Ecologies of creative diversity

I AM NOT the greatest fan of the obligatory cultural tours that are increasingly anchored in the program of international conferences. In Vienna it would be to a Weinstube; in Durban a Zulu village; in Bergen perhaps a Viking museum. This time, in Hanoi, the choices include a local temple and a silk village. I have travelled in Asia extensively – enough to be wary of temples riddled with friendly locals continually offering their goods or services as guides at the expense of peaceful immersion in an ancient spiritual atmosphere (which may have been a bit of an ask in the first place, given the company of a busload of colleagues). I know the silk village tour will take me along cages with silk worms in various stages of growth feasting on mulberry leaves, followed by boiling cauldrons, dying casks and spinning wheels where the cocoons are processed into strong and beautiful thread to be turned into garments, little bags and cute toys which I am certain to encounter in the factory shop at the end of the tour. Many of us have cupboards filled with such mementos, or have imposed them on innocent acquaintances in whose garages they now reside. This time, I am quite determined to avoid such patterns in a country that seems to have so much more to offer.

During the morning coffee break, I turn to a group of three young staff from the conservatorium hosting the conference. During the presentations and discussions, they have been sitting almost motionless on chairs against the wall, strikingly quiet while their superiors were present. However, during short conversations between sessions, I delight in their insightful comments on specific presentations and the idiosyncrasies of various participants – including myself. Behind their demure manner hides a resolve to do things their way once their time comes. I sense the promise of a major generational shift from old-style communism to a new Vietnam which, as in many other places in the world, I believe is likely to be led by bright young women.

Back to the conference and the tour. I decide to ask whether it is possible to visit a place unlikely to attract any tourists, to get some impression of what this country means for its people rather than for its visitors. The young teachers are a little taken aback, but during lunch Hue asks whether I would be interested to visit a village some thirty kilometres from the capital, where she has been studying music with a seventy-year-old master musician of ca tru, an ancient genre of sung poetry. I confess I am more than a little interested; these are the opportunities I seek out while exploring the musics of the world. Sometimes they lead to nothing remarkable, but more often they delight, and challenge my preconceptions about practices of music from a global perspective, nurturing new insights and often inspiring new projects and collaborations.

A taxi is arranged, and while I watch my colleagues climbing into their buses we take off through the busy streets of central Hanoi, make our way through the suburbs and drive into the countryside. Rice paddies and vegetable gardens, dotted with characterless concrete buildings with corrugated iron roofs, line the road. Halfway, as Hue points out, there is the village famous for canine meat. That does not need much pointing: the road is lined with uncompromising ‘hot dog stands': hairless fried animals ranging in size from Pekinese to Great Danes grace a dozen simple wooden tables.

Arriving in the unassuming village (not the faintest threat of tourism here), we walk through a narrow alley, where a small gate gives access to a little compound harbouring a vegetable patch and a simple house with a front porch. Hue eloquently, and I at least reverently, greet our host. Being used to the etiquette surrounding visiting Indian gurus, I had asked Hue what I should bring. From a plastic bag, she produces the combination of ceremonial fruit and flowers offerings on our behalf, as well as more mundane soft drinks and processed cookies. They are accepted with grace, and we are invited in for tea. Inside, the house is dark. As my eyes adjust, I see a single room with a large Buddhist altar around the central wooden pillar, from which emanates an indeterminate number of beds for the master and her relatives, some of whom pass through unannounced during our visit, smiling.


SUCH SETTINGS HAVE all the characteristics that make one fee profoundly ill at ease. I am literally and metaphorically thousands of miles away from my comfort zone: I am used to being reasonably in control of matters, working in cultures where I know the music, the conventions, the people. I am clearly not in control here. I don't know the language, and have no clue of the decorum in this culture, of appropriate ways of dealing with elders, relatives or women in these settings. I did not even know ca truexisted until a few days before. It is hardly what the ethnomusicological fieldwork handbook ordered. Yet I feel surprisingly comfortable surrendering to this position of vulnerability.

I have been in a similar situation several times before, and rarely comfortable: nervously sipping tea with the Maharaja and Maharani of Jodhpur while researching the biography of a teacher who used to be employed as a court musician in their palace in the 1940s; travelling up the Gambia River by boat with a kora player recording songs on the heroic deeds of Mandinke kings as we passed places of historical significance; squashed in a Turkish stadium in Bodrum to hear saz virtuoso Arif Sağ play live for an all-Turkish audience; arriving in the remote Indigenous community of Borroloola, where my whiteness emphatically and understandably was not a guarantee that I would be embraced by the local Yanyuwa people; and, perhaps most strikingly, finding myself alone with two hundred urns containing ashes of the dead as the ‘live audience' at a Balinese gamelan performance during a ceremony for the deceased in a small village in the mountains near Singaraja.

