One of the more interesting themes I’m seeing in my music Coursera course is the theme of re-examning world music through different eyes. Like most students in the course, I decided to join the course because I am interested in learning more about non-Western music.
The good news is that I am being exposed to some very interesting and beautiful musical pieces. The bad news is that now it comes with a heavier burden of trying to reconcile innocent musical pleasure with the real world repercussions that musicians from many minority cultures face.
To give you an idea of our World Music course so far, I can tell you that:
- Week 1 pointed out that few listeners of popular Gregorian chant understand how it relates to an actual monastic ritual
- Week 2 pointed out that on Paul Simon’s Graceland album, some of the African musicans felt slighted. Some songs also de-Africanized the original recordings quite a bit.
OK….I wanted to learn more about world music, but did I want to learn this much? Maybe not, but I do have to acknowledge that I have enjoyed Gregorian chants without absolutely no thought of honoring the original intent. It’s all about the soothing music.
This is an issue faced by teachers in many related disciplines including linguistics. In linguistics I often to explain:
- Double negatives aren’t really bad grammar – just rejected by the elite (that’s élite).
- Tracing linguistics and archaeology – except when it re-ignites an ethnic conflict.
- And my favorite – just because a language doesn’t have pronouns for “he” and “she” does NOT mean their society has eliminated gender discrimination.
Yikes! If you were hoping to just learn a little bit of etymology or a few dialect words in my class, you are going to be disappointed.
Does this mean that I’m asking you to give up the joys of Shakespeare and Jane Austen? Or the joys of listening to Graceland and meditative chant? Actually it doesn’t. What I want, and what I think the Coursera World Music instructors want is to develop alternative points of view, even if it’s a little painful. It is a reality that we are educating students so that they can enter into different spheres of influence. Is it any wonder we want them to do “right” when they get there?
At this point, I can appreciate the Gregorian chant albums, and also the parodies? Sometimes maturity means understanding irony. And I do admit that learning about this cultural context of different world musics helps me understand them more than I would just listening naively. In fact, I had an interesting insight into opera recently which I had previously loathed. I can’t promise I will be a fan, but I could probably appreciate a performance now if I had to experience it.
However, as instructors we also have to recognize that the views we are trying to change are not always maliciously meant. I’m someone who instinctively enjoys music without trying to understand the lyrics. Does that make me a bad person?
Many white Americans are interested in focusing on tracing their origins back to ancient Scotland or Anglo-Saxon England because it is an authentic part of their past. Aren’t we all interested in our own history?
I do think it’s important to expose mainstream students (code for white students in the U.S.) to alternative points of view without overburdening them with so much guilt they can’t appreciate the positives of their own cultures. It’s just as important as helping minority cultures understand their own positive accomplishments without being overly burdened with a tragic destiny. A little bittersweetness for everyone?
A Good Role Model
A person who’s done a really good of this balancing act is Henry Louis Gates. If you haven’t seen his PBS series Finding Your Roots you are missing good television.
The first series traces the geneology of various celebrities ranging from Kevin Bacon and Martha Stewart to Condaleeza Rice and Linda Chavez. The most amazing facts and stories came out and almost all of it was a mix of good and bad. Almost everyone had a juicy skeleton in the closet (there’s been a lot of interacial mixing in our history), but also learned amazing revelations at what their ancestors did accomplish.
By the way, the person whose European ancestors arrived the earliest in North America ended up being Linda Chavez whose roots were from New Mexico. Her family arrived when it was still a colony of Spain and remained there even as the Mexican border got pushed much further south. They were also influential in the area for many generations.
It is a good fact to remember when thinking about the complexity of our relations with Latin America.