BETWEEN FOLK AND POPULAR: THE LIMINAL SPACES
OF THE VERNACULAR
British Forum for Ethnomusicology Annual Conference 2007
We have invited Franco Fabbri, Bernard Lortat-Jacob,
Richard Middleton and Suzel Ana Reily to write a text on the main theme
of the conference: the texts will be discussed during the round table
on April 20.
Here you can read them and download them as pdf. files.
To go to a particular text click on the author's name:
Università di Torino
The king is naked: The musicological unified field
and its articulation
All music is folk music, all categories are folk categories.
Leastways, one might add, I never heard of no horse making them. Categories,
I mean. Zoömusicologists will probably find the famous statement
by Louis Armstrong (or was it Big Bill Broonzy?) definitely anthropocentric,
and neuroscientists may feel the same about my addition (or parody) about
categories. But whatever we think about the horse's mind, we have to acknowledge
that categorizing is a human activity grounded in our bodies, in our perception
of – and relation with – our environment, including other
humans, and in our memory of past experiences and projection towards the
future. In short, categories are based on our bodily experience, on our
relation with the community we live in, its history, its politics, its
ideology. Music types, or genres, make no exception. In the West there
has been in the last hundred years (and currently is) a wide consensus
about the division of music (let’s forget for a minute what this
word means) into three main kinds: ‘art music’, ‘folk
music’, ‘popular music’. The fact that this taxonomy
is widely accepted doesn’t mean that it really makes sense, even
for those who seem to believe in it. First, even in the West, different
names are used for the three categories in different languages, and to
some respect linguistic differences account for taxonomic discrepancies
(think of the usage of ‘música popular’, ‘musica
popolare’ or ‘musique populaire’ in neo-latin languages).
Second, even in the same language the three categories have different
names, depending on the community and its ideology (‘art’,
or ‘classical’, or ‘serious’ music? ‘Folk’
music or ‘traditional’ music?). Third, the taxonomy doesn’t
seem to include all musics that belong to the experience of the heterogeneous
community that seems to accept it. Is jazz ‘art’ music, ‘folk’
music or ‘popular’ music? Or is some jazz ‘art’,
and some ‘pop’? Is blues ‘folk’? Are Indian or
Arab classical musics ‘classical’, or ‘traditional’?
What about ‘unpopular popular music’? What about ‘music
without definitions and boundaries’ (or ‘musiques actuelles’),
for which dozens of festivals exists in Europe and North America, often
presenting the same musicians? This multiplicity, with its contradictions,
is a gold mine for scholars willing to understand the material, social,
political, ideological, historical conditions under which such taxonomies
are created. Coarser (like the one we are now discussing) or finer taxonomies
(like those at the base of genres and subgenres, or even at the level
of a single artist’s repertoire) are equally interesting, though
offering different perspectives.
But one thing is striking me. With the notable exception
of a few recent conferences and round tables (including this one), and
of individual essays, scholars do not seem to be interested in a critique
of the dominating coarser taxonomy: not, at least, to the extent that
this critique may undermine the foundations of the existing musicological
disciplines, which are deeply related to that taxonomy.
It’s comprehensible, as academic power (on which the lives of individual
scholars depend) is rooted in disciplinary divisions. If ethnomusicology
is more a matter of method than of repertoire, why not study (recalling
Blacking) the rituals of an operatic première, or the microsocial
interactions in a symphony orchestra, or the role of oral transmission
in ‘art’ music? Or Beethoven’s improvisations? Or Charlie
Parker’s improvisations? Or the repertoires of ‘beach guitarists’?
But would such an ethnomusicologist, or music anthropologist, make an
academic career with similar interests, so different from the discipline’s
traditional mainstream (the ambiguity of the adjective is intended)?
And would a popular music scholar acquire visibility in his or her own
field (popular music studies) making research on the download of ‘classical’
music mp3 files, and discussing the ways the community of dowloaders copes
with the pop-oriented tag structure currently in use? Or commenting how
‘serious’ music is broadcast on radio and tv? And would such
research give him or her access to the community of historical or analytic
I don’t need to complete the picture, for the sake of balance or
political correctness, with similar examples about musicologists tout
court. They are the majority, they have the academic power, most of them
speak about universals and are convinced they are the people who determine
which universals exist. The late nineteenth century canon removed improvisation
from the practice (and study) of ‘art’ music, so improvisation
simply doesn’t exist, even if there are lots of documents (textual
and musical) available for research. To the extent that repertoires other
than the canon exist in written form, they can be studied: again, there
aren’t great career expectations for young musicologists studying
Frank Zappa’s scores (and if you want to be really marginal, just
deal with operetta, zarzuela or musical comedy). So, even fundamental
aspects of the ‘classical’ repertoire (just think of the role
of improvisation in Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt) are not covered
to pay respect to the existing taxonomy.
Of course we all know this: the king is naked. So,
pretending not to see him, most of us prefer to behave schizophrenically.
With one mind, we acknowledge that the boundaries of our disciplines are
fuzzy, that walls are crumbling (there is even some theoretical evidence
that they cannot exist!); with the other mind, we keep at safe distance
from those non-existing walls. You never know: we might be injured by
As a few readers/listeners know, in my writings about
genres and music categories I have always maintained that I was not interested
in creating a new, ‘scientific’ taxonomy: the main purpose
of my study has been to understand music taxonomies ‘as they are’,
to see how communities organize their musical universe, and how the way
it is articulated varies with the passing of time, according to the internal
dialectics of communities and with changes in material and cultural conditions.
I have been interested in music categories precisely as ‘folk categories’,
even if some categories (or some of their aspects) may not be structured
as folk categories proper (just think of genre rules articulated in laws
or in aesthetic manifestoes). However, recent debates about disciplinary
boundaries and their fuzziness (and the related schizophrenic attitude
I described above) make me think that one possible solution – and
maybe the only one – to the problems related with the historical
division into three main ‘kinds of music’, and thus of music
studies into three disciplines, is simply to throw it away.
