While ethnomusicology used to be largely dismissed by academics as a way for members of Western societies to analyze cultures without being fully immersed in them, in recent years, the field of study has become far more respected. By definition, ethnomusicology is the study of music within the context of its culture. Since music is so largely influenced by history, various struggles, and environment, those studying it in cultures throughout the world become sociologists and anthropologists, almost unwittingly.
In all societies, people have used music as a means of celebrating in times of joy, speaking out against oppression, praying and celebrating religion, as well as productively channeling anger towards any injustices that they may face. Each country has unique ways of expressing these things, and that is precisely what makes studying the music of different cultures so fascinating.
Scholars once held the opinion that the only way to understand any country, or its history, was to go there and become submerged in their daily happenings. While doing so would undoubtedly allow one to gain a better understanding of a nation’s history and traditions, the advent of the internet has made it possible for anyone to study the influence of music on societies throughout the world. Additionally, many universities now offer degrees in ethnomusicology. This provides the opportunity for people to study the instruments, tonal and lyrical habits, and vast influences of the music of other countries. Because each country has such different ways of expressing the same ideas, studying the music of a given country or culture also requires one to study the history and sociological practices of that country as well.
In turn, as music fans, we can hear the influences of other’s cultures on contemporary artists within our own societies. The Chicago band, Zamin, draws heavily on their lead singer, Zeshan Bagewadi’s, Indian lineage. Though all of the band’s members are from North America, the songs are sung in various Indian dialects or based on Urdu poems. The perfect compliment to the lyrics is, of course, the music, which marries traditional Indian instruments to contemporary sounds, including trumpet, double bass, and cello. The incorporation of familiar instruments makes the music feel accessible enough to those who haven’t ventured beyond the Top 40, but doesn’t do so at the expense of Indian culture. The band’s growing success amongst varying demographics would seem to indicate that the band’s fan base is fond of their unique style.
Music critics and fans alike agree that Paul Simon’s 1986 album Graceland is his best. While everyone hears the classic pop sensibility and harmonies that Simon built his career around, the extraordinary thing about Graceland is its African influences. In addition to recording the album in South Africa, Simon worked with a variety of local musicians. While it would have been easier, and certainly less expensive, to stay in the United States and try to replicate South African music with session musicians, Mr. Simon chose to showcase the talents of musicians who could draw on genuine experiences and play their own, traditional music, in a manner that complimented his. It is worth mentioning that Graceland remains Paul Simon’s biggest selling album, having sold over 14 million copies worldwide. It also rates highly on many ‘greatest album ever made’ lists and has continued to do so more than twenty years after its release.
Graceland is also credited with introducing South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo to the mainstream. After working with Simon on Graceland, the group was able to enjoy mainstream success after what had already been a very well-established career. They’ve gone on to receive numerous awards and accolades, tour the world regularly, and sell millions of records. LBM has recorded songs with Stevie Wonder, Sarah McLachlan, Dolly Parton, Ben Harper, Josh Groban, Natalie Merchant, and Melissa Etheridge, to name a few. This shows us, quite simply, how omnipresent and far-reaching music from all cultures truly is. While members of Radiohead, The Beastie Boys, and U2 may not perform music that we, as listeners, hear as being multicultural, each band has members who are very fond of music from around the world. Having a public platform on which to speak about unknown folk music from Mali or Tibetan, chanting not only gives attention to styles of music many may not find on their own, it also shows us how willing artists are to embrace music from all areas of the world. There is little question that the music from other countries heavily influences western artists. While it may not always be as obvious as it was with Paul Simon’s Graceland, the experiences of the artists we listen to is sure to influence all facets of their work.
During a recent episode of the Music Biz Podcast with Michael Brandvold and Brian Thompson, Nettwerk Music President, Terry McBride, said the internet has made the world flat again. We all have constant access to music from parts of the world we may never physically visit. Taking advantage of this and exploring the importance and influence of ethnomusicology, either in a formal academic setting, or while lounging around your house seeking out new music to listen to, will be prove both enjoyable and insightful.