wayne&wax

linkthink re: hip-hop, reggae, the US, jamaica, and anything else wayne wants to wax on

2.06.2006

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:

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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.

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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,

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.)
in response, marc perlman offered the following (reconciliation?):
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.
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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.

10 Comments:

Anonymous shudder said...

a strangely similar (although less polite and scholarly) exchange has been going down on dissensus re: appropriation of "ethnic" sounds into electonic music (specifically dubstep).

It sort of began with a discussion/venting about new dubstep producers who come from dnb and aren't aware of the "step" in dubstep (i.e. its garage heritage).. it then spun off into an argument about using sounds from other people's cultures.

The relevant sections start off around page 7 of this discussion:
http://www.dissensus.com/showthread.php?t=2776&page=7&pp=15

12:47 PM  
Blogger wayne&wax said...

interesting. thanks for linking the conversations, shudder.

as i read over at dissensus i keep wondering how many times we all need to have the same conversation, and wondering whether more mutual understandings of such loaded terms as "culture" might help. then i realize that even in ethnomusicology, where we're taught quite systematically about "culture" (and how it differs from, say, "society" or "music," and how the concept has been constructed over the last hundred fifty years, etc.), we still can't seem to agree on definitions. and so we spin our wheels.

still, though, i usually think these discussions are useful for bringing certain assumptions to the surface. i only hope that these assumptions might be refined as they knock into each other. hmmmm...

1:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wyane - Keep up the good work. Lives of the Soon 2 B Famous in action. -Romeo A.k.a Mr Oddzo

4:45 PM  
Blogger wayne&wax said...

west side story, brutha!

glad you found me, mr.oddz. been a long time. matter of fact, i was running down some ol' mt.auburn rhymes just the other day.

you still in the area? (i don't think i have a current phone # for ya.) drop me an email - wayneandwax at gmail - sometime so's we can catch up like.

4:59 PM  
Anonymous Kit said...

My mind boggles.


Humorously, I wonder if you got permission from the list in question to reprint parts of their discussion. *grin*

More broadly, what is culture and who has the right to it? If I am the product of interracial marriage and grow up with two cultures, do I get to mix them with impunity while other, monocultural people aren't allowed to make such a mix since that would be appropriating someone else's culture?

Do people who "pass for black" automatically get the right to use the n-word?

I find copyright law quite frustrating since in many respects I think it goes against the natural (musical) order of things. I think it also points to the idea of songs as fixed objects which are product to be bought and sold, rather than a thing that is different every time it is (re)created, and thus every person who sings it performs another variation of it.

But then, we're the society that wants to ban herbal use and make people use patented approximations that must be paid for.

Anyway, I'm rambling. Thanks for giving me something else to stretch my brain around. (-:

8:54 PM  
Blogger wayne&wax said...

permission? *grin* i don't often ask for permission, though obviously it depends on the contextual factors. in this case, though, especially considering that SEM maintains an open archive of the posts, i don't see why my sharing these excerpts should bother anyone. but, yeah, you raise a good point.

i'm inclined to agree with you here, in general. but i might go even further in problematizing the concept of culture and one's proprietary connection to it. is there really any such thing as a monocultural person in "this day and age"? if jim clifford's work on diasporas - see Routes - has taught me anything, it's that the world, even in its seemingly most remote corners, is a very worldly place. where do we draw the boundaries between "two cultures"? are they really ever discrete formations? and, finally, as you ask about yourself, what exactly is my culture? (i wouldn't know how to begin drawing the lines there.)

6:18 AM  
Blogger matt said...

These cultural discussions always hurt my head. I often find it funny that people of more 'exotic' (read: non-white, non-western) cultures seem to want to expose the rest of the world to their culture but they don't really want outsider participation. Maybe they don't want it exposed to the rest of the world. Is that where the communication breakdown is?

I agree on the points made re: copyright of a musical technique. It seems to make the most 'common sense'. Then again, I'm convinced that their needs to be more fair use clauses in copyright law, not less, and I have an already obvious bias in that I enjoy many genres that benefit greatly from sampling.

What I found truly interesting was the discussion in the dubstep forum. Maybe because I expect these types of discussions to be had between trained ethnomusicologists, but not between producers/fans of relatively new electronic music genres. It reminds me of the discussions I had when I first really became interested in the history of hip hop five or six years ago. There are so many people in the hip hop scene who get annoyed by newcomers who only know of Eminem, Dipset, and Jay Z, but know nothing of Run DMC, Kool Moe Dee, and Big Daddy Kane.

I wonder if there are any rock fans out there who get as heated when newcomers who might not have been 'raised' with rock, don't know about Cream, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones. Personally I find it annoying when anyone tries to speak with great authority on any cultural topic and has not bothered to do their research. But that's just my inner elitist-geek shining through.

1:45 PM  
Blogger ripley said...

Interesting stuff - relating to what I'm working on for the weekend.

I'll just point out that the word "consumer" is a loaded term, and that it's worth thinking about what activities are implied or denied by it.

Also, setting consumers vs. producers suggests some moral (and other kinds of) judgements about what people deserve on either side. I'm not sure the dichotomy holds up, in many cases. Where it is put forth here (sort of in a first world+privileged vs. third world and authentic), sounds to me like it has less to do with what people are actually doing with music, but more what kinds of people they are.

which is a funny point for me to make, because I was the one on the dissensus thread that used the world culture (too casually I guess) that was mentioned above. And I used it while making a similar point about whether it's necessary for people to "know the history" of a genre in order to contribute well to its development. there too, I was oddly on the side of ignorance and consumption.

Which I'm not, but I think the contradictions sort of come from us arguing against different things.

10:09 PM  
Blogger wayne&wax said...

i hear you, rip. i guess that's one reason i employ the term 'audience(s)' here myself--it seems less burdened by connotations of simply 'receiving' something (and in the marketplace at that).

essentially, i think that a lot of these cases really come down to context, which is why it is so hard to formulate universal(ist) dictums about what one should and should not do.

5:48 AM  
Blogger Alexandre said...

Just noticed this point now (through Technorati).
I'm the "enkerli" mentioned here...
To "defend" myself, my original post to the SEM mailing-list came from a discussion which had happened in a class at IU a number of years ago and I'm quite sure that this person had talked about a Blues musician. When I started looking into it, I noticed a number of things about Pygmy POP (some details of which I had partly forgotten, a few years after I had read it) but I didn't make the connection between Herbie Hancock and that "Blues musician" I had heard about.
So, this whole thread may have resulted in yours truly getting egg on his face but it also generated a lot of thoughtful comments by some of my students and several members of the SEM mailing-list.
As for getting permission to repost excerpts, it's not as silly a question as it sounds. Though the list is publicly accessible, chances are that most people don't realize how public it really can get. It has more to do with the nature of the Internet than with actual "Intellectual Property," but any discussion of the public character of discourse will help us in the long run.

6:36 PM  

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