Commodification, Imperialism and Resistance

Richard A. Rogers School of Communication Northern Arizona University

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Paper presented at the Western States Communication Association annual convention Vancouver, B.C. February 1999

World Music: Commodification, Imperialism and Resistance

(c) copyright 1999 Richard A. Rogers ABSTRACT

While Anglo-American musicians have long drawn from non-Western musical traditions, over the last fifteen years the category “world music” has become institutionalized and popularized in North America. This essay examines the complexities involved in the appropriation, consumption and celebration of the music of “other” cultures in a North American cultural and economic context.

Multiple and intertwined dialectics–meaning versus economics, use-value versus exchange-value, appropriation versus dialogue– complicate any simplified evaluation of these recordings and performances. Through an analysis of the meanings that circulate around the commodities that make up “world music,” this essay calls attention to the perpetuation of neocolonial relations through these forms while refusing to dismiss their oppositional value in relation to contemporary cultural and economic conditions.

World Music: Commodification, Imperialism and Resistance

In 1992 I purchased a compact disc entitled Planet Drum. Produced by Mickey Hart, percussionist for the Grateful Dead, the CD included compositions and performances by an ensemble of percussionists from around the globe. While Hart’s two books about rhythm, drumming, cosmology and culture (Planet Drum and Drumming at the Edge of Magic) often focus on distinct musical traditions, the recordings on Planet Drum and a second CD entitledAt the Edge (the audio companion to Drumming at the Edge of Magic) represent the fusion of several different traditions and styles. At least on the surface,Planet Drum is a paradigm case of a genuinely multicultural production. The recording mixes the instruments, styles and compositions of percussionists from the U.S., Brazil, Nigeria and India. In addition to a number of other recordings of this type that Hart has coordinated, he also records and produces “traditional” music from around the world, such as the polyphonic chants of Tibetan monks; flute, sarangi and tabla music from India; powwow songs of the Great Lakes tribes; and African drumming and chanting from the Sudan, Egypt and Nigeria.

Listening to Planet Drum and these other “world music” recordings, I gained a greater sense for Hart’s recollection of the effects of the

music of Babatunde Olatunji (a Nigerian drummer who now lives in New York) on Europeans and North Americans: “The room would transform. It was as though the rhythm of the drum was calling something up from these sleek cosmopolitan bodies that had been asleep. There was a power there that I couldn’t ignore” (Hart,Drumming 91). Neither could I. That these musics are–admittedly mediated and, to varying degrees, impure–expressions of “traditional,” “indigenous,” and/or non-Western cultures is significant, a key element in explaining their appeal as well as a source of concern. Many of the songs from Planet Drum are based on “primitive” themes: the struggle of life and death (“Udu Chant”), paleolithic rites (“Temple Caves”), and “The Hunt.” Is it that these sounds– heavily rhythmic, percussive, developed out of preindustrial traditions–touch something “primitive,” something repressed in contemporary Western culture? Do they fulfill some need or desire or impulse that goes unaddressed in my Anglo-American cultural milieu?

That predominantly percussive music should demonstrate a cluster of traits associating it with the primitive is unsurprising. Planet Drum draws heavily from the musical traditions of “other” (non-Western) cultures, is centered around preindustrial themes, utilizes the body as an instrument, and is very masculine–thematically, impressionistically, and in that only one of the seven musician/composers is female. These characteristics are quite consistent with the meanings that cluster around the drum in my (culturally determined) experience. The drum is the instrument of the savage, the cannibal, the dark-skinned natives hiding in the jungle in Tarzan movies. I recall several jungle movies when the invisible natives are playing their drums and we are informed–by a native guide or a particularly jungle-savvy white man–that when the “war drums” go silent the group must become concerned because it signifies an imminent attack. I hear drums used consistently in films, television shows, advertisements and nature documentaries to evoke a sense of the primitive, especially in relation to the jungle. A certain genre of drumming–probably coded as “African” by many Euro- Americans–serves as a sign of danger, violence, darkness, evil. The Rhythm Devils’ additions to the soundscape of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, also produced by Hart, are a prime example.

As I immersed myself in world music, both as a cultural critic and as a consumer, collector and “fan,” my initial question was “why now?” What is it about the particular historical moment of the late twentieth century and the cultural circumstances in contemporary North American culture that make percussive music based in the cultural traditions of marginalized and colonized groups so appealing? Perhaps equally or more important, how do these recorded musical performances articulate with both non-Western realities and Western imaginations of those realities? How does the economic and auditory consumption of these performances constitute a transformation of Western cultural values and/or a perpetuation of colonial relations of economic and cultural power? In valuing the music of the “other,” in putting that “other” music into the Western music industry’s systems of technology, economics and consumption, what has been done to the “other” and what has been done to the Western “self”? Is this evidence of a move toward cross-cultural exchange and multicultural inclusiveness, or a perpetuation of cultural imperialism? Can it be both?

From the use of non-Western musical forms and artists by Anglo-Americans such as Paul Simon, Mickey Hart, David Byrne and Peter Gabriel to the recording, marketing and touring of groups such as the Bulgarian Women’s Choir, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Tarika and the Gyuto Monks, radically different forms of musical expression and rhythmic sensibilities haved gaining a significant degree of popularity in the West–although the less they are incorporated into the standards of the Western music industry and the less they are associated with a prominent Western musician, the less the chance of significant popularity (Taylor). In addition to formalized groups such as these, recorded and marketed through the Western music industry, recordings made earlier in this century by anthropologists and others of traditional musics in their “native” contexts are being restored and released. Clearly, these are not “pure” indigenous forms; they are actively being commodified and used as a source for innovation and profit.