My suggestion is, that it should be substituted with
a much finer taxonomy of music facts or events (‘activities with
or around sounds’, according to Gino Stefani: see also my definition
of ‘genre’ in “A Theory of Music Genres: Two Applications”,
http://www.tagg.org/others/ffabbri81a.html), covering (theoretically,
and possibly) all music events on the planet. Each music event should
be identifiable by a set of properties, and events with common properties
could be associated into types. Musicology should be the discipline studying
any of such events, though it is reasonable to assume that it should then
be divided into sub-disciplines, studying certain types of events, or
events that can be approached according to a specific method. So we wouldn’t
throw away the baby of existing disciplines with the bath water of contradictory
historical taxonomies, but we would probably discover how much of the
existing musical universe was uncovered by those taxonomies/disciplines.
Of course, I’m talking about a ‘scientific’
taxonomy, based on the traditional/historical structure of property-based
taxa, quite different from the way types and categories are built by the
human mind in everyday life. Personally, I’m quite convinced that
cognitive linguists are right when they describe the ways categories are
created in our bodies and minds: I’m a devout reader of Mark Johnson’s
and George Lakoff’s essays, I know that in real life we do not think
of categories as slots where to put objects according to sets of properties.
However, a profound understanding of how categorizing works in our minds
doesn’t prohibit creating property-based taxonomies for specific
purposes. The taxa of biology are still very useful in scientific study,
and in actions to preserve our planet’s biodiversity, even if we
have discovered that when we scream at the view of a possibly offending
‘insect’ we are not thinking in terms of arthropods and the
distinct subordinate categories of insects and arachnids, but of the folk
category of ‘insects’ (that apparently includes spiders).
What I envision is a (multidimensional, of course)
layer of music types, that could be mapped to a separate entity, that
is, the existing articulation of ‘folk categories’ or (in
my terms) the way the musical universe is articulated by communities into
genres. I don’t pretend that such a taxonomy (the multidimensional
layer of music types) be devoid of ideology: but I believe that it would
be a giant step forward to clarify and minimize the impact of ideology
on disciplinary definitions.
I also think that the job can’t be accomplished by an individual,
or even by a restricted group: this is a kind of genome project (nothing,
or very little to do with the music enterprise with the same name) that
can only be developed with the aid of the whole musicological community.
Previous endeavours of creating ‘universal’ music taxonomies
(see for example Charles Seeger’s “Toward a Unitary Field
Theory for Musicology”, in Selected Reports, Volume 1, No. 3, Los
Angeles: University of California, 1970) collapsed because of individual
inclinations and tastes.
It may turn out to be a huge useless work. Or, as
soon as the basic network of properties and types is laid down, we may
discover that many new possibilities are open, and we may wonder how we
could make without it. Yes, as Richard Middleton says, we only have to
lose our (disciplinary) chains.
What constitutes a rich field of study for ethnomusicology?
The question, which I ask, does not concern the limits/borderlines
between what is viewed as ‘Traditional’ and what is called
‘Folklore’. Playing with such definitions does not really
interest me. I think it more important to turn my attention to ‘the
musical object for ethnomusicologists’. This has already been widely
debated, but what I want to do here is to shed some new light on this
The object of the study of ethnomusicology is “all the musics of
the world”; it has often been said that ethnomusicology is more
about method than object.
However, is it not illusory to aspire to study all
the musics played by million of inhabitants living on the planet, who,
in different ways, share in the happiness of performing music? Musics
which moreover are constantly changing? A whole army of ethnomusicologists
– if one could raise one – would have no chance of accomplishing
this task. Hence the idea I am putting forward here: there now is an imperative
to make choices and I would like to discuss these choices with you here.
Some of you may think that the question asked above is a little ‘politically
incorrect’. In fact I am not sure that this debate can take place
peacefully on the other side of the Atlantic. But it’s for this
very reason that I’m interested in such a question. A question too
rarely asked, and often considered when it’s already too late.
I emphasise, however, that I do not wish my position to be exaggerated.
I do not want to be labelled as someone who is stating that “this
musical culture is good and it must be studied” or conversely that
“ this one is worth nothing, don’t go there!”.
The question I ask concerns scientific strategy. What should we study?
How do we make choices? According to what criteria can we pragmatically
orientate our choices? In other words: What constitutes a rich field of
study for ethnomusicology?
The question is of course scientific but it is also practical: it is of
interest to both academics and very young researchers – I meet them
every year – who have to work on how to increase our knowledge in
ethnomusicology. So, what shall we do and how shall we do it?
The question is also up to date. Should we study,
as it has been suggested [Molino 2006], the music that housewives listen
to in their kitchen? Or the whistling of painters while at work? This
can be done as long as a cognitive approach is taken but, from the ethnomusicologist’s
point of view, these suggestions are not very interesting.
Of course, that said, the responses which I bring to the table here reflect
my own experiences –and therefore my own choices. By now, I am quite
familiar with three or four fields, which have ‘grown inside me’
during the last years of my research activities. At a certain time during
my research (40 years already!!), I had to "choose" between
them. If these choices have been fruitful I owe it less to my own talent
than to the people who guided me and trained my ears: I refer here to
the rural, Mediterranean societies which welcomed me with great generosity.
To those with whom I conceived and created some knowledge – the
results have long since been published.
In order to define what I have identified as les beaux terrains
(a rich field) - and I wish to apologize again for the reductive effect
of this expression - I will talk about four criteria.
1. Ancestral cultures
I purposely do not use the term ‘traditional’:
I consider this an overused term which has led to abuses - we are reminded
of this issue by Pascal Boyer in Barricades mystérieuses.
The concept of ‘tradition’ was first linked to the idea of
the ‘action of transmitting’ (as is shown by the suffix –tion)
but has now more or less become synonymous with ‘heritage’.
This notion excludes the idea of action, as heritage is lifeless. For
this reason ‘traditional’ music, when it exists, does not
interest me. It interests me even less when it is ‘patrimonalised’
[cf. concept of ‘patrimonalisation’].
