Friday, May 24, 2019

History of music, issues of appropriation

Years ago we happened on a Dave Amram jazz concert outdoors at Toronto's Harbourfront. We stopped to watch. After some impressive presentations of, well, of jazz music, Amram declared, "Now we are going to play some of the classical music of North America."

What's American classical music?  A pause, and what erupted was a drumming circle, and "hi-yé" chanting, as if we had stumbled into a pow-wow.  It did not look as if any indigenous musicians were in the ensemble, or I don't recall any permission being cited. But hearing Indigenous music presented outside of any specifically First Nations cultural context, with absolute persuasiveness as Music, as the art form it undoubtedly is, was profoundly persuasive and memorable to me. I grasped in a way I never had that indigenous music is not only a sort of tribal flag to be waved. It's a serious musical form too. Shoulda known, no doubt, but it was precisely because it was out of context that it was so persuasive a proof.

It turns out, I now find, Amram had worked with Lakota, Cheyenne, and other Indigenous musicians -- notably Floyd Red Crow Westermann as this profile notes
Amram seems to have taken a lesson from practically everything -- even the inauthentic Philadelphia mariachi bands. "I understood that you couldn't just barge into another culture, but approach it in the same way as you do with Bach or Shakespeare," he says. "You spend a lifetime to understand and live it."

That's his approach toward Native American music. He learned from the late Floyd "Red Crow" Westerman, a Sioux musician and activist. "I remember I was practicing a song and trying to get it right, and Floyd said, 'It takes 12 years to learn a song,' " says Amram. "Every idiom you learn is a lifetime of study."
Which brings us to last week's Indigenous Arts Awards, which was boycotted by several Indigenous artists over a charge of appropriation brought by Inuit musicians against the Cree singer Cikwes, who included Inuit throat singing in her recent album.

I've heard enough throat singing to know it is a unique and legitimate musical form. I like the idea that it could make its way out in the world and that both its origins and its intrinsic merit would be widely acknowledged.  But there are the power issues here. If an Inuit artist picks up a guitar or an African singer takes up opera, no one feels cause to be offended. But a marginalized, disempowered culture that sees one of the few things not already stolen from it being appropriated -- no wonder it finds itself violated.  (Make your own analogy to pipeline construction)

Sometimes it's better to seek forgiveness than permission, goes the saying.  But sometimes it's better to make sure about the permission first.  Somewhere in here, Greg Younging's rules apply.

Nunutsiak News reports two Inuit songwriters won awards at the IMA -- and the comments section takes up the controversy in true comments-section style.

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