Despite its reworking at the hands of Western music technology and marketing, world music still contains, I believe, elements of rhythmic sensibilities associated with what many North Americans may lack: a connection to the earth and the body, both materially and spiritually, and to some sense of “authentic” community (Rifkin). Mickey Hart writes that “world music–and the percussive impulse that drives it–reaches. . .into emotional and spiritual dialogue with older oral traditions” (Planet Drum 7). As a magazine advertisement for Drumming at the Edge of Magic put it, “Before words. Before music. There was the beat.” Yet world music is not simply nostalgic; it is intimately linked to new age spirituality, Dead Head culture, and more holistic views of the environment and other “progressive” political movements. World music can serve as a response to the alienation many feel in contemporary North American society: fragmented world views, the loss of community, the lack of contact with the earth and natural rhythms, increasing asceticism, and an excessive tilting of the scales toward technology and computers. The meanings Western culture has associated with drums and rhythm, meanings that have been used for their demonization–“primitive,” “tribal,” “natural”–are now the basis for their appeal.

This essay focuses on the meanings circulated around various “world music” recordings and performances in the cultural and economic context of European North America. How have these diverse and sometimes alien musics come to be valued by a culture

that, until recently, shunned them as barbaric noise? What might these musics mean to the socially situated subjects who consume them? What changes might their widespread appeal indicate? What risks are involved?

To answer these questions, I will begin by reviewing the category of world music, its emergent popularity, varieties

and controversies. With that context, I will analyze the linguistic texts which create a context for this music’s consumption: liner notes, interviews with artists and producers, advertisements, books and magazines articles. In doing so, I will illustrate the central, recurring themes of community, tradition and nature in the context of the process of commodification. Given that upon entry into the Western musical economy these recordings and performances will be inescapably commodified, what implications does that process hold for the potentially resistant meanings these recordings can help produce? Does the valuing of diverse musics hold the potential to transform Western values and cultural attitudes toward the “other”? What are the tensions between the lived experience of the music and its commodified meanings?

The answers to such questions reverberate beyond the category of world music, extending into any area of communication and culture that can be commodified and inserted into an international system of exchange (Roberts). Amidst claims that the “new” economy and the “global village” created by communication technology are increasing understanding, tolerance, opportunity and equality, an examination of cross-cultural commodification is imperative.

World Music

“World music” or “world beat” is a broad category that has been institutionalized in the North American music industry over the last fifteen years (despite a much longer habit of borrowing from non-Western musical traditions). The category can include the traditional music of indigenous peoples, the borrowing of non-Western musical styles and instrumentation by Western musicians, and the fusion of multiple musical traditions (Conover; Goodwin and Gore; Henderson). In practice, just about anything other than mainstream Western music (e.g., classical, jazz, country, rock), including at times even such genres as reggae, is dumped into the category (Hernandez). While not all of this music is predominantly percussive, much of it is (hence the label “world beat”).

Popular Anglo-American musicians such as Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, Stewart Copeland, Sting and David Byrne have to some degree integrated indigenous musical styles into their recordings. Undoubtedly the best known example is Simon’s African- influenced Graceland project. For his next album, Rhythm of the Saints, Simon turned to Brazilian music, as has David Byrne (who also, with the Talking Heads in the early 1980s, borrowed heavily from African music). Peter Gabriel drew from the artists, traditions and existing recordings of music from North Africa, India, Armenia, Kurdistan and elsewhere for Passion, music he produced for Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. In turn, Gabriel, Hart and others have produced original recordings of some of these “traditional” musics and released them through Western labels. Many successful “world beat” recordings have been produced with Western “sponsors” who often, paradoxically, relate to the traditional musicians they record as mentors.

The Bulgarian State Radio and Television Female Vocal Choir’s first volume of Les Mystere Des Voix Bulgares had a healthy stay onBillboard’s pop charts after its 1987 release (doing particularly well in England), the second volume received a Grammy in 1989, and their tours of North America have been immensely successful. Released through Elektra’s “Explorer Series,” these recordings were made over a number of decades by Swiss producer Marcel Cellier. The Choir was established in 1952 to preserve and popularize the folk songs of Bulgaria’s various regions. Their compositions have been modernized, given a “new authenticity” by contemporary Bulgarian composers, yet retain a vocal quality and musical structure profoundly alien to western European musical sensibilities (Le Mystere, liner notes). This music’s appeal crosses conventional lines, claiming lovers of rock and classical music alike, and draws lavish praise such as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s oft-quoted claim that it is “the most beautiful music on the planet” (Le Mystere).

Other successes in the world beat arena are the recordings of the South African a cappella men’s ensemble Ladysmith Black Mambazo (who worked with Simon on Graceland and, while undoubtedly gaining a boost from that exposure, had previously released their own recordings) and Hart’s Planet Drum, which topped Billboard’s world music chart (which it inaugurated in 1990) for 26 weeks and won a Grammy in 1991 for “Best World Music Album.” It is no accident that the Bulgarian Women’s Choir, Ladysmith Black Mambazo,

and a CD like Planet Drum are the greater commercial successes of world beat. They are far more suited to the existing music industry framework: they have identifiable artists, are organized at least partially if not primarily for commercial purposes, and their songs are composed (or their arrangements altered from traditional folk forms) with recording and staged performances in mind. Put in other terms, they are not “purely” organic expressions of the folk cultures from which they are derived. Despite these successes, however, it also is clear that the greatest commercial payback to come from world beat has been reserved for the Anglo-American artists such as Paul Simon who more severely incorporate traditional musics into Western terms (Taylor).

Many of the less popular though by no means unimportant recordings filling up the blossoming “international” or “world beat” sections in music stores more closely resemble anthropological recordings of somewhat more “authentic” traditional musics (i.e., less transformed by the constraints of recording and other elements of the Western music industry). In addition to the contemporary pseudo-ethnographic recordings being made by the likes of Hart, recordings of indigenous musics from around the world that have lain dormant in the Smithsonian for years are being catalogued and remastered; 2000 such CDs are expected to be released (Hart, “Interview”). In many ways, this is nothing new–the Smithsonian’s Folkways label has been doing this for years. Although these recordings are now being taken more seriously from a musical standpoint, instead of merely as pieces of ethnographic data, “world beat” recordings and musical styles have also gained some popularity in the past, as with Babatunde Olatunji’s 1960 release Drums of Passion and Latin and Caribbean forms such as the mambo, salsa and calypso.

