Writing about World Music

Davidson College, Fall 2015

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Observing Friends

When going through the process of observing my music group and interviewing people, I connected with some individuals in the group. In interviewing a member over coffee, it felt more like chatting, catching up with a friend than conducting research for a paper. This undoubtedly made for great responses to my questions (you divulge more to an acquaintance than a stranger) but now that I am writing about this encounter, it has become harder to separate the concrete observances and the emotions that are attached to them. This presents less of a problem for the interview than for the band rehearsals and performances. When taking a break during rehearsal, the band started interacting with me more, though I was very much trying to observe them as they were without me making myself a presence. We spent some time speaking in class about how it is more difficult to discuss, and to remove ourselves from the audience, and I felt as though by the last performance, I had become  too much a presence, with band members looking and performing for me. Hopefully, the practice with thick description and other authors we’ve read will help to clarify some of these issues.

Never Too Late to Make A Difference

I have a friend that lives in Madison, Wisconsin, which is the site of the largest farmers market in the US and considered one of the most important events of the year for locals. Due to its size and popularity, this farmers market is the often setting for various gatherings and demonstrations. One frequent group that uses the market as a social and political space is a singing group called the Raging Grannies. The Madison chapter is merely one of many groups in the United States and Canada, and the Raging Grannies are becoming more popular and widespread every day. The goal of the Raging Grannies is to convey their political opinion through parodies of popular songs. The members, all old enough to be grandmothers, often mock the stereotypes of the “sweet, old, simple grandmother” by dressing the part, then professing strong political opinions on the issues of today. One Raging Granny comments, “This is an age when you are free again. You’re not tied down by anything, and you have an opportunity to do something with your life again.” Below is a video of one group singing a song mocking Todd Akins and his concept of “Legitimate Rape.” For those of you that may be unfamiliar with the idea of “legitimate rape,” Former Congressman Akins stated in an interview, “From what I understand from doctors, [pregnancy from rape] is really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has was to try to shut the whole thing down.”

As you can gather from the lyrics of the song, this group of Grannies feels strongly about Akins’ statements, and they want their opinions to be hear. While this video, filmed in a quite room, was chosen for the audio quality, most of the Raging Grannies’ performances occur in public places, such as farmers markets’, capitol buildings, banks, etc.

I find the Grannies’ use of music to accomplish their goals quite interesting. First, by choosing music as their mode, the Grannies acknowledge that music is a powerful tool in both uniting people and conveying a message. They also usually use well-known tunes such as Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Da. By using relatable songs, the Grannies unite their audience by giving them a commonality between themselves (the tune), while still conveying their message through their own written lyrics. The Grannies also use song for activism of multiple types simultaneously. Through music, they directly convey a message about issues such as women’s rights, health care, gun control, climate change, etc. through the lyrics, but they also convey a message about age and the stereotypes associated with it in the US by using music to create a strong voice, which contradicts the conventional images of aged women. Though many individual chapters of the Raging Grannies are small, the group is becoming a widespread, effective movement that has potential to unify people and inspire change, all through the use of music.


Works Cited:



Saving the Karangahake Gorge Through Music

In discussion with Phillip Bohlman’s article, Musicology as  a Political Act”, we have seen that the relationship between music and its identity or context creates political meaning when we begin to evaluate it. As Bohlman states, it is rare that musicology can succeed in presenting a musical piece or process as a neutral substance void of greater meaning.

This discussion reminded me of a friend I knew in New Zealand , Mike O’Donnell, who decided to use music as a way of projecting a political message in direct terms. Last year, he produced an album called, “Songs for the Mountain”, a record made for the purpose of calling attention to a controversial issue occurring in his community. Recently, mining companies have expressed the desire to reopen the mines within the Karangahake Gorge in Paeroa, New Zealand. However, as heard in O’Donnell’s tracks, many individuals protest this action because of the negative effects it will have on the communal values, environment, and spiritual ties within the gorge.

Through expressing his discontent with the situation through music, O’Donnell created an artifact that was able to be shared with a greater audience. Even miles away in the USA, I was able to listen to his petitions and ideas concerning the mining proposal. Additionally, if you listen to the tracks, you will observe that the music remains peaceful, void of aggression, which also sends a message to the audience and creates a calm environment for which the protests can exist in.

Overall, the “Songs for the Mountain” acts as a vessel for a political message in a space and time that connects to unrest, protest, and disagreement. By using music as the object to place his concerns in, Mike O’Donnell creates an album that portrays a message in a peaceful yet effective manner.

Here is the website for the project that his album  is attached to:


Many Roads to One Goal

Just before Thanksgiving break, I attended the Davidson Artist Series performance by the Soweto Gospel Choir. Gospel music historically stems from Christian and African roots, and one of the most curious and unique aspects of this genre is the amount of movement involved in gospel performance. In most choir performances, the singers are moving a very small amount, usually to the degree where it is hardly noticeable. In contrast, gospel music involves a large amount of movements, ranging from clapping to sweeping arm movements to stomping to dancing in a group. Interestingly, gospel music is often described as sentimental and a very experience-based style. The famous gospel singer Ira D. Sankey once said, “Before I sing, I must feel.” In gospel music, movement is necessary to fully experience the music and to properly execute the purpose of the music: to praise God. I find it fascinating how both gospel choir and traditional European-style choirs are meant for praise and worship, and while both do so through music, the experiential difference is enormous; the purpose is the same, yet the means vary. It leads me to wonder how/why dance is so integral to gospel music and how/why dance is completely removed from other choral styles.


