Sustainable Music


Sunday, July 7, 2013

ABET workshop wrap: when unofficial music gains official endorsement

    I promised to write about the other two topics raised at my ABET workshop: heritage and the so-called creative economy in the service of sustaining music; and the difficulties of enacting official cultural policies designed to sustain unofficial music. I’ve treated the first topic extensively over the past five years here, and while the second topic isn’t as prominent in this space, I wrote about it in my essay “Music and Sustainability: An Ecological Viewpoint.” The citation for that essay may be found in my prior blog entry, “Managing for Musical and Cultural Resilence.”
    It was not clear to me whether the creative economy argument gained traction in Brazil, but heritage (partimonia) is alive and well, particularly because Brazil has signed on to the UNESCO treaty safeguarding intangible cultural heritage, and UNESCO in turn has inscribed Brazilian musical traditions on its representative list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity. UNESCO's list includes samba de roda of the Reconcavo of Bahia, a tradition involving music, dance and poetry that is said to have developed in the seventeenth century and drawn on the music and dance heritage of the Afro-Brazilians as well as on Portuguese culture. It influenced the evolution of the urban samba in Rio de Janeiro that in the last century became a marker of Brazilian national identity.
    With a commitment to indigenous and minority cultures, the Brazilian government has embraced the UNESCO initiative and patrimonia, to the extent that, as Tony Seeger explained to me, numerous anthropologists, folklorists, and ethnomusicologists are employed documenting oral traditions in various Brazilian regions. (If and when the US signs on to the UNESCO treaty, employment opportunities for culture workers would improve greatly.) Identifying, documenting and describing these traditions is required if they are going to be safeguarded. More of them will surely be nominated for the UNESCO list. The economic value connotation of patrimonia suggests cashing in on these traditions. Tourism is the usual means, through performances at festivals and such. Additionally, samba de roda has been identified as an endangered tradition, would enjoy the status of a roots music, and might well be marketed on its own in hopes of reviving it, particularly among the younger Brazilians.
    In this case, official cultural policies from UNESCO combine with Brazilian government efforts to sustain samba de roda. It can be seen on YouTube, downloaded from the Internet, purchased on CDs, and so forth, as a google search reveals. What the long-term effects of these efforts may be, remains to be seen. Sometimes the imprimatur of official culture adds value to musical traditions and helps galvanize sustainability efforts within the community that identifies with those traditions. So, for instance, the Old Regular Baptists in southeastern Kentucky are more likely to conserve their tradition of lined-out hymnody as a result of official cultural attention from the Smithsonian Institution and Yale University. Tourism does not play a part in this: the Old Regular Baptists are not interested in attracting them, and neither is the music likely to do so. It is a participatory music, not the kind of music that is presented from a stage. In other circumstances, unintended negative consequences may result from official recognition, as occurred with the gu-qin (7-string zither) tradition in China. One kind of tourist will seek out sites that official culture has recognized as significant; another kind of tourist is suspicious of official cultural recognition and the mediation that accompanies it, and instead seeks music that is relatively obscure and unmediated, usually justifying this quest for authenticity on the grounds that once a music is marketed to tourists, it is inevitably transformed so as to please the tourist audience.