Now, however, world music is an institutionalized category and has a certain appeal as a category, not just as isolated artists or particular forms (Conover; Goodwin and Gore; Henderson; Jeffrey; La Franco; Taylor). Labels and imprints abound, such as Rykodisc’s “The World,” Elektra’s “Explorer Series,” Green Linnet’s “Xenophile,” Putumayo World Music and Triloka as well as those launched by popular artists: Gabriel’s “Real World,” Byrne’s “Luaka Bop,” George Winston’s “Dancing Cat” and Paddy Moloney’s (of the Chieftans) “Unisphere.” In 1992 The Virgin Directory of World Music was published (Sweeney), followed in 1994 by World Music: The Rough Guide (Broughton et al.). Many radio stations (admittedly more so in college and community stations, as world beat is a recognized category but is nonetheless marginal) now have world music programs. In 1996 Public Radio International aired a thirteen-part series entitled “Worlds of Music” (Bambarger) and PBS’s 1993 series Dancing highlighted music from around the globe. Even more in the mainstream, in 1998 CNN launched a weekly half-hour program, “World Beat” (Hay).


Two existing scholarly analyses of “world music” are Andrew Goodwin and Joe Gore’s “World Beat and the Cultural Imperialism Debate” and George Lipsitz’s Dangerous Crossroads (see also Chambers; Erlmann; Feld; Guilbault; Hernandez; Roberts; Sharma; Taylor). Goodwin and Gore focus on two competing interpretations of world music. The first is a neo-marxian critique of world music as an instance of “cultural imperialism” (Boyd-Barrett). This perspective focuses on the role of world music in a Western-dominated system of global economic exchange, often having little to say about the content or reception of the music itself (for a notable exception, see Taylor). On the other side, some cultural studies scholars emphasize the diversifying and potentially subversive effects of non-Western musics on Western culture (referred to by Roberts as “indigenization”). Neither of these analyses, Goodwin and Gore point out, analyze world music musicologically; the former focuses on economics and the latter on relatively abstract ideology.

Ultimately, Goodwin and Gore discount the cultural imperialism thesis. First, world beat does represent a significant trend toward reversing the unidirectional flow of culture from first to third world identified by the proponents of the cultural imperialism thesis. Second, they argue that we must have a theory that accounts not only for patterns of global ownership of culture, but for patterns of global discourse–that is, while economics affects discourse, the latter cannot be reduced to the former. Finally, they also argue that the “cultural subversion” argument, while holding some promise, overlooks potentially reactionary uses and readings of world music such as its function as “aural tourism” of the “exotic other” (for more on this thematic, see Birnbaum; Hermes; Sharma; Taylor; Torgovnick). Ultimately, while these authors challenge both poles in the argument, they argue that “we have no idea what third world sounds mean in the West” (76), a gap I hope to begin to fill in.

Lipsitz is concerned with both the potential influence of world music in the West and in its “home” contexts. He is interested in the promises and the risks involved in the fusion of diverse musics in a variety of national, geographic, socioeconomic, and cultural contexts. How does the transportation of music all around the globe create new senses of place while potentially destroying others? While Lipsitz sees hope in such fusions, he also cautions us that “this dynamic dialogue…does not necessarily reflect relations of reciprocity and mutuality. Inter-cultural communication does not automatically lead to inter-cultural cooperation” (4). In terms of the West, “citizens in advanced industrialized nations have long enjoyed the opportunity of consuming cultural commodities produced in colonized ‘hinterlands'” but such opportunities have not necessarily produced tolerance or affirmation for racial, cultural and other differences (4-5). At the same time, the “new discursive spaces” enabled by the postindustrial/postnational/information age allow us “to inhabit many different ‘places’ at once” (5-6). As a result, old models of culture and economics may no longer account for the dynamics of world music:

Music from aggrieved communities still serves traditional purposes of novelty, diversion, and exoticism for many consumers, but a poly-lateral dialogue among aggrieved populations and a crisis of confidence in declining industrialized nations gives new valence to the cultural creations emanating from aggrieved communities, making the relationship between “margins and “center” dramatically different. (7).

In short, Lipsitz understands the various forms of world music through the metaphor of a “dangerous crossroads,” “an intersection between the undeniable saturation of commercial culture in every area of cultural endeavor” and the emergent use of “the circuits of commodity production of circulation to envision and activate new social relations” (12).

The dialectical tensions revealed by Goodwin and Gore, Lipsitz and others (e.g., Chambers; Erlmann; Fiske Understanding; Lull; Taylor)–exchange-value versus use-value, context of production versus context of reception, economics versus meaning, domination versus resistance–drive my analysis of world music’s consumption in Euro-America. My training as an academic and a cultural critic leads me to see the exploitations and appropriations made in contexts of unequal power while my enjoyment and interpretation of the music push me to hear something more hopeful. World music as a new genre occurs amidst technologies, migrations, economic transformations and communicative structures “that render obsolete some traditional political practices and identities while creating complicated and complex new cultural fusions with profound political implications” (Lipsitz 13). Understanding more about world music and its consumption in the West not only adds to the debate about this genre’s significance, but also illuminates these emergent social formations and identities and their relationship to the dominant and residual forms they may replace (Williams).

I take as a given that the performances of world music that I purchase and listen to are commodified. However, labeling something as commodified is similar to labeling something as racist or sexist. There is a level of understanding that comes from

understandinghow something is racist, not just that it is racist. Looking at the “how” in addition to the “what” can provide insight into hegemonic tactics, possibilities for resistance, social transformations and the articulations between different elements of a social formation.