To be precise the ‘ancestral cultures’ which have guided my
work, do not necessarily practice the cult of the ancestors. Let’s
say however that they enter into a dialogue with ancestors. I would have
never thought of studying cultures that do not pay respect to their dead,
who do not mourn. Mourning, as we all know, is, in appearance only, a
nuisance for the ethnomusicologist. When a singer is mourning… he
stops singing (this also, but to a lesser extent, is true of the players,
professional or semi-professional). The ethnomusicologist arrives and
has to put his tape recorder away. Everywhere I have been it has been
like that (among the Berbers in Morocco, the Touaregs, Sardinians, Romanians…).
So it seems that mourning is a handicap for the researcher – it
represents an obstacle – but this handicap cannot be avoided and
is absolutely necessary: death, and respect towards it, is an essential
part of cultural life. This is an anthropological rule: rejecting or minimising
the respect paid to death is the same as threatening life itself; showing
respect towards death is a strong indicator of a culture’s vitality.
2. Noi cultures
What does this expression mean? In Sardinia, the pronoun
‘Us’ (Noi, in Italian) is the one, which is most
often used. Every conversation, whether it is about fishing, olives, wine,
sense of honour, rules of hospitality - and music of course – is
always interspaced with the pronoun noi. This noi is
emphasised, it always starts a sentence. Some would talk of a “Sardinian
identity”. Let us say, more simply, that in Sardinia people know
who they are.
Of course this noi has a variable dimension. It is the Noi,
Sardi (Us , Sardinians) when one is in a foreign country, but it
can also be the Noi ‘barbaricino’ which defines a
micro regional entity within Sardinia. Or it can also be the Noi
between members of a brotherhood in a village such as Castelsardo - Noi
here concerns only about a hundred people; the pronoun can be attributed
to an even smaller number of people (a greffa, a group of friends
meeting for one or several evenings).
What matters here is to understand that, particularly in Sardinia, the
Noi is only important as far as it is a term which is in opposition
to another. It can only exist in relation to a sort of ‘non-noi’
who can be a stranger or more importantly a rival. Collective Sardinian
thinking is not traditional. It is first and foremost ‘contradictional’.
People always think of themselves in dual terms.
Therefore a group of dancers, singers, members of a brotherhood, etc.,
by its birth, brings about the birth of a rival group. Sardinian society
always creates divisions (mitoses). Friendly rivalries, challenges, conflicts
whether real or not, and even vendetta with homicide, are an integral
part of this very fascinating society and give it dynamism.
This Noi is fundamentally political (i.e.: Maoism or Troskysm
often refer to the Noi - Noi, comrades - a Noi
which had disastrous consequences in history!).
But the Sardinian Noi is more democratic, it implies a copy of
oneself (mitosis: a division) which in order to affirm itself, demands
constant negotiation. This Noi exists through an internal fracture
– like a mitosis -, it generates constant actions 1) within what
I would call ‘mitosic cells’ (since one always thinks of oneself
as in two parts always really or virtually sectioned) and 2) towards the
exterior, the other, the one who is not oneself - in other words: the
The Noi has therefore two realities: ‘inclusive’
(us, we are together even if it takes two of us to form a single unit);
‘exclusive’ [you, the others: “try to copy us”].
And this Noi has to be always affirmed, proclaimed as if to convince
oneself that it exists.
This particular social energy feeds into music, or rather the musics,
of Sardinia (tenore, songs with guitar accompaniment, dance music,
polyphonic choir, etc.). It exists in all the challenges contained in
Sardinian society; such as horse races, rituals of all sorts, fighting
games, morra, rounds of drinks in bars, etc.
Of course there are other micro-sociological factors, which generate social
dynamism, but in Sardinia, these are particularly efficient, therefore
Sardinia is ‘a rich field’ of studies for ethnomusicologists.
3. Uncomfortable cultures
I am not talking here about the uncomfortable situations
in which the ethnomusicologist can find himself (nights without sleep,
too much alcohol - which are an integral part of musical practice in northern
Mediterranean countries as they are in most parts of the world). I am
not talking about the taste for danger, for example, in Albania where
wearing a seat belt in a car shows a lack of social skills and may cause
offence to the driver!
I want to talk about a more fundamental issue, that of ‘discomfort’
so familiar to small rural Mediterranean societies and which puts them
miles away from those timorous traditional and conservative societies
that folklorists have imagined – probably in their own image.
Aside from work, masculinity is, organically, always in conflict with
family life. Everything to do with leisure (music, having a few drinks
in a bar) is not compatible with a western bourgeois way of life. However,
all leisure activities (it. divertimento) represent first and
foremost an intense social exercise. They create or re-create links. So
that, contrary to appearances, it is a commitment to be in cumpania
bedda (in good company) and to comment on the world with friends.
It is difficult to give the impression that you are doing nothing when
in fact everything is happening in this nothing.
To live in this kind of culture means that in fact one must reject all
forms of individualism, that could consist, for instance, in renouncing
to see a friend in hospital, or also to enjoy a selfish pleasure, or even
to abandon the marginal satisfaction of watching television (except football
which has a specific status). The most important is to remain oneself,
that is to say, to be always moved by the Noi, to which I referred
4. Voracious cultures
We often refer to ‘living cultures’ but
what does this mean? As opposed to what? Are all cultures not alive?
“Voracious culture” is a lot clearer and refers to predators
and big open spaces. The best example of a voracious culture is Western
elitist culture, which has an extraordinary capacity to swallow everything
up, in particular as far as the musics of the world are concerned. It
loots them and folds them up to the size of its wallet. But this predatory
capacity is not only typical of Western modern societies. Others, if not
all, tend to see themselves as hegemonic and - whether they want it or
not - engage in predatory in-fighting, similar to these fights that one
can see on BBC wildlife programs.
