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Monday, September 10, 2012

Listening to World Music

I have not been posting on this site but it doesn't mean I have been inactive. I have resumed with my work and my service in my community and my other normal activities plus I also took a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) from Coursera.

The course is Listening to World Music offered by Prof. Carol Muller and her team from the University of Pennsylvania. It is a 7-week course that ran from July 23 to September 9, 2012. I quite enjoyed the course since I got to learn about different cultural and musical traditions not just from the course lectures but more from the discussion forums as students and the LTWM course team interacted and shared insights and other resources.

It was not a breeze going through the course though as there were essay assignments, quizzes and a final examination which I was able to complete. Although there were 7 topics, we only submitted 6 essays since the last week was already a preparation for the integration and review for the final examination. The essay grade per topic is an average of  the peer-review of at least 5 other students plus your own assessment of yourself based on the rubrics provided by the course team. There have been some complains on the grading in the discussion forum but I guess I am lucky since the students who reviewed my work gave me good grades :-).

The professor will be offering a certificate to those who completed the course with a grade of at least 70% so I am looking forward to that. In the meantime, I thought I'd share my essays here.

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The Commodification of the Gregorian Chant

The Gregorian Chant is a monophonic liturgical music that originated in the monastic tradition. It is named after Pope Gregory I, Bishop of Rome from 590 to 640, who they say called it the “Song of Angels.” It is mostly used in the liturgies of the Catholic Church but has found its way to popular culture with the release of the Chant Album of the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos in 1994. It was originally recorded by the monks in the 1970s upon the invitation of the Spanish City of Logroño to popularize the chant among churchgoers. The album did not sell well at that time but the re-released album in 1994 sold 3 million copies after it was widely advertised as an antidote for the stress of modern life.

I believe that Universal Classics record label wanted to replicate the success of this album when they searched for musicians with “sacred voices” in 2008. They used new technologies including sending emails to various groups and people such as Fr. Karl Wallner, who was the head of the Cistercian Monks of Stift Heiligenkreuz at that time. Even though the monastery was established as early as 1133, they too or maybe just a small part of their organization have kept abreast of changes with the modern world. They have their own website and posted videos in YouTube showcasing their life and music also as means to attract more monks for their monastery. They were willing to share a sacred part of their life with the world not just to bring people closer to God through their praise and worship but also to generate funds for their upkeep and to support their various charitable works. Fr. Karl believed that their being selected was miraculous since he only got the very short and vague email with link on the last day and clicking on that link opened the opportunity for them to reach out to more people with their sacred music.

The release of the Gregorian chant to the market opened up the music to more people. No longer is it confined to the walls of the churches and monasteries but anybody who would wish to listen to such music. Each person would have his own reason for listening – to pray, to reach out to God, for comfort and relaxation, for study and understanding of the techniques involved, to create his own music, to join the fad… whatever. Can anything be lost with its release to the pop culture? To the music and tradition of the monks, somehow, I don’t think so… yet for the people that took part in its production? Maybe there is. People change and as mentioned in the lecture, some of the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos that took part in the earlier album left their monastery and became Rock stars. The life and hearts of some monks from the Abbey of Heiligenkreuz that participated in the production album may be altered as they lose the simplicity of their physical activities but more of their hearts as they now view the music and the whole activities involved with it a more complicated outlook.

The music will always be there for the monks in the monasteries. Their music tradition has survived for ages and it will continue to survive because it is part of their life, their praise and worship, an opportunity to break the silence of the monastery yet continue with their prayer. It makes one in union with the whole community despite their individuality. However, it will not be the same outside the walls of monasteries. There will be people listening and their reasons will be as different as they are different people yet the revival and survival of the music in the popular culture will most likely depend on how they are marketed by producers... or maybe through divine intervention? With the availability of new technologies, maybe just a click or a touch could open up ones soul to the “Song of Angels.”

