Dancing to Balkan Music: ethnomusicology, cultural appropriation or cultural exchange?

This post is going to be very much about shifting focus from reflection on research to documenting research as I have recently received notification from the Arts Council England that our funding bid for the Tale of the Southsea Onryo has been successful. So where as before, I was attempting to capture through reflection some aspects of the process of developing the idea. I am now forced by the exigencies of the project to start work on the pre-production part of the development cycle. This is still very much a work in progress, there is still a lot to do, lots of holes, gaps, grey areas that need to be researched and filled in.

One of the really engaging things about the research I have been undertaking is that it feels like I have reconnected with a passion that I had lost touch with. In a way, it is possible to see the whole project as a sort of opportunity to do this and perhaps there was some underlying drive leading me back to this place in the devising of the idea for the project. Quite a few years ago, I started to learn the violin, in part inspired by music I had experienced in my role as a stage manager at WOMAD festivals in the 1990’s. This led to my membership of a workshop band called the Doppelgänger Gypsy Orchestra, led initially by Joe Townsend, we played some great parties and I met some amazing people. Many of those involved were serious Balkanists and amateur ethnomusicologists. Others, like me, were just seeking to enjoy and experience the music. I lost touch with the orchestra and it disbanded around 1997 though a touring band by name of Mukka did survive for some years.

I flirted with the idea of doing a PhD in Ethnomusicology for some time though it never materialised. I was inspired by Professor John Baily, a filmmaker and the head of department at Goldsmiths College. He made films about musicians in Pakistan, living and studying with Afghan refugees and exploring their culture. A very romantic ideal and while academically ethnomusicology appeals to someone who is interested in the social and cultural aspects of traditional music. The commercialised globalisation of these cultures and traditions does at times raise questions about the position of researcher in relation to the subject of research. Here I am the privileged white male peering into what seems like a nice cultural niche in order to further my own academic and musical interests. Is this kind of study cultural exchange or cultural appropriation?

These are questions I am revisiting as I again dip my toe into the muddy waters of ethnomusicological investigation. In the last few weeks I have attended a couple of interesting musical experiences. The first event was in a hall below a church off Borough High Street in London. Led by violinist, singer and amateur ethnomusicologist Gundula Gruen, the night was a showcase for a community based workshop band and a dance group. Everyone knew each other and we felt a little like outsiders but it was a warm and welcoming atmosphere. The music was quite traditional, to my mind it sounded very Romanian in influence and looking further into the workshop leaders background, there is a strong sense that she a collector of Roma musical influences. The second event I attended was a very different experience. Raka is a gigging band of 8 people fronted by a polish singer playing mostly Bulgarian influenced music. Fast paced, an exciting show that had everyone dancing till 2am. Chatting with one of the dancers at the first event, I explained that I was interested in working with people involved with the Balkan music scene and she responded “Ahhh… you’re doing research”. Of course, I thought I was having a night out, while in fact I was doing research. Yes, it’s odd to think that going out to gigs, dancing, drinking, having fun constitutes research for creative practice, but it does. That is the strange world creators exist within, straddling the hallowed halls of academia and the steamy bars of north London.

So, two quite different experiences, two different takes on Balkan music, both making strong claims about authenticity and lineage. In both instances, this claim to authenticity is established clearly in their marketing and promotional material. There is a sense that these claims set them up as ‘not like other Balkan bands’ who just copy or sample this traditional music. They play the real thing we are told and I am sure they do. I have some personal experience of the field and I can spot the difference between the ‘Balkan influenced’, which is very much about sampling and cultural appropriation, and the more ethnomusicological approach which comes from a passion for the music.

For me there are pragmatic issues at play here. There are decisions to be made about who might be the best people to work with, who we can effectively collaborate with. From a creative point of view there is an evaluation to be made as to the ease with which that potential collaborator will buy into the vision for the project i.e. can we work together. There are also decisions to be made about the creative direction of the event. For example, is authenticity key to creating the experience we want to design, is the party atmosphere more important. These questions are fundamental to the creative development and planning that needs to be undertaken in order to get the show on the road. But there are also questions arising as to it means to appropriate a culture which is not my own and reimagine it in the service of a creative arts experience?

There is a suggestion (Lynskey 2006) that while these forms of traditional music are dying out in the villages of south-eastern Europe, the enthusiasm for the music in western Europe and even America is what will keep it alive, that authenticity is not that important except to the purists. Its appropriation creates a demand which in turn encourages local musicians from the Balkans to continue their traditions. However, when Carol Silverman (2011) says that there is an kind of xenophobia built into the paradoxical fact that “Roma, as Europe’s largest minority and its quintessential ‘other’ […] are revered for their music yet reviled as people.” She is drawing attention to the notion that this music comes from somewhere, that it is of a people, it’s not just something that someone thought up in a recording studio.

The idea that Balkan Gypsy music is a common “trope of multiculturalism” (Silverman 2011) is troubling precisely because there appears to be little engagement with the economic and cultural reality of the actual contexts from which this musical tradition emerges. Now not all Balkan traditional music comes from Roma traditions, but the example does serve to show how cultural appropriation buys into stereotyping, promotes romanticised ideas and ignores the economic reality of the tradition from where the music originates.

Others claim (Lynskey 2006) that the concept is often misunderstood or misapplied by the general public, and that charges of “cultural appropriation” are at times misapplied to situations such as eating food from a variety of cultures, or learning about different cultures. Commentators who criticize the concept believe that the act of cultural appropriation does not meaningfully constitute a social harm, or that the term lacks conceptual coherence. It is argued that the term sets arbitrary limits on intellectual freedom and artists’ self-expression, reinforces group divisions, or itself promotes a feeling of enmity or grievance, rather than liberation.

However, when a dominant culture appropriates elements from a minority culture such as dress, music, rituals, terminology and so on. Especially where there is apparent a power imbalance. This appropriation constitutes a kind of fetishisation that is at once romanticising of, and also alienating for members of that minority culture. The imitator is able to play a role of exotic other without having to take on the burden of being other. They are able to, for example, avoid the daily racism, discriminations and other oppressive behaviours that are often inflicted upon minorities by the dominant culture. There are also issues around the appropriation and assimilation of minority cultures that see elements from complex signifying systems sampled and repurposed outside of their original cultural context. Thereby stripping them of their original signifying purpose in a way that can often be seen as disrespectful and even in some cases viewed as a desecration or exoticisation of minority cultural practices.

So where does that leave us? To gypsy music or not to gypsy music? For me there is a joy of discovery and sharing of ethnic music from around the world. It’s a passion that is coalesced around my own personal journey of discovery, that reflects my own particular fascination with the social and cultural aspects of Balkan music.

Is it cultural appropriation?

Probably, but can it be done respectfully and with some claim to authenticity?

I hope so!



LYNSKEY, D., 2006. There is no such thing as Gypsy music. The Guardian, 24 November.

SILVERMAN, C. 2011. Gypsy Music, Hybridity and Appropriation: Balkan Dilemmas of Postmodernity. Ethnologia Balkanica, 15, 15–32.

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