Every heron knows that it can swallow a fish depending on its size, not
because of its appetite but according to the chances it has of swallowing
it up in one gulp. If the carp weighs more than 350 grams, the heron will
not be able to swallow it up and is in danger of choking.
Musics in contact are full of carp and heron stories, and though in ethnomusicology
we like to say that all musics can be assimilated and hybridised, we are
well aware that many carps have killed herons and that musical cultures
run the risk of disappearing by being swallowed up. As in natural selection,
the ones that survive are the herons with a large throat and a supple
neck. And in my opinion, these musics offer the best field of study.
This reference to a certain musical ‘vitalism’
does not solve all the problems of our field, which suffer from a trauma:
not really global warming, but a kind of freezing of local traditions
and a loss of self confidence. But that is another story.
The end of this presentation will consist of a few
examples from different societies (South America, Martinique, High Atlas,
Sardinia, Albania, etc.).
The conclusion will offer an opportunity for discussion.
Translation: Geneviève and Desi
Back to the Future: Folk, People, (Who)Man
Volk heisst nicht der Pöbel auf den Gassen, der singt und dichtet
niemals, sondern schreit und verstümmelt. (“The people
are not the mob of the streets, who never sing or compose, but shriek
and mutilate.” – J.G. Herder)
The issue for discussion needs to be located first
in a historical and cultural specificity, and Herder’s fierce distinction
is a convenient marker of that place. The project of ethnomusicology founds
itself on an ambiguity in Enlightenment anthropology, which is at the
same time a political wager. Herder’s innocence is irrecoverable.
But that loss is itself potent. We can hope to uncover the implicit conditions
of a discursive regime that conditions, still, the terms of scholarly
trade – including its utopian afterglow.
What object motivates Herder’s distinction?
I would say, commodity. But of course its role has become more complex
and more pervasive than in his world. The Volk/Pöbel as
a whole buy and sell their own songs, chase their own tail, prostitute
their own tale, consume themselves. This has long since become so taken
for granted as to be invisible; commodity has the status of what, in the
Hegelian language given renewed currency by Jameson and iek,
we can call a ‘vanishing mediator’. The wheels, then, have
long since come off the people’s wagon. To the extent that this
regime has been spread worldwide, what started as specific has become,
at least as tendency, universal. And to the extent that ethnomusicology
is complicit in this process – scholarly reification the flip side
of commodity fetishism – it has been a colonising force in a far
deeper sense even than postcolonial critique has realised. The branding
of ‘world music’, in scholarship as much as in the music industry,
seals the deal.
Ethnomusicology, like musicology tout court,
is, as Bohlman has told us, unavoidably a ‘political act’.
It should act, then. It is, we might say, called to act; its
gestures should be given, and give, voice. But to whose call will it respond?
What manner of body politic will it call into being? Is it not more than
time for shrieks and mutilations?
Why so? And why does Herder’s language point
towards beastliness – for us, unavoidably, towards the sounds of
the torture-chamber, concentration camp, farm factory, slaughter-house:
industrialised meat? The question returns us to specificity, here to the
anthropological project as such within which Herder finds his place. The
quest of what has been called the ‘anthropological machine’
(see e.g. Giorgio Agamben’s The Open, 2004) is for the
true nature of man – his species-essence, as the young Marx would
call it. John Blacking’s How Musical Is Man? is the classic
ethnomusicological gesture in this tradition (and it is worth adding that
the ‘musicological machine’, towards which Herder also points,
runs parallel to its anthropological analogue; the moral economy of ethnomusicology
draws on both). But what if the Neanderthals also sang, as Stephen Mithen
argues (The Singing Neanderthals, 2005)? Not to mention the other
hominids. What about the great apes, whales, frogs, birds – and
sirens, mermaids, angels and other mixed creatures? The search for origins
is always a search for the self. The machine always ends up dissecting
not so much its exotic historical and cultural object as its subject –
modern man. The Lacanian ‘object voice’ – A Voice
and Nothing More, as Mladen Dolar (2006) puts it, voice as such;
at the limit, the shriek stuck in the throat, language mutilated beyond
meaning – registers the impossible-real knowledge of the internal
fractures that form this creature.
In a moment that, to many, feels post-historical,
it is not difficult to identify (even, for many, to celebrate) the death
of the Folk, of the People, of Man himself. But the fractures cleaving
the human animal and thus traversing the field of natural philosophy animate
also the social formation of the human family – the hierarchies
of race, gender, class and sexuality; in a society structured in dominance
‘nature’ is always an ambivalent value, and so long as the
nature of the Low, nature as low, the low as apparently natural, continue
to shape these hierarchies, so long will the vernacular – the verna,
enslaved but also native born – insist that there is history, still,
to be lived, struggle to be waged. ‘Perhaps the body of the anthropophorous
animal (the body of the slave) is the unresolved remnant that idealism
leaves as an inheritance to thought (Agamben) – a disjunction marked,
above all, by the manoeuvres of embodied and disembodied voice, put at
issue more than ever by the machinery of technological mediation; can
the object speak, sing, think? Yes: the shriek I hear is that of its protest
at the mutilation of this remnant – which at the same time references
a self-mutilation by the Low’s oppressive other.
The actors in this drama, within and without –
within the self, within the social – return us one last time to
the concrete: for in the present moment, with the ever more intense compression
of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ – for which ‘world
music’ can stand as an exemplary sign – the political stakes
for the subject anthropos are not separable from the fate of creation
itself. The disciplinary path might run from ethnomusicology, through
a ‘demo-musicology’, to – what? A science of sounding
bodies? What would need to be given up to attain this goal? Chains, certainly
(to adopt Marx and Engels’s formulation), here disciplinary chains
(at least). But we must look beyond the purview available to nineteenth-century
revolutionaries. The world, world music too, is not there to be won, for,
like the Low as such, it is tired of the theatre of ownership. The price
to be paid, then, lies close to home, and the fetters are those of the
self – self-possession.
‘Men as a species completed their evolution
thousands of years ago; but humanity as a species is just beginning its.’
