In defence of cultural interchange

Here’s a piece that was recently published in The Big Issue in Melbourne, inspired by the fact that people seem to insist on shitcanning Vampire Weekend for being white people playing black music. This sort of thing annoys me.

Paul Simon was down on his luck in 1985. His marriage had fallen apart, his career was on the skids and Art Garfunkel wasn’t speaking to him, mainly because Simon had expunged Garfunkel’s vocals from their last record and released it as a solo album. That album – Hearts and Bones – sold badly, leaving Simon with a tarnished public reputation and an irate long-term collaborator.

Imagine his delight, then, when he first heard the joyous sounds of South African mbqanga music. He apparently discovered the genre – a lively style that originated in the townships around Johannesburg – via a cassette given to him by a friend. A light bulb went off above his balding pate, and within a year, he’d decamped to Johannesburg to record his next album with a variety of local musicians.

The resultant album – Graceland – wasn’t the first album to marry Western and non-Western musical styles, but it was the first such record to trouble the charts, let alone land at #1. It dragged Simon’s career out of the gutter, and, along with Peter Gabriel’s work in roughly the same period, introduced the MTV generation to “world music” – the catch-all we-can’t-think-of-what-else-to-call-it genre that remains in most record shops to this day.

As well as being hugely successful, though, Graceland was controversial. There was a legal battle with Tex-Mex band Los Lobos, who played on one of the songs and were decidedly unimpressed to find that they hadn’t got a songwriting credit. More appositely, there was the fact that Simon had recorded in South Africa while the country was still under a United Nations cultural embargo due to its government’s apartheid policy. And then there were the whisperings that the whole thing was somehow exploitative, that Simon had swiped the sounds of Africa and passed them off as his own – when he performed at Howard University in Washington shortly after the album’s release, he was met with protests and accusations of cultural larceny.

Whatever your thoughts on Graceland, and on “world” music in general, it’s the last accusation that continues to resonate today. Apartheid has, happily, long since been condemned to the garbage bin of history. The Los Lobos spat came and went. But the concept of Western musicians taking on influences from outside their own cultural sphere remains contentious.

Recently, there’s been a similar furore over US indie band Vampire Weekend, whose second album Contra debuted at #1 on the Billboard chart in February. Vampire Weekend make no bones about the fact that they love African music – frontman Ezra Koenig has dubbed the band’s sound “upper West Side Soweto” – and both their albums have been exuberantly cross-cultural, full of African and Jamaican sounds. They’ve been successful, but few bands in recent years have attracted a more furious critical crossfire.

Upper West Side Soweto

Some of the criticisms that have been levelled against Vampire Weekend are a latter-day echo of the whisperings about Graceland – the New York Times, for instance, accused them of “cultural tourism”. The common thread is that four privileged white kids from Ivy League universities shouldn’t be playing African music. They just shouldn’t.

But why not? No-one complains when African musicians take on Western influences. No-one accuses musicians like Senegalese desert blues maestro Baaba Maal or Indian slide guitar pyrotechnician Debashish Bhattacharya – both of whom bring Western influences to indigenous music – of “cultural tourism”. But when it’s vice versa, the music seems to be judged a priori as some sort of post-colonial hangover, whereby privileged whiteys appropriate the sounds of the under-privileged third world for their own nefarious purposes.

The idea that poor black artists can only look on as rapacious whites plunder their musical heritage is deeply patronising for all concerned. This view ignores the fact that genuine cultural interchange has to be, well, an interchange – something that goes both ways. It ignores the fact that such interchange has been going on for centuries. (Heading back to Graceland for a moment, mbaqanga itself evolved as a South African take on jazz, melding big band instrumentation with traditional rhythms and vocals. Jazz, of course, had its origins in the USA, but its roots in the West African sounds that came to the new world on the slave ships of the 18th century. And so on.)

And it ignores the fact that such interaction can be massively beneficial. In India, for instance, fusion music – the combination of Indian classical music with Western instrumentation and production techniques – has exploded in recent years, helping to keep Indian classical the living and breathing tradition that it is today (in contrast to its Western counterpart). Graceland brought mbaqanga to the world, and also revitalised the genre itself, the popularity of which had apparently been flagging in South Africa throughout the 1970s and 80s.

Clearly, the balance has often been unequal in the past – the case of Solomon Linda, who wrote The Lion Sleeps Tonight (an early example of African sounds making their way into Western popular consciousness) and died penniless, springs to mind. But then, as anyone who’s worked in the music industry can tell you, such exploitation isn’t inherently tied to race or culture. It’s about power, and the balance of power these days isn’t nearly as uneven as it used to be. Non-Western musicians can exist on a commercial footing with their Western counterparts – look at Pakistani sufi legend Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who in his last years moved from subcontinental superstardom into truly global appreciation. Or for a more prosaic example, look at Pussycat Dolls covering AR Rahman’s theme for Slumdog MillionaireJai Ho – who’d have thought even 10 years ago that a Hindi film song would hit #1 in Australia?

Albums like Graceland and Vampire Weekend’s output help to facilitate exchange in both directions. A white American kid discovering Fela Kuti from listening to Contra has to be a good thing. If such discoveries happen enough, then maybe the whole us-and-them concept of “world” music can be consigned to the garbage bin of history – to sit somewhere next to apartheid. Paul Simon and his contemporaries helped to broaden the West’s musical horizons. We should celebrate the fact that the 25 years later, a new generation of musicians is again looking to the world for inspiration, and look forward to the results of their search.

4 thoughts on “In defence of cultural interchange

  1. I am in complete agreement with you, but reading this post made me go listen to Vampire Weekend, who I had no idea were influenced by Fela Kuti.

    Vampire Weekend are terrible. They remind me of Cat Empire: inner-city hipsters showing off how wordly they are by playing music from elsewhere really poorly and without feel.

    It’s up there with rock bands getting a DJ back when they were kings of the hill a la Incubus — it just doesn’t feel sincere.

    So although I reckon this cultural appropriation talk is bullshit, it’s bands like Vampire Weekend who remind me of how much I hate chardonnay Buddhists. To me, they feel like poseurs, which is not to say you can’t be the Daktaris (afrobeat revivalists from New York) or Leonard Cohen (a hardcore Buddhist) and sincerely take on influences from elsewhere.

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  4. I also agree with you (and loved your summary of the whole Graceland insanity. I have myself studied and played African music. While I respect Vampire Weekend, I would rather listen to African music. Which I do. It’s just a whole lot better. But for folks who have never listened to African music, if listening to Vampire Weekend opens up a whole new continent for their ears, I’m all for it.

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