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December 10, 2011

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Music crashes through cultural barriers

WHERE does music come from?

I had a recent conversation with a music promoter who was disappointed that many Chinese musicians do not incorporate enough of their cultural heritage into their sound.

There is some merit in this: It seems a waste if an artist ignores the music heritage they had available to them through the natural osmosis of culture.

This is not a new argument. In "Honkers And Shouters: The Golder Years of Rhythm & Blues" by Arnold Shaw (ISBN: 0-02-06176007) - available at Shanghai Library (1557 Huaihai Rd M.) - the author interviewed Louis Jordan, a jump-blues musician who was perhaps the best and most popular black singer in the United States in the 1940s.

By the 1970s, new developments had come to surprise Jordan.

"I've hung out with some hippies [mostly white young radicals]," Jordan said, "and they come up with some thing that ain't no black boy to think of that [sic]." He continued. "It's mixed. The white goes on the other side of the track, too ... I can get out and get some white musicians that can play my music better than I can find [black] musicians."

Here was a master of an almost exclusively black American cultural tradition (jump-blues), saying that musicians from a different background could play his music better than anyone.

Music comes from a place - but it's not a location. If an artist feels most comfortable playing a music from a differing heritage, who's to criticize, especially if it's of the highest quality?

A perfect example could be seen last night at Yuyintang when BooshKaBash Festival headliners Banana Monkey played their brand of flashy indy rock. The band's guitarist Misuzu (whom I've collaborated with) is from Shanghai, but his playing style knows no particular locale. Any listener could easily think he was from London, no more than a city block away from Eric Clapton, instead of a guy who just happened to love The Rolling Stones. Although he's not from where the music genre was born, his love of it gives him as much of a right to play it as any.

In time, any disagreement about an artist's right to a musical heritage becomes moot anyway. I mentioned rock musicians The Rolling Stones, and no one any longer thinks that these British artists have any more right to the music than those from its birthplace in America.

That phenomenon could be seen at Mao Livehouse last night when hip-hop group Das EFX headlined another part of the BooshKaBash Festival.

They emerged from the state of New Jersey in the US, a controversial fact at a time when hip-hop was almost exclusively from New York or Los Angeles.

Where once those places held claim to hip-hop, their grip has been released to make way for everyone to get their turn. Music isn't from anywhere but the soul.


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