Queen’s University Belfast
Folk Music, Art Music, Popular Music: What do
these categories mean today?
Not so long ago music research seemed to be neatly
divided amongst three main fields: historical musicology, that focused
primarily upon western art music; ethnomusicology, that dealt with the
traditional musics of the world; and popular music studies, that investigated
musical styles produced and promoted by the music industry. Today, however,
the boundaries dividing these fields have become progressively more fluid,
such that the arguments for abolishing them altogether are stronger than
ever. If what distinguished these spheres in the past were the musical
repertoires they focused upon, what is now leading to their unification
is a common concern with musical processes and the ways people conceptualise
and use music in their daily lives. Whilst certain processes may have
been linked primarily to either art, popular, or folk music, today these
specificities appeared to be disappearing. ‘Folk music’ can
be heard on the stage, recorded, and sold as a commodity, thus mobilizing
the music industry; ‘popular music’ hits may be sung communally
around a campfire to the accompaniment of an acoustic guitar in a manner
reminiscent to ‘folk music’; major stars of the ‘art
music’ world now perform in ways that mimic the stars of pop or
rock, commanding equally high fees. In light of this, can we still distinguish
between ‘folk music’, ‘popular music’ and indeed
‘art music’? If these classifications are no longer valid,
what other ways might there be of understanding contemporary musical universes
and the dynamic forces through which they are articulated?
To approach these issues it could be useful to begin
by looking at how the distinctions between art, popular and folk music
came to crystallise as they did, reminding ourselves of the intellectual
legacy from which they emerged.
The concept of the ‘folk’ surfaced with the raise in nationalist
sentiments in the late 18th century, and it gained momentum throughout
the 19th century. One of the major intellectuals to develop a discourse
linking ‘the folk’ to ‘the nation’ was Johann
Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803). As a consequence of the Reformation,
Counter Reformation, and the Thirty Years War, by the early 18th century,
Germany had become fragmented into around 1800 district courts with only
tenuous links to one another. In an effort to establish a common cultural
terrain capable of conferring some unity upon the region, Herder led a
movement to re-awaken the lost legacy of the ‘nation’. He
contended that the Germanic could only be recovered through the investigation
of the expressive forms – especially the poetic forms – that
still survived amongst those who embodied the ‘national soul’:
that is, ‘the folk’, or the peasantry. He placed peasants
in this role because he perceived their behaviour and their expressive
forms to display an ‘emotional’ (or irrational?) dimension,
in a marked opposition to those of the privileged, aristocratic classes;
this had occurred because, living – as they did – in isolation
from the developments of ‘civilization’, the peasantry had
not been contaminated by the ‘rational’ values of the Enlightenment,
as had the elites. It was amongst the peasantry, therefore, that the unique
historical and ecological legacy of Germany had been retained.
One of Herder’s primary concerns was the disappearance of the German
language amongst the elites, who were progressively turning to French.
Only if Germans could be once again united by one language and confident
in their sense of a common heritage could the country re-establish its
place in relation to the rest of Europe. To convince the elites of the
value of the German language Herder aimed to re-present it to them by
demonstrating its aesthetic potential. Goethe, one of Herder’s most
successful followers, led the way in showing a sceptical elite how a great
German legacy could be recovered. This model of nation-building was followed
by other artists in a wide range of aesthetic fields, both in Germany
and the rest of Europe as well many other parts of the world. Indeed,
Herder’s project came to acquire global dimensions.
In effect, Herder’s model inspired artist to draw upon the (local)
national heritage held by ‘the folk’, and to reshape it to
generate a national art. In other words, the local, irrational motifs
of ‘the folk’ were to be transformed by the artist according
to universal (rational) aesthetic principles. However, if, on one hand,
the ‘irrationality’ of the expressive forms of ‘the
folk’ constituted the elements that distinguished one nation from
other nations, they also distinguished the peasants – all peasants
– from (all) the elites, regardless of nationality. Thus, the very
concept of ‘art’ could only emerge in contra-distinction to
another body of expressive forms, ‘folklore’, the one of universal
validity, the other of purely local relevance and intelligibility. From
this opposition one of the enduring tenets distinguishing art music and
other forms of ‘high art’ from folk music (and folklore generally)
would evolve: art constituted that which was generated for its own sake,
and was thus to be contemplated solely for its aesthetic qualities; the
expressive forms of the folk, on the other hand, would always be subordinated
to some immediate function, aesthetics being only of secondary concern.
Folklore, therefore, could never be more than a lesser form of art, just
as its creators were perceived as cultural inferiors and under-civilized.
As for the category popular music, it emerged toward the late 19th century
as a way of identifying the various musical forms taking shape in urban
centres. These styles seemed to fall somewhere between folk and art music,
drawing in equal measure from both: more cosmopolitan than folk music,
but lacking the aesthetic sophistication of art music. As urban populations
grew, these styles became progressively more visible, and with the emergence
of the recording technology and the radio, popular music became closely
associated with the music industry. Indeed, it was its very construction
as ‘commodity’ that gave popular music a negative aura. Whilst
the value of folk music could be seen to reside in its ‘authenticity’,
that of art music in its detachment for any commitments other than its
own integrity, popular music had to be content with vulgarity if it was
to gain any headway in the market.
These categories – it is worth remembering – developed in
western Europe in relation to the ways in which the European musical and
artistic spheres were perceived by the intelligentsia. However, there
have been radical global changes that have transformed the social world
and redefined economic relations throughout the region. Without doubt,
in Europe the peasantry has all but disappeared; indeed, even the distinction
between the rural and the urban has become increasingly meaningless, given
the ease of transport and the accessibility of technological advances
even in the most remote of areas. The power of the aristocracy and the
oligarchy has been progressively eroded, as industry and business based
in urban centres have become the primary sources of wealth. Access to
education and the cost of labour have provided unprecedented opportunities
for social ascent amongst rural agricultural and urban working classes,
radically altering the general standard of living of the population Thus,
the clear class differences that promoted marked forms of cultural segregation
have been reduced, and access to a wide range of musical universes is
now possible for ever larger numbers of people.