In the conditions of capitalism, any object that enters the exchange system is inescapably commodified. Commodification carries a number of implications, enacts a series of transformations. Commodification abstracts the value of an object (or action) so it can enter the system of exchange. In this process, the intrinsic use-value and the specificity of the labor invested in the commodity are lost: it becomes, in practice, equivalent to all other commodities (Marx). In order to create the appearance of difference (and hence value) amidst this equivalence, additional meanings are attached to the commodity. The commodity becomes a fetish, a representation of values that have no intrinsic relation to the object’s use-value. These meanings are the (illusory) ends to which the commodity itself has become the means of attainment, thereby further distancing the commodity from its use-value. These meanings are reifications: their artificiality must be covered over, forgotten, collapsed into the object. This both enhances the illusion of the commodity’s “intrinsic” (fetishized) value and serves to mystify the labor relations involved in its production. By covering up the actual conditions

of production with reified meanings, consumers are not faced with an awareness of their participation in the exploitation of another’s labor. Individuals as producers and consumers are atomized and collectivity is prevented. Ultimately, any values intrinsic to the object or service (use-value and the real social relations involved in production and consumption) are lost: commodities are reduced to the means for their own consumption. As the president of Putumayo World Music put it, “We’re a lifestyle company………………………………………………………………………………….. We want to

develop relationships with retailers who understand lifestyle marketing” (Morris 73).

To understand the commodification of world music, I want to begin by examining three clusters of meanings associated with these cultural products. What meanings, identities, social relations and pleasures are being offered as the “ends” attainable by the “means” of world music? What are the problematics and possibilities involved in those reifications? I develop my answers these questions based on a thematic analysis of a variety of linguistic texts surrounding world music: liner notes, advertisements, interviews, magazine articles and books.


One set of meanings layered on world music centers around the creation of a community. This appeal to community comes in two forms. First, many of the compositions for world music are based on traditional musics such as work songs, and thereby reference an idyllic sense of communities being created and sustained from within instead of from above. In the liner notes from Kodo: Heartbeat Drummers of Japan, George Ken Kochi writes that

In the past, the pulse of the taiko was vital in synchronizing the energies of men working together. The precise execution of a taiko piece has similar demands–the drummers should ideally breathe as one. For Kodo’s members, running together in groups reinforces the process of becoming one with oneself and with another. From this rhythmic harmony comes the strength of communal effort which is a key element in understanding Kodo and the qualities which make them uniquely Japanese. (7)

Similarly, Marilyn Green writes of Kodo that “the absolute unanimity of the rhythm doesn’t come across as discipline imposed from the outside, but like an intrinsic response to a common impulse, an unseen conductor beneath blood and bone” (34). These descriptions reference a preindustrial time characterized by communal integration and collective efforts, in stark contrast to Taylorism, Fordism and other modern modes of production.

The second sense of community for which world beat in particular becomes a fetish is a vision of global unity. World beat musics of various kinds–produced by “multicultural” ensembles, created by Western musicians borrowing from non-Western traditions, or simply non-Western musics made available to Westerners–are valued as intercultural exchanges and as the discovery and performance of common bonds. The members of Kodo “dream of an international center which will attract all those with a common desire for global cultural exchange of the arts” (Kodo 5). Green reports that in 1988 that dream came true with the official opening of “Kodo Village” on Sado Island (Kodo’s home since 1971). A week-long celebration drew artists from all over the world: “The reality of the deep connection with nature and the ancient bond with the drum allows them to move in the same rhythm” (Green 37). “Maybe Kodo       through the power of their drums, can bring us all closer together in our whole earth village” (Kodo 7). Quetzalcoatl

Productions of Flagstaff, Arizona promoted such a goal. Flyers from this organization were distributed at various drumming events in 1993 and 1994 for “Drums Around the World: A Vision of Global Unity.” The plan was to have 24 hours of continuous global drumming on August 28, 1994, from sunrise to sunset in each time zone, “to initiate an annual day for the people of the world to drum for World Peace.”

Predictably, this theme of a global unity that is simultaneously structured in diversity is particularly prevalent around recordings produced by “multicultural” ensembles. Mickey Hart describes the Diga Rhythm Band, of which he was a member, as “the world’s percussion coming together for a brief moment in time………………………………………………………………………… It is music of the whole earth. Diga is a jewel” (Around the World, liner

notes). The 1991 CD Planet Drum, produced by Hart, mixes the instruments, musical styles and compositions of percussionists from the U.S. (Hart), Brazil (Airto Moreira and Flora Purim), Nigeria (Babatunde Olatunji and Sikiru Adepoju) and India (Zakir Hussein and T. H. “Vikku” Vinayakram). In the liner notes, Hart seems to try to highlight the “purity” of the multicultural endeavor by

indicating that “there was no agenda other than to play and see what rhythms emerged. We each brought our own sounds to the ensemble.” Here the emphasis is not on the purity of traditions (see below), but on the fusion of separate traditions. For example, in his description of “Island Groove” he explains that

this song evolved as the rhythms one person played reminded another of something in their own background. We were able to collectively draw upon our various traditions, and contribute individually to the creation of this composition.

These descriptions of the Planet Drum CD mirror the conception of “planet drum” put forth in Hart’s two books and in the image on the covers of both thePlanet Drum book and CD. The covers are dominated by the painted head of a drum, in the middle of which is a small black and green earth, ringed by four animals and four human figures playing drums, all of whom appear to be dancing on an earth hardly larger than any of the eight individual figures. Similar meanings are layered on Koorunba’s CD Walkabout, a recording which, we are told,

merges instruments from several distinctive cultures and regions of the earth. . .from the royal courts of India to the 40,000 year old culture of Aboriginal Australia. . . . Seemingly boundless horizons can be created. . .through means of the international language and harmony we call music. (liner notes)

Discussing these meanings in the context of “commodification” gives them a rather sinister bent. What is “wrong” with images of community and global unity? The potential objections are many. The nostalgia for a “village community” is both unrealistic and potentially dangerous in that it overlooks the limitations and oppressions involved in such a social system. It also projects onto more “primitive” cultures (“the Other”) the contemporary Western desire for purity, authenticity and oneness (Torgovnick). In terms of the expansion of this idea of community to the contemporary global situation, the risks arise from the blinders created by a naive pluralism. Issues of disproportionate power and profit involved in commercial and cultural interactions between the “first” and “third” worlds are rarely highlighted (see Taylor; Wallis and Malm). When such issues are raised, as with Paul Simon’s Gracelandproject (e.g., Feld; Hamm), the conventional, pluralist response is swift and vehement (e.g., Laing).

