Article Image
Columbia Spectator Staff

On a bus to Boston a few weeks ago, I sat next to a skinny, pale man around my age wearing tight pants, with long hair that obscured one eye and a notebook filled with scribbled poetry or lyrics. We started talking, and he played me a song from his band. They have been called "one to watch" at CMJ, a digital music discovery service, and I was intrigued. This band is named after a South Asian language family, which seems like an odd choice—he is conservatory-trained and from Connecticut. According to their official biography, one of the members grew up in India and "incorporates tribal rhythms from that area." To me, they mostly sound like Vampire Weekend with a more post-punk feel. Two years ago, when I interviewed Vampire Weekend, I asked what they were listening to, and they responded with, "A compilation of music from Madagascar." The bizarre conglomeration of "African" beats and pop-prep sensibilities has garnered them much criticism, which is only partially fair. American music is by nature appropriative, particularly of non-hegemonic forms. But what bothers most reviewers is the lack of self-consciousness or self-reflectiveness in Vampire Weekend's approach. Paul Simon, to whom Vampire Weekend owes much, appropriated Brazilian and African beats and music in "Graceland," unnaturally tying them to his pop songs and sometimes denying his collaborators credit. After the success of "Graceland," as well as other cultural shifts, music scholars began asking what this kind of usage meant. They asked the questions centering around appropriation of sound, attempting to repair some of the damage neo-colonialist anthropologists made when they first began to record "primitive," "native," and "world" sounds. Somehow, stealing from the developing world is more insidious than, say, Elvis Presley stealing "Hound Dog" from Big Mama Thornton or Pete Seeger taking credit for "Wimoweh." In 1966, Charles Keil proclaimed in "Urban Blues," "It is simply incontestable that year by year American popular music has come to sound more and more like African popular music." But as ethnomusicologist Steven Feld asks, has African popular music come to sound more like American popular music also? Formerly "black" music, like jazz, spirituals, and blues, have integrated with American popular music, even becoming dominant in some cases. Jazz, considered derisively by scholars for years, is now an indispensable part of the academy, the American character, and also of what it means to be "cultured." It seems like "world" music is taking a similar route, integrating with American pop and shifting hegemonies through a distorted, pan-global ignorance of class, race, and ethnomusic. Besides the obvious bourgeois typification of "world" music knowledge, the effects of globalization and capitalism are at play. As the Western world continues to assert its dominance, "world" music is necessarily affected by it, and the sounds that these musicians are mimicking or plainly stealing, the sounds that captivated anthropologists one hundred years ago, are disappearing. For college-educated, white, male pop musicians, these sounds are novel—the blues or spirituals of their generation. Just as the Beatles would not have existed without Chuck Berry, Vampire Weekend could not exist without the transference of world music, or more specifically Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, and the other artists on "Graceland." What remains to be seen is whether this will mean better recognition for "world" artists, or if it will simply erase them, as Western music has continuously erased musicians of color, relegating them to their own genres. As for me, I wished the man sitting next to me on the bus good luck at his showcase, and scribbled my phone number in his notebook next to a lyric. I put "Graceland" on my iPod and walked toward the subway, humming the whole way.

ADVERTISEMENT
Newsletter