I was recently asked this question in an interview:
“On your website you talk of your project to create an African repertoire for the classical guitar. Some Africans might not appreciate this and interpret it as yet another instance of African culture being co-opted by European culture. What would you say to anyone throwing that accusation at you?”
This is my answer:
I haven’t had that one yet but it’s a great question! I think it is really beneficial to think about things like this. It opens up music, it opens up culture and it opens up our minds. Thank you! The first answer is that I am not European. I know I am not European because when I go to Europe they make me pay a lot of money for a visa, and they make me leave after a set period of time. Anyway, Europeans struggle with the rhythm of African music, whereas for me it feels deep in my bones. Of course my heritage is a mish mash of Europe, and my guitar is made by a world famous Bavarian guitar maker…but I’ve been here all my life, and my guitar has been here for ten years…we’ve been transformed by the experience.
At present the music scene feels it is okay for a Japanese violinist to play German music (Bach), but may prick up its ears when a white guy from South Africa plays Malian music (but he’s allowed to play Bach even though he’s not German). In here is a very simple prejudice: Bach is classical music and part of global culture, whereas Malian music is “traditional music” and tied to ethnicity. This may have been the case one hundred years ago, but now the music of Mali has been laid open to the world by recordings and concert tours. I am now just as likely to be influenced by the music of Mali as I am by Hip Hop or Mozart or Boeremusiek. When the first kora album was recorded, Malians opened their music up to the global culture, for better or for worse. This has happened and there is no going back. So now it is important that we don’t see this music in a separate zone of “world music” or “ethnic music.” These terms don’ actually exist, or if they do then all music is world and ethnic. Of course!
In the case of Toumani Diabaté, from a musician’s perspective this is composition. Complex and varied and fabulous composition. So in the eyes of a classically trained musician, Toumani Diabaté is a composer like Bach, and a great one too. So by playing and interpreting his music in new ways, we make this more evident, and, rather than appropriating his music, we remind people that a composer can also come from Africa and, in the twentieth century of recordings, do not even have to write their music down or be part of a written culture. I also think that Toumani takes us closer into the kind of musical world that Europe may have known a few hundred years back, where oral culture was still close at hand. We have a lost a lot through the exclusive use of written music, and musicians like Toumani are an echo of what we have lost. They show us a fertility of musical imagination that is perhaps all too rare in the conservatory.
Written records made the music of different European countries available to each other. Europe therefore developed a canon of music that was greater than the specific countries. Now digital media does this for the entire planet. I hope that this will result as much in diversity as it will in uniformity. It can go both ways, and it is up to musicians to ensure that it is the former and not the latter.
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