American Voices?

Red Baraat is probably the first American Bhangra Big Band!
Red Baraat is probably the first American Bhangra Big Band!

So I was waiting to hear what Greg Sandow had to say about the final concert of the “American Voices” festival since he stated in his previous post that it was “big letdown that closed the festival — a mostly blank and sometimes — do I dare say smarmy? — concert.

Needless to say, I was disappointed.  Here was his reasoning:

And how, as I look back, the event seemed populist from a classical music point of view, because pop, jazz, Broadway, gospel, and country music were allowed up onto the same pedestal as classical. But from a larger view, maybe it wasn’t so populist, because — apart from a sadly synthetic top 40 finale — true mainstream American music wasn’t represented. Alison Kraus, representing country, is art-country, and her song at the final concert had an orchestral accompaniment that wasn’t country at all. Someone like Steven Tyler would have seemed out of place (and might have blown all the other big stars away).

which I think is inane, and I said as much on his facebook wall post of this blog:

urm, so it wasn’t populist enough because it omitted more mainstream American music? I would think it would be considered not populist enough since it included pretty mainstream content. I would loved to have seen this include Balkan Beat box, The Fishtank Ensemble, Red Bharat, or Jessica Fichot to show how different immigrant populations have fused their native singing and musical styles with American genres. Hell, even some less commercialized American genres like Zydeco, Bluegrass/Americana–why not include Ben Sollee for example. Seems like it was mainstream enough without having to include older mainstream icons, most of which haven’t really had hits in decades.

Here’s one of my favorite Balkan Beat Box tunes:

Here’s Fishtank Ensemble:

Red Baraat:

Jessica Fichot:

Of course, there are a number of classical music groups who are also doing similar things.  This whole “alt-classical” or “indie-classical” movement that grew out of the fusion of many Pop genres is probably already dead.  Here’s one of my favorites of the “new” alt-classical groups, the Ladom Ensemble, which is using the music of their ethnic heritage (rather than Euro-American pop genres) to influence their compositions and styles:

Quartetto Gelato is another:

Divahn is another:

Of course, Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble probably helped to pave the way for the legitimacy of non-Western musical styles in the eyes of the classical establishment.

I recently discovered Jennifer Grout, an American who made a big splash singing a traditional Arabic song–while not being able to speak a lick of Arabic:

The thing to note is that many of these folks are hyphenated Americans who are often singing in their homeland languages, or Americans singing in other non-English language/dialects.  Also, the musical styles they are fusing with American and Western harmonies are from their native lands.  These are now the new American voices–Steven Tyler is another one of those old pop icons which have come to have canonical status as an old school pop icon–in other words, he’s become as (or quickly becoming as) “classic” as anything coming out of mainstream classical music organizations.  Or, to put it another way, “American Voices” now are no longer relegated to Euro-American langauges and musical styles.  This is where the walls are truly coming down!

I don’t think bringing back “mainstream pop” into an “American Voices” concert is going to make anything more populist.  If nothing else, it would serve to reinforce the already tired pop music industry in a sea of change that is happening–and also serves to show how out of touch with the current music scene both Renée Fleming and Greg Sandow seem to be.

The musical world is changing faster than the old Classical Music and Pop Music Industry can keep up with, and if the so-called revolution is happening where these “walls are coming down” then those of us who have been two steps ahead of the iconization of mainstream pop have nothing to worry about–we’ll just keep doing what we’re doing and let the institutions scramble around trying to legitimize their failing industries.


  1. Excellent point–if shows are going to take from “mainstream” music, or even a “populist” side, then they need to actually do so.

    This sampling seems to say “Safe pop music that middle aged white people might like.” Where’s the soul? Where’s the metal? Where’s, well…just about everything else! I remember working a C-Pop concert in Atlantic City, and the crowd being larger than when I worked Gin Blossoms. And going to Josh Groban and being saddened that it was packed (though he seems like a nice, genuine guy, who actually admits to NOT being a proper classical singer, just loving the music). And working L.L. Cool J and seeing Apocalyptica in NYC, and being blown away by how packed Nokia Theater was. There is definitely a case to be made about who’s idea of music was being expressed…Good musicology paper in there.


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