is Dreaming of a Very White Africa authors, Viviane Rutabingwa and James Kassaga Arinaitwe, point out Swift’s blatant (though likely, hopefully unintentional) racism by citing an essay by Binyavanga Wainaina called “How to Write About Africa:”

“In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.”

Rutabingwa and Arinaitwe argue that Swift’s video is a classic embodiment of the western tendency to try to romanticize and belittle African nations.

Though Swift is not herself writing or performing world music, her naïveté mirrors a part if the idea of musical universality that I think is very important: when the West tries to describe universality, we often over-simplify cultures that we do not understand. Swift did it in her video because she thought of  Africa as one place, without individual cultures or any exceptions to the general “rule” of Africa.