chat dem a chat
below are excerpts from recent conversations on the SEM list, some of which i thought might be of interest to a broader readership:
responding to a thread about the role ethnomusicologists play in mediating "exotic" musics for (american) audiences, michael birenbaum quintero offered the following thoughtful comments:
It often seems like a lot of our practical impact in the public sphere is explaining exotic musics (this term should be seen as dripping with irony) to potential consumers (our most-read publications are probably liner notes and even our academic work often gets read as a how-to-listen guide.) In other words we equip consumers with the knowledge necessary to be connoisseurs, surely one of the most pleasurable aspects of cosmopolitan consumption of cultural goods. (Check out Molly H. Mullins' book 'Culture in the Marketplace'). If training publics to consume is a probably unavoidable byproduct of our work, maybe we should also think about helping musicians understand the demands of cosmopolitan publics so that they can make their own decisions about how they want to deal with issues of authenticity, fusion, etc. This is the ethnomusicological version of Venezuelan anthropologist Daniel Matos' call not to do ethnographies of indigenous groups for studies by the World Bank, but to do ethnography of the World Bank for the benefit of indigenous groups.word.
the second thread to which i will point you has opened up into some interesting, possibly parallel, questions about the borders of musical appropriation. it began with the following query by alexandre enkerli:
This sounds like trivia but which Blues musician reappropriated a song from an African culture ("pygmy," IIRC) without credit or financial reward, then defended himself with some kind of "it's ok, we're all brothers" reply?enkerli's query was swiftly answered by a number of respondents, myself included, who immediately connected the anecdote to steven feld's article "pygmy POP!: A Genealogy of Schizophonic Mimesis" (Yearbook for Traditional Music, Vol. 28, 1996, pp. 1-35). at one point in the article, feld calls up herbie hancock--the "blues musician" in question--and asks him about his "appropriation" of a pygmy-style hocket figure on "watermelon man" from the album headhunters. (interestingly, the wikipedia entries for hocket and pygmy music both reproduce, if vaguely, the erroneous contention that bill summers actually used--i.e., sampled--recordings of pygmy music on "watermelon man" rather than drew inspiration from them.)
the number of quick responses to enkerli's question was remarked on as remarkable in itself, suggesting that feld's story has become something of a cherished "legend" for the field.
peter manuel then contributed a crucial clarification/critique:
Colleagues,in response, marc perlman offered the following (reconciliation?):
Regarding Herbie Hancock's alleged "appropriation of a pygmy song": It should be made clear that what Hancock "appropriated" was neither a song, nor part of a recording. Rather, as Heidi notes, on "Headhunters" Bill Summers merely imitated the hindewhu hocket technique, using a beer bottle. Steven Feld, as he relates in his YTM 1995 article regarding this issue, then asked Hancock a very leading question, viz., did Hancock feel "any legal or moral concern surrounding the hindewhu copy on Headhunters?" Hancock then gave what I would regard as a not very enlightened answer, invoking the "brothers" notion. I wish he had instead simply replied to Feld, "No -- do YOU think I should feel such concern?" Because, legally, neither compositional rights nor mechanical rights were involved, and ethically, if one were to regard such musical borrowing--i.e., of an IDEA--as requiring some sort of compensation, then the implications are mind-boggling. (E.g., if Coltrane was in his later years inspired by Indian music, should he have written a check to the government of India? If a professional jazz musician's style is in some respects inspired by Charlie Parker, does [s]he ethically owe compensation to Parker's estate? Do rappers in Malawi owe monetary compensation to someone or some group in this country, where rap originated? Whom should they pay, and how much?)
With all due respect to Feld, and to the many insights in that article, I think his oblique criticism of Hancock is untenable, and is all the more problematic for the indirect, innuendo form it takes. And I suspect he poses the critique in that oblique form because he knows that it is untenable. (Also, Feld misunderstands or misrepresents matters when he writes, "Ten years later, reflecting both legal and social changes, Madonna's label...clearly licensed and paid for the sample [of Hancock's faux-hindewhu]" (p. 7). But this licensing has nothing to do with any such changes, but rather with the fact that Madonna used an actual sample of a recording, which Hancock did not.)
Peter reminds us of an important distinction in Anglo-American copyright law: some musical things--such as techniques and styles--aren't copyrightable.///
In law, it makes a big difference whether you are (1) sampling a recording of someone hocketing with a whistle, (2) performing someone else's song (in which there is a composed hocket for whistle), or (3) creating your own song using a whistle-hocket technique. Cases 1 and 2 could be infringing; case 3 couldn't. (Unless you literally quoted enough of someone else's hocket ... Or something like that--IANAL.)
Feld may not have been aware of this legal difference, and maybe Hancock wasn't either. Of course, only half of Feld's question was about the law; the other half was about morality. But I think many musicians have only a vague notion of this legal distinction, and in any case might find it arbitrary. Inventors of successful new styles like Bill Monroe or James Brown might feel they deserved royalties from the bands they influenced.
It's natural to feel resentful when one is being imitated; Bill Monroe resented his epigones at first (so Cliff Murphy tells me). But monetizing stylistic influence would have staggering effects on society (as Peter points out). As far as I know, there haven't been any efforts to revise copyright law to allow this--yet. But copyright law is changing, usually in the direction of expanded rights. Several countries have introduced copyright-like protection for their traditional music and folklore. (Under such laws, Robert Wilson's staging of the Buginese epic _I La Galigo_ would need to be approved by the Indonesian government.)
Ethnomusicologists are susceptible to vicarious outrage--at least, I know I can get annoyed when I hear imitations of gamelan music. Maybe Feld was feeling vicarious outrage on behalf of the BaAka. Peter suggests Feld may have been aware that his implied criticism was untenable; I'm not so sure. He would surely have considered his "outrage" to be virtuous: why shouldn't he stand up for the BaAka and assert their ownership of their "signature" sounds?
One reason not to stand up for them (in this case) is suggested by that technical legal distinction between the copyrightable and the uncopyrightable. It's the heart of the notion of the public domain--a core element of Western liberal, civil society. This isn't a notion ethnomusicologists talk about much, but it's clearly relevant to Feld's conversation with Hancock.
interesting issues, indeed. and good to see them debated on the list. it seems to me that, returning to m.b.q.'s quotation above, considering how ethnomusicologists often serve as arbiters/mediators between various musicians in "the world" and "american"/"western" audiences, we might also be well-poised to enter into the public conversation about global notions of ownership and appropriation. (of course, it seems unlikely that the society will agree on any of the many complex issues swirling around such notions, but it would seem valuable for such scholars as peter and marc to bring their knowledge, and voices, into the discussion.)
at any rate, i'm definitely curious to know what folks outside of ethnomusicology think. these are rather blurry lines and slippery slopes we're talking about, and it would seem that one's perspective is inextricable from one's position (of power--or not) in all of this.
if you find the discussion interesting, feel free to leave your thoughts in a comment below.