I am going to explore these critiques in greater depth later in this essay. At this point, however, I would like to insert Fredric Jameson’s position concerning the importance of “utopian impulses” such as those for community and global unity. Jameson argues that “mass culture” does not simply impose the dominant ideology on a passive audience. Instead “genuine social and historical content must be first tapped and given some initial expression” (Signatures 29). Mass culture texts

cannot do their job without deflecting. . .the deepest and most fundamental hopes and fantasies of the collectivity, to which they can therefore, no matter in how distorted a fashion, be found to have given voice. (30)

Jameson’s bias leads him to assume that the culture industry is always successful in channeling these utopian desires toward hegemonic ends. In the case at hand, for example, the desire for community is channeled toward the consumption of a commodity, world beat recordings, that are (presumably) generally listened to in private. Not only is the system perpetuated by an act of consumption, but by an act–solitary listening–that is the opposite of the communal impulse that drives it.

Despite Jameson’s general pessimism, his argument concerning the importance of the utopian impulse must be highlighted. For Jameson, the essence of the utopian desire is that “it expresses the unity of a collectivity,” the seed of class consciousness (Political Unconscious 291). In addition to the “negative hermeneutic” (the story of incorporation and the management of anxieties) practiced by most Marxist cultural critics, a “positive hermeneutic” is needed wherein the utopian desires in cultural texts and practices are deciphered and affirmed. As Jameson explains, all contemporary works of art have as their underlying appeal, in however repressed or distorted a form,

our deepest fantasies about the nature of social life, both as we live it now, and as we feel in our bones it ought rather to be lived. To reawaken, in the midst of a privatized and psychologizing society, obsessed with commodities and bombarded by the ideological

slogans of big business, some sense of the ineradicable drive towards collectivity. . .is surely an indispensable precondition for any meaningful Marxist intervention in contemporary culture. (Signatures 34)

The desire for community, as well as other desires to be discussed below, represent “genuine social and historical content”; they are a response to the lived reality of the contemporary socioeconomic order in the West. The strength of the impulse toward collective action and global solidarity in the discourse about world music should not be negated by those interested in a socialist politics or other forms of opposition to contemporary conditions. Neither should we let down our critical guard, Jameson’s negative hermeneutic. Take the next cluster of meanings linked to world beat. . . .

Tradition and Preservation

The desire for community is often cast with a decidedly nostalgic tone. Obo Addy’s CD Okropong is subtitled “Traditional Music of Ghana” and the liner notes inform us that this “master drummer of the Ga people…………………………………… is committed to passing along his traditions with

people throughout the world through his recordings.” Similarly, Kodo’s compositions and instruments are almost all “traditional,” befitting the group’s ideology:

They envisioned a movement to turn back the postwar tide of rapid and excessive westernization and with it the disintegration of traditional values. . . . Their mission was to instill youth with a commitment to a greater purpose–to preserve and to continue the past traditions of performing arts then being threatened by time and cultural erosion. (Kodo, liner notes)

Similarly, the liner notes of Babatunde Olatunji’s Drums of Passion open with a description of the small Nigerian town in which he grew up, thereby grounding his music–despite his long residence in the U.S.–in a “traditional” setting.

The meaning of “tradition” expands beyond a simple nostalgia for the idealized view of “community” in “traditional” cultures. The cluster of meanings here also includes purity, authenticity, and preservation. The liner notes to Addy’s Okropong inform us that “a number of the songs you will hear have never before been recorded,” as if their “aura” (Benjamin) would therefore be more intact, their purity unsullied by Western technology and Western ears: a kind of virgin territory. What we are being sold here is “authenticity” (Hermes; Hernandez; Sharma; Taylor). Listen to this description of “The World” series:

Rykodisc and percussionist/producer Mickey Hart’s 360° Productions will present authentic musics from diverse nations and styles, selected for their beauty, power and significance in the precarious ecology of world music. Mickey Hart has recorded these rare and inspiring performances with a near legendary pursuit of sonic accuracy, in locations ranging from the Nubian desert to Arctic tundra. The original tapes have been digitally mastered for utmost fidelity to the original experience. (Diga, liner notes)

This strikes me as an odd sort of “cultural” authenticity.

In Noise: The Political Economy of Music, Jacques Attali argues that until contemporary times there were three stages of musical production and reception in the West, each corresponding to the dominant political economy of the time. Music originated in ritual sacrifice, wherein violence is channeled and vented, assuring the continuation of the social order. Music eventually replaced this ritual: noise is murder and music is the sacrifice, the restoration of order. Beginning in the early eighteenth century and roughly coinciding with the spread of capitalism, music ceased to be ritual sacrifice and moved into the network of representation, music as spectacle. The paradigm case of music in this network is the concert: music is separated from everyday life, commodified, consumed in passivity and silence. Exchange becomes a central part of the process and function of music: music becomes “the theatrical representation of a world order, an affirmation of the possibility of harmony in exchange” (57).

Emerging toward the end of the nineteenth century and coming to completion in the twentieth, recording and reproduction technologies turned music from representation to repetition. Repetition began as a byproduct of representation; the recording was a means of preserving representation. Soon, however, repetition became the dominant force. With the adoption of recording technology and mass production, music is no longer localized, it is everywhere and nowhere; power becomes “diluted, masked, anonymous”

(Attali 88). This network destroys any remaining element of genuine sociality in music; each person has a solitary relation with the recording. We become consumers and stockpilers of music.

