Building Sustainable Futures: towards an ecology of global musical diversity

by Huib Schippers. Published in Music Forum magazine, Vol 19 Issue 1 (November 2012)

MCA Board member Huib Schippers reports on his work in India in the context of the international project ‘Sustainable futures for music cultures: Toward an ecology of musical diversity’, in which MCA is one of nine partners. Huib links his reflections to cultural diversity in Australia and the 5th World Forum on Music of the International Music Council. The World Forum is being organised in close collaboration with the MCA and hosted by Queensland Conservatorium Research Centre at Griffith University in November 2013.

While hardcore ethnomusicological fieldwork is anecdotally associated with eating worms and sleeping upright, knee-deep in mud, with unknown entities nibbling at your toes, I spent the first few days of my research in India earlier this year as a guest in 'Jaldeen', a 200-year old palace in Kolkata. After a dissident prince was evicted somewhere in the first half of the last century, it now houses a residential Music Academy sponsored by the Indian Tobacco Company, where the country’s most promising young musicians somewhat ironically study classical voice.

Jaldeen palace. mf191schippersMy favourite 'roughing it' moment was when five minutes after the Director had asked me if my privately allocated cook was to my liking (very sweet elderly lady, albeit hard to convince that corn flakes do not need hot milk with my less than elementary skills in speaking Bengali), my next interviewee had sent around his driver to pick me up. And although Jaldeen was not really a very big or luxurious palace, it was hard not to smile internally at the blessings that came with this exercise in urban ethnomusicology.

My mission was fascinating and daunting at the same time: as the leader of one of nine international teams I was to begin to map the ‘musical ecosystem’ of North Indian classical (or Hindustani) music across five domains: systems of learning music; the way musicians form and interact with communities; the contexts and constructs (values and attitudes) underlying the music; infrastructure and relevant regulations; and the role of media and the music industry.

I have been associated with this music as a student, a (decent second-rate) performer, a teacher and a scholar for close to forty years. It has always fascinated me how this elite aural tradition has not only survived but flourished under major transitions from Hindu temples to Muslim courts via the houses of courtesans to an emerging middle class audience, in the face of several hundred years of British colonialism and other aspects of global, economical and demographic challenges – while at the same time cleverly embracing technology and new opportunities to engage with global audiences (think of Ravi Shankar’s conquest of the West in the late 1960s).

The key challenge was to see if the idea of a ‘musical ecosystem’ – an environment that can be understood as the sum of key aspects which are either conducive or challenging for any music culture – made sense to the people at the core of the tradition in India: performers, teachers, scholars, administrators, organisers, recording industry and media people, policy makers, and audiences. I had two dozen people across these categories on my wish list, and fortunately, most were happy to discuss their views on the state of Indian music.

Almost all discussions referred to learning classical music in India, which is firmly and famously based on a close association between master and disciple known as guru-shishya-parampara. This system of transmission is built on respect and even awe of the learner for teacher as an embodiment of knowledge. This stands to reason: the guru does not only serve as the holder of the keys to skills, creativity and innovation within the boundaries of the tradition, but also holds in his or her memory the entire library of musical material handed down.

While it has been criticised as being anachronistic, too authoritarian, and prone to power abuse, GSP still remains the format for training Hindustani musicians. There are no self-taught musicians of any significance in North India, and mature musicians proudly refer to the musical lineage through their gurus. At the same time, students and scholars signal the vulnerability of the system to careless teaching, lack of career support, changing lifestyles, or even various forms of abuse by gurus. But it still represents the only viable pathway to becoming a professional: the formal music school system established about 100 years ago only trains amateurs, with only one real exception: the corporately sponsored elite school where this article started.

In terms of the relationship between musicians and communities, there appear to be three distinct forces with significant implications for the ecosystem of Hindustani music. First, a well-defined and time-honoured hierarchical structure among musicians that provides stability to the tradition and its transmission processes, as well as a guide to ‘authoritative editions’ and approaches to compositions, improvisational structures, ragas and talas. Second, a highly knowledgeable inner circle of supportive music lovers (or rasikas) who appreciate the depth of the tradition and are not easily swayed by superficial showmanship. Third, a striking absence of organised collaboration between musicians to advocate for joint causes.

The first is an unambiguous strength of the ecosystem. The second constitutes a strength as well in principle, but less so than a century ago, as the cultural elite is no longer synonymous with those in power. While the third may be seen as a strength in terms of allowing a great diversity of voices, in sum it probably works against a well supported future for Hindustani music, especially when hard times arrive.

Historically, Hindustani music has done very well with those. While decline in music cultures is commonly attributed to major social, religious, cultural, political and technological change, Indian music has successfully reinvented itself in a sequence of very different socio-cultural contexts over the past ten centuries: temples, courts, houses of landowners and courtesans, radio stations and television, Indian concert halls, Western stages, and a variety of recorded formats. It has done so by making incisive changes to some aspects of the lives of musicians (including converting to Islam, getting involved in politicking, rebranding the art), but apparently without making sacrifices of what Hindustani musicians consider the essence of their art.

While it is widely considered as one the great classical traditions of the world and a symbol of national pride, Hindustani music has a striking lack of formal support and regulations governing its sustenance and development, given its size and grandeur. In North Indian, there is a dearth of dedicated performance venues, music schools, grants and funding opportunities, peak representative bodies, and local and national policies relating to classical music.

This is partly because Hindustani music has relatively modest demands in terms of infrastructure. Intimate mehfils are held in people’s houses, public concerts are often presented in multipurpose venues – with varying degrees of quality in amplification – and the major festivals over the winter months are generally outdoors on stages erected in public fields and on showgrounds. Traffic is cited as a key issue – both in terms of noise and enabling people to arrive at specific venues in time in gridlocked cities like Mumbai.