Yet, however much the world has changed, it must not be forgotten that
access to economic and technological developments have been extremely
unequal across the globe. If in Europe there are no longer large sectors
of the population that could be classed as peasants, people whose livelihoods
are linked to subsistence agricultural economies still persist in many
parts of the world, particularly in the poorest regions of the world.
Similarly, in such places feudal style oligarchies have also not disappeared.
And western style capitalism and the individualist ideologies that support
it are far from dominant throughout the globe. Thus, while the boundaries
between musical universes conceptualised in class terms have been blurring
in Europe, America and other prosperous regions of the world, the modes
of classifying distinct musical spheres in other parts of the world may
still be informed by the distribution of economic power and potential.
Critically, while in the deprived regions of the globe, many people have
only limited control over their lives, in more privileged parts of the
world the spheres for choices and opportunities are markedly more varied.
In the western world one can choose which musical universes one
wishes to participate in, and often choices are made in relation to the
associations that are invoked by such seemingly out-dated categories as
folk, art, and popular music. Indeed, many people continue to conceive
of the world of art music (and the high arts generally) as elitist. Their
prestige is certainly sustained through the heavy institutional backing
they receive, with considerable funds going into supporting state orchestras,
conservatories, concert halls, museums etc. The state takes on this role,
seeing the high arts as vehicles to further the ‘civilizing process’,
progressively elevating the ‘culture’ of the population as
As any ‘classical’ musician knows, many years of training
are required of those who make art music performance their profession.
Even to undertake such an endeavour requires ‘talent’, a concept,
which, as John Blacking repeated noted, limits access to the performance
realm. For Bourdieu, these mechanisms of exclusion ensure that the high
arts continue to serve as markers of social distinction. Nonetheless,
today, the world of art music is no longer the exclusive preserve of the
elites, if ever it really was. Today it is possible for members of the
middle and working classes to choose to engage in this aesthetic universe,
and they too can display discerning tastes. Indeed, the driver of a taxi
I regularly employed in Belfast spent the day driving about town listening
only to ‘classical’ music; his preferred genre was opera.
After discovering this musical universe somewhat late in life, he joined
a community choir and started to regularly secure season tickets to the
People can also choose to engage in musical forms commonly identified
as folk music – or ‘new folk music’, as it is referred
to by some. Clearly the legions of European performers of these genres
are not peasants and the performances they are involved in are not ‘functionally’
linked to a peasant life style. However, in this sphere, participants
can invoke the memory of a past era in which life was simpler and more
communally oriented than it is in the modern world of today. Importantly,
this was an era that somehow ‘we’ – our nation –
lost. Thus, folk musics might be viewed as focal points for the expression
of national sentiments and nostalgia for ‘our’ past, and the
revival movements emerging from them have led to the invention of countless
traditions aimed at restoring a sense of community in the highly competitive,
commoditized and undifferentiated cosmopolitan world that we now live
The huge range of styles encompassed by the umbrella term ‘popular
music’ provide countless alternatives through which people of all
social classes and ages can construct identities and present themselves
to others. There is perhaps no other musical sphere in which the forces
of hybritidy and differentiation are more marked than in contemporary
popular music. Styles develop by drawing on other forms, in processes
that fuse the meanings and associations linked to the forms from which
they borrow to generate new possibilities and choices for the presentation
of self, ranging, for instance, from the more democratic and egalitarian
orientations of punk to the discerning and technical artistry of metal
and its countless derivatives. Ideas about what it means to be a man,
a women, a teenager, a gay person, an Anglo-Indian, a Caribbean in London,
and so on, can all be articulated through creative bricolage in popular
idioms. And for those with concerns over the environment or the plight
of people in far away places, there’s ‘world music’.
In the contemporary western world, we are not only at liberty to construct
and represent ourselves through the commodities we surround ourselves
with, music being for many a central element in the definition of one’s
persona, we are practically compelled to do so. Our individuality –
or our own personal style – is defined by the aesthetic choices
we make. Our choices give us access to different sets of social circles
and voluntary associations where we hope to encounter like-minded people.
We have the potential, perhaps more than ever before, to be in control
of who we are and how we represent ourselves to others. And we can choose
simultaneously to display a discerning taste for art music in one sphere,
engage in a session of traditional Irish music in other moments, and listen
to a range of popular music styles from anywhere in the world on our iPods
at other times. And the more cosmopolitan we become, the wider in range
our musical choices are likely to become.
While the increased possibility of choice has led to an effective erosion
in traditional musical categories, the conceptual associations they evoke
have remained critical to the ways in which many musical choices are made.
Thus, it is clearly no longer of academic interest to classify different
music using these categories; instead, they might best be treated as ‘folk
categories’, and as such investigated in terms of the ways in which
they are informing the musical choices people are making. And remarkably,
the ‘folk’ use of these categories is truly global. Indeed,
they were fully operative in the ways in which people in Campanha, a small
former mining town in southern Minas Gerais, Brazil, discussed the musical
universe of the town. This is where, for the past decade, I have been
conducting research on the town’s musical life.
Folk categories in Campanha
Since colonial times, Campanha has prided itself in
its musical heritage, and one version of this story is told by the celebrated
local musician, Marcello Pompeu (1885-1988), in a small booklet entitled
Subsídios para a história da música da Campanha
(1977). It is important to note, however, that this document makes no
mention of and of the genres associated with the town's lower classes;
it focuses exclusively upon the musical activities of the local elites,
describing the processional bands, church choirs, orchestras, pianos,
serenades and parlour dances that entertained the more prosperous sectors
of Campanha during his long life.
This omission is entirely coherent with the dominant attitudes of the
local elites toward the expressive forms of the town’s subaltern
classes. Indeed, the social space in Campanha is marked by a strong class
divide. The local elites represent themselves as ‘enlightened’
(esclarecidos) and ‘cultured’ (gente de cultura)
in opposition to the lower classes, who are seen as ‘simple’
(simples) and ‘uncultured’ (gente de pouca cultura).
