Music and Place

by Donald Skoog

     I’m sitting in The Church of Saint-Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square. The London Concertante is playing chamber music to a packed sanctuary. They are young and beautiful but polished, professionals whose melodies belong within the smooth stone walls of this old, old church. London’s high art is very high indeed. In fact, every performance I’ve attended has reflected both a rigid standard and a distinctly English flavor––something I can’t quite identify––that sounds different here. And that has begun to bother me. Why do they have a different sound?
     I spend the rest of the concert wondering about this. We Americans are trained in the same repertoire. Obviously, English musicians are trained in a different place, yet the tradition I studied came from the same source. There is a lot of interaction between the American and European musical scenes, yet there are still differences. We speak the same language but with a different accent.
     Each musical tradition is born among people in a specific place. It grows from who they are, reflecting their character and situation. It is a vertical lineage, passed down from teacher to student but owned and guarded by the whole community. Among the batá drummers of Cuba, the music is a family tradition. Young men are taught by their fathers. Starting with the smallest drums and easiest rhythms, they progress through the more difficult patterns until they are allowed to play for public ceremonies, where they are corrected and guided by the temple community. Each temple has its own tradition and playing style, and those few drummers who master it are honored as a link to both past and future.
     But while traditions evolve through time they also spread across geography. There is a horizontal journey as well as a vertical lineage. The gypsies of India took five hundred years to reach Spain, all the while carrying and guarding the music and dance traditions that would eventually become flamenco. From there they took ship to the New World and the journey continued. While their music certainly influenced others, the flamencos are not particularly open to sharing their traditions, fearing that outsiders will contaminate, and perhaps take credit for, an art that is, to them, sacred. Many peoples guard their traditions by restricting access. By controlling art they seek to protect an essential part of themselves.
     This is not to say you or I shouldn’t perform the music from other cultures––I’ve spent a decade studying the music of Cuba––but I listen with a different understanding to a North American Latin group than when I listen to the Cubans themselves. And it’s not as if one is better––new ideas from new musicians bring new life to old traditions ––the trick is to be able to tell one from the other.
     As a Chicagoan, I come from a place whose vertical lineage is shorter than those of England or Cuba. I am, by necessity and inclination, a traveler through the traditions of others. I go to the source of Cuban music to study it from within, but by bringing my background to their music I alter it. I rewrite it and teach it to people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to the patterns. But by bringing these patterns to a new place and playing them within a new environment I am changing them. Am I contaminating the music or transforming it? Both, I think.
     My batá teacher is aware of how I alter his music even though I try to reproduce it as accurately as possible. Just writing it down changes it. “Tocas con acento,” he says. I play with an accent. It’s a problem.
     I’ve seen this same scene played out several times in London: a Scandinavian waitress trying, unsuccessfully, to communicate in English with African or Arabic tourists. Not only are there vocabulary limitations but there is little shared cultural context. The wider the gulf the rougher the interaction. I had this problem early in my Cuban studies. I not only didn’t understand the material, I didn’t understand why I needed to understand the material. With effort, I came to understand the context within which I was being taught. Worked out over time, this understanding has changed the way I play and teach.
     When I was in China I found myself translating between a Japanese woman and a German guy. She’d say, ‘It’s time for the bus to go to the hotel,’ and he’d say, ‘What?’ I’d say, ‘It’s time for the bus to go to the hotel,’ and he’d say, ’Great, let’s go before the rain starts,’ and she’d say, ‘What?’ It was all I could do to keep from bursting out laughing. I was translating English to English! Even though the language was the same, the accent disparity and lack of context made it impossible for them to communicate. So it is with music.
     The style, if not the substance, of play taught at the Royal College of Music is different than that taught at Julliard or Eastman, even if some of their faculty do come from Europe. The artistic climate is different. Eastman is not inferior, but it has its own context, an in-house culture which produces musicians who have had a different experience than those who trained in London. The Chicago and St. Louis Symphonies both have their own sound and each its own unique history. Yet neither has the depth of tradition found in the older orchestras of Europe. American musicians play in Europe and Europeans play here, yet both testify to the need to make adjustments when changing continents.
     Stravinsky was surprised by the accuracy of American orchestras and had to rethink how to notate his music when dealing with us, yet he drew inspiration from our music just as Charlie Parker did from his. If Bartok’s compositions were based on the vertical lineage of Hungarian folk music, Debussy’s was transformed by the Balanese gamalon, which he heard on a horizontal journey to St. Louis. Here are the two poles that drive music to evolve within and across traditions.
     Just as harmony and counterpoint view the same combinations of notes from different perspectives, so you can see the creation of a tradition in a specific place, or from how it travels through time and across geography. Just as traditional flamencos belittle the Gypsy Kings as a dilution of their heritage, others praise them for transforming the art and carrying it to millions who would never have known it otherwise. Who is right? They both are, but it’s only by comparing the music’s vertical lineage with it’s horizontal journey that you can see why both are valid.
     But when an art vanishes from its birthplace, when its family ceases to take care of it, it becomes an orphan cut off from the tradition, and we who carry it from its home, while we can’t help but contaminate it, also become its protectors. When ethnomusicologists transcribe the music of a dying tribe they distort it, but after the tribe collapses it’s all we have left. Futile? Not at all. Today, Native Americans are studying the texts and recordings of early researchers to reconstruct their languages and music. It won’t be like the old days but at least it’s not lost. Their culture has a future.
     Which brings me back to Trafalgar Square and the importance of preserving lineages in the places they were born. Each is a source for us who travel with them, but it isn’t enough for we barbarian Americans simply to preserve the traditions of others. We must learn to value the heritages we brought with us, and those which we created here. Is your family Japanese? Arabic? Greek? Irish? Many children of immigrants try so hard to fit in as Americans that they lose the ties to the people they left behind. They are sometimes surprised to discover that their kids have no idea where they came from. The study of musical tradition is more than a college course. It is a way to gain insight into where you are, and who you came from.
     Sitting in this old stone church, I wonder if any of my ancestors ever sat in these pews. What songs did they sing, their voices echoing off the walls around me? Which way did they turn to walk home? What drove them from this quiet sanctuary down to the Thames and on board a ship? I’m an American mutt––English, Irish, Swedish, and more. Like many Americans, I never really thought about my place among the people who brought their vertical traditions horizontally to a new world, making my life possible.
     I reach up and put my hand on the weathered stone wall and think, ‘But I will now.’

