‘Warts and all’, or polished commodity? Understanding the commercialisation of folk music

The back streets of the poorer districts of Lisbon, Portugal, are often considered home to the urban folk music genre, fado. But fado is, in many ways, a cultural export of Portugal, earning a place on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage, and becoming part of the tourist experience in Lisbon. One of the results of this is that the performance and nature of fado have changed over the years. While it is still possible to experience what many may call ‘authentic’ fado in some tavernas, the majority of fado performances that take place in Lisbon – at least those that can be easily found without insider knowledge – occur in a restaurant setting, where the instrumentalists wear suits, and the fadistas perform, perhaps not out of a sense of saudade, but out of a sense of showmanship, in order to entertain the tourists with songs that are stereotypical of the genre, the sort of songs that appear on virtually all recordings aimed at the foreign markets.

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Is the term ‘world music’ relevant?

When I write about ‘world’ music, it is often styled with quotation marks. The term can be problematic, because virtually any music which is considered the least bit exotic, or different to that to which we have become accustomed is pigeon-holed into the category of ‘world’ music. This category of music is wide-ranging and expanding to suit the demands of a consumer market. While the original purpose for this interest in the music of the ‘other’ may have been anthropological, the commercial production of music necessitates a shorthand, a catch-all term that can be used to classify a certain type of music and meet consumer expectations. A 2019 article in The Guardian speaks about the “flawed and problematic” nature  of the term. Yet it’s continued to be used. Is the term relevant, and how can it be understood?

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The problem of ‘world music’

One of the largest industries in most developed economies is the music industry, a market constantly expanding and growing with new releases and constantly evolving genres. As audiences increasingly see themselves as ‘citizens of the world’ living in multicultural societies, there has also been a notable increase in the cultures and customs of those whom we consider ‘foreign’. There is an imperative to understand the context of the music we consume, and when music is sold, this necessitates the labelling of music into genre-based categories, such as popular, alternative, and classical. However, such genre-names are highly subjective and deceptive; any music that people like could be described as ‘popular’, ‘alternative’ is self-explanatory, but fails to state what it is an alternative to, and the term ‘classical’, if taken literally, should only apply to music composed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries! The expansion of each of these categories creates an even greater sense of vagueness, not helped by the fact that each of these categories is further sub-divided (death metal, heavy metal, and speed metal, for example), but none more so than the genre that is most commonly referred to as ‘world music’.

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The ‘why’ of music: music in its social and cultural context

What does an ethnomusicologist do, really? Do we travel somewhere distant and live among people very different from ourselves, immersing ourselves in their cultures, traditions, and music? If those are the criteria, then I can safely call myself an ethnomusicologist not just by merit of my research and qualifications but by the fact that I moved from the country where I grew up, to a different country, and have since made it home. Like any ethnomusicologist, I am often called on to explain elements of this ‘new’ culture to people back home. Given that this ‘new’ culture is Singapore, food, as I’ve mentioned already, is one of the highlights of any conversation about my life here. How would I explain roti prata, for example, to my parents in the UK? Would I say it’s like a pancake, but flaky, and traditionally savoury instead of sweet, although sweet versions exist? Would I say it’s a flatbread? Such descriptions are often criticised for being reductionist or, in a recent case where the roti prata was described as an ‘Asian flat croissant’, offensively Eurocentric. The comparisons between music and food are interesting because both are such integral expressions of culture and lifestyle. Yet, many people are more adventurous with food than music and it’s not a stretch to say that most people in globalised cities would regularly experience cuisine from many cultures other than their own, but that when it comes to musical preferences, it is less common that we seek out new ones.

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Using Symbolic Interactionism in the music classroom

Educators often face the challenge of introducing students to unfamiliar material such as a scholarly article in a journal or a musical practice from a cultural or social system far removed from their own. It is difficult to help students become invested in something that doesn’t make sense or means very little to them, so educators often fall into the habit of saying things like, “This is an important concept because it’s something you need to know; it’s significant in the field you’re studying; it’s something that’s fundamental to a big idea,” — basically, “this is important because it’s important.” But if we want to convince someone of something, we need to know how and why it’s important, not just that it is important. We need to examine how we can bring students through this process of understanding what we may consider ‘important’. 

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Critical Thinking for Music Makers

Music is one of those aspects of human life about which most people have an opinion. Often, when interpretations and meanings clash and collide, it is the music maker’s viewpoint that many consider the most significant, whether it’s the intention of the composer, the interpretation of the performer, or the musical leadership of the conductor.

We know, however, that music is much more than a set of pre-determined meanings. Programme notes providing analysis and interpretation, a caption accompanying a video on a singer-songwriter’s Instagram account, a website detailing the philosophy and mission of an ensemble — all these are part of musical meaning-making, but far from all of it. 

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Teaching a critical approach to music

Many of us grow up understanding music — and the arts in general — as something nice to have. Music provides entertainment, it brings joy, it adds emotional dimension to events from dinner parties and weddings to major international sporting events. And when we think of music as a profession, we often think of performance or composition. We do know, as well, that music occupies a significant place in cultural and religious practices. I find that it is of utmost importance to draw out the idea that music is not simply ‘something nice to have’, and neither is it a simply a ‘cultural’ practice that we may only encounter in a religious setting or at an occasion. Music shapes, and is shaped by, individual and social identity — and getting students to understand the mechanism behind these complex processes is the essence of a critical and intellectual approach to music, and one which I firmly believe cannot be ignored in the classroom.

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When conducting meets teaching, or the other way around

About six years ago, I moved to Singapore from the UK, where I had lived all my life. As much happiness as the move brought, it also involved saying goodbye — or at least au revoir — to Unlock the Music Singers, the choir I had formed and trained. My final concert with them was at the parish church in which I grew up and had been musical director, a building which boasted arguably the finest acoustics in Coventry for choral music. We performed Kodaly’s Pange Lingua, my favourite choral piece, and one I had fallen in love with whilst studying it during my Masters, and Purcell’s Come Ye Sons Of Art, which had become the choir’s signature piece.

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The ‘relevance’ question, and how to address it in the classroom

As an ethnomusicologist who both lectures at the university level, and teaches primary and secondary students, I take great interest in seeing the different perspectives students bring to a topic. This is compounded with my own research interests, which lead me to read a great deal of material which often seems abstract and impenetrable. I often ask myself what value a complex article in a journal can have to a student studying music at an IB level, or to an undergraduate whose dissertation I’m supervising. Within academia, it is not difficult to feel like life happens in — to borrow a phrase often used in the media these days — an ivory tower.

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