Imported Authenticity: A Study of American-African Music

Ruth Charloff, 1987

That people make music and dance to the beat of their own cultures is the default assumption in ethnomusicological study.  There are many exceptions, of course, but these mostly concentrate on documenting (and often bemoaning) the influence of Western music on varieties of non-Western native cultures.  Westerners' interest in the music and arts of distant cultures has been less closely analyzed, by either ethnomusicology or historical musicology, except as framed as "appropriation" by a West conceived of monolithically.  Scholarship leaves us with the assumption that the importation of non-Western music to the West results in "inauthentic" art whose practice may be benignly tolerated, but is usually not worthy of study as art per se.  Neither has transplanted music been studied as a subcategory of broader cross-cultural experience.

For one significant body of theory concerning cross-cultural experience of the individual in modern Western society, we may look to the theory of tourism, as formulated first by the sociologist Dean MacCannell in The Tourist (1976).  Tourist theory is suggestive for the arts not only because it offers a structural framework for understanding what people may seek in other cultures, but, interestingly, because to MacCannell, the question of "authenticity" looms large.  Clearly, Westerner's interest in the arts of other cultures at least sometimes relates to this word "authenticity," used here not to describe the origin of an object but rather a quality of experience. A centuries-old tradition of Western thought has looked for "authentic experience" either in the past or in other societies - societies which may sometimes be conceived of representing the Westerner's own simpler past. The Westerner's interaction with other cultures - whether it be through tourism, museum-going, arts or ethnomusicology itself - is still frequently colored by a more or less conscious search for authentic experience conceived as something that Western culture has lost, or never had. It is this aspect of tourist experience, the search for authenticity, which MacCannell addressed. He referred to this search as the modern's religious pilgrimage, and characterized touristic consciousness as a model for the consciousness of what he called "modern man in general."

In this essay I present as a case study the experience of the Alokli ensemble, a club in the San Francisco Bay Area devoted to the serious study and performance of West African music and dance.  I then briefly summarize MacCannell's theory of tourism, and inquire how helpful it really is in coming to understand this other manifestation of modernity's cross-cultural gaze.  I conclude that here MacCannell comes up short, for reasons resting partly in the attempt to relate his theory to this context, and partly in the theory itself.

Alokli is a music and dance ensemble that numbers, between its "core" and fluid membership, about 15-25 participants.  Most are middle-class, white Americans in their twenties and thirties, and many have studied African music for years. It meets for rehearsals Thursday nights in San Rafael, California. Its members also attend a class in Ewe dance and music taught in Oakland every Saturday by the Ghanaian master drummer C.K. Ladzekpo, whom they regard as their main teacher. The name Alokli means "branch" in Ewe; it was suggested for them by C.K. Ladzekpo. Most of Alokli's music and choreography come directly from C.K.'s teaching. However, Alokli is not dedicated only to replicating Ewe dance. Even when performing Ewe pieces, they willingly change aspects to meet the needs or abilities of Alokli dancers.  In addition, some of Alokli's members have composed original pieces using techniques and principles derived from Ewe and other sub-Saharan African music.

There is no question that to at least some of Alokli's members, participation in African music and dance has become central to what they conceive as their spiritual, as well as social, lives. I had initially hypothesized that at least part of their enthusiasm for African arts was connected to a desire to address deficiencies in American life, a desire they would conceive of as spiritual. In my interviews with members of the group, I found this idea confirmed, and further found that unearthing this spiritual interpretation required no subtle application of hermeneutics on my part: my questions were met with ready, direct and articulate responses. Several members had already thought about and discussed this enough that they would initiate the subject of religious significance in response to my simply asking what was different about African music from musics in which they'd previously been involved.

One woman referred to "depth" and "sense of spirit," "respect for the bond with the earth," and "a feeling of community," and said that "cultures that obviously have depth and a sense of spirit draw people who are hungry for it." Another spoke of "a reverence for life," "a sense of the sacred," and "harmoniousness." They spoke of these qualities as largely missing from mainstream American culture and from their own upbringing. My small group of informants mostly represented backgrounds in Protestantism and Reform Judaism; only the one lapsed Catholic among them did not describe her childhood religious background with words like "cold," "a zero," or "OK." They saw their participation in African arts as a way to make sacred qualities available to themselves.

One recurring theme in their comments on African culture was their perception that it offered discipline and guidance, whereas American culture - too fast, arid, over-individualizing and lonely - fails to provide sustenance to the individual. This idea offers a striking contrast to an earlier efflorescence of white Americans' enthusiasm for black music, the popularity of jazz among downtown New York City whites during the Harlem Renaissance of the 20's.  At that time, what drew mainstream white culture to black music was whites' perception that black music not only represented but contained looseness, freedom from civilization, a return to passion and abandon.  At the opposite end of an overly eventful 20th century, the members of Alokli emphasized qualities of cooperation, community, shared values.  The idea was not that African culture represented freedom from civilization, but that African civilization was superior, that it served people better:  American culture, they felt, didn't do much to help with the difficulties of life, leaving the individual responsible for producing his/her own happiness.

