Sharing the World Through Music

As usual, I’m too busy doing music to blog about music. Which is a good thing, but there are times I wish I’d gotten out of the music business. This is not one of them, or rather-this post isn’t about that.

On the day of the signing of Executive Order 13769 (informally known as the “Muslim Ban” or the “Travel Ban”) I decided to start a new ensemble, Sulh, which would perform a program titled “Music from the Muslim Ban.” While we’ve yet to actually prepare and perform that program (and the timeliness of such a program is ever shifting), we have done a number of shows in various venues. Most recently we hosted a Middle Eastern Music and Dance Jam at a new local venue and the International Fair at the newest branch of the Louisville Free Public Library.

Sulh hosting the Shimmydown Social: Middle Eastern Music and Dance Jam at the Butchertown Social in Louisville.

When I create the Sulh website about a month ago I used a WordPress template and as most of the templates go, you are able to add a “subtitle” to your page. For some odd reason, the phrase “Sharing the World Through Music” just flowed right out of my fingers and into that subtitle slot. I think it perfectly sums up what this group’s mission statement is and what my mission statement has been for, well, decades. And when I say “World” I mean the world that is underserved by musicians already here, in the States, producing music.

There are more than enough people in the US playing live Beethoven Symphonies. I don’t need to do that. There are more than enough people playing Pop/Rock Band Music in the typical vox/guitar/bass/drums configuration. I don’t need to do that. My contribution to doing any of those and similarly related musical activities is not going to make much of an impact in this world. Neither is it going to help the marginalized of the world despite the protestations of singers of protest styled songs. Performing music and musical styles of the cultural majority in this country just doesn’t appeal much to me anymore.

Music as Social Activism

In my Facebook feed was a fascinating article about American Maroons. slave who had freed themselves and lived in independent settlements in the Great Dismal Swamp in southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina. Very little is known about American Marronage and for the most part scholars didn’t really believed they existed in the US as they did other slave-holding countries. This piece is about Dan Sayers, an archaeologist, and his work in uncovering this neglected part of American History.

As the piece states:

By downplaying American marronage, and valorizing white involvement in the Underground Railroad, historians have shown a racial bias, in Sayers’ opinion, a reluctance to acknowledge the strength of black resistance and initiative. They’ve also revealed the shortcomings of their methods: “Historians are limited to source documents. When it comes to maroons, there isn’t that much on paper. But that doesn’t mean their story should be ignored or overlooked. As archaeologists, we can read it in the ground.”

And Sayer also states that:

“[a]rchaeology is my activism. Rather than go to the Washington Mall and hold up a protest sign, I choose to dig in the Great Dismal Swamp. By bringing a resistance story to light, you hope it gets into people’s heads.”

This is how I’ve approached music for most of my life. It’s as much about the stories that can be told by the music as it is about the music itself. See, we have this mistaken belief that the music can be apolitical. We’re seeing this throughout culture in any number of fields when people decry the bringing of Partisan Politics into Football, or when people say that celebrities shouldn’t be political.

The thing is, everything is political. There are opportunity costs involved in every decision we make (more about this in a future post)–whether that decision is a musical consumption one or a musical production one. If I spend a lot of time at the Symphony, then that’s fewer resources I have to go see an Arabic Orchestra. If play in Pop Band, then that time cannot be used to play in a Bhangra Band. Granted, there may be other valid or practical reasons I couldn’t do the latter (i.e. no such band exists, or there are no musicians that play Bhangra where I live and none interested in learning how to do so).

Sulh playing a Malaysian/Thai Rong Ngeng song popular amongst Muslim Malays and Thai Buddhists during the International Fair at the South Central Regional Library.

By supporting one genre(s) of music, that means I won’t be able to support another genre(s) of music. Which means I’ll favor one over an other which means that the other will be just that more unlikely to succeed. Which for me means that someone’s story is less likely to get told. I think I’d prefer to know about the musical maroons and the stories of how minorities have survived and thrived in the US. Music is one way to unearth that for me and for anyone else I happened to be sharing it with as I perform and tell the stories behind the music.


But Isn’t Music a Universal Language?

An incessant trope that gets far more attention than it deserves and is often shared by monomusicals is that Music is a Universal Language. That music somehow transcends culture and is comprehensible to anyone listening to it. The trope was apparently coined by Wadsworth and is premised on two things that hopelessly simplify a complex form of cultural communication. One is that music is a language at all, and secondly that what it communicates is emotion.

David Ludden addresses both those issues here. I’m not going to get into the music is a language issue here (though it might show up in a future post) other than to say that it isn’t. It”s simply one of many forms of communication (language being another ubiquitous one) of many that humans use.

As for music communicating emotion fairly universally, well, there is some evidence for that (as well as evidence against it), but Ludden states correctly that this is something that language does too.

Nevertheless, studies show that people are pretty good at detecting the emotions conveyed in unfamiliar music idioms—that is, at least the two basic emotions of happiness and sadness. Specific features of melody contribute to the expression of emotion in music. Higher pitch, more fluctuations in pitch and rhythm, and faster tempo convey happiness, while the opposite conveys sadness.

Perhaps then we have an innate musical sense. But language also has melody—which linguists call prosody. Exactly these same features—pitch, rhythm, and tempo—are used to convey emotion in speech, in a way that appears to be universal across languages.

Listen in on a conversation in French or Japanese or some other language you don’t speak. You won’t understand the content, but you will understand the shifting emotional states of the speakers. She’s upset, and he’s getting defensive. Now she’s really angry, and he’s backing off. He pleads with her, but she doesn’t buy it. He starts sweet-talking her, and she resists at first but slowly gives in. Now they’re apologizing and making up….

We understand this exchange in a foreign language because we know what it sounds like in our own language. Likewise, when we listen to a piece of music, either from our culture or from another, we infer emotion on the basis of melodic cues that mimic universal prosodic cues. In this sense, music truly is a universal system for communicating emotion.

And then we have tonal languages which convey semantic meaning via lexical tones. And correspondingly, there’s the view that some non-emotive meaning is embedded in musics. To illustrate the latter I’ve often used a few anecdotes taken from ethnomusicology contexts. I recently posted one on my Facebook page (and have related in a previous blog post).


The history of Western Culture’s first encounters with the musics of other cultures have produced similar sentiments, and some much more ethnocentric and racist as the “undeveloped music” must surely reflect a “lesser” or “primitive” race and culture. I think we’re beyond some of that now, though Western Music (both the Pop and Classical varieties) get centered in discussions of quality of music, general music aesthetics (even lay aesthetics), and incessantly becomes a point of reference to some kind of utopic universalist music essentialism.


Sharing the World Through Music

Hence some of the many reasons I much prefer marginal musics. And by marginal, this doesn’t imply small audiences. I love Bollywood music, and this might be a musical genre with more listeners and albums produced than any other genre in the world. But it’s still marginal in the US.

Sure, there’s great stuff in Western Pop and Classical. But there’s great stuff from all over the world and the musicians, artists, and audiences here hardly need one more advocate centering this music. The underprivileged, marginal, and minority need it more. Not only to bridge the understanding between different communication systems but also to bridge understanding between the peoples that have ties to those musical communication systems.

Sulh is intended to bridge that gap and the name of the group itself has the connotation of Peace through reconciliation. In other words, a Peace that has to be worked for, not simply a Peace by absence of conflict. If we’re constantly looking in a musical mirror, how can we even begin to understand that music isn’t a universal language and how less likely are we to negotiate a peace? Also, what a great way to introduce stories about non majority members of US culture by using their music to build a bridge.

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