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The Graceland Album: A Collaboration in Fulfillment of Dreams

In 1985 almost everybody were singing “We are the world.” It was a collaboration of several US artists to help relieve famine in Africa. Also in the same year, Steven Van Zandt popularly known as Little Steven and his group - Artists United against Apartheid released the protest song “Sun City.” The 49 top artists who collaborated for the song pledged not to perform in Sun City, the Las Vegas of South Africa to protest apartheid in South Africa. There was so much focus on Africa during those times and artists were collaborating on music that promoted the causes they believed in.

Now, backtrack a year earlier. Paul Simon was in the low of his music career and was thinking of quitting. He was driving in the late 1984 when he listened to an unusual sound in his cassette. He got so interested that he had to search for the source of the music which was Africa. He listened to different artists and even visited Africa to work with African artists like the Ladysmith Black Mambazo until finally completing the Graceland album which was released in 1986. It was not an easy task and he did not care that some people accused him of breaking the cultural boycott of South Africa for apartheid. He collaborated with African and other artists to come up with the music he envisioned. It was an experiment and a risk and it paid off. The album was a success! It became his bestselling album and his career was revived!

For an unlearned listener like me, I found that the majority of the sounds are like main stream music. Without the visuals, I would not easily associate it with African music. At least that was how I felt while listening to the track “You can call me Al.” It was just like other mainstream music I’ve heard until I listened to “Gumboots” and found similarity in some part… It was similar yet very different! But 9 of the 11 songs were actually the result of Simon’s interest in mbaqanga, the South African sound that had caught his attention in 1984. It made me realize that his collaboration was unlike the collaboration of artists in USA for Africa and Artists United against Apartheid which were primarily for a cause so that most artists were viewed in equal footing. His collaboration involved working with people from other cultures with different “sounds” and styles to come up with the music he has envisioned. It was not primarily about Africa but more on music. Yes, he was the dominant force in the Album, after all Graceland was his project but he could not have completed it without the input of other artists.

Being the producer, he benefitted most from the sales and distribution of the album but the African artists also benefitted tremendously. Their music was recognized by the world. Despite apartheid, Ladysmith Black Mambazo was able to travel outside Africa and perform in other countries. They recorded their own music and also recorded in other languages. They won international awards including several Grammy Awards for their own albums. They collaborated with other well known artists and were even featured in several advertisements. Also, Nelson Mandela called them South Africa’s Cultural ambassadors.

In doing the album, Paul Simon fulfilled the music he envisioned. It also paved way for the fulfilment of a dream of Joseph Shabalala, the founder of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. To quote him:

“In the early 1960's I had a dream of a type of singing group that I wanted to create. Not just a dream, in the wishful way, but an actual dream while I was asleep. This beautiful dream led to the creation of my group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Now, some forty five plus years later this original dream has led to so many more dreams. We have been awarded Grammy Awards, represented our homeland of South Africa at many prestigious events, including accompanying Nelson Mandela to Norway to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, travelled the world so many times and most importantly, spread a message of Peace, Love and Harmony to millions of people. 

This was never a dream a black South African could ever imagine.” 

So was there a fair and equitable process in the musical exchange between Simon and the African artists while working on the Graceland album? I would say YES. The album was completed based on the music envisioned by Simon, however, he did not take away the music of the African artists. They remained true to their music and have also expanded their music to include other perspectives to reach out to more audience. The Graceland album was a collaboration not just on music but a collaboration that fulfilled the dreams of the artists that worked together and accomplished even more.