Readers' Comments:

     Thank you for sending this to me. I am going to pass this on to my teacher. I am studying Middle Eastern Dance with Jasmin Jahal, who is known internationally for her beautiful dances. She has studied with many famous Middle Eastern musicians, dancers and choreographers. She is finding that there is less demand for her performances at weddings, etc. as the fundamentalists of Islam make even American Middle eastern families afraid to offend. Dancers in Egypt, formerly the "Hollywood" of Middle Eastern dance, are censored. Ironically, she sees that America––that devil, as far as some Islamic preachers think, may be the place that this ancient art form is kept alive.
     I am beginning to understand the thread of knowledge that is strung from teacher to student. As young as Middle Eastern Dancing is in the US, there are definite styles developing in different parts of the country. And the difference when a dancer has a live group of musicians, compared to a CD! Don't get me started.
     Check out her web site at Over the years she has written some fascinating articles about all kind of topics relating to dancing: the instruments, the history, dealing with restaurant owners, etc.

Kathi Schmitt

My Response:

     The idea that some art is kept alive by others when it's creators renounce it isn't new, but I hadn't connected the stifling of Arabic dance with the rise of fundamentalism. It makes perfect sense.
     I do some Arabic drumming (in fact, I've met Jasmin, but I doubt she'd remember me). I was always surprised at how secular the Arab communities are in Chicago until an Arab explained that fundamentalists are driving the educated professionals out of the Arabic world and many are coming here for shelter. It explains why they are falling behind in education and science since the only thing taught in many schools is religion. It would seem that it's up to the Arab exiles to preserve their culture until their countries are ready to accept it again.
     One way to preserve the Arabic dance and music traditions, and build cultural bridges, is by teaching those traditions to non-Arabs like us. The best way to gain insight into any culture is to take part in it. Non-natives bring new perspectives to vertical traditions. One of my students is working on translating Arabic rhythmic notation into western notation––something an Arab would be less likely to do, but very valuable for us who would like to understand their music. He would not be able to do this if no Arab had been willing to share the original concept with him first.



     Thanks for your thoughts. I don't know if it's our age but I love to think of my ancestors. A beautiful aspect of the Yoruba religion is that they honor their ancestors, and I never remember hearing that from my Catholic upbringing. Were they consciously or unconsciously dismissing that? My mother's side is French and because of the pride that's been passed down on that side of my family I feel French. I loved the end of your musings when you wondered if your ancestors sat in the same seats. That hit me hard in a good way.
     As far as the music, I don't think we'll ever not have the purists and those who like to think of it as evolution. I agree that what you all who create music do is both contaminating and evolving and if it sounds good or makes me feel something I kind of don't care. Anyway, you gave us a lot to think about.
Take care and have fun,
Adrienne Bucholtz


     In business, the term globalization, can be confused by some to mean equalization. Each business, like music, has its own culture––methods and processes that are created and accepted over years of trial and error. Yet as corporations buy and acquire businesses in different countries there is an attempt to run business as though it was the same culture, the same procedures and customs. However, those companies are judged as separate profit centers and they bring their own cultural ways of conducting their business transactions and this separates the global partners so that in the end the struggle is to clearly communicate in a way that is acceptable to both local cultures yet allow them to remain separate but linked. I think that makes for interesting conversations and meetings.

Thanks for the monthly article,

Bruce Reinwald