Works Cited:


Review: The Incredible True Story by Logic

Earlier this month, up and coming rapper, Logic, dropped his sophomore album: “The Incredible True Story.” The album situates the listener in the year 2093 on a space craft bound for ‘Paradise,’ a potential planet home for the near extinct human race. The LP starts with the two pilots of the space craft deciding to listen to the “album that changed it all.” To no one’s surprise, that album was non-other than the “The Incredible True Story.” Don’t worry, the tracks are mostly music with a few skits and conversation between the two pilots that simply reveals more background on what exactly happened, is happening and Logic as a person.

The album showcases the Maryland rappers talent in both writing and rapping. His lyrics carry a certain wit that I haven’t heard since Andre 3000, and his delivery is quick, clear and in a way convoluted similar to Eminem. Though I have nothing but praise for Logic, the songs on the album all tend to sound similar and on my second listen through, songs began to sound redundant. However, he manages to mix up the futuristic beats with a splash of 90’s kick and snare on the song “Young Jesus” featuring Big Lenbo. The last verse contains a trade between the two rappers that hooks the listener and further showcases Logic’s talent and his ability to jump in and take over.

I understand that the second album only presents more pressure that the first. The first one gets your name out there while the second cements it. Overall, Logic delivered. But the question remains whether he delivered to the public or not.  Rap albums like these are meant to be listened from the first track to the last, no skips. Something no one tends to have time for nowadays. The last mainstream rap album to attempt that was Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” and though I instantly fell in love with it, it receives polarized reviews from the public. Hopefully, Logic doesn’t face the same fate. But then again we’ll never really know if it was “The Incredible True Story” that changed it all until we get on a spaceship in the year 2093.


Soweto Gospel Choir Takes Choir Performance to Another Level

Last week I went to see the Soweto Gospel Choir performance in Duke performance hall. Performed by a a group of musicians in South Africa, the songs have a great combination of traditional African music and American popular music. Although the choir reflects the religious value in South Africa, I think it also reveals a lot of other important value through their unique way of performance. The choir have 21 people and on director who signals the group when to start and end. Besides that, the arrangement of the choir is really loose, everyone move casually with the rhythm while singing and sometimes the singer even giggles when other musicians do some funny dance move. Moreover, there is an amazing combination with dance and singing in the performance. To put it in another way, dancing is part of the performance. The traditional African dance moves help singers to synchronize better with their peers and have a more dramatic stage effect for the performance. The audience are deeply imbued by the performance and some of them even stand up and dance along with the singers.


As a member in Davidson singer, I can not help to compare the Davidson Choir with Soweto Gospel choir and find out that Davidson choir, or the traditional western choir, is more restricted and disciplined than that in South Africa. The choir requires divine and respect more than enthusiasm. However, the Soweto Gospel Choir amazingly combines the value of divine and enthusiasm together that even when musicians sings and dance casually along the song, the audience still feel the religious conception conveyed throughout every note in the song.

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.


I recently received an email about a site and music app I use, Rdio, similar to Spotify with streaming music, playlists, and downloadable tracks. It is going out of service. More than I am upset about the site itself, I’ve found myself more disappointed in the playlists I’ve worked on that will be lost. I don’t think I’m alone in the time and effort I give my playlists. It takes months to really pick out songs from my library with the right feel and vibe I’m looking for, for that particular playlist. Even past those initial months, I add songs along the way and change and edit through the year to make sure its up to date.

Through this practice, I have songs I heard three years ago that I loved and can relive a time in my life when I was first introduced to it. My playlists are triggers for memories and losing them feels like loosing great friends. In this, I see the point Waxer makes in A City of Musical Memory, recorded music transcends through space and time and encase memories in unexpected ways, leading to me being upset over an recreate-able electronic collection. Music is definitely a lifelong friend to me.

Music in Movies

This past week, I had the opportunity of seeing a portion of the documentary, Half the Sky. The film was created for the purpose of raising awareness and giving a visual depiction of women-related issues such as sex-trafficking, non-profit empowerment, and maternal health. The message as well as the images within the composition carried a very very heavy presence as they portrayed information about real occurrences and individuals’ realities that are incredibly troubling.

Throughout the documentary, background music was used in different ways to highlight or emphasize certain aspects of the visual imagery or auditory commentary. For example, when the film showed footage from a red-light district in India and the narrator was describing the young ages in which girls are brought into the industry, the musical soundtrack turned from a light melody to a slower song, one that invoked a feeling of sadness in the listener. Contrastingly, when a woman in Kenya was being interviewed about the positive impact that her involvement in micro financing has had upon her family, the lack of music slowly transitioned into an upbeat, happy melody as she continued with her uplifting remarks.

Overall, it is interesting to examine the way in which music can be used to highlight an experience while creating a mood within a certain context. In terms of the film, the music used would not have brought as much meaning if one listened to it unattached. However, by placing it next to a certain type of content within the video, both pieces of media were able to compliment each other.

Ethnomusicology in Brazil

In this article it looks at the music of Brazil from the cultural myth of Macunaíma, who was a hero without character, as a means to understand the interconnected depth between tradition and music. I think this rhetorical method of using something integral to the culture one is studying to then analyze that culture and their music is a complex way to focus on the objectivity of one’s argument. This technique could be very useful in our research papers. By focusing on a theme unique to one’s music group one can better understand that group dynamic.

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