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My Experience of Viewing the Live Performanace of Huun Huur Tu on Youtube

The course syllabus says that there will be a quiz on the Huun Huur Tu video on Youtube so the first time I watched it, I was paying attention on details and would pause the video from time to time to take down notes on the instruments and on the sounds. However, that is not the best way to assess my experience and actual reaction on the performance so after a few days I watched it again just allowing it to play along and I actually enjoyed most of the performance. There were instances when my sister and a nephew came while I was watching and they both asked what I was listening to, my sister with a questioning frown on her face while my young nephew commenting that it sounds like prayer from some kind of religion which of course made me smile. I wondered if I would have said the same if I was not taking the course and had no introduction on the music. In all honesty, I found the instruments more to my liking than the throat singing itself. Though I actually felt the music even without understanding the words, there were also some instances when they seemed just like an expression of the style, like they were showcasing their capacity for the style. The guest performers in “Odugen Taiga” piece were also a bit of a distraction particularly the lady in a native American Indian attire. Instead of just enjoying the performance, I wondered why they have to be there in the performance. I had to backtrack to its start, wondered if I missed something in the introduction for the piece but there was none. Anyway, I sat back again and completed the performance quite satisfied viewing it.

Viewing the performance in Youtube also allowed me to view the reaction of some people watching the performance. I guess like some other performances in different music tradition, the reactions are varied with most intent on viewing the performance trying to learn the music and culture while others just feeling and enjoying the music. It was good that they performed in their native attire and that someone from the group would give a brief introduction, some information about most of the music or the tradition so that people get to relate more to it.

For live performances, musicians should really plan, not just on the music they are going to perform but also consider their attire, the instruments, the layout of their stage, the size of the venue, the sound system and so many other details since so much could be achieved with a good performance. And recording these for future releases using different media and with proper annotations just like in the Youtube video allows it to reach and impact more audience. People get to learn more about the culture and the music from such performances. An hour’s long performance may not give all the information necessary to learn about the music—the sounds and instruments, the country, the culture and tradition but it gives people a taste of it. They open up the imagination and desire in their audience and it is up to these audiences to appreciate it and go further by listening and watching some more, reading and who knows actually travelling and experiencing the culture. The possibility is endless, the good thing is that the performance, just like a seed has been planted in people’s consciousness, the rest is entirely up to them.

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Culture for sale?

I had a chance to visit Sydney and Melbourne, Australia in June, 2000 just a few months before the 2000 Sydney Summer Olympics. During my visit, I noted a diversified people there but did not notice a lot of Aboriginal Australians so that I did not get much exposure to their culture except for some aboriginal arts in souvenir stores. However, the opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games broadcasted all over the world which featured everything Australian paid homage to their aboriginal people and culture in the ”Awakening” segment. Likewise the great honor of lighting the Olympic flame was given to Cathy Freeman, an Australian Aboriginal athlete who incidentally also won the 400 meters sprint that year and carried both the Australian and Aboriginal Flag during her victory lap. It was indeed a great exposure and pride for the Australian aborigines who for a long time were not even recognized by their country. On the other hand, it was also a great tourism campaign for the Australian government as it recognize and open up the richness of their aboriginal culture to the world.

Australian Aboriginal arts are not only sold and showcased in Australia but in other museums and galleries all over the world. Even their music, rituals and beliefs which are captured in "Dreamtime" stories are presented in different media for worldwide access. So does this mean that they have placed a market value for their culture? Have they sold their culture to the world? The Australian government may somehow have placed a market value on this culture as they look forward to more tourists coming in, more income generated by the people as various Aboriginal stuff are sold - arts, books, movies, videos, music but I wouldn’t say that the Australian aborigines, as a people, have “sold” their culture to world. Their culture distinguishes them from other people, their artifacts and even music can be sold individually by artists but the very essence of culture which gives a people their sense of belonging cannot be sold as long as they feel their connection, as long as there is meaning and value of these traditions in their lives. Other people may view their sacred objects and traditions differently, even from a market view, but it is their sense of belonging and pride that will ensure the preservation of their culture.