Among other effects, Attali notes that in the musical network of repetition, the final recording is produced by engineers:

The performer is only one element contributing to the overall quality; what counts is the clinical purity of the acoustics……. The record

listener, conditioned by these production criteria, also begins to require a more abstract form of aesthetics. Sitting in front of his set, he [sic] behaves like a sound engineer, a judge of sounds……………………………………. The new aesthetic of performance excludes error, hesitation, noise. It

freezes the work out of festival and the spectacle; it reconstructs it formally, manipulates it, makes it abstract perfection. (105-106)

In short, “the absence of noise (of blemish, of error)…. has become a criterion for enjoyment” (124). Writing prior to the mass

introduction of digital recording technology, Attali’s comments are even more relevant now. The drive for “authenticity”–defined at least in part by technical perfection–leads to attempts to “recover” the authenticity in old recordings. Hart serves on the board of the Smithsonian Institution’s Folkways Records. He works with their collections of recordings, such as those of traditional blues performers, made in the early parts of this century on spools that are so degraded that in some instances they can be played only once. The recordings are transferred to a digital medium, then computerized visual representations of the sounds are used to remove the “pops” and “crackles” and other “imperfections” and “degradations” (Invention).

Whether reworking old recordings or striving for “sonic accuracy” in his current recordings of world music, I honestly appreciate Hart’s efforts. My musical aesthetics have been formed by the network of repetition, after all. But I do not have to think very far to question the link between a certain digital definition of “sonic accuracy” and the “authenticity” of a CD “containing” the traditional music of a non-Western culture. Just because the sound has maintained “the utmost fidelity to the original experience” by no means guarantees “authenticity.” At the “Festival of the Drum” held in Springdale, Utah in 1993, one of the featured groups was the Nigerian Talking Drum Ensemble, led by Francis Awe. Awe explained, as we sat in our seats watching him on stage, that it did not make sense for us to sit passively and be separated from the performers; in his Yoruba tradition, there is no “audience,” only participants of various kinds. We could not inhabit a Western-style amphitheater and experience an “authentic” Yoruba drum performance (and that is without getting into the lack of a “traditional” ritual context). How could my possession of a CD of the ensemble have anything to do with “authenticity”?

The final meaning in this cluster is, perhaps, even more problematic. It is hinted at in the description of “The World” series quoted above with the phrase “the precarious ecology of world music.” In describing Steven Feld’s recordings of the Kaluli, Hart writes that “what you are listening to is endangered music, music on the brink of extinction” (Around the World, liner notes). The project here is the same as for endangered species: preservation. The liner notes in Drums of Passion explain that

Babatunde Olatunji has recaptured some of his early impressions in his drum beats and has given them new zest and power in order to preserve the remnants of “primitive” folk music before its gradual disappearance from a fast-changing culture and continent.

This appears to be an instance of what James Clifford terms “the salvage paradigm, reflecting a desire to rescue ‘authenticity’ out of destructive historical change” (“Other Peoples” 121). A number of troubling assumptions drive such a project, at least some of which appear relevant to world music.

As Johannes Fabian and others have pointed out, at the core of mainstream anthropological endeavors in the twentieth century is the Western sense of time as linear and irreversible. Societies are ordered in terms of their “progress,” from savage to civilized. In this system of meaning, space becomes transposed into time; in other words, cultures from around the world can be arranged temporally according to their level of development, their temporal proximity to Europe. As a result, the “ethnographic presents” of non-Western cultures represent European culture’s past. “Temporality is reified and salvaged as origin, beauty, and knowledge” (Clifford,Predicament 222). The value of other cultures (and their artifacts) is the insight they give us into our past; the preservation of other cultures is the preservation of our own (that is, European) history.

The impulse to preserve is heightened by what was referred to in the above description of “The World” series as “the precarious ecology of world music.” The assumption here concerns the role of “traditional” cultures in world development.

In a salvage/pastoral setup most non-western peoples are marginal to the advancing world system. Authenticity in culture or art exists just prior to the present–but not so distant or eroded as to make collection or salvage impossible. Marginal, non-western groups constantly (as the saying goes) enter the modern world. And whether this entry is celebrated or lamented, the price is always this: local, distinctive paths through modernity vanish. These historicities are swept up in a destiny dominated by the capitalist west and by various technologically advanced socialisms. (Clifford, “Other Peoples” 122)

Within such a framework, in which the stability, purity and essence of any non-Western culture is threatened from the point of its first contact with the West, authenticity “is produced by removing objects and customs from their current historical situation”

(Clifford, Predicament 228). Kodo’s home island, for example, “seems to exist in a time warp unhindered by the pace of modernization” (Kodo, liner notes). As Clifford explains, within the framework of the “salvage paradigm” collecting “implies a rescue of phenomena from inevitable historical decay or loss. The collection contains what ‘deserves’ to be kept, remembered, and treasured” (231). Such a logic legitimizes the rescue of “authentic musics. . . selected for their beauty, power and significance” from the “precarious ecology of world music” (Diga, liner notes).

As I indicated in my discussion of “sonic accuracy,” I truly appreciate both the impulse to preserve and its consequences. The absence of world music, even if limited to the recordings of “traditional” musics, would represent an immense loss to my musical sustenance. I cannot speak to what motivates Hart or others engaged in the recording of non-Western musics. I do believe, however, that the salvage paradigm describes a set of meanings and assumptions within which the impetus to collect world music both makes sense and is commonly made sense of–there is a certain feeling (to my sensibilities quite legitimate) that much of it is, like that of the Kaluli, “music on the brink of extinction.” I can agree with the “need,” the value in such an endeavor (for me), while also recognizing the paternalist and colonialist (i.e., liberal) assumptions that guide it. What I am buying when I purchase a commodity called “world music” is much more than the CD and the music encoded in it –I am buying reifications such as “tradition,” “authenticity” and “preservation” as well as a reduction in my own guilt. Many world music recordings include statements that part of the proceeds from the sales will go to “preserve” whatever culture or habitat is involved. The contradiction between the drives for “preservation” and intercultural interaction/global unity (see above) does not seem to be experienced as such, though recent commentaries have raised concerns over a need for musicians to be more aware of the originating context of the music they appropriate (Birnbaum; Cohen; Hermes; Taylor).