The leader of the group, Dan Gorlin, said that in mainstream American culture, "nothing is handed to us. If we were given a culture we wouldn't have to look." He talked about "belonging to a community that's structured around solid principles, and having a clear identity in that community," and said that a good culture gives "values that work" in terms of the needs of human nature.  Much of the "wisdom" he saw in African culture he attributed to its being thousands of years old, while what's wrong with American culture, he thought, is that it is only 200 years old and has not had time to develop maturity.  (This is an interesting counter to the more popular evolutionary notion that African culture represents a younger stage of Western culture.)  The group members bypassed, however, a quasi-Luddite strain of indicting modern technology for these flaws: Gorlin, a software designer by profession, said, "Modern American culture is fun. I’m not an escapist. I just want more."

A second major theme in members' descriptions of the spiritual value of Ewe music and dance was the perceived capacity to induce "altered state of consciousness" and "psychological healing." An important point here, to which I shall return later, is that they attributed much of the music's spiritual efficacy not to its contexts, but rather to qualities in the music itself. They describe the musical style as a sophisticated technology for inducing altered states.  One man said, "African music doesn't try to be spiritual, it is. If you dance or play the way C.K. tries to teach, you have to . . . be completely let go and experiencing it."  Because the dancer must respond immediately, smoothly and without confusion to signals from the master drummer, the dance requires a bodily understanding that bypasses the circuitry of conscious figuring-out. Another man similarly mentioned the pleasure of this non-thinking state, and said that he'd left his previous training in Western classical music because of what he saw as classical music's emphasis on thinking rather than feeling. His own explanation for African music's efficacy in altering states of consciousness was that, with the variety of rhythms clashing with one another simultaneously, the conscious mind cannot grasp them all.   He said, "what's going on is that your mind is being thrown into neutral, leaving you wide open. It's a finely tuned method for doing what people try to do with yoga and so on." (It is noteworthy that eighteenth-century writers on the "sublime" in German/Austrian classical music used comparable terms in discussing passages of extraordinary contrapuntal complexity in their own music, noting these passages' special efficacy in surpassing the conscious mind's brain's ability to apprehend and assimilate.)  Similarly, the feelings of community that my informants repeatedly mentioned not only derived from membership in a club united by a common interest, but were particularly described as inherent to the dance form itself, a group form that one woman contrasted with dancing in rock clubs, where "people dance alone with other people who are dancing alone." Again, the members' rhetoric attributed the psychological and spiritual efficacy directly to the musical or dance style, rather than drawing on extra-musical associations:  they did not talk, for example, about the methods by which the music is taught, or the Ghanaian rituals in which it was originally involved.  Nor did the members volunteer any particular feelings of political solidarity with sub-Saharan Africa.

A third point of interest to bring out in Alokli members' descriptions of their involvement with the group is their fairly unromantic view of their possibilities for replicating African experience in their lives. They admitted that their own understanding of Ewe music was undoubtedly different from that of an Ewe, and that the music itself was no doubt also changing in their hands. As already mentioned, several members are interested in creating new music and dance based on what they have learned about African music. Some, at least, see this as a religious pursuit, and discuss it in terms of needing ritual actions that are relevant to their own lives. One man referred jokingly to "the indigenous music of the peoples of Marin County."

Two larger frameworks, neither mentioned overtly within the rhetoric of my interviewees, provide context for their comments. One is the Primitivism, to which the ideas described here bear an obvious connection. Like the early twentieth-century European Primitivist artists, most famously Gaugin and Picasso, and like the 60's counterculturists interested in peasant dress and Native American ritual, my interviewees look to the vitality and earthiness of another, less technologically developed society to revitalize life and art in the modern West. However, despite the similarity, it is important to separate different strands of Primitivist thought. One version attributes the missing vitality temporally to a cultural past, which in the familiar evolutionist view may be represented by a contemporary society less developed than one's own and most likely of darker skin tone; technology, urbanization, repressive education, and so on, may receive blame for the lost vitality. Another version conceives of the primitive on the level of the individual, associating it with a core of essential, a priori human needs and a capacity to live healthily and fully in the present. I would characterize Alokli's Primitivist strain as mostly of this latter type. Though criticism of modern social fragmentation and the like are present, my informants did not wish to be Africans, and they did not conflate contemporary Africa with their own, lost cultural past.

Second, the Alokli members' interpretation of their musical experience is mediated, not surprisingly, within the context of a larger world view - here, in Northern California, the all-pervasive ideas of the human potential movement and of therapy. This was true for at least two informants whose rhetoric spoke directly to the issues of growth, learning about oneself and being put into balance.  Both their expectations and their language for describing their experience come, of course, from their own culture. Perhaps connected to this is the fact that the religion they seek in the practice of African music is essentially psychological - that is, they speak of seeking religious experience, such as altered states of consciousness, rather than an ethical system.