Did they lose something when they released their sacred objects and practices to outsiders? By the mere sharing of their culture, obviously not. However, culture evolves through economic progress, globalization, including displacement of people through wars and natural calamities and many of the younger generation have adapted to the ways of the world. This is not just the case for the Australian aboriginals but a lot of other endangered people of the world. They have “sold out” their culture, given up some or all of their traditions and beliefs to the practicalities of survival. This is the case of Ju/’hoansi (literally meaning people with correct speech and manner) of Southern Africa as presented in John Marshal’s documentary series “A Kalahari family.” Ju/’hoansi people are no longer wearing skins and living in bushes but have established farming communities and working out on their development projects. There are similar cases of community success in various indigenous people in my country, The Philippines, however, there are more cases of them losing their identity despite the fact that we have a National Commission on Indigenous People which is tasked to protect and promote the interest and well-being of the various indigenous people/indigenous cultural communities in our country with respect to their beliefs, customs, traditions and institutions. There are even unscrupulous people who take advantage of the poverty of these people who have lost their land through calamities and war and put them on the streets intentionally making them dirty and capitalizing on their indigenous status as if saying that their “low status” in society gives them the right to beg. I encounter a lot of these fellow Filipinos, mostly Aeta and Badjao children and women, in my commute to work as they get inside public transportations and beg. There are instances when some would sing and dance to the beat of their music from the drums made from cans. I can see that many people get irritated or are indifferent when they see them and honestly there were also times when I felt the same but it is more of anger on their exploiters and my helplessness from doing something. So many times I wonder why our government could not come up with programs to share and highlight the traditions of these indigenous people so they feel pride of their heritage and we fellow Filipinos could better appreciate them and work with them in the preservation of their culture. There are some artists and non-governmental organizations that have appreciated their culture and shared them with others, however, these are few and scattered. Maybe in time with a collective effort, we too could showcase the culture of our various indigenous communities to the world. It doesn’t matter if it starts out as an advertising campaign to promote our tourism, the more important thing is to feel pride in our diversified culture and work on preserving positive values for our next generation.

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Let the Music Live on

Early this year, an unknown NBA player rocked the basketball world and created a global following which they called “Linsanity”. I am not a basketball fan nor am I from the USA but such phenomenon also penetrated my consciousness and those of other Filipinos through various media. Jeremy Lin did not coin the word but being the focus of said phenomenon also thought of copyrighting “Linsanity” so that nobody could use it without his permission.

Copyrighting gives the creator of an original work exclusive right to it for a limited time, and it definitely serves a purpose yet it has also been taken advantage by some unscrupulous people for profit. There are some works that are so distinct that an individual can easily own it but culture? Culture sets a group of people apart from others through their practices, beliefs, lifestyle, arts, music yet it is constantly changing as people move about or come in contact through different means. You could copyright a music which you have composed, that is your creation and you could own it. But how could just one person own a tradition that has been passed on from generation?

Yet it is not just on this premise that the Free Culture Movement wants to further their cause. They also recognize the people for their works but they believe that ownership should be limited since creativity grows if people are allowed access to the work of others to create their own works. It allows one’s “creation” to have a life of its own as it expands to other works not just in the same medium but even more. Individuals, companies, the whole world have been allowed easy and sometimes even free access to new technologies, arts, music and so many other things because of the people that allowed others to work on their platforms. I know I have benefited so much from work of people that advocates this movement, not just professionally (nope, I am not an artist but I refer to the efficiencies that came about in my office because of the open systems) but also culturally as I get to explore the culture of the world through various free access on the internet.

In my country where copyright infringement and “piracy” is rampant, I believe a clear understanding of the advocacies of the Free Culture Movement, like having a creative commons license where traditional rights of copyright owners for an “all rights reserved”, which is constantly violated, are modified to “some rights reserved” would allow the Philippine Artists, particularly those in the Music Industry better protection and benefits. Such would lessen the temptation to infringe on the right of the original artists by other legitimate artists and other individuals knowing that a better option is available for them that would be beneficial to both parties.

