Decolonizing the Musical Mind

A few weeks ago, I started re-reading Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s “Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986) and for some reason this time reading it brought me back to the time when I quit playing the cello (right out of music school). A couple weeks ago, I mentioned here on my page, that I was slowly saying farewell to most Western Music (I’ll have to qualify that at another time). I mentioned some of those reasons in my latest blog post a couple months ago, and was in the middle of a couple of posts clarifying some things (one of which is this post).

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The Other Orchestras (part 1): Ethnic Orchestras

There’s such a problem with Eurocentric terminology when discussing analogues to a Western institution found in other cultures. That’s no different than with orchestras. I’ve used the phrase “Ethnic Orchestras” in reference to large ensembles modeled after the European-styled Orchestra (e.g. Traditional Chinese Orchestras), but at the same time, some of these large ensembles are definitely found within European countries (e.g. Mandolin Orchestras).

When I’m referring to large ensembles that have had little connection to the European-styled Orchestra and that are native to countries (e.g. Gamelan) I usually call those “Non-Western Orchestras.”

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Myth of the Monolithic Pop Culture

One of the many ideas that Crisis folks rely on is what we could call a Monolithic Pop Culture trope. The whole idea of Classical Music culture being rooted in the past (and therefore needing to “catch up” to contemporary culture) relies on this myth that culture has “evolved” (nevermind the problematic aspects of a type of Social Darwinism which implied in claim) to the point where Classical Music culture is no longer relevant.

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The Pan African Orchestra


Occasionally, I do random searches for Non-Western Orchestras and came across this piece, “The Orchestra in the African Context,” by Fred Onovwerosuoke (1999). I was curious about some of the claims, since I know nothing about large ensembles of Africa, and did a search for African Orchestras.  I assumed I’d come across a number of European-styled Orchestras but to my surprise, one of the first results was for the Pan African Orchestra in Ghana.

As is the case with many of the large ensembles (e.g. Traditional Chinese Orchestra), the Pan African Orchestra was an attempt to create a large symphonic group, but with traditional African Instruments and playing African repertoire. Founder, Nana Danso Abiam, wanted

nothing less than to integrate for the first time the different regional musics of the continent into a ‘new’ classical synthesis. This would simultaneously offer an ‘Afrocentric’ system of symphonic music, as a substitute for the colonially established western classical repertoire in Africa, and move the cultural climate a degree or two in the direction of the grail of true pan-Africanism: the welding of the continent into a single African state.

Abiam’s aspirations for the group, initially were large scale–he wanted an orchestra of 108 musicians.  The group eventually settled on 28 and looks as if that’s still the number.

As this was an pleasant surprise, I thought I’d just make this brief–more of a bookmark for me–post. I’ll definitely have more to say about this and whatever other African Orchestras I find.

“I’m having trouble with the idea that art is universal lately”

Jon Silpayamanant performing with Raks Makam at the Eifler Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky. October 7, 2011.
Jon Silpayamanant performing with Raks Makam at the Eifler Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky. October 7, 2011.

The title of this post is taken from Clayton Lord’s recent blog post, All the People, where he questions the Universalist position most arts organizations in the states take for granted.  The viewpoint can be summed as he states it:

Currently, I would argue, we spend almost no time functionally thinking about diversification—we instead simultaneously assume (1) our work is universal and (2) they just don’t know it.

And this happens at ever functional and structural level in the arts.  Lord continues (later in the piece) with the idea of a difference between true universalism (which I’ve increasingly come to doubt really exists) and of a “lip-service ‘white’ universalism that most arts organizations have been operating under for a long while now.”  Many of these remarks are in response to Ian David Moss’s post, Why aren’t there more butts of color in these seats, which was a response to an earlier post of Lord’s.

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