Portland Area Theatre Alliance Fertile Ground Portland Oregon

MusicWatch Weekly: Living traditions

Matthew Neil Andrews thinks about the phantom zone of "world music" and what it really means.


In the coming weeks, we’ll be running a series of essays exploring “living traditions” through the lens of several recent and upcoming concerts across a handful of genres and subgenres, most of which stray into the phantom zone of “world music.” To get you primed for that, we’d like to discuss what we mean by “living traditions”–and direct you to some upcoming concerts that will demonstrate our meaning while keeping your mind limber.

We love problematizing genre, and “world music” is one of our favorites–it’s one of those genre terms that means everything and nothing, like “classical.” You know exactly what I mean by “world music” (no doubt you’re already imagining sitars and gongs), but you probably also realize the contradiction in the term: which “world” are we talking about? Are Mozart and The Beatles not part of “the world?” Are Irish fiddle tunes “world music” or “folk music”–and why? And what makes Ravi Shankar and A.R. Rahman “world music,” exactly?

The label makes life easier for record stores, which have to put that stuff somewhere, and the truth is that “the west” does have quite an appetite for these global musics. But we westerners tend to fetishize these global musics as something other, something from elsewhere, perhaps something we’ve lost or forgotten in “our” musics. In some ways, we define “our” musics by their differences with musics from “other” cultures; such “exotic” features raise questions about what western music doesn’t do and generally isn’t comfortable with. Music theory nerds might consider the abolition of the augmented second and the centuries-long disintegration of tonality; all others might consider the relationship between “dance” and “folk” and “classical” and “popular” musics within the western tradition, and why they all seem so uneasy around each other.

Another part of the problem lies in how “world music” collapses such internal variations within the musical traditions of “other” cultures. The classical traditions of India, for example, are not only split into very different streams as distinct as Wagner and Puccini–they’re also distinct from other Indian musical traditions revolving around folk song and dance, spiritual rituals, film music, and so on. Naturally these streams all flow through each other (the same way you can hear Hungarian folk dances in Brahms, Russian ballet music in Elfman, and New York psych rock in Glass), but to “our” ears Shankar and Rahman tend to sound more similar (because they are both Indian) than different (classical vs. cinematic).


Portland Opera The Snowy Day Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon

One thesis we’ll be exploring in the coming weeks is the idea that American culture is immigrant culture. This is not to say that “we have no culture of our own and must borrow it from elsewhere,” a similar but wrong-headed idea. No, we’re proposing a variant on the familiar Melting Pot Theory: One of the things that distinguishes “American” culture is that it is forged from the interplay of a wide variety of cultures from all over the world (including the cultures that were already here when Columbo arrived with his guns and germs). Viewed in this light, I think we can safely set aside the real (but for our purposes irrelevant) problems of colonialism and cultural hegemony, and instead consider what all this international music means for those of us who listen to, enjoy, and perhaps even create it.

Pacific composer Lou Harrison spent his entire career exploring this phantom zone, studying and performing music from every culture he came in contact with. In speaking of traditional Chinese music with Richard Kostalanetz (in the famous 1992 interview “A Conversation, in Eleven-Minus-One Parts”), Lou indirectly gave our series of articles its title:

It’s still alive as all these traditions are. They are still growing and getting new pieces. If you’re a first-class tradition, you compose.

Viewed through this lens, “living tradition” becomes a perfectly acceptable substitute for “genre”–anything we would call a genre or subgenre is better thought of as a tradition, which ultimately leads us to a sort of Cambian explosion of “traditions,” a von Neumann’s catastrophe wherein literally everything is a “tradition.” Thus we have, say, Schoenberg’s serialist tradition–a continuation of the Germanic chromatic tradition from Bach to Wagner, but a tradition unto itself (with its adherents and its heretics). Jazz and metal and electronic dance music are all traditions, with their own internal sub-traditions (free jazz, death metal, dubstep, et alia ad infinitum).

Have we gained anything from this, or are we just splitting hairs? If folk music and world music and classical and pop and all the rest are “traditions,” is that really any better than “genre” or is it just a dodge? What’s the difference between a “genre” and a “tradition” anyways? Stay tuned to find out!

Some traditions


Portland Columbia Symphony Realm of Nature Beaverton and Gresham Oregon

We start this week, on Wednesday evening at Artichoke Music in Southeast Portland. The music school and instrument shop always has some sort of music going on: open mic nights, workshops, soloists and duos in the “folk” tradition (i.e., American music of Irish-Appalachian descent), that sort of thing. The second Wednesday of every month is Portland Celtic Community Night, and this month the stars are fiddler Erik Killops and harpist Tracy Rose Brown. Killops and Brown will play a whole bunch of Gaelic music, from Irish dance tunes to Celtic aires, and after the performance they’ll lead an old-fashioned community music session open to all.

Portland-based kora player Will Dudley stays awfully busy, lugging his African harp out for several solo and ensemble shows every month. On the 14th, he plays a solo set at Corkscrew Wine Bar in Southeast Portland; on the 23rd, he’ll be at Andina on Northeast Glisan. We just missed his ensemble, the Koratet, who play Alberta Rose Theatre last week, but we feel sure they’ll be back on our radar before too long. Also on the 14th, local poly-tradition trio Os Pássaros performs at Strum Guitars on Southeast Stark. The Portuguese name (“Os Pássaros” = “The Birds”) gives you a clue to one of their traditions: Brazilian bossa nova. They also throw in a bit of “standard jazz” and, somewhat surprisingly, Japanese folk music courtesy of singer/keyboardist Emi Gilbert.

This weekend is a busy one for living traditions, with three shows happening just on Saturday. At Jack London Revue you can hear Ethiopian-American singer Genet Abate with the Portland-based Tezeta Band, heating up the joint with a couple hours of the Ethiopian-style jazz-funk made famous by Mulatu Astatke (whose “Tezeta” gives the band its name). At Twilight Cafe & Bar, Oregon’s second-favorite California transplant–long-running Jamaican Tradition band The Israelites–celebrates their thirtieth anniversary with fellow Portlander skasters The Cascadians. And over at The Old Church in downtown Portland, the Brazilian Assad Brothers keep the Latin American guitar duo tradition alive with a concert of music by Piazzolla, Rodrigo, and Villa-Lobos.

You get two chances to hear Canadian klezmer-fusion quintet Beyond the Pale in Oregon in the coming week. This crew is keeping a whole stable of traditions alive, combining traditional Jewish klezmer music with a variety of other living traditions from Balkan to Jamaican. They’ll be at The Old Church on Sunday, and at Eugene’s Temple Beth Israel on Monday.

We’ll close the week where we started, at Corkscrew Wine Bar. You’re going to have to decide for yourself which traditions are being kept alive by accordionist Jet Black Pearl, performing at Corkscrew on the 17th. Is it Satire? Cabaret? Polka? Traditional Franco-Flemish circus music? Nobody knows! We’d like to propose that Pearl belongs to the Busker Tradition–which is, as we’ll see when we examine Moon Hooch, a sort of meta-tradition intersecting with all the others.


Portland Center Stage at the Armory Quixote Nuevo Portland Oregon

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Music editor Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, writer, and alchemist specializing in the intersection of The Weird and The Beautiful. An incorrigible wanderer who spent his teens climbing mountains and his twenties driving 18-wheelers around the country, Matthew can often be found taking his nightly dérive walks all over whichever Oregon city he happens to be in. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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