The lower classes, on the other hand, define themselves as ‘poor’
(pobres) in opposition to the ‘rich’ (ricos)
and ‘refined’ (gente fina). Viewed in terms of the
criteria used in the national census, however, most members of the local
elite would hardly be classed as rich, fitting more comfortably within
the category of middle class, or even lower middle or upper lower class.
They live primarily around the central core of the town, while the lower
classes, many of whom verge on the destitute, are concentrated in peripheral
neighbourhoods around the centre.
Musically this divide is made especially visible during the two major
religious festivals that mark the local annual calendar: Holy Week and
the Festival of Our Lady of the Rosary (October). Holy Week, as in other
towns throughout Minas Gerais, is Campanha’s most prestigious festival,
a legacy of the ‘baroque culture’ that developed in Minas
Gerais during the 18th century as a consequence of the wealth generated
by gold. Traditionally the celebrations feature the church choir, a small
orchestra and the town band, but given the constraints on space, I will
restrict this discussion to the choir. The choir’s repertoire for
the occasion includes pieces in the ‘barroco mineiro’
style (baroque of Minas Gerais) by such eminent composers as Manoel Dias
de Oliveira (c. 1735¬–1813 in São José del Rey
[now Tiradentes]) and Joaquim José Emerico Lobo de Mesquita (Diamantina,
1746–1805). The most prized pieces performed during Holy Week are
the two sets of motets known as the Motets of the Stations [of the Cross]
(Motetos de Passos) and the Motets of [Our Lady] of Pains (Motetos
de Dores), both by Manoel Dias de Oliveira. In their original form,
they were set to two four-part choirs, two flutes, two French horns and
bass, but in Campanha one of the choirs has been suppressed, as have the
French horns, and the flute parts are played by violins.
As currently constituted, the choir, know as the Coral Campanhense
(Campanha Choir), was formed in the late 1950s in an effort to ensure
that the repertoire associated with Holy Week would be performed competently;
since then membership has fluctuated as some members have left and others
recruited to replace them. The choir members are drawn primarily from
amongst the local elites, the vast majority of lighter skin colour. Furthermore,
the ratio of women to men is in the region of three to one. All choir
members participate on a voluntary basis, and they are involved primarily
for the enjoyment they get out of singing. Even though very few of them
can read music, they use sheet music, as it provides a melodic and rhythmic
'aide-memoire' and it helps them keep up with the texts, most
of which are in Latin. The choir’s full Holy Week repertoire, if
sung continuously omitting repeats, would lasts around six hours, all
of which has been memorised over years of performance.
The population of Campanha, especially those belonging to the local elites,
are proud to claim that the town was the cultural centre of the region
during the gold era, and the baroque nature of the Holy Week celebrations
is viewed as a testament to this. The festival, therefore, is a central
marker of local identity, highlighting the town’s cultural achievements.
To use Bourdieu’s terminology, the choir and its repertoire are
markers of distinction circumscribing the discerning tastes of those involved.
Holy Week in Campanha is, however, now under threat due to shifts in the
church’s orientation from a paternalistic stance to a preferential
option for the poor. Musically, this has meant the encouragement of ‘popular’
congregational singing, giving preference to a 'modern' repertoire that
is 'easy' to sing, as well as its efforts to ban the use of Latin, precisely
the language used in the choir's repertoire. The shift reached Campanha
in 1999, when the priest who had been in the town for over twenty years,
was substituted by a new priest aligned with the so-called ‘liturgical
renovation’. It was re-invigorated by the next priest, whose crusade
against ‘elitisms’ within the church has been even greater.
The past eight years, then, have been marked by considerable tension and
debate within the parish, since many locals feel that what is at issue
is nothing less than a threat to the town’s major emblems of local
identity. But it is not just any identity: the musical repertoire they
are now being offered by the church is seen as an offence to their aesthetic
sensibilities, and understandably, such feelings are strongest amongst
choir members and their families. Most of them have flatly refused to
lead congregational singing at mass within the current aesthetic environment.
In effect, the modes of religiosity that have sustained the baroque experiences
are now being challenged by a ‘modern’ and ‘popular’
church, headed by a clergy intent on redefining the role of the church.
Consequently, some lay communities are seeing their parish roles erode.
Indeed, in Campanha the Coral Campanhense is losing control over
their performances, and given that they are so functionally related to
the celebrations of Holy Week, the extended repertoire that was so painstakingly
memorised over decades may be left with no other context in which to be
performed. At least not by this choir: more and more, the main arenas
in which barroco mineiro is being heard are universities and
concert halls. Thus, a distinctly community-based musical universe, functionally
linked to its locality, the source of considerable aesthetic satisfaction,
may buckle under the onslaught of the ‘popular’ that is arriving
from the outside, as dictated by a central and global ecclesiastical authority.
While Holy Week has been dominated by ensembles whose membership belong
primarily to the local privileged sectors, during the Festival of the
Rosary music is provided by several African-Brazilian dance and percussion
ensembles known as congados, whose members come almost exclusively
from the subaltern classes. As in other parts of Brazil, the troupes are
associated with blacks, and a black presence is evident in most of the
groups. None of them, however, exclude people on the basis of skin colour.
In Campanha, blackness is as much a social as a racial category; as a
social category, it is constructed through an identification of the experience
of poverty with the historic subjugation of blacks in the country.
The festival is a legacy of the black confraternities of the colonial
period, which served as acceptable spheres for social activities amongst
slaves. The members of the confraternities elected their leaders each
year, one of whom would be crowned, and to celebrate the occasion, percussion
ensembles paraded through the streets. The legacy of these black courts
is still evident in contemporary festivals in honour of Our lady of the
Rosary, as in Campanha, where royal symbolism, in the form of crowns,
sceptres and capes, is still very much a part of the congado
tradition. These insignia have persisted because they ennoble those who
wear them and dignify the group they represent. Furthermore, ritualized
inversions call attention to social hierarchies.
