Autocentrism, Xenophobia And Multicultural Music In Australia

by John Varney. Published in Music Forum magazine, Vol 19 Issue 2 (February 2013)

As a musician with no bureaucratic or academic affiliation, but who has worked continuously for over 24 years in Australia in CALD contexts and has spent 11 years in Italy (where I studied contrabasso in Italian from an Italian maestro) and Colombia as a CALD musician himself, I have seen so many extremely gifted musicians attempt, for many years, to have their artistic talents rewarded, or at least recognized, in Australia and then, finally, give up and do something else, return to their countries of origin or accept the humiliation of joining some stereotype-driven exploitative context where, at least, they can earn something reasonable.

Why is this?

Principally, in my view it is because, on the topic of multicultural music, Australians, in general, just don’t care, whether at administrative, educative or audience levels. Those who do care are such a microscopic minority that they’re unable to make any significant difference.

Why don’t we care?

I have had many thoughts on this and can’t claim to have found a single answer, but can see many contributing factors.

  1. Australia, on the whole is a country without a traditional culture of its own. So that we don’t feel left out, we tend to disregard the importance of traditional culture and classify it as exotic and entertaining, but which does not need to be taken seriously and which has nothing deep or meaningful to contribute to us.
  2. It doesn’t have a sufficiently predictable following to be able to be seen as a reliable source of revenue.
  3. It is seen as largely come from the Third World, and so necessarily inferior artistically and technically compared to what we have to offer. It, according to the popular view, certainly should not be paid for at professional rates, as Third World products are inherently ‘cheap’.
  4. Unless it has what I term the ‘Gringo Seal Of Approval’, its quality is distrusted as we have no means of evaluating this for ourselves, so require some prominent arts figure to tell us that it’s good. (I coined this expression based on the way Cuban music has largely gained international recognition because of Ry Cooder’s, and subsequently Wim Wender’s, participation in the Buena Vista Social Club project).
  5. In general, artists from CALD areas do not understand the processes, and the bureaucratic lottery, involved in funding applications, so are minimally represented in this field of endeavour. For this reason their participation is limited to that which well intending arts bureaucrats are able to achieve on their behalf, the outcomes of which do not necessarily serve their aspirations in the most appropriate way.

Why should we care?

We desperately need to re-vitalise Western music, in all areas.

Our orchestras continue to recycle the same programmes as 50 years ago, except that the repertoire has been reduced by the segregation of baroque and classical repertoire to specialist ensembles. Contemporary art music is usually good for only very few well-subsidised performances as it has become the domain of intellectual manipulation which has an audience appeal comparable to that of the elaboration of mathematical theorems.

This has its own reason. To satisfy academic and peer-based funding requirements, music must show that it’s new and in keeping with academic stylistic fashions in some way. As we’ve exhausted the musical material available to Western culture, and our Eurocentrism doesn’t permit us to either include or learn from other cultures, we continue to engineer musical material that, by now, has been so far removed from its cultural roots that it has become lifeless technical brain fodder.

Pop music has reduced itself to recycling styles and materials from the last 50 years. ‘Originality’ is attributed to the acts that recycle this material in an innovative way, usually associated with image or marketing techniques. The creative surge in pop-music of the 60s and 70s was largely based on the discovery and repackaging of rhythm and blues in the U.K., fusions between classical, jazz and pop elements and, to a lesser degree, a passing interest in Indian music, ska and reggae.

The creative surge in European art music from the 17th century onwards was due to the incorporation of African-infused music from the New World (such as the Congolese sarabanda and the chacón), the fusion of church music with popular rhythms and the inclusion of chromatic influence from Turkish music.

Innovation and renewal doesn’t come about by funding the recycling of a limited amount of musical material, but the inclusion, adoption and assimilation of a broad range of new influences from other cultures.

How can this be achieved?

Like all aspects of social awareness it needs to be carried out primarily through education. Our musical and cultural education in general need to stress the huge importance that lies in acquiring the understanding and incorporation of a vast array of non-Western musical influences. I know that current musical curricula include elements of ‘World Music’, (What? Mainstream Western music isn’t part of the world?) but it’s in an exclusive context: ‘This is what “they”do, now we’ll go back to what “we” do.’

Music from all cultures needs to be introduced as part of our own, as members of a global humanity. Resistance to this concept is quite natural, for a few reasons:

  1. Humans are naturally autocentric. Every culture starts of describing itself as ‘the people’ or something similar and has disparaging terms for people of other cultures. Our acceptance extends, little by little, to family, tribe, village, locality, etc. We justify whatever we, or our groups, do as being the best . . . because we do it. It takes a big effort to accept something from a diverse source as equal in value to our own.
  2. The extension from that is that we’re also naturally xenophobic, we not only despise foreign cultural elements but we fear them taking over our own and altering what has traditionally been ours.
  3. We’re lazy. When we simply imagine the concept of learning and understanding a broad range of cultural elements of which we are presently ignorant, we wilt before the enormity of such a task and scurry back to what we know and that with which we feel comfortable.
  4. Self-interest: the body of bureaucrats and educators who have acquired stable niches in the mainstream cultural establishment are not going to happily take on a broad range of cultural influences of which they have scant knowledge and over which they have an equally scant degree of control.

The consequence is that we go back to trying to eke out something new from the same old tired musical elements. We treat jazz and rock, which were meant to be spontaneous expressions of cultural independence, as the new ‘classics’ instructing how they are to be reconstructed. Many great and gifted musicians spend enormous resources on attempting to recreate musical concepts of centuries ago. A self-funded ensemble performs contemporary art music at its own risk.

On the other hand great effort is made in the area of marketing. Recycled and repackaged music is strongly marketed as innovative and thought-provoking but the content is the same backward looking repertoire as ever. This situation has NEVER existed before in music.

If we can overcome our natural cultural recalcitrance and move to enrich our culture through the conscious incorporation of music from a broad range of cultural sources, we will give ourselves access to an almost endless wealth of influences on which future generations can build massive cultural achievements and, due to the unique potential melting-pot environment that Australia possesses, provide future export potential of colossal proportions.

Not only that but part of the plan would be, for example, that future music educators take part in major performance projects in a context of CALD music. This needs to be carried out in within a cultural context, otherwise the music becomes lifeless chunks of notes and beats. Also it would be ethically necessary to avoid the neo-colonial stance of having mainstream music educators appropriate other cultures’ musical material and then leave their exponents to return to their factory employment while others reap the profit. We would need to ensure their on-going participation in the educational process, even if they don’t have what we deem to be appropriate qualifications, which can be used as a bureaucratic arm to exclude those whom we consider to be our cultural inferiors.

A consequence of this would be that such artists may be able to make a living through the sharing of their cultural resources. Through regular professional engagements they will become even better at what they do. Our young musicians, who usually are freer from prejudice that their older peers, will grow up with an immensely broader cultural consciousness and may be able to avoid the preconception that diverse cultures aren’t ours. They will learn to appreciate CALD artists not for the fact they may be exotic, or wear funny hats when they play, but for their quality as musicians.

My conclusion?

We need to not just to respect culturally diverse music and promote its acceptance, but rush forward and eagerly embrace it and learn from it, to give us some chance to have a musical future that is rich, diverse and forward-looking.


Dr. John Varney is a freelance double bassist and ethnomusicologist based in Brisbane where he teaches, plays in diverse ensembles, and has been intensely involved in professional culturally diverse music during the past 20 years.