To turn now to the question I posed at the outset:  How well does Dean MacCannell's theory of tourism account for Alokli member's own description of their experience?  MacCannell, in The Tourist, portrayed the tourist as being on a pilgrimage, a search for authenticity.  The tourist conceives authenticity as a quality that resides outside himself, in what he observes; the tourist's own feeling of "authenticity" comes, at best, from being in the presence of something which he or she understands to be authentic. To define "authentic," MacCannell drew upon the distinction made by the sociologist Erving Goffman between the "front" and "back" regions of social establishments. The front is the place where hosts and guests, performers and audience, or service persons and customers, meet one another; the back is where members of the home team retire between performances to relax and prepare. The back region, as we all know, allows concealment of props and activities that might discredit the performance out front. In a literal, staged performance situation, the terms "front" and "back" describe actual spaces in which the social roles are enacted. MacCannell used the terms in their extended meaning, describing the implicit, popular understanding that these terms metaphorically capture: the straightforward polarity between back and front regions is construed as a polarity between truth, intimacy, and real life, associated with back regions, and the mere show presented to outsiders, associated with front regions. The person in modernity, MacCannell argued, who lives amid social fragmentation and a lack of moral consensus and identity, cannot feel fully a part of his/her own world, and therefore seeks authenticity elsewhere. Thus touristic consciousness seeks the privilege of sharing back regions with the people and places toured. The "authenticity" that is the object of touristic consciousness is a sense that one has encountered another's real life instead of a show put on for one's own benefit. What MacCannell called "staged authenticity" can, and usually does, take place within the tourism industry: the people being toured understand the tourists' desire to see real life, and obligingly manufacture false "back regions" to satisfy it.

For our purpose in considering the musical ensemble Alokli, two problems arise in applying MacCannell's tourism model, and these problems can themselves begin to lead toward a more specifically ethnomusicological understanding.  One is that MacCannell's tourist's assurance of authenticity requires at least the illusion that one understands something from the real life of other people, in terms of the original ethnographic context. As we have seen, the members of Alokli do not regard the authenticity of their experience as dependent on replicating the experience of Africans, and they are sanguine about adapting the music to their own cultural needs. None goes by the term anthropologist or ethnomusicologist, and they do not feel obliged to describe accurately the experience of an Ewe listener, although they do feel that in broad outlines their experience of the music shares much common ground with that of an Ewe. Remember here that their explanation for the music's effect on them is not, as MacCannell would have it, that they are in the presence of someone else's authentic experience; rather, they see the music's efficacy as inherent to the music itself, and available to all.

The second problem with MacCannell's model applied to this context is significant for the light it sheds on the difference between engaging in a performing art and looking at a tourist sight or a museum exhibit. For MacCannell's tourists, the only data they have with which to judge the authenticity of an observed object is information about the object and about other people. For a dancer or a musician, participation in the art provides a kind of information in itself: one can feel a heightened sense of rhythm and movement, rather than merely receive and evaluate information that an African would feel these. Whether one regards this physical, kinesthetic information as ethnographically representative is, again, quite a different question; but one need not doubt that it occurred, and that it can qualify as "real life" despite having happened only to oneself. If the experience is powerful enough, it may dissuade a poor modern from the belief that the only hope for authentic experience is in viewing it in the lives of others.

Finally, Alokli's experience points to a more general problem with MacCannell. His theory does not acknowledge the capacity of human beings, even moderns, to make distinctions going beyond that between "real life" and "show"; they can also evaluate the quality of real life experiences. This capacity for differentiating among "backs" and evaluating them--and even of being more attracted to what is evaluated as having superior worth--is what someone less modern than MacCannell might call a spiritual capacity. Whether or not one uses the word "authenticity" in this regard - and many do - to Alokli the significant aspect of their experience of African music is not that it belongs reassuringly to someone's real life, but that it is good. MacCannell knew, of course, that in popular usage the word "authentic" resonates with value, as well as reality; it was his assertion that modernity has fully ravaged the human spirit through social fragmentation that allowed him to diagnose interest in that value as a hunger simply for feelings of reality. I attempt to temper MacCannell's meaning of the word authenticity with one associated with value in the hope that we need not share in his aspiration to discredit those who report achieving a sense of authenticity within modernity.

* * *

To summarize: tourism theory as expounded by its leading theorist is suggestive as a first approach to understanding the Western importation and use of the arts of other cultures, because it addresses the question of cross-cultural perception in terms of a search for authenticity, a "touristic consciousness" that MacCannell posited as a fundamental truth of modern life in general. Three problems arose, however, in measuring MacCannell's theory against the experience of the Alokli ensemble as its members reported it, raising issues that pertain to a more ethnomusicological understanding.  In ascending order of generality, these problems were:

  1. that Alokli members' sense of authenticity did not depend on feeling that they understood the ethnographic truth of the music at its place of origin, but rather was associated with elements inherent to the musical style, elements they saw as transferable to their own cultural needs:
  2. that physical engagement in a performing art provides an opportunity for deciding on its authenticity that tourism theory does not address, since tourism theory concentrates on the tourist's act of looking; and
  3. that the perception of value, as well as realness, is significant in the decision to study a culture not one's own.  Such a perception of value, grounded as it is in the culture one comes from, is itself worth studying.


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