These are situations where my academic status, my relative affluence, my five languages and my culture-specific social skills have no currency. It is not only humbling; it is also refreshing to be far removed from even the potential of pretence. It inspires alertness and receptiveness to engage with whatever occurs without bias.

A long introductory dialogue in Vietnamese between Hue and her teacher ensues; I switch off language recognition (nothing to latch on to for me there) and try to gauge vocal timbre, body language and facial expressions. These women seem to have negotiated a good relationship: the master revered as an embodiment of traditional knowledge, but the student far from completely subservient, and respected for her understanding of the world. After about ten minutes of animated conversation, some of which obviously refers to me, Hue starts drawing me into the conversation: ‘She says she is worried about the future of ca tru music. There used to be many musicians singing this style, now there are only a few old masters left. And the young people, they are not learning; this style is not taught at the Conservatorium. Only I am learning here.'


I AM VERY passionate about and concerned with global systems of music transmission, the lifeline of aural traditions. As the discussion develops, I ask whether I can get an idea of how ca tru is learned and taught. A lesson is arranged for Hue on the porch in front of the little house in soft sunlight, cocks crowing in the background; the video will be an ethnographer's dream. The process that unfolds answers my expectations of an aural tradition that has successfully been handed down for centuries: the master sings a line, the student copies, gradually refining the words, melody, rhythm, timing, timbre and intonation. Both are sipping tea as text, rhythm and ornamentation are leisurely discussed. Even so, contemporary learning aids have entered into the system of this aural tradition: Hue uses written text to remember the poetry, and her minidisk recorder is on the tea cosy, so she can continue absorbing the subtleties of the music by playing it back time and again while she is cleaning the house or taking care of her daughter, whom she has since started teaching as well.

The mood, pace and depth of this transmission process contrast with what I have seen in the teaching studios at the Hanoi Conservatorium in the days before. While Vietnam has a strong commitment to ‘preserving and developing' traditional music – particularly of the Viet majority as many of the fifty-three ethnic minorities are in acute danger of musical extinction) – it has transformed once vibrant living traditions into static repertoires: improvisation, fluid tempi and even instrument-specific tunings have largely been ironed out in institutional settings.

To me, this crude canonisation seems like a ‘slow puncture' approach to sustainability; while it is officially being supported, the music is robbed of some of its most attractive features, so it runs the risk of being met with apathy by the next generation. But then again, the barely hidden agenda of the director of the institute is more the ‘development' than the ‘preservation' of Viet music: rather than focusing on the subtleties of music for soloists or small ensembles, Professor Thanh dreams of large orchestras of traditional instruments, modelled on Chinese examples, and seems ready to sacrifice timbre, improvisation and distinctive tuning systems in the process. Meanwhile, some of the students who have graduated in traditional musics venture outside and work with surviving old masters to breathe life into the music they have learned through a fifteen-year association with the conservatorium, from selection at age eight until their final degree at twenty-three – the perfect length of time to master an oral tradition.


AS AFTERNOON PASSES in the little village, I gradually get a more comprehensive picture of the rise and fall of an elegant sung poetry, accompanied by a long-necked lute and a woodblock beaten with two small sticks. Ca tru developed in the villages, where people would gather in the community centre to hear singers perform their favourite poetry, sipping tea and drinking wine at low tables. Over time, the tradition moved to the city and gained considerable popularity. Dedicated ca tru houses were established. During the 1950s, there were ten of these houses in Khâm Thiên, a single street in Hanoi. However, some of these houses began to offer less widely accepted forms of entertainment as well; ca tru became yet another music that blossomed in the context of houses of ill-repute, like geisha culture in Japan, tango in Argentina, raï in Algeria and thumri in India.

With the advent of the communist government, however, this connection proved to be almost lethal for ca tru. The immoral places were outlawed, and the musicians tainted by association were sent back to villages to work in the fields. Ca tru had no prestige, no money, no infrastructure, no training, no audience. This was not caused by a lack of creative appeal; non-musical factors prevented this music from continuing to flourish for almost fifty years. Now a small number of people are trying to revive the tradition. The music is being documented (most notably by the Musicological Institute in Hanoi which, thanks to fortuitous political connections, has recently moved to an enviable, purpose-built building in one of the best suburbs of Hanoi). Small-scale performances can be seen on occasion. I found one in a small record shop where the displays were covered with black cloth to create the atmosphere of a performance space, with low tables and cushions for the audience to evoke traditional settings. Some teaching is being organised informally, much of it by the indefatigible Hue, who has also managed to reach the national press on several occasions with her heroic battle for the preservation of this music.