In the last few years there have been from three to five active congados
in Campanha at any given time, ranging in size from around twenty to fifty
people or more. The groups are dominated by drums, including several large
bass drums known locally as treme-terras (literally earth-quakes),
various caixas (cylindrical double-headed drums) of different
sizes, and a few snare drums (tarois). Other percussion instruments
used include tambourines (pandeiros), reco-recos (cylindrical
scrapers) and shakers. Congados are not exclusively percussion
ensembles; they also employ string instruments, such as violas
(five double-coursed instruments slightly smaller than guitars), guitars,
bandolins (mandolin-type instruments with four double courses)
and violins, as well as an accordion or two and a pair of brass instruments,
such as cornets, trombones or tenor saxophones. Over the instruments short
verses, rarely more than four phrases in length, are sung responsorially
by two duos, firstly in parallel thirds, then in parallel sixths.
Among the local elites congados are viewed with some disdain.
Indeed, I was repeatedly warned to be cautious during my research, because
the social space was considered to be dangerous, a notion premised on
the perception that violence and fighting occurs frequently amongst congadeiros,
instigated by excessive drinking and rivalries between the groups. But
they are especially feared as spaces marked by the practice of black magic,
or macumba. Even during the main procession of the festival,
in which the congados process through the town bearing Our Lady
of the Rosary on their way to the church, the sound of their drums completely
dominating the soundscape, the ensembles attract limited attention outside
their own communities.
Congados have frequently been the target of suppression. Indeed,
they were systematically persecuted by the church, and only the oldest
members of the ensembles in Campanha can still recall being allowed to
enter the church building with their instruments to salute the saint.
Despite what one might expect, the ‘popular’ church seems
to have chosen to ignore the congados, as their projects can’t
be easily reconciled with the ‘unorthodoxies’ of ‘folk’
catholicism. Thus, as long as they remain in the streets, church authorities
are happy enough to leave them to their own devices. Nonetheless, the
congado’s public performance retain a carnivalesque ethos
as a means of communicating to the dominant sectors that they are there
solely to have some fun; they need not be feared.
The disparaging attitudes held toward congados are off-set by
yet another set of local discourses. Here the ensembles are placed in
the category of local folklore, which represents them as valuable repositories
of local heritage and potential tourist attractions. Respected voices
in Campanha claimed that ‘their’ congados should
receive local support, but because they are represented as local heritage
- that is, collective town property - the responsibility for supporting
them is made a matter for the state, exempting the individual citizen.
Although the dispensation of municipal funds is mediated by individuals
through clientelistic networks, state representatives can - and do - invoke
the complexities of government to distance themselves from any direct
link to the funds held by government, and can thereby keep donations to
a minimum. Nonetheless, in recent years the municipal government have
become the major patron of the congados, taking on some of the
financial responsibilities associated with the Festival of Our Lady of
the Rosary: it now serves meals to the congadeiros during the
festival; it provides transport for the ensembles from their neighbourhoods
to the church yard; and it supplies each group with a few instruments
When I asked one of the local leaders of a congado whether his activities
in the ensemble could be considered folklore, he responded: Eles fala
que é froclore (sic), mas pra nós é
religião (“They say it’s folklore, but to us it’s
religion”). This exchange took place at a ‘folklore demonstration’
organised by the local culture secretary at one of the town’s secondary
school. So I pushed the issue further, and asked, if that was the case,
why had he agreed to participate in the event, which clearly classed the
congado as folklore. The response: Veio convidar nós
pra gente poder mostrar o congado, então a gente não pode
negar. O santo é de todos (“They invited us so we could
show the congado, so we couldn’t refuse. The saint belongs
to everyone”). This episode highlights a dilemma facing the congados:
that of finding ways of securing support for their associations, which
is being achieved to some extent through folklorization, and yet ensure
they preserve autonomy and control over their activities.
Now that the musicological research emphasis
has shifted from ‘the music’ to musical processes and the
ways in which music is conceptualised, the division of labour circumscribed
by the categories ‘historical musicology’, ‘ethnomusicology’,
and ‘popular music studies’ seems redundant. Yet the perceptions
of the musical sphere that originally established these divisions are
still current in many parts of the world, informing people’s ideas
about music as well as their musical choices. Although they may now appear
to be little more than ‘folk’ labels, which, along with others,
are scattered around music stores to assist consumers in their musical
choices, their deployment can also be far more sinister, as the very legacy
from which they emerged was premised on conceptions linked to the inherent
value of different modes of musical expression.
While it may be self-evident to some that the complexity and sophistication
of western art music is the source of its inherent value, to others its
elitism and exclusiveness constitute signs of a non-democratic social
orientation that needs to be resisted. While subaltern modes of musical
expression might be easily romanticised and conceived as ‘the soul
of the nation’ by those whose experiences are removed, be it temporarily
or geographically, from the original producers, these same groups appear
quite differently to those living near them, such that marks of distinctions
and prejudice can be all too visible and entrenched in the modes of interaction
across the divide. Popular music too can be conceived as the ‘easy’
sounds that hinder critical thinking and a ‘true’ aesthetic
experience, or the sphere in which one can experience modernity and construct
a sense of ‘the true self’.
In the western world, such forces as commoditisation, individualism, and
cosmopolitanism may have created a social sphere in which people have
a wide range of musical styles to choose from to provide a soundtrack
to their lives. But in poorer parts of the world, local modes of musical
life may not be strong enough to resist the onslaughter of external and
global forces. In such cases people may only have the choice of accepting
or rejecting the choices made for them by powerful others, and their notions
about what should reach people’s ears will dictate what prevails
in the sound spaces under their control. How such categories as ‘art
music’, ‘folk music’ and ‘popular music’
are conceptualised may strongly impact upon how control of the public
soundscape is exercised.