Cultural Appropriation?

 August 9, 2019

Coltrane, Ray Charles and Elvis

As a musician I struggle with the notion of cultural appropriation. The great jazz saxophonist John Coltrane was influenced not only by a rapidly evolving jazz tradition, but also Indian Classical and Western Classical music. Ray Charles loved Country and Western Music, and his classic Soul Music was an integration of Black Church Music, Blues, Jazz and Rock n’ Roll. Elvis Presley’s music was influenced by Blues and R&B music as well as country and pop music. Music tends to be evolutionary, not revolutionary. The vast majority of “brand new” music comes from somewhere.

The Diamond Approach

I recall the first time I heard the term “cultural appropriation.” It was leveled against me in 2003 by an Indian professor during who seemed irritated by my participation in the Diamond Approach spiritual practice/community. Her critical assessment made no sense to me. From my perspective Diamond Approach was a psycho-spiritual approach designed by A. H. Almaas, a Kuwaiti physicist (educated in the West) that integrated Buddhism, depth psychology and Sufism, and who was an early Enneagram student of Chilean psychiatrist and spiritual teacher Claudio Naranjo.

Her charge implied someone was doing something improper… someone was stealing something from someone else. Really? From my perspective this was the case of a teacher (Almaas) with a deep desire to serve humans who innovated around work he received from a mentor (Naranjo) to create a form of spiritual development informed by modern depth psychology. I saw (and still see) the Diamond Approach as a brilliant synthesis of useful traditions from around the globe.

Where does music come from?

Recently I came across an interesting jazz (musical/chordal) analysis of the song Virtual Insanity by Jamiroquai. Click HERE for the video analysis.

Virtual Insanity was written/recorded in the 1990’s, and as the analysis video demonstrates:

  • In one section the chords are very similar to Isn’t She Lovely by Stevie Wonder.
  • In another section the chords are very similar to  Just the Two of Us by Bill Withers.
  • And, the melody in Virtual Insanity is similar to Staying Alive by the Bee Gees.

All three of these songs were written/recorded in the 1970’s.

Is this a case of the dreaded cultural appropriation?

Hmmm… I say no. The end of the video analysis demonstrates how ALL of these songs are based off the chords from the jazz standard Fly Me To The Moon, written by white Iowan Bart Howard in the 1950’s.

Many (Stravinsky, Picasso, William Faulkner, T.S. Eliot) are credited with a quotes that convey the sentiment (expressed by Steve Jobs) that “good artists copy, great artists steal.” Stealing, in this case, involves many things, such as (i) truly making an idea yours, (ii) updating an idea or synthesizing it in a novel way, (iii) transforming and elevating an idea. Examples include Romeo and Juliet becoming West Side Story, the opening line of Coltrane’s solo on Someday My Prince Will Come becoming a melody in Chick Corea’s Spain and Hendrix’s version of the Star Spangled Banner.

Gimme Some Nuance

We live in a globalized world where access to all the world’s cultures are available for the first time in history. Perhaps we need a taxonomy of actions one can take in relationship to other cultures so we can approach this topic with more nuance. From a conversation with my good friend and beautiful musician Issa Noor, here are five actions to consider.

  1. Cultural Supremacy – rigid traditionalism. The attitude that “my culture is better than all the others.” Taking offense- “how dare you!” Self-righteous indignation. This could be the what I call the Traditionalist (only “my way” is correct) approach to Kirtan in my blog post titled Bhakti Revolution.
  2. Cultural Mis-Appropriation – I think mis-appropriation is a better term than appropriation. Either way, this involves doing something without any depth. Using another’s culture as mere fashion statement vs. understanding, embodying and enacting its essence. This would be marked by a lack of depth, understanding and respect. Perhaps it involves a dominating or diminishing the culture. This could be the what I call the Hedonistic (if people like it, then its good) approach to Kirtan in my blog post titled Bhakti Revolution.
  3. Cultural Appreciation – someone who loves a particular cultural practice that comes from outside of their own culture. Perhaps (at the beginning) “I don’t know what this is, but I love it!” Or (later on), I am taking the time to explore and learn about this from inside the culture.
  4. Cultural Practice – I’m spending the time to develop expertise, virtuosity and mastery in this practice. I am studying with mentors who are experts and masters in this culture. Lineage.
  5. Cultural Adaptation or Evolution- achieving mastery allows me to innovate. One needs to be very DEEP into a practice to be able to do this. This involves integration and synthesis for the sake of creating relevant music that is a functional fit with the society and an expression of the Zeitgeist.

Where cultures overlap, mix and mingle, new culture is created. This keeps culture alive.

Postscript

The term Cultural Appropriation frames discussions around culture through the Drama Triangle, where someone is persecuting another. Perhaps that is the case… perhaps mis-appropriation is happening. However, if the only tool you have is a hammer (Cultural Appropriation) the entire world can look like a nail. At the root of the cultural appropriation argument is a formulation referred to as R = P + P which I will address in a future post. My hope is that defining and presenting these five ways of being in relationship with culture will open space for conversations around culture with greater levels of subtlety and nuance.

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