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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 fiddle, it covers an idea which is as intelligent as it is simple:
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” that it is used as 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 people and kids start learning again, and an old playing tradition comes back to life?
Two Positions, two arguments
“Populism” is a very difficult word if it gets 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 a complex fact, 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 this natural process being not stopable anyway denies wasting energy in preserving stuff for the future which is not needed anymore.
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 aks 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 question
“Why should I listen?” - 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 daily Vietnamese 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 selfisolation. 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 scientific correctnes 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 a multimedial overload.