Organic Musical Development

Surely popular music isn’t just a Western thing, just as (semi)vernacular literature isn’t just a Western tradition. So why does it mostly consist of imitating the West and accepting its terms? Why do people marginalize their ethnic identities to become whitewashed?

I’m puzzled by the need people seem to feel to make the West the starting point. Why can’t Chinese pop music borrow robust elements of expression from Africa instead? Or why not Iran, for that matter, when Chinese people have certainly been interested in Persia before? (And anyway, why must our Chinese churches look like drab Western modernity?) Asian music does have much of interest. We can make something that develops traditional Chinese music in new directions rather than dropping everything like cultural iconoclasts.

Cultural shame. We still want to be better at being White and Modern™ than the ‘White’ people ‘White ghosts’ are. You think Asians don’t have an inferiority complex? Well we do, at the same time that we have our superiority complex. As Facebook says, it’s complicated. You can even hear it in the pronunciation of Mandarin in newer pop songs: the consonants sound much more Western-accented than in the mouths of the previous generation.

Avenues for development

I appreciate efforts by Wang Leehom (王力宏) to create a ‘chinked-out’ style in Chinese pop: it’s certainly a step toward claiming Asian culture to incorporate traditional ethnic sounds into R&B and hip-hop. He says of his album Shangri-La,

Then, I coined the term chinked-out. Derived from the historically derogatory racial slur chink, used to put-down Chinese people, chinked-out reclaims the word, turns its negative connotations upside-down, and uses them as material to fuel the new sound of this music. The term describes an effort to create a sound that is international, and at the same time, Chinese. In this album, I decided to implement some of China’s most precious and untapped resources, the musics of its shaoshu minzu (少數民族), or ethnic minorities, concentrating on the regions of Yunnan, Shangri-La, Tibet, Xinjiang, and Mongolia. This is not one of those world music CDs. It’s an R&B/hip-hop album that creates a new vibe the whole world can identify as being Chinese.

At the same time, I think something should be happening in the other direction too, where ‘foreign’ elements become part of a Chinese sound. This vaguely intertextual thing should be an interesting counterpart to creolization in language (say, in Singlish or in Haitian Creole), where one language serves as a base and the other often influences the creole, usually from below.

I say Wang Leehom’s thing was a start. It is. I welcome it. Still, I notice that though several songs wouldn’t be the same without the kunqu and Beijing opera segments they contain, they still seem to be more peripheral, though essential. I still consider the cultural references to be vague, though more robust than you might expect. Perhaps more will come of it, some deeper reappropriation of cultural resources. If not, we’ll become orientalist self-parodies.

Classical allusion

There’s a long and great tradition of Chinese poetry with both continuity and change, including such greats as Du Fu (杜甫), Li Bai (李白), Bai Juyi (白居易) and Li Qingzhao (李清照). In the West we sometimes still converse with Shakespeare and Milton; the Chinese have just as much to work with, just as much to talk about, if not more. The beauty of the sounds and the poetry of the words can interact as much with tradition (sometimes subversively) as with each other. Anyone heard of parody masses in Western music?

Ironically, in trying to develop in a new world, we may learn from the Middle Ages. Everyone knows the mediæval world was very different from the world of classical antiquity, yet Europe maintained cultural connexion with ancient Greeks and Romans, as well as with the Islamic world, even as she invented Gothic (i.e. French) architecture and polyphonic music and developed its own art of book illumination. For Chinese culture, we have the Chinese classical world, the world we once lived in before modernity, and we have the Western world, something ‘other’ as the Islamic world was to mediæval Europe.

Dante tried to write something greater than Vergil and Homer, in Italian no less. And so on. Newness.

We struggle to adapt. Do we struggle to outdo the masters?

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