Finally, the salvage paradigm carries with it a certain view of culture, particularly non-Western culture, as “enduring, traditional,

structural (rather than contingent, syncretic, historical)” (Clifford, Predicament 235). The assumption is that the state in which a culture is “found” by Westerners is its pure, authentic state. “Traditional” cultures are assumed to be static and self-contained. However, [                   [reference to author omitted]           ], such assumptions do more than simply border on racism. Rejecting the salvage paradigm entails, in part, reconceptualizing culture, and not simply Western industrial culture (as in Fiske’s conception of “simple” and “complex” societies outlined in “Writing Ethnographies”), as an arena of conflict, appropriation, disorder, heterogeneity and emergence. Cultures are fluid, hecceities, becomings, not clearly- bounded, self-identical beings (which is not to say there are no differences).

Nature, Communion, and the Primitive Body

A third cluster of meanings linked to world music centers around nature. Green explains that there is a “deep, physical awakening to the natural world that is at the heart of Kodo” (34). The desire to go “back to nature” is strong here: “They slowly begin to hammer out patterns of primordial rhythms that seem to emanate from the womb of the earth” (Kodo, liner notes). Technology blocks access to nature and world music creates the possibility of a fusion in response to this long-felt alienation from the natural world and its rhythms. “Toes do not tap for the drummers of Kodo; cells dance” (Green 32). If our technology and our cultural choices have blocked

direct access to nature, and if we desire an alternative to the technocratic option, then the “womb” of the earth is accessible through a performance of Kodo or a world beat CD. In relation to one world music recording, Hart writes that “the Kaluli believe the forest is a tuning fork, and they’re just one of the voices in the forest. It’s not unusual to see one of the Kaluli playing a duet with a waterfall or a bird” (Around the World, liner notes).

That environmentalism overlaps with world music should come as no surprise. World beat. Planet drum. Even the ubiquitous “whole earth image,” icon of the mainstream environmental movement, is used for CD covers (e.g., Around the World) and is indirectly invoked: “A compulsion to drum has been loosed on this blue-green planet” (Hart, Drumming 38).

This desire for communion with nature coincides with the utopian impulse Marianna Torgovnick identifies within Western discourses of the “primitive.” She draws on Lukács’s notion of “transcendental homelessness” to describe the anxieties present in modern culture about a profound alienation from self, society, and “immanent totality”: “the effortless awareness of meaning and purpose, the complete correspondence of personal desire and cosmos, the presence of secular grace” (227). Westerners are, in the terms of Torgovnick’s description that seems to have been written with world music in mind,

secular but yearning for the sacred, ironic but yearning for the absolute, individualistic but yearning for the wholeness of community, asking questions but receiving no answers, fragmented but yearning for “immanent totality.” (188)

Remo is more than willing to sell us this “immanent totality” in the form of their line of “World Percussion” instruments (endorsed by Mickey Hart): “The heartbeat of life is the beating of a drum. It’s that rhythmic pulse that reminds us of who we are and where we came from.”

One of the reasons world music responds so powerfully to these desires is the physicality of the experience. Kodo’s performances, for example, are described as “visceral and direct” (Kodo 6); “the overall experience is extremely physical and robust” (Green 34). One of the songs from Hart’s Planet Drum I find particularly powerful and amazing is “Jewe,” composed by Babatunde Olatunji and produced entirely from the sounds made by the human body: vocals, the slapping of the chest with cupped hands, and the resulting vocal vibrations. Without reading the liner notes to the CD I would never have guessed the sounds in this song were produced with “just” bodies. But knowing that they are holds some profound and almost ineffable significance. As Torgovnick argues, within Western culture “getting primitive” is congruous with “getting physical.”

The utopian impulse here is a yearning that could be actualized as a collective form of resistance to both the (residual) Fordist modes of production and the (emergent) new world information order. The impulse is not without its dark side, however. We are back to the problem of the “other,” to Western projections of our salvation fantasies onto non-Western peoples, turning them into instruments– that is, commodities–for our redemption. Simon Frith’s critique of “the white pop, cultural studies obsession with black music” is highly relevant here:

My argument, in short, is not that African or Afro-American or Afro-Caribbean music is “naturally” or essentially physical and hedonistic but that the myth of the “natural” African is read onto African and Afro-American and Afro-Caribbean musical expression. (181)

A desire for “pure” bodily expression and notions of the “primitive” are fused with percussion in The Apocalypse Now Sessions of the Rhythm Devils (a recording that predates the institutionalization of “world beat” but that classifies as such because of its inclusion in Rykodisc’s “The World” series, its emphasis on percussion, and its inclusion of at least two non-Westerners). Francis Ford Coppola came to Mickey Hart and fellow Grateful Dead drummer Billy Kreutzmann, we are informed in the liner notes, to find the “missing percussive underscore” for Apocalypse Now. Coppola not only “wanted a performance in which the very breath of war permeated every gesture, every movement.” He “explained to the musicians that their task was to conjure music not only relevant to Vietnam in the 60’s, but which also extended back to the first man at the origins of existence.” To accomplish this task, a

jungle of percussion was carefully arranged in maze-like pathways….. It was a sound-garden with paths for the musicians to move

through, changing instruments whenever they wished: every mallet, every shaker, every drum in reach as a natural tool for instantly expressing our gut reactions to the flow of imagery.

Here we have communion with nature (“a sound-garden”), bodily expression (“gut reactions”), and the primitive (“jungle of percussion,” war, and “the first man at the origins of existence”) rolled into one. To reassure us that what we have in The Apocalypse Now Sessions is truly an authentic expression of the primitive body, we are told that the “sessions were sufficiently intense……………………………………………………………………………….. that

many instruments were destroyed through the impassioned playing” (liner notes).

