My weird take on cultural appropriation

Updated on January 6, 2021 in General Stuff
5 on January 5, 2021

One might expect me to say that  “I should be able to host a taco party and hand out sombreros to all my privileged white guests without any guilt or shaming.”  And I do feel that way as a rule. But that’s not my issue.  Not today. 

To foreshadow, I always felt uneasy at best listening to white rock and rollers playing music of the Mississippi Delta, a region very close to where I was born and grew up.  There was no such thing as political incorrectness in those days, but I thought it was phony for rockers, especially rich English ones with hot chicks tossing their underwear on the stage, to play the blues.  Something was inappropriate about it but I didn’t have the experience or vocabulary to know what it was.  I do now:  There is something sacred, or at least extraordinarily special, about southern black musicians channeling southern black misery, and something profane about rich white guys covering it. Not that I’d protest it if I were on one of today’s politically correct university campuses.   And yes, Stevie Ray and Johnny Winter get a pass from me on this.  Just because.   But atheists shouldn’t sing How Great Thou Art, or Tantum Ergo.  It’s just wrong, even if they really like the melodies.

Something similar bugs me as I venture lately  into the exotic repertoire of gypsy jazz. I sense that Django Reinhardt sounded the way he did in part because of who he was: a real Belgian gypsy who was at his peak in German occupied France.  (He once politely resisted, and then fled from an invitation from a well meaning German officer to travel to Berlin and perform. He might have been diverted elsewhere after th performance.)  But anyway, I don’t think anyone but a real gypsy can know what it is to be one, or play like one.  They still play music all day and all night in those in France and the Netherlands, and the kids are steeped in it from birth.  

So my question is, is there any point in trying to learn Django’s licks and phrasing?  Many of his licks are just too fast, and so I can’t learn them anyway.   But when I do play songs of the gypsy repertoire that are within my reach, my phrasing has an unmistakable whiff of Pat Boone about it.  The reason is, let’s face it, I’m no gypsy; I’m a white guy from an upper middle class southern suburb.  Popular music of the 50’s is in my marrow. I’ve got to be me!  So I’ve decided that when I go to gypsy jazz jams, that I willl just go one and release my inner Pat Boone.  Who knows?   Any real gypsy in attendance might actually dig it.  “Hey man, show me those crazy white chords to ‘Something Stupid’. “

 
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0 on January 5, 2021

By the way, the reverse of this does not hold: gypsies can and do play the living hell out of western, “white” pop standards. This is Jimmy Rosenberg playing “I’m in the Mood for Love,” when he was maybe 15 or 16.  I used to hate this song. Not anymore. I can get emotional just thinking about Jimmy and his tragic life.  He toured the USA and was paid hundreds of thousands for his sold out performances … in cash, because he didn’t have a bank account.   Naturally, he quickly blew it all, and shortly afterwards, his career. He’s still with us, thank god, if barely.

 

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0 on January 5, 2021

My take on cultural appropriation stems from my early guitar playing experience. Back then “Eruption” was the gold standard that everybody and their mother was trying to copy. However, I figured that Eddie Van Halen would make all the money that was to be had being Eddie Van Halen ever, period. So I never thought of that exercise as anything other than being a complete waste of time. The only money to be made in music for me was in being me, for better or worse.

I’m getting ready to record and post the latest installment in the Pieces of Malarkey saga which will be the tune “Affirmation” by Jose Feliciano. In trying to do that song, I’ve rediscovered that I am not Hispanic, or black, or really that good. So I am forced to discover my own approach as painful as that is. So when you hear it, you will immediately notice that it’s not anywhere close to anything you’ve ever heard on the radio, ever. This despite the fact that there are literally a million videos of kids coping exact duplicates of the most famous version. But that’s too much like work for me and I don’t have the patience for it (or the chops).

However, I firmly believe there is nominally a market for my version. Yes, it involves wineries, art galleries, restaurants, and other non-glamorous venues. But I won’t be depriving George Benson of anything when I play there.

My experience is also that maybe 10% of musicians have my viewpoint. Most are hung up on duplication, not creativity.

But that’s alright. For whatever it’s worth, I’ve made all the money that’s to be made being me.

And it’s been a blast.

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0 on January 5, 2021

I remember some years ago, on the SH, when I offered that the US was too large, too populous, and too culturally diverse to ever expect success with a unified, centralized government. I was arguing then (and would argue today) that the US should split up into at least three separate countries.

A forumite at the time got upset with me, and said I was being “racist”.

Of course, to get there, he had to conflate “culturally diverse” with “racially diverse”. I would argue that the two things are entirely different, even if they are occasionally, superficially, coterminous. 

But the point is made. When you scratch the surface, you realize that the people who worry about “cultural appropriation” aren’t really worried about it at all. What is really going on here is a naked political/cultural power grab.

From the perspective of art and music, my view is that “appropriation” (cultural or otherwise) is how art works. You see something you like, and you incorporate it into some creative work of your own. That is literally how I spend half of my time.

Legally, one is always cognizant of the need to stay on the right side of a rather fuzzy line between “incorporation” and “copying”, but that’s a different concept from what the “cultural appropriation” crowd is talking about.

Mostly, “cultural appropriation” is simple bullying. The term lends an air of academic respectability to a Twitter mob going after some random high school girl who wears a prom dress that incorporates traditional Chinese features, for example.

I reject all of that, root and branch.

My standard is simple: Judging people by the color of their skin is always immoral.

It really is that simple. And once you internalize that concept, the naked absurdity of “cultural appropriation” (not to mention the vast majority of wokism and Critical Social Justice) comes into sharp relief.

“So my question is, is there any point in trying to learn Django’s licks and phrasing?”

For me, not a chance. I know my limits. 🙂 

But if you want to give it a run, I say go for it, without shame or reservation. You may or may not develop into a competent Django tribute player, but you will almost certainly take your playing to new, quality, places you otherwise would not go.

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0 on January 5, 2021

The first sentence of your post reminds me of Fisher Ames, my favorite founding father and a member of the long-defunct Federalist Party:

“Our country is too big for union, too sordid for patriotism, too democratic for liberty.”

Ever the elitist, Ames was debating someone who claimed that “All men are created equal!”

To which Ames responded, “But differ greatly in the sequel.”

As to the rest, all of my friends disagree with me, so there’s that. Good answers. though.

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0 on January 6, 2021

I wonder how the wokesters feel about Chinese guitar virtuosos playing Albeniz or Tarrega, or Japanese hobbyists playing Bach?

 

I agree with el Jeffe.

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