can blue men sing the whites?

bbc 4's latest big music documentary tells the story of the british blues explosion of the 60's. and it's brilliant; if you ever wondered just how and why a bunch of mainly middle class white boys from the home counties ended up imitating, developing and then exporting american black folk music back to its birthplace (and what's more, to a white audience who were completely unaware that this stuff had ever existed), this is the film for you. there are some great observations from most of the key players en the scene. even keith richards makes sense, and the fab val wilmer gets a lot of screen time.

it's not music i'm particularly fond (apart ftom a bit of fleetwood mac) of but there's no denying the passion and commitment of people lke tony mcphee or paul jones or chris dreja or even eric clapton. but what struck me was that all of them (except john mayall perhaps) were really aware of how odd it was that they should be obsessed with the music of people they had very little in common with. being unable to get sweets as a kid because of lingering post war rationing doesn't really equate with lynchings, segregation and enforced poverty; they didn't have the blues as such, but they wanted to play it nevertheless; something in it spoke to them.

anyways, here comes the rant. the prog set me off thinking about the way music travels across cultural boundaries and all that malarkey, and how to a large extent it's mediated and increasingly accelerated by technology. throughout all of the participants recalled the thrill of discovering this strange, alien music through records, and how they would travel miles to knock on some strange bloke's door just because they'd heard he'd got a muddy waters album.

this might seem rather quaint now, but it wasn't all that long ago - forty years or so. but before commercial recordings and the radio, such cultural transmissions would have to happen orally (should that be aurally maybe?), through people singing or playing to others actually in front of them. it's weird to think that even the most rabid and well monied follower of beethoven in the 19th century would probably only get to hear any of their hero's symphonies once or maybe twice. imagine only getting to hear 'dark side of the moon' or 'never mind the bollocks' or 'rumours' or whatever just the once. now there's a thought.

even in the early 60s though, the rate of assimilation was pretty slow compared to now (even despite all the speed that keef and his chums were knocking back). and while it may be great that at a few strokes of the keyboard we can hear pretty much anything from baka pygmy music to tuvan throatsinging to eskimo whaling songs, on the other hand i think it does have implications for how musical culture develops. nothing like that blues explosion will ever happen again. those conditions don't exist anymore. things are too fragmented these days, too fast to allow anything to develop at its own pace.

it seems to me that a lot of what currently passes itself off as cross cultural musical exploration is just simple cut and paste (often literally so now given the possibilities of digital recording). we get the bland horrors of the afro-celt sound system or any one of bill laswell's casual frankenstein creations. the end results are nearly always lowest common denominator. the richness of musics evolved over centuries are reduced to a bunch of exotic signifiers; a sitar here, a couple of tabla hits there, a few strums on a kora or a burst of the uilleann pipes or a hardanger fiddle, usually stitched together over a lame dub beat. why is it always dub, i wonder. maybe so middle aged white people like me can dance to it at WOMAD and not get too out of puff.

i'm not advocating that cross cultural collisions shouldn't happen at all. that would be silly. it's just that they're happening too fast. nothing's allowed to develop or grow, just slapped together to feed our hunger for novelty and sometimes the rather wet liberal notion that we live in some kind of nice global village where all cultures are equal and music is a universal language. er, no we don't. they aren't. and it isn't.

personally, as a white and (i admit it) middle class bloke from kent struggling to find some, er, 'identity' as a musician, i feel a bit rudderless in a lot of ways. and so i can see why this stuff happens. it's easy to be cynical (i certainly don't find it a challenge) but at the root of it all there is i think maybe a genuine search for some kind of identity and community. some 'spotty 16 year olds from dartford' (in the words of keith richards) found it in a shared love of strange and powerful music from thousands of miles away that they managed to make their own. but as the song goes, those were different times. maybe i should learn some hop picking songs...

3 comments:

Garuda said...

I draw your attention to this monstrosity: http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/reviews/gc54
Fusion schmusion ;-)

Peter said...

oh yes. i heard some of that. nasty.

Garuda said...

watched the full show last night. oddly moving watching a bunch of middle class white guys still feeling kinda guilty about being white and middle class after all these years.

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