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Exotism and Populism: Hopes and dangers
written by Ingo Stoevesandt

Raising interest: The K’ny

The “K’ny” is a very intersting, fascinating  instrument. Looking like a normal stick fiddle, it covers an idea which is as intelligent as it is simple:

This Monochord has a second wire attached to the chord. The Player takes it between his teeth while playing; this way he spreads the bowed chord.  While playing, he changes the room of his mouth, speaking vowels like “eeh, aah".
The resonance of the spoken vowel is changing the resonance of the sounding chord. 
The result is a “speaking violin”.

Of course this instrument is quite unique. And, of course it is used to ban viewers and listeners worldwide, as it is a magic and outstanding instrument. Otherwise it is often presented as an indigenous “Vietnamese” instrument, combined and set up with ensembles consisting of equally “original Vietnamese” instruments like the Goong or even the Khen, no matter of fact that it is an instrument which originally comes from the GiaRai people from the central highlands, where it is only allowed to be played by men in the communal house and believed to be a voice of god.

If we also do face the fact, that mostly the K’ny is presented as part of an ensemble, playing such “Vietnamese” standards as the Russian song  “Kalinka”, we strongly have to ask ourselves, if this is the way in which traditional habits should survive.

Even more, the complete so-called “traditional” Vietnamese music is a good example for some questions about the actual and modern handling
of cultural traditions in Asia. It stands for the most important question for everyone, who is engaged in the preservation of a cultural tradition:

How do we survive?

Is it right, that instruments like the K’ny just simply survive, because they are so “outstanding”?  Is that a good argument?
Or is this the only chance for an instrument like the K’ny to survive the next generations? Or is it even a chance to create so much interest in the
K’ny that young people and kids start learning again, and an old playing tradition comes back to life?

Two Positions, two arguments

“Populism” is a very difficult term, viewed by scientific aspects. In politics it means that someone is putting complicated structures in simple  matters in order to
get a vote for his political goal. In other words, in politics “Populism” stands for the manipulation of masses.
In science, “Populism” seems to stand for a simplification of  complex facts, which also involves a lack of detail and the danger of a wrong interpretation.
Both associations are not really positive.
“Exotism” carries an even stronger stigmata. It reveals a kind of xenophilia which is rather pathological.
Both terms stand for accusations, which actual science has to deal with everytime. Research always means spending time, energy and money on things
which do have no fast economical effects on a society. For ethnomusicology, one of the most often heard arguments is, that somehow every culture changes
through time, and that this natural process being not stopable anyway denies wasting energy in preserving stuff for a future that might not happen.

On the other hand scientists like ethnomusicologists often react on this with a sort of exclusion:
As people react with a lack of interest and understanding for their scientific topic, they refuge in a selfconstructed isolation. Scientific facts are presented
in a way that only “Insiders” understand what it is about, and public ways to present a new scientific research as a new argument for further research are
neglected. If an article dares to simplificate some facts, if it dares to leave out a cataloge of details just in order to make it more readable, it will soon be
declassified as “non-scientific” and “not serious enough”.

So, what is the way out of this dilemma? How do we convince science to be more “populistic” without serving “Exotism”?
Returning to the traditional music of Vietnam, we might see a chance for the future. Whenever I present Vietnamese music in Germany, people ask the same
question: “This music is strange. Why should I listen?”  It seems strange, but I feel that this question also comes up more and more in Vietnam.
The reason for this is that the tonal language of this music is already gone. If you walk down Vietnamese streets, how much “traditional” music do you hear?
If you look into music schools in Vietnam, what are the main instruments that are taught - are those Vietnamese? If you stop a young boy or girl passing by
and ask her to sing a traditional Vietnamese folk song, what will you hear?

Even if we keep in mind that this problem is faced by musical traditions worldwide, we still have to find a good answer for the eternal question:
“Why should I listen?”
In order to answer this question, we maybe should ask ourselves the same.

The future of a living music

The “K’ny” was an example of how a musical instrument can be used as an “exotism” to create some attention. As this only lasts for 2 or 3 minutes,
the attention is not high enough to raise something more than a weak applause. If this exotism would have been strong enough to encourage people
in learning this instrument, one could see the exotism as justified.

If music is more than just a tool following the function of pleasure and entertainment, we always find a good answer for the question “Why should I listen”.
As long as music is one of the most important media to identify yourself, to know who you are and where you come from, as long as music still is the carrier
of cultural positions, and as long as music functions as a language that expresses emotions, traditional music in every kind is an obligation to the listener.
The actual process of the so-called “globalization” makes it even more important to present traditional music in such a motivating way, so “tasteful” for the
listener, that he wants to know more. The cultural self identity will be only succesful in the future if someone can gather advantages from it. Traditional music
is able to reach the cultural identity of a person within a single slap of a drum. This way, it is the perfect medium to transport ideas of cultural identity.

Speaking about Vietnamese music, we do have to reimplant traditional music into the Vietnamese daily life again. This is a long process, which will take
generations to come to life. And we surely have to see that this “traditional” music will be much different from the one we know.

If someone, after listening to a concert with a K’ny, buys one himself and writes a new composition for it, even without knowing about traditional ways
to play it or even how to ornament pitches,  then, a new decision has to be made, whether this new piece will be accepted or not.

Traditional music might be “immutable” (Tran van Khe) or not, it has to be liberated from self isolation. My adress to the jury is about using all techniques
that are available in order to bring back traditional music into peoples mind. This also demands for commercial ways to distribute this topic, even if they
do not follow the request for academic qualities in first place.
“Populism” and “Exotism” are dangerous tools if used with a wrong attidue, but if
someone uses it carefully and with a deep respect for the material, both might be useful tools to reach the peoples mind in times of multimedial overload.

(written in Germany, 2008)