In the evening, back in the Hanoi Prince Hotel (I never got around to asking what in this pleasantly unassuming but utterly graceless concrete building inspired its royal name), I reflect on what I have just witnessed and learned. It resonates strongly with other experiences from the past two decades. I think of sitting inside the office of Mr Kofi, the Head of the Music Department at the University of Cape Coast in Ghana. While he entertained my colleague Trevor Wiggins and me, outside his office I heard a student playing Bach's Well-tempered Clavier on a piano that was seriously out of tune – a wonderfully ironic experience given the title of the piece. Like much of the music of Bach, it survived this butchering, and even gained an unintended but fascinating twenty-first century ‘global edge'.

Our host assured us that, besides his serious classes on Bach and Wagner (he had spent a little time studying in Germany), he also left some room for African music: some of the cleaners on the campus were Ewe, and they occasionally were given an afternoon off to work with the students on their percussion music. I was shocked: I had heard the music of this particular ethnic group before. It entails some of the most intricate rhythmic patterns in African music: elusive, subtly shifting, almost melodic, like fugues in percussion. At CalArts, one of the more prestigious liberal arts colleges in the United States (established by Walt Disney and funded by the Disney Corporation), Ewe has featured in the world music degree course since the 1970s. It is hard to understand how it can have such low status in Ghana itself; fifty years after independence, colonial preconceptions of superiority and the association with economic and military power still seem to define the musical hierarchy.

I cynically – or maybe just strategically – think that increasing local awareness of the status of Ewe percussion in the United States might make a difference. In India I have witnessed this in action. There has been a major revival of the ancient but almost extinct style known as dhrupad after the French revealed this as the ‘true' tradition of Indian music, and started inviting its aged masters to perform in Paris. Before long, there were dhrupad festivals in India: if the French like it, it must be something worth preserving. When I asked famous sitarist Ravi Shankar about this, he ridiculed this process: ‘The French thought they "discovered" dhrupad. Ah, le dhrupad, c'est magnifique! Dhrupad used to be great, but it is not any more. They are holding up a skeleton and saying "look what a beautiful woman".' Some European fancies are the Emperor's clothes in world music.

I think of other forms of music that have profited from popularity in the West and a strong basis back home: tango, djembe, gamelan, samba, flamenco. This is music that has not only weathered globalisation, but profited from it in expanding markets. In spite of the pervasive ethnomusicological conviction that music can only be really understood in its original context, most music appears to travel remarkably well. Hardly any music has an identifiable ‘original context'; repeated recontextualisation is the rule rather than an exception. This goes for Western classical music (from church to court to upper middle-class audiences), for jazz, for rock, for pop, and for most forms of world music. Other music has come into being because of globalisation, from the delightfully sweet film songs of Bollywood to salsa, and the exotic mix of samba and Indian bhangrato sambhangra in London.

Yet I see other music that seems to be at the risk of disappearing in this environment of rapid change, often for extramusical reasons: the effects of colonisation, migration and rapid technological development have put a major strain on the capacity of most music to gradually evolve with social and cultural changes. In other cases, the threat is more active, including forcible displacement of people, war or genocide, religious prejudice, or adverse laws and regulations. I am not the preservationist type. Musical instruments, styles and genres have been emerging and disappearing throughout history; I see this as a natural process driven by inevitably changing tastes and contexts. But over the past five decades, it has intensified exponentially with drastic political, social, technological and economic change. The reality that music once constrained to a single locale is now available across the planet (and the underlying issues of markets, power and perceptions of prestige) has created shifts in musical dynamics that have led to opportunities for some, but threatened the futures of many other forms of musical expression, well beyond the evolutionary processes that have governed musical diversity in earlier periods.

When I discuss this phenomenon with leading ethnomusicologist Anthony Seeger, who has worked extensively with UNESCO and with the Suyá in the Amazon, he expresses it succinctly and eloquently: ‘The problem is it's not really an even playing field: it's not as though these are just disappearing, they're "being disappeared"; there's an active process in the disappearance of many traditions around the world. Some of them are being disappeared by majority groups that want to eliminate the differences of their minority groups within their nations, others are being disappeared by missionaries or religious groups of various kinds who find music offensive and want to eliminate it. Others are being disappeared by copyright legislation.'

Technological developments, infrastructural challenges, socioeconomic change, failing educational systems and loss of prestige constitute additional reasons for the decline of many musics I find in fieldwork and discussions with colleagues.

These threats to global musical diversity are hardly a secret. Recently UNESCO launched initiatives for the preservation of cultural heritage with the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity (2001) and the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (2003).

For several decades now, governments, NGOs and development agencies have provided support for specific music cultures over a defined period of time, ranging from a single event or festival to projects running for a number of years. I have seen these function as a highly positive impulse for the cultures supported. Another way to counteract decline in musical diversity has been the documentation of traditions in danger of disappearing. This is occurring on a considerable scale across cultures and continents. Through these initiatives, the sound of many traditions is being preserved for posterity, allowing future generations to reconstruct, at least to some extent, musical styles and genres that have disappeared.

