Saturday, April 18, 2009

Stage Readiness and Heritage

Heritage presentations at festivals, museums, and other interpretive centers require that traditional performers be "stage ready," which in heritage parlance means that they be able to satisfy the tourist audience. This requirement rules out certain tradition-bearers, of course: those who are not used to presenting their traditions to strangers from a stage. Indeed, entire musical traditions exist apart from stage presentations; to represent them as heritage is to transform them.

I heard the term "stage ready" -- not for the first time -- when I brought to the attention of festival programmers a certain Native American musician, a long-time acquaintance of mine, a community scholar and activist who is considered a tradition bearer within his own group. To me, the most important consideration was that Native Americans had been under-represented at this festival, considering their history and contemporary presence in the region. Riding the horse of cultural equity, I was comfortable making this argument to people I assumed had the same commitment. I was puzzled why, if they were committed to representing ethnic diversity, they had not included Native Americans; but I assumed it was because they didn't know how to approach them. Well, I knew a Native musician with impeccable credentials and thought that all I would need to do was bring him to their attention and the match would be made.

Not so fast. "Is he stage-ready?" I was asked. Later I learned that they had tried to arrange for his appearance at the festival some years ago, but he had unaccountably refused at the last minute. There was some kind of mis-communication. I thought I knew what it must have been: he didn't know the festival programmers, and he wasn't entirely comfortable with the situation. Trust borne of friendship was important to him, and there was no one there he could trust.

"Is he stage-ready?" The programmers surely must be aware, I thought, that Native Americans staged performances among themselves. Powwows were the most conspicuous example of public music and dance; these could easily be transported into this festival context. In a sense powwows were festivals already. But I could imagine the possibility that these programmers, even though they were aware of powwows, held a certain stereotype about Native Americans as relatively closed societies, or even that they would somehow be innocent of the kind of staged presentations typical of folk festivals and unable to translate their traditional song and dance to the folk festival context. Thus: "Is he stage-ready?"

In fact, he was stage-ready, and I said so. He had been presenting for colleges and universities and at folk festivals on and off for 25 years. He was a superb spokesperson to non-Native groups. But I hoped that if he performed at this festival he would attract a Native group and aim his presentation as much at them as at the non-Native audience. (This is, in fact, what transpired.) It turned out he was more than stage-ready. Later this year he and his musical partner will sing at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.

But that's not the point. The point is what the criterion of stage-readiness does to heritage presentations in the service of musical and cultural sustainability. It prevents certain musicians and groups, some who do not perform or consider what they are doing as performance, from transferring their activities easily to the festival stage. Of course, there are those who can make this transition, and those who can do so without much compromise. I have seen it with Old Regular Baptist singers; I have even presented them at festivals. But there are many who cannot.

And so as a site encouraging musical sustainability, in somewhat mysterious fashion by representation from the stage, the heritage presentation favors certain kinds of musical cultures and works against others. To make an analogy with the older kinds of conservation efforts, it is as if certain species or populations are singled out for preservation while others, perhaps more endangered, are left to fend for themselves.

No comments:

Post a Comment