In the class video presentation, Dr. Muller has presented how Feld approached Herbie Hancock admonishing him for the use of hindewhu in the Head hunters album particularly Watermellon Man. Hancock recreated the sound in his album but used his own instruments including a beer bottle instead of papaya flute used by the pygmies. Maybe I am insane but viewing the class presentations made me realize how lucky the Bayaka pygmies are compared to our Aetas and for that matter so many other tribes in the Philippines. Through the effort of other artists and ethnomusicologist, their musical tradition has a place in world music, I don’t even have an idea on the music tradition of most of the tribes in our country and I am pretty sure they have or used to have one. I wouldn’t mind… well in fact I would really love it if somebody learn their music and share it with the world. He could get all the money but at least it will open up their music to the world! And maybe, when such happens, the young generation would value the tradition of their elders and create more such musical tradition not just for the world but also their next generation so the music lives on.

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The Outsider

I watched the N/um Tchai: Ceremonial Dance of the !Kung Bushmen on YouTube a couple of times and on different occasions. I wished I could have watched the complete video since the site on YouTube presented only a 3 minutes and 20 seconds preview of the documentary and I found that I could not completely immerse myself on their medicine dance. I wanted to feel like an “insider,” a part of the ceremony so I tried to look for similar videos that are possibly longer on YouTube but so far this video seemed the nearest to being authentic. There were even videos that showed “Bushmen” performing for tourists that lack “their spirit” of the ceremony, like it was just another performance for them… another day’s work! It somehow made me sad, thus I found myself going back to the original video forced to watch it as an outsider.

This documentary of John Marshall was shot in black and white in the 1950’s. The sound was asynchronous. They were recorded while filming and reconstructed during editing so that the animated voices of the Bushmen did not completely match some of their performance in the said clip. I am sure my feeling will be different watching from my old computer than if I was actually part of that ceremony. I could say this because I attended a Sinulog Festival once in Cebu, Philippines after watching some previous coverage on TV and the feeling was entirely different. On TV, the parade is just a parade of music and dance but when I was there I was caught up with the music and dancing, feeling the sound of the drums like electricity running through my body removing all the negative vibes therein. Of course, the feeling would also have been different if instead of my small computer, I was viewing the documentary in colour with high fidelity sound or watching it in an IMAX theatre or in 3D and it would seem that I was actually there with the !Kung performing their ceremony.

What the preview achieved, however, was to give me a better understanding of the ceremonial dance, a better understanding of the people and their culture as I just didn’t get to watch the ceremony but read and listened to the explanation of the purpose and nature of this ceremony. As in the other cultures we have studied in this course, it drove me to search for more resources for better understanding of their culture and also compared them with the culture of the other indigenous tribes in my country. It made me ponder on several questions -- would it have been better for them to have been left on their own? Can their culture and people survive without intervention from others? Are their lives better now than they were before? Are they happier now? Although I was able to have a sympathetic reading of their practice, as an “outsider”, it is still just my own judgment. It is still not my life and culture and in the end what is more important is their judgment, their take on things that are happening to them.

So many other “outsiders” have shown interest in this and similar vanishing cultures. Some have exploited the people and their arts, some have appropriated their arts and music as their own but there are others who have taken their cause as their own and have shared these cultures, arts and traditions with world not just for better understanding but for preservation and protection of the people and their culture. They have used new technologies and different media to capture these traditions – the music, dances, arts, rituals, beliefs with some traditions more easily captured than others. These efforts have given access to the world. Outsiders no longer have to be in the actual surrounding of these people to have an “authentic taste” of their culture. Now it is for these outsiders to decide whether they enjoy this “taste” or not. They could have an understanding of the culture, be sympathetic and appreciate the people and their music, arts and traditions but unless they have actually “enjoyed the flavour” and want that flavour as part of their life then they continue being an outsider. Thus, I remained an “outsider” from this ceremony and all the music and culture we have “listened” to in this course so far. I could say that I have a better understanding and appreciation of the culture and their music and I now go to sites that offer world music and quite enjoy the experience. But for most part of the day, I go back to my normal routine, my own culture, knowing that on certain occasions I could go back and get a taste and experience of other traditions I have come to learn and appreciate, which I could say are added spices of my life.

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