Media have played an almost heroic role immediately after Independence 65 years ago: All India Radio (AIR) is widely acknowledged for its support to Hindustani classical music during that period. It effectively assumed the role of principal patron when the courts lost their ability to support music, paying salaries to hundreds of musicians. Long-time AIR producer Nityanand Haldipur described the waiting room at AIR as a modern-day palace antechamber, where the great masters drank tea and discussed intricacies of ragas and talas.

Since the 1980s, due to government funding cuts, AIR has not been hiring new staff (performers, technicians and administrators). Consequently, it is no longer a significant patron of Hindustani classical music. In more recent decades, the printed press has played a major role in contributing to the quality control of the tradition, by publishing criticism and alerting readers to emerging artists. This has now largely been replaced by a celebrity culture, where a handful of musicians are highlighted in their mostly non-musical pursuits. Consequently, there are concerns about the size of the audience (stratified into elite, driven by emotion, and followers), their motivation, and their age, although youth organisations like SPIC MACAY are highly successful in engaging young audiences. All in all, there is a strong sense that this music is going strong and can survive any change because of its deep roots in the very fabric of Indian philosophy, society, and culture.

Other case studies by my Australian and overseas colleagues track very different traditions and identify different aspects of musical ecosystems: Peter Dunbar-Hall notes the striking fluidity in Balinese gamelan, which at first glance may seem a rather static, age-old tradition. Patricia Campbell traces how Mexican mariachi has spread from Guadalajara up the US West Coast to Seattle and adapted on its way. Linda Barwick and Myf Turpin document the emphasis Aboriginal elders place on transmission of yawulyu/awelye in Central Australia.

Keith Howard describes the first thirty-five years of SamulNori, a percussion tradition that emerged amidst extensive Korean policies to preserve their intangible cultural heritage. Hakan Lundstrom documents the fall and tentative rise of Vietnamese ca tru after government edicts all but eradicated a once popular genre. James Burns examines how ewe groups negotiate musical life in contemporary Ghana. And John Drummond tells the 400-year old tale of Western opera, threatened but flourishing in spite of the enormous costs involved with staging it.

Overall, a number of interesting insights emerge. Unsurprisingly, music seems to prosper if it is has effective systems of learning and teaching in place, is supported by a close-knit community, is held in high esteem, has access to the infrastructure and funding it needs, and is well represented in the media. There is an obvious connection between a number of the domains: high esteem is likely to lead to highly motivated learners, high levels of funding and regular attention from the media.

The reverse is also true: low esteem tends to translate in few learners among the younger generation, little or no funding, and dwindling audiences. However, in some thriving traditions, a number of expected strengths were in fact very weak: for instance, North Indian classical musicians rarely work together to achieve agreed minimal fees or greater prestige for their music. A number of factors which would appear to be important appear to be negligible on closer scrutiny, such as income derived from the recording industry, even before its business models collapsed less than a decade ago.

Such reflections do not only apply to ‘single’ cultures, but also to the complex contemporary realities of a country like Australia, where cultural diversity is the very essence of the society. At least, that was my strong impression when I arrived here almost ten years ago. I was aware of the fact that nobody but the Indigenous people had been here for much over 200 years, so essentially everybody else was part of different waves of boat people.

Cultural policies seemed to reflect that, and celebrated the diversity of the country, its many people, many cultures, many arts, many musics. It took me a while to realise that very few of these policies had any money behind them or were even actively implemented. As a consequence, while much of the world developed a vibrant and professional world music scene building on immigrant communities and the broadening musical interests of the population of European descent, this never really took place in Australia. It remains a largely unfulfilled potential to this day.

While viable ecosystems of various kinds exist for western classical music, rock, pop, techno, jazz, country, the steps needed for world music to take off were never followed: too few learning opportunities, community facilitation, prestige, dedicated or committed venues, funded policies, and media attention. The situation for much Indigenous music and culture is of course much worse and more tragic, as we can read on an almost weekly basis.

Bringing the discussion back to a global perspective, Australia is going to be the first country where the results from the research described above are going to be presented. From 21-24 November 2012, Queensland Conservatorium Research Centre will organise the 5th IMC World Forum on Music in collaboration with the International Music Council, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, and the MCA, which will feature work across the five domains from Australia and overseas, covering everything from elite to community music, from hands-on education to the rising role of the mobile phone in our musical lives.

For this event, over 1,000 music professionals and other enthusiasts from all over the world will descend upon the heart of the cultural precinct on Brisbane’s South Bank to discuss, plan, be part of, and experience the future of music on this planet: musicians, producers, managers, administrators, festival directors, journalists, scholars, educators, facilitators, activists, policy makers and other lovers of the art in its myriad forms and contexts.

Hopefully, after an intense and broad overview of the state of music globally today, they will return to their areas of endeavour with greater insight into their specific musical ecosystems, empowered to help more people around the globe to forge the sustainable musical experiences, engagement, and futures they envisage.

Sustainable futures for music cultures: Towards an ecology of musical diversity is an international research collaboration funded by the Australian Research Council’s ‘Linkage’ scheme 2009-2013, realised in partnership with six universities across three continents (Griffith, Southern Cross, Sydney, London, Washington, and Lund) and three NGOs (International Music Council, Music Council of Australia, and the World Music & Dance Centre).

Professor Huib Schippers is Director of the Queensland Conservatorium Research Centre, Griffith University, and Chair of the Music Council of Australia.