Rocking for Rights
The topic for Week 5 is Musical Hybridity, as exampled by Yothu Yindi, an Australian musical group comprised of Aboriginal and European-Australian members, who created a song in 1991 calling attention to the Australian government's broken promise to sign a treaty with the aboriginal tribes. What's your opinion on musical hybrids in the United States? Who would you have picked to write about?
The musical and visual narrative of “Yothu Yindi” is essentially one of musical hybridity, and cultural and racial reconciliation, with a larger political purpose… Does this use of musical hybridity and the discourse of reconciliation have any tangible outcomes in Australia? Are there similar uses of musical fusions/hybrids in your own part of the world that have worked as effectively to bring about social justice (or harm) that you can describe for us?
Initially, I thought that yes, the use of hybridity in the two versions of “Treaty” does, indeed, have tangible outcomes in Australia, because of the temporal proximity between the release of the Tribal Voice album and the decision to nullify the doctrine of Terra Nullius. However, after reviewing the facts, I now believe that Yothu Yindi’s music represents part of a cultural zeitgeist that had begun before the release of the two versions of “Treaty”. The narrative represented by these songs had begun in the Australian court system in 1982, when the Mabo Case was filed, and in 1991, when the album was released and young adults were grooving to “Treaty (remix)” in dance clubs, the case was already in the hands of the Australian High Court. I presume, in saying this, that the Australian High Court is not comprised of the same cohort that fills Australian dance clubs, nor are they injudicial enough to base the decision of a long-standing court case on popular opinion.
That said, I do believe that the release of the Tribal Voice album contributed to popular opinion regarding the rights of the aboriginal people, contributing to a zeitgeist that started in the 1960s and affects Australian politics today and in the future. The two cultures living in Australia are still far from reconciled.
In a country as large, as populous, and as diverse as the United States, examples of musical diversity abound, from rhythm & blues to country to rap. I believe that the question of what comprises musical hybridity versus musical diversity is a very good question to ask, but I will not be asking it here today. Instead, I would like to discuss three musical examples.
One is a song produced by Lenny Kravitz and Iraqi musician Kadim Al Sahir, entitled “We Want Peace”. This song begins with a short riff on an oud, a Middle Eastern stringed instrument, then shifts into Kravitz’s characteristic funk rhythm combined with verse-chorus structured lyrics. The bridge between the 2nd verse/chorus and the 3rd keeps the strong drumbeat, but drops some of the funk instrumentation in favor of oud and violin playing a Middle Eastern background to Al Sahir singing. This meets the criteria here: a collaboration between a very popular American singer and a very popular Iraqi singer and lyrics that advocate for social justice.
Secondly, I would like to mention R. Carlos Nakai, a Native American (Navaho-Ute) who took up the Native American flute after several years of classical music training. It is important to him to prevent this relic of Native American culture from becoming a dead musical form, only displayed in museums as something that used to be, and in pursuit of this, he has recorded several albums of flute music, both solo and in conjunction with artists from Japan, Tibet, and Hawaii as well as American jazz artists and Israeli-born American musician Udi Bar-David. Nakai has intentionally set out to keep the music form alive by making the Native American flute an instrument of contemporary culture.
This brings us to my third example, musician Buffy Sainte-Marie. Sainte-Marie is best known for composing “Universal Soldier,” a song which has been recorded by many, but but she also has a great many works about the status and history of the Native American. Born Cree, she has a career spanning several decades, beginning in the 1960s with singer-songwriter folk music such as “Universal Soldier” and following through with early electronic music in the 1970s onward to today. Her 2009 album, “Running for the Drum”, includes “Cho Cho Fire”, an invitation to “listen to the drum beat” and “have a little fun now” set to rock instrumentation, with very well integrated samples (midway through and at the end of the song) of a Native American musical group performing at a powwow. This is conveyed in the video when the backing band stop playing instruments and add their vocals to the recorded chant. Also included on the album is an anti-corporate song, “No No Keshagesh” - “keshagesh” being a Cree word meaning “greedy guts”. In this song, she references Native American history and culture when she refers to Columbus getting lost in “our neighborhood” and the tumultuous history between Native Americans and colonialists (“Send in the troopers if the Natives resist”), with the guitars and keyboards of rock instrumentation. Also interesting about this song is the opening seconds - it leads with a very strong bass drum beat (bum ba-bum) which evokes Native American drumming.
- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yfgg0bJg1A4 (subtitled in Spanish) | http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mQazWcvo5cY (short documentary on the song). Sadly, I was not able to find a version wherein Al Sahir has an actual verse instead of lyric-less vocals during the bridge, but comments on YouTube indicate that one exists.
- http://www.rcarlosnakai.com | http://www.imdiversity.com/villages/native/arts_culture_media/voa_carlos_nakai_1105.asp
- http://www.creative-native.com/video.php?video=ChoChoFire | http://www.npr.org/2009/08/29/112331735/buffy-sainte-marie-native-american-folk-legend