The Wire

In Writing

Bell Labs: Other Folks' Business

January 2013

In the spirit of Borges, I offer up a synopsis of an imaginary book I’m too lazy to write. Over years of my interest in non-Western traditional musics, I’ve encountered Westerners who are powerful, if subtle, operators in this field. They deserve to be brought together in a book. I’d love to read it, and I’d love to interview the people concerned. But actually writing the thing would entail too much time away from my sofa, not to mention the expense.

Here’s my twelve-word pitch: “Westerners who re-wired World Music in the spirit of saving the whale”. Okay, that needs some work. I’m talking about people who were passionate about a particular music, perceived it as under threat, and therefore intervened to save it. My intro would tell of Colin McPhee, an American misfit composer (and friend of Benjamin Britten), who settled in Bali in the 1930s. He fell in love with the local ceremonial music and, fearing its imminent extinction, established an old-school gamelan orchestra in his house. He recruited elderly gents who recalled the glorious sounds of the 19th century and set about recapturing those fading styles.

Then I would move on to recent figures, starting with Ross Daly, an Irishman living on Crete. Seduced by the bowed Cretan lyra, he studied with the best players and introduced them to astonished overseas audiences. As that generation passed away, Daly found himself upholding the tradition. He gathered musicians from neighbouring countries, reforged Greek-Turkish links, toured a group called Labyrinthos, established a summer school that continues today…

On to Bangkok, where Bruce Gaston arrived from the US in the late 1960s as evangelist Billy Graham’s organist. What made him stay and study every instrument in the Thai traditional orchestra? How did he suddenly become a central figure in Thai music, bringing his Fong Naam ensemble to perform at the London Proms? One way to find out would be conducting Bangkok-based interviews.

There are two more of these campaigners: first, Paris-born Julien Jalal Eddine Weiss with his Al-Kindi Ensemble based in Aleppo, Syria. Before the current Syrian devastation, Weiss produced several sophisticated albums displaying the subtleties of the classical Arabic chamber tradition. Usually he was in the group himself, playing the kanoun zither. And finally, the man I know next to nothing about, French ethnologist Alain Weber, artistic director for The Musicians Of The Nile in the 1980s. This was an unforgettably raucous Egyptian folk group of Luxor tricksters and entertainers, circular-breathing through double-pipes and thrashing at drums, then selling off their instruments to the audience. I saw them a couple of times before I realised there was a European in their midst. Weber has also worked with gypsy performers: he sees himself as engaged in a long fight against uniformity within music.

Traditional music never stands still, it’s always in flux, and can sometimes be wiped out. In each of these cases, my exemplars have made a lifelong commitment to a music which then required a tricky managerial decision regarding their position within it. An outsider can transcend local rivalries and clan disputes, can bring competing virtuosi together. The man or woman with contacts abroad can create paid work, and when previously despised musicians have toured Europe, attitudes back home can become more positive. Daly and Gaston were eager to preserve past skills while moving the music firmly forward, allowing the tradition to embrace the modern world, just as Indonesian gamelan composers have incorporated motorcycles. McPhee may have been wrong about the fragility of Balinese music, but he wasn’t alone in feeling a real urgency, a sense that a tsunami of Pepsi and Michael Jackson might sweep everything away. Today’s landscape of WOMAD and YouTube looks very different to 40 years ago, though I’m not saying life has got easier for traditional musicians. Threats to their livelihood may now come from other directions. But the musicians mentioned above at least got off their sofas for long enough to help rearrange the furniture.


Update: the French performer and promoter of Syrian classical music, Julien Weiss, died prematurely in January 2015:
Audio interview with Julien Weiss:

Leave a comment

Pseudonyms welcome.

Used to link to you.