By Jesús A. Ramos-Kittrell
The well-meaning comments I received this year from students and colleagues about Cinco de Mayo (which ranged from remarks celebrating Mexican “independence day” to inquiries about authentic Mexican food in Connecticut) reminded me of the last time I taught a world music course in 2014. It was at the end of class, right after the midterm, when I realized something was wrong. I had just finished a presentation on son de tierra caliente in Mexico, followed by a Q&A to reinforce some concepts about instrumentation, geographical origin of the music, and issues related to cultural context featured in the textbook. Once class was over, a student left the room exclaiming loudly, “ándale, ándale, arriba, señorita, margarita!” This was not an isolated case; the class featuring music and culture from East Asia the following week ended with pentatonic calls from students heading to Panda Express for dinner. By the end of the semester, it seemed clear that this introductory course—which addressed general education components in human diversity and global engagement—was a failed attempt in cultural awareness, supported by an industry of higher learning that approaches the idea of “world cultures” through commodified stereotypes of racialized differentiation. That was the last time I agreed to teach such a course.
Around the U.S., different universities, music schools and departments offer world music courses today, in part, to abide by the standards that the National Associations of School of Music sets as essential competencies for undergraduate programs that combine studies in music, business, and music industry (as indicated in pages 178-187 of the NASM 2017-2018 Handbook). As part of these competencies, NASM expects students to demonstrate “[a]n acquaintance with a wide selection of musical literature, the principal eras, genres, and cultural sources, including but not limited to, jazz, popular, classical, and world music forms.” This competency—number 3 in the list—is followed by “[t]he ability to develop and defend musical judgements.” The taxonomical structuring approach established here (i.e., the concept of “literature” as a western index that legitimizes the study of music practices insofar as they are written) could explain the perennial interest to textualize: to codify the notion of “music culture” using a system of representation that relies on clearly defined categories, and leave little room for historical contingency. Considering that world music classes nowadays are viewed as spaces through which students can fulfill general education competencies in human diversity and global engagement, foreclosing the notion of “culture” in such a way seems problematic.
Overall, global engagement competencies in U.S. colleges and universities urge students to take courses that require them to inquire about other societies and cultures, and to reflect about these encounters. These experiences, some institutions say (I have taught at five different universities over the past ten years, and these ideas resonated in all of them) are meant to make students explore themes such as peace, conflict, and security; international economics and development; natural resources and the environment; and comparative cultures, arts and identities, among other things. Thus, global engagement ought to reflect human diversity awareness as a self-reflexive experience that challenges students to explore issues related to race, ethnicity, gender, and social difference. Such awareness, it has been claimed, should relate to the current need to immerse students in the logics of a rapidly changing global environment, which has made it necessary to be “culturally competent,” more than ever (refer to Donna Shalala’s article "A Clarion Call for Cross-Cultural Competence").
By and large, concerns for cultural difference (and cultural competence) in the United States have been largely addressed by the anodyne rhetoric of cultural diversity and inclusion. This rhetoric addresses “culture” as a totalized object that is directly connected to nationalist narratives of identity. Anchored to this view, diversity and inclusion efforts have focused on bringing national “others” into the dominant realm of political discourse. Interests in world musics, ethnic musics, or “other” national musics in American academia resonate with this context, as they remain tied to otherizing ideologies that stem from dominant western cultural narratives, in which the nation-state is the basis of cultural understanding (consider, for example, recent texts on Latin American music reviewed by this author in the Journal of the Society for American Music volume 10, no. 2 (2016). Also, the panel “Strategies and Opportunities for Greater Inclusion of Ibero-American Music in the Curriculum” (American Musicological Society annual conference, 2015) recently addressed the need to diversify the European canon through inclusion. The proceedings of the panel were eventually published by the Journal of Music History Pedagogy.) These publications point to a historical practice of racialization in relation to a western narrative of socio-cultural progress, which informs perceptions of difference on asymmetrical terms. While the need to expose students to the cultural and political imbalances that permeate the experience of globalization has set ethnomusicological curricula in relief, our current approaches need to be revisited, lest we reproduce the very mentalities and problems we are attempting to deconstruct.
Upon my arrival to the University of Connecticut, I was told of the need to implement a course that would expose students to musics from non-western cultures. I was further told that such classes should satisfy the general education, global engagement competency. My immediate reaction was to ask what constituted a non-western culture nowadays, given that the “non-western” (third) world has been historically the fulcrum of the colonial dynamics that shaped the West and its cultural and political project. What if people in different places identify themselves (and their cultural and political way of seeing themselves in the world) with musical, production, and listening practices that are considered “western”? There are important and fascinating things to learn from the context surrounding mbira music, for sure. But if the experience of globalization (and the identity politics that it produces) is of central importance, why not study hip-hop in Senegal? Death metal in Brazil? Or Colombian vallenato in Mexico? If we are to follow this rationale, what are the problems posed by different case studies, which dismantle cultural stereotypes and leave musical, cultural, and political questions unanswered? What if the study of music, culture, and difference in globalization, far from foreclosed, points to uncomfortable dilemmas without clear solution? Such has been my approach thus far, which has managed to hold the attention of students interested in cultural competence.
The study of music and culture in globalization does not necessarily promote a cheerful postnationalism to simply debase cultural stereotypes and the power imbalances they represent. The approach exposes students to the material effects that transnational practices have on people’s lives, showing the contextual specificity of such practices, and the regulatory effects that institutions, and domestic and foreign policies continue to have. In their globalized character, however, these practices challenge the geo-political limits of the nation-state and contest the political forces that mark people as peripheral. It is in this sense that music studies owe attention to the examples of imagination and behavior that go beyond current narratives of cultural representation. Concerns for cultural difference today ought to account for the transnational exchanges that decenter the nation and its cultural ideology, and for the desires that influence such exchanges among individuals. This approach, I believe, illuminates the intricate dialogues that shape globalized music practices, through which people constantly negotiate the political forces that marginalize them, and that upset objectifying ideas about indigeneity, aesthetics, territoriality, language, and ethnicity.
Jesús A. Ramos-Kittrell is Assistant Professor in Residence of Musicology and Ethnomusicology, and faculty affiliate of El Instituto: Institute of Latino/a, Caribbean, and Latin American Studies at the University of Connecticut.