Monday, August 22, 2011

Music and Identity

The Jewish writer Elias Canetti once beautifully declared in German that music was the living memory of mankind. While there are objects, documents and books that take us on trips through the past, only music invokes the emotional spirit of an era. Music is a universal language, the one thing that all the world’s cultures have in common. It’s also what each and every culture can claim for itself. Music was an element of tribal society, and we can be sure that every ethnic group has its own music—the ancient Greek modes, Hindu music, the lost melodies of Rome and Ancient Egypt (to name a few). With what sounds did Babylonian made music? What music enchant the Caesars?

The questions are endless. Archeologists have found musical instruments that echo more than 40,000 years into the past. What kind of songs did these prehistoric people sing? It must have been different than what we play now or even what was played in the Renaissance, or what a visitor might hear in the remote lands of the world’s still isolated tribes.

Even though it came from a common seed, the tree of music grew rapidly and on different floral melodies, rhythms and instruments bloomed on different branches. Music is a fundamental part of a people’s identity. But in the age of globalization, what do words like identity and people even mean? Your people root you to your place of origin—where you live, love and work, and where you must return in your time of dying. Identity is what makes people at once different and the same to others. It creates the change and continuity among peoples: accents, names, character, music, cuisine, memory. Identity is also how we present ourselves to others.

A country without music (a utopia) could have identity, but that identity would be inhuman—there has never been a culture without music. In the age of globalization, thanks to the unification of musical language, music in general is becoming increasingly homogenous. Or so it seems. Rhythms fuse together, modern instruments revive old scores, and dances and songs disappear in the name of the so-called free market, modernity’s supposed paradise. Piracy has done severe damage to the music industry, but now more than ever music plays a major role in people’s lives. Adorno and Walter Benjamin, two intellectuals of the interwar years, were the first to debate about music’s role among the masses. For Adorno, a skeptic of American popular democracy, new music challenged the continuity of Old Europe’s social elitism. Benjamin, on the other hand, was one of the first social critics to believe in the virtue of popular music’s liberating possibilities, while recognizing certain dangers: the alienation that mass popular culture could impose on people, and how the democratization of art devalued its sacred aura.

Catalonia is a small sliver of land that shares certain traits of identity with neighboring regions: Valencia, Majorca, Northern Catalonia and Alghero, but also with other, more distant lands. Like other industrialized regions, Catalonia lost much of its folklore. It’s possible that Ireland and Scotland were able to maintain their folk music more genuinely than England not because of patriotism, but because they lacked major industrial centers like Liverpool or Manchestor (the birthplace of Brit Pop). Blues emerged in the cotton fields of the southern United States. The passion of flamenco singing came from the lament of country peasants in Andalusia and the poverty of the Romani, otherwise known as gypsies, pariahs in Spanish society. Rural music is and generally has been ethnic and often relegated to marginalized collectives. But Catalonia has a musical patrimony that we must preserve, study and revive. It’s always possible to resuscitate music, as long as we remember that the dreams of reason can give birth to monsters. Catalonia has been a crossroads between Islam and Christianity, the industrial and the rural, mountains and the sea—a nation without a state, politically trapped in Spain with wayward gaze towards France and an international metropolis like Barcelona. All these elements make Catalonia far too complex to be a homogenous and uniform entity.

And because of this, maybe Catalonia can never have a clear and defined musical identity (ultimately a nationalist aspiration). Maybe we can just have different kinds of music and enjoy them. To trap ourselves in a supposed tradition of musical purity will surely make it easy for Catalonia’s enemies to checkmate our centuries-old culture.





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