Friday, January 7, 2011

Essay: Preserving Music Culture during a Sustainable Era

Purposeful Music & Preservation for the Sustainable Age:

A Filetta, Wikipedia
As I write this essay on bringing back the true intent and purpose of folkloric music, I’m listening to the Corsican polyphony group, A Filetta. In 2006 I co-produced a segment on Corsican polyphony music for “The Old Country,” a radio show produced at the community radio station, KBCS (Bellevue, WA). During my research (which took months), I discovered that this vocal music found its roots in the Corsican shepherds who took their herds up into the Corsican island’s mountains. In fact, I learned that the Corse language was nearly lost because of French bans placed upon it for several decades (I might be wrong about the time frame), and the language was only preserved because of this Corsican vocal tradition and the fact that the shepherds, the ones carrying on this tradition, spent that time in the mountains.

The Finnish language also nearly went extinct, but again was preserved through an oral tradition by folks living in the mountains. The language was preserved through an epic legend, The Kalevala and the runo-songs that accompanied the legend. Sadly, the shamanic roots of this legend have almost all been replaced by Christianity and its version, which of course would ban any pagan themes or do as the Christians have done for almost 2,000 years and replace pagan themes and elements with Christian ones. And sadly, when pagan stories, themes, etc are lost so is our connection to Mother Earth. But this essay is not about religion, but about purposeful folkloric music.

My theory is that when the Industrial Revolution broke out in Europe and replaced farm life, and hand-crafted labor with machines and turned humans into machines too, some of the music that went along with labor of the peasants or if you will, the workers, started disappearing too. Yes, song catchers such as Alan Lomax, Moses Asch and others came along in the 20th century to preserve the work, dance, celebration, and other oral tradition songs onto discs. So we still have physical record of these old fishing songs, sea shanties, communal dance music, etc and not just from Europe and United States.

Joseba Tapia, Basque musician 
And one could argue that some ancient music traditions are still going strong today such as Indian classical music, the griot music of West Africa and so on, but that’s not the point I’m making. While we can listen to this folkloric music in the safety of our living rooms, the intent of the original music and its true purpose has been lost. But in our psyches we still remember; our DNA still wants songs to accompany us while we go about our house chores, work in the yard, or on a farm. But what happens now is instead of joining others in singing work songs we just turn on the radio or pop in a CD of rock music to get our adrenaline pumping so we can complete a job.

While there’s nothing wrong with that, I think the act is an unconscious one. Whereas, the fisherman and sailors of the past sang sea shanties in a purposeful manner and often the lyrics reflected the work they were performing. I’m also thinking of the old cowboy and herding songs, which now just end up on quaint nostalgic recordings. But that’s just where we are now as the human race, employing music out of context. I catch myself doing this all of the time. Now we don’t just deal with the results of the Industrial Age, but also the technological one which leaves many of us isolated. Communal anything outside of religious organizations, seems like a thing of the past, unless you’re Amish and raising a barn with your neighbors.

However, I see a glint of hope in the form of the DIY (do-it-yourself) sustainability movement. With fair trade cooperatives, organic farm cooperatives, and eco-villages cropping up, I see the emergence of community again. I also see the return of artisans and crafts people, cheese makers, goat herders, communal harvesting, and people getting together to perform such activities as canning, planting, sewing (quilts especially), and other performing other types of group activity. So this is the right time to reintroduce work songs of past eras. If any of the elders still remember the songs they can teach the orally to the younger ones. Then this music can regain its true purpose.

I applaud all those song catchers who preserved songs for future generations. And I enjoy listening to field recordings, but feel unfulfilled if I can’t participate in some way. I love singing and I enjoy call and response type singing. And I’m not saying all is lost, because purposeful music still exists on the planet, and not just in religious settings. Plenty of dance music can be heard throughout the world and we still have the kitchen party music of the Quebecois and the morality tales of the West African griot, as well as, some of the healing music of the Native Americans.

As a music journalist who covers the world’s musical traditions, I have seen music deal with multiple threats, including industrialization and commercialization of the music industry. I have seen healing music traditions misrepresented and misused so that some new age practitioner can come off as a guru to people who know little about music besides what they listen to on their local radio stations. But then you have to discern with anything new age anyway because a lot of the ancient teachings have obviously been distorted in the name of commerce and mass appeal. The same happens to any genre of music, add a few drum machines to the traditional music of Provence for instance, and you have a new dance groove. And yes, I’ve heard the argument that musicians are preserving the music by enticing younger generations with the type of music they want to hear.

But I’m not talking music purism here. I have also heard the argument that music is a living language and of course it’s going to change with each generation making innovations, but it’s my hope that the language isn’t changed to a more popular one such as English and that the original drums aren’t replaced with machines. Then we lose the bigger picture and our ancestral connections. And most importantly, we lose sight of the purpose behind the music. Our ancestors are gone and we will forget them if we don’t preserve something from their eras. And when we lose the purpose behind any endeavor, we lose the thread and all that connects us to each other.

So my hope is that in this sustainable age where we’re heading, we can bring back music with intent and purpose. This doesn’t mean we can’t sit around listening to field recordings, but that when we do, we can envision the original purpose for that music and somehow apply it to our personal and communal lives. A lot of incredible music came out of old work songs. Think of the blues, jazz, and early rock music which hailed from the songs of slaves. The Brazilian samba also hails from former African slaves. And I’m not supporting slavery, but focusing on the work songs that came from it. Just like I would never promote colonialism, but some beautiful cultural exchange derived from it as some of the world music we listen to today.

So in wrapping up this essay, I hope that I expand your thoughts about folkloric music in some way. And that you connect purpose and intent with the music in your life; that you see the connection between sustainability, the green DYI lifestyle, and purposeful music. And most important, that you challenge any industry, group, or leadership that tries to replace diversity with a dominant language, culture, religion, or anything that robs us of our collective heritages.

Photos: A Filetta, Basque musician, Wikipedia


  1. What a great blog!!!!Enjoyed it.

  2. Thank you, Shelly. Glad you enjoyed the essay. I enjoyed writing it.