A central contradiction of world beat’s function as a fetish for both the “natural” and the “authentic” is its intense reliance on technology. The “sonic accuracy” desired by at least some consumers of world music is made possible by some of the most sophisticated technologies available, from digital recording to computerized mixing to satellite communication networks. In both

the Planet Drum CD and book, we are given a picture of the ensemble of musicians involved. The picture appears to have been taken outside and at night. The musicians are standing or sitting behind a large fire, playing various percussion instruments, all of which appear to be “traditional” or “handmade.” In other words, the “modern” and its advanced technologies have been elided from this photo, which serves as a condensation of the reifications “communal,” “traditional,” and “natural” that mystify the mode of production involved–a mode of production made blatant by the CD in the hands of the person looking at the photo.

Commodification and Cultural Imperialism

Perhaps the most obvious critique of world beat is that it is yet another form of cultural imperialism. Western musicians draw from non-Western sources that are rarely given credit, let alone compensated financially. When they are compensated, “fair” or “equal” compensation is hard to define. As with material resources, Westerners bring back cultural resources from the “third world” for their own benefit. The sacred is at best commodified, at worst profaned. The three broad clusters of meanings attached to world beat that I have reviewed here certainly support an argument that at a cultural level, colonization is taking place insofar as “authentic folk cultures” are being commodified and sold to Westerners. Euro-Americans such as myself are projecting our meanings onto non- Western cultural traditions, satiating our appetites with the “heartiness” of world music.

The apparent origin of the phrase “world beat” (see Goodwin and Gore) strengthens such an argument, if only by association. Near the end of On the Road, Jack Kerouac writes of dancing to mambo music: “The drums were mad. The mambo beat is the conga beat from Congo, the river of Africa and the world; it’s really the world beat” (235). “The mambo never let up for a moment, it frenzied on like an endless journey in the jungle” (237). This scene takes place in a Mexican house of prostitution, amidst and in-between young Euro- Americans renting the bodies of a multiracial mix of teenage Mexican women (“it’s really the world beat”). Kerouac certainly offers support for Philip Tagg’s argument that the “white liberal idealization of the ‘Afro-‘ in ‘Afro-American’ (music)” is a form of sexual projection. We “use music we imagine to be little or none of our own doing as a corporeal panacea for [our] own problems of subjectivity, powerlessness and alienation” (Tagg 294). Kerouac found a “little colored girl” the most compelling and attractive. He did not sleep with her, or approach her in any way, although “she needed the money most” (237). In his “madness” he “was actually in love with her for the few hours it all lasted” (238). Cultural imperialism indeed.


The utopian impulse behind the imperialist dark side of world beat should not be glossed over; its potential value in inciting collective consciousness and action is worth remembering. The implications of these desires for community, cultural authenticity and communion with nature go beyond their articulation with the colonialist discourses of the primitive. World music’s popularity appears to be driven by a (legitimate) fear of technology and a longing for a return to nature. I imagine many contemporary cultural critics would be uncomfortable with the reification and valorization of the “natural” (Jagtenberg and McKie) that is at the core of the contemporary appeal of much world music, and that discomfort goes a long way in explaining the skepticism toward the new age movement I and most academics in general and cultural critics in particular embrace. As Mark Seltzer argues, “the rule-of-thumb that

has guided much recent cultural criticism might be restated in these terms: When confronted by the nature/culture opposition, chose the culture side” (155). A clear reason for embracing culture is the apparent political benefit: legitimating oppressive social systems by grounding them in “natural” patterns and behaviors is a classic tactic of the white, heterosexist, patriarchal, capitalist hegemony. If patriarchy is not natural, the logic goes, it must therefore be cultural, and thereby both lacking an absolute ethical foundation and open to de- and re-construction.

The desire for the “natural” that drives world beat, however, is not a rejection of the abstraction “culture,” of relativism and its political benefits. What is being rejected is much more specific, more concrete in the sense of being part of lived social reality. Donna Haraway argues that writers like Susan Griffin and Adrienne Rich and ideologies such as ecofeminism and feminist paganism that “insist on the organic, opposing it to the technological. . .would simply bewilder anyone not preoccupied with the machines and consciousness of late capitalism. In that sense they are part of the cyborg world” (92; emphasis added). So too, I believe, is the current popularity of world music. Susan Stewart positions nostalgia as a response to the conditions of late capitalism:

Within the development of culture under an exchange economy, the search for authentic experience and, correlatively, the search for the authentic object become critical. As experience is increasingly mediated and abstracted, the lived relation of the body to the phenomenological world is replaced by a nostalgic myth of contact and presence. “Authentic” experience becomes both elusive and allusive as it is placed beyond the horizon of present lived experience, the beyond in which the antique, the pastoral, the exotic, and other fictive domains are articulated. (133)

Mainstream North American culture, as I experience it, continues to move further away from body, spirituality, sensuality, multiplicity, fluidity, analogic communication, organic communities and toward disembodied existence, “virtual” reality, hyperscientism, singularity, solidity, digital coding, engineered totalities. This is the context in which alienated European-Americans are, among other things, turning to the submerged cultural traditions of indigenous peoples for an understanding of the possibilities of rhythm, for alternative forms of organization: bodily, social, spiritual and environmental.

Treating the desires surrounding world music as simply and solely a part of the commodification process, as “nothing more” than the raising of utopian desires in order that they may be channeled to maintain the existing hegemony, too conveniently conflates the economic and the cultural. The meanings of world beat cannot be reduced to artificiality, to “reification,” its status to “commodity.” I believe these “meanings” of world beat and drumming to be legitimate responses to the existing and emerging political economies in the U.S. and the “developed” world. The meanings, which I analyzed above as a part of the commodity system, are, from my perspective, not just reifications but “genuine social and historical content.”


1 While I gloss the distinction between “world music” and “world beat” here, Hernandez, Sharma and Taylor explicate the distinction as well as its blurring.


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