“Don’t It Always Seem To Go….”

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My friend Huib Schippers has a really thoughtful essay in the excellent Griffith Review, from Griffith University in Queensland. In ‘Ecologies of Creative Diversity’, Huib highlights the perilous future of many indigenous musics in developing countries. Although he lists the obvious threats – globalisation, displacement, copyright legislation – he also points to the ‘slow puncture’ effect on often vibrant musical forms, once they become ‘canonised’ by universities and music conservatoriums. He argues that this preservation, while well-meaning, is only likely to turn future generations off the music, as it has its context, character and uniqueness ‘ironed out’ (much the same concern has been expressed about Jazz, once it became a respectable academic study).

Neither Huib nor I are believers in preservation at all costs – often there are good reasons why some traditions die out and others take their place. But he quotes leading ethnomusicologist Anthony Seeger (yes, his uncle is Pete) in identifying unnatural forces at work: ‘The problem is it’s not really an even playing field: it’s not as though these (cultures) are disappearing, they’re “being disappeared”; there’s an active process in the disappearance of many traditions around the world’.

So, what’s a good liberal to do? One answer seems to lie in a better understanding of the factors which govern a music culture’s sustainability, and here the essay begins to sketch out an important framework, which is not just applicable to ‘endangered species’. Huib lists four domains:

  • Education and Training Systems – how music are supported and encouraged;
  • Media and Markets – who listens, who pays, who promotes;
  • Infrastructure and regulations – international trade agreements, copyright legislation;
  • Communities, Contexts and Constructs – how the tradition is regarded artistically in its community

Opera, Huib argues, has possibly (only) survived because of its high regard aesthetically, and there are therfore philanthropists and governments willing to pay, while pop and rock thrives through media and the market. He suggests ways in which indigenous musics and musicians could be supported through, for example. sympathetic tourism which transmits the music in its community context, not a bland hotel restaurant.

It’s a useful analysis and one which will guide the four-year, international UNESCO research journey which Huib and colleagues have embarked upon to find ‘Sustainable Futures for Musical Traditions’, and may the road rise to meet them.

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