Valuable as they are, I don't think these efforts provide sufficient basis for the actual survival of musical styles as part of an unbroken, living tradition, which many will argue is a key condition for maintaining the essence (explicit and tacit, tangible and intangible) of specific styles and genres. I start conceiving ways to work in close collaboration with communities themselves; not only for their histories and ‘authentic' practices, but also for their dynamics and potential for recontextualisation in contemporary settings, which includes considering new musical realities, changing values and attitudes, as well as political and market forces. This shift from historical preservation from a Eurocentric perspective to sustainability from the perspective of the stakeholders themselves resonates with the work of ‘applied' ethnomusicologists, who denounce the illusion of objectivity and detachment, and are committed to ‘giving back' to the cultures and communities that inform their work. Such an approach acknowledges recontextualisation of performance practices, institutionalisation of transmission processes, changing audiences and markets in terms of business models and technology, as well as increasingly fluid relationships between ethnic background and musical tastes/activities, particularly in relation to youth culture. In short, it works from the past through the present towards the future.


AS THE IDEA for a global project to promote musical sustainability emerges, I discuss it with Deborah Wong, the President of the Society for Ethnomusicology. She likes the fact that it ‘is not romanticised. It's so easy to talk about musics that are in danger of disappearing ... This is looking at music as something that is already mediatised, already globalised.' In a later conversation, Anthony Seeger is enthused about the idea of a systematic study of musical traditions to see how they are sustained and what makes the successful ones successful, and how the other ones are being affected by some of these causes of ‘disappearing' that I was referring to – and also how they're being affected simply by changes in musical taste and interest that have nothing to do with oppression or power: ‘I think if we understood those better ... communities would probably be able to better defend the things that they think need to be defended and preserved, and safeguard those traditions they think they'd like to safeguard, and change the ones they want to change. Instead we are reinventing the wheel every time we face a community that's trying to preserve its own traditions.'

After a round of discussions with a number of other colleagues around the world, four major domains that influence the sustainability of any music culture are identified beyond musical structure and content itself. As is evident from the story of ca tru, the realities of being and becoming a musician are of great importance for the future of any tradition: systems of education and training, types of careers and esteem for the profession determine whether there will be competent performers in the next generation. For most musics, audiences, media and markets are crucial: who listens to the music and through which means (live, recorded or on the web) and who pays (which may be audiences, governments, philanthropists or businesses). Infrastructure and regulations are often taken for granted and underestimated, yet there is music that owes its existence to leniency in enforcing sound restrictions, protection of copyright and international trade agreements, while other musics have virtually been regulated or taxed out of existence. The final domain, communities, contexts and constructs, may be the key to sustainability for much music: how it relates to its stakeholders, how it functions in traditional and new contexts, and especially how it is regarded in its community in terms of cosmologies, aesthetics and prestige, which has always been a crucial trigger for musical sustainability.

Each of these domains overlaps and interrelates in how it affects music cultures. For example, it can be driven by changing values and attitudes, technological developments and/or audience behaviour. The manner of musical transmission is strongly determined by its (institutional) environment, and media attention, markets and audiences can often be linked to issues of public perception and prestige. The power and potential of such a template is easily illustrated by applying it to Western classical opera in the twenty-first century. At first glance, this music would seem to have insurmountable obstacles in terms of required infrastructure – a theatre with a large stage, a fly tower and excellent acoustics; high-level training of the participants – soloists, chorus, orchestra, conductor, director and audiences refined to appreciate the event, affluent to afford tickets. However, opera survives on the prestige that inspires its markets to the governments, corporate sponsors and philanthropists who support it.

While opera played its cards right in the area of attitudes, pop music did so in audiences, media and markets, and country music in engaging communities, while Indian classical music developed a change-resistant system of music transmission through gurus. Most of these also braved major changes in context, while other musics continue to struggle. Such reflections will now form the basis of a global project to identify mechanisms for musical survival which, once identified, can inform and empower communities to forge their own musical futures.

How could an initiative of this kind assist ca tru music, which at present seems to meet none of the conditions for survival? There could be several ways forward. For instance, it is not beyond the imagination for a group of musicians to re-establish a ca tru house, accessible to both discerning Vietnamese audiences and the substantial cultural tourist trade, which could charge foreign patrons US$25 for an evening of authentic entertainment, as opposed to the toned-up – or down – tourist music in most hotels. Five performances a week could feed five musicians, who could then spend their spare time working with schools and the Hanoi Conservatorium to educate the next generation of discerning listeners and performers. This or other such initiatives could re-establish lines of transmission, a performance infrastructure, links to audiences and prestige for a creative tradition for which the time to go may not have arrived.

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