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.

The Writers Toolbox & Free Writing I

I am part of a writers group, an academic one but we still like to think of ourselves as creatives. We meet irregularly but often and I personally find it a highly productive experience. We usually kick off the writing sessions with a creative exercise followed by a little goal setting and brief discussion with partners. This aims to loosen up our creative ideas and to help us focus on what we are trying to do. then the rest of the day we just write. It is a joy let me tell you.

Anyway, this last writers group we were introduced to the Writers Toolbox, a really useful tool for sparking ideas and for structuring a free writing exercise. I had seen these tool boxes around and often wondered about trying them out in the classroom. Now I have had a goo I will certainly use it. In fact I have just ordered one and will try t out in a week or so when I get a chance.

We used the writers prompts and followed a three stage exercise: the first two sentences had to begin a paragraph and the final one had to end a paragraph (though I go this confused so ended up using it at the start and at the finish. I love free writing, it is amazing what you are capable of when you turn off the filters. This is a conversation I have with students all the time during ideation sessions. Turn off the filters, give yourself permission to be creative and make some time for free writing.

Anyway this is what I came up with and the lines I was given are in blue:

Dad gave me a wink, like we were pals or something while the nurse tucked in the corder of the bed sheets. A bright morning sun streamed into the room, illuminating the pale walls and blinding us, forcing every bit of life out of the shadows. I hovered over the solitary chair, wondering if I should sit or stand. Distracted by the wink as the last breath eased out of my fathers chest.

Margaret had a habit of spitting, it began to get on my nerves. It shouldn’t have worried me after so long, but it did and every time I heard her hawk it raised my hackles a trifle more.I should have been able to look beyond it. It shouldn’t have mattered, but it did. I still loved her though, we were inseparable, despite the spitting and hawking, despite the endless trail of phlegm that traced our every pathway through our life together.

The way Herb defrosted the refrigerator always left me wondering if the man had been born with an ounce of common sense. It always ended the same way, with a mop and a pail with a pile of defrosted food ready for the bin. Why he couldn’t leave it alone I could never understand. But that was him all over. He was a breath of fresh air, the sun in my life, but please, leave the defrosting to me. The way Herb defrosted the refrigerator, it always made me as mad as hell.

This was written in around 20 minutes, after we read the stories out aloud though I declined as it felt too personal, too emotional. I still feel like that and I doubt if I would have been ale to access that depth of feeling with out the free writing. As I say, you need to turn the filters off and let your deeper mind do the work it wants to do while the chattering of the monkey mind is quite.

Exploring Street Art Paste Ups as Shamanic Totems

Following on from my previous post exploring the origins of an idea I am going to sketch out some of the ways in which this initial idea developed as I started to try and adapt it for a contemporary setting. The first thing to say is that the link between urban magic and street art is key for understanding how the idea developed. Street art is ubiquitous, certainly in Portsmouth where I live and where my storyworld will be set, street art is extremely visible as a local cultural practice with My Dog Sighs, This is Midge and Southsea Mook being some of the most prolific of the artists pasting up artworks around the city. Interestingly there is a common motif amongst many of these artists which is the use of old manuscripts, often musical as a canvas for the poster. This suggests some collusion or at the very least a strong sense of communal purpose among these artists as they attempt to brighten up the street furniture in the city.


My Dog Sighs

Noted scholar on the topic of street art Martin Irvine (2012) talks about how street art inserts itself into the materiality of the city, of how it can be seen as a materialisation of an argument about the visuality of and an engagement with the city as a neighbourhood. In which place becomes an assemblage of surfaces in which the inhabitants of that neighbourhood can inscribe their presence semiotically. So, the city becomes not just a canvas but also the raw material of the collage as the artists themselves, as social actors embedded within the cultural milieu of the neighbourhood project the communities’ interests onto its walls and street furniture.

You might think of this in similar terms as you might consider prehistoric art as a form of ancient graffiti that effaced dwellings and sites of collective encounter with marks and diagrams that enact a sense of the social. In this sense, it might be possible to think of prehistoric art as a ritual magic in which the act of drawing is the essence of the ritual as much as the picture itself (Hidden Medway 2007) as early humans make marks that project their own social world on to the environment in which they inhabit. This kind of magic is often referred to as contagious magic which James Frazer in his book The Golden Bough describes as:

…proceed[ing] upon the notion that things which have once been conjoined must remain ever afterwards, even when quite dissevered from each other, in such a sympathetic relation that whatever is done to the one must similarly affect the other…” (Frazer 1935).


This is Midge

This tagging of the of urban settings conjoins the mark maker and the environment through the act of marking. This is a form of territorialisation, a co-opting of the urban that puts it to work for the mark maker. A becoming if you like of the artists and the fabric of the urban environment, this contested space in which we all dwell. This is the nature of urban magic, it doesn’t set out to necessarily cast spells but to draw into itself the presence of the city so as to interact with it through the inscription of shamanic totems. Thereby reclaiming the urban from the ever-colonising corporate facade of privacy, restricted access, push button, chain fence ownership.


Southsea Mook

The city sigils that paste up artists leave around the urban environment have some similarity to this kind of contagious magic, or at least, from a creative point of view there is enough here to produce a feasible connection as the basis of a storyworld. After all, we are dealing with magic realism here so as long as the principle that magic exists is clearly established then anything is possible. So, there is no great leap to imagine that today’s urban witches might wish to communicate with the city through the inscription of spells and incantations onto the walls and street furniture of a neighbourhood (Penczak 2001). From a creative point of view, it would be easy to see how an artist might incorporate totemic symbols within an art work and indeed many already do.

Plus of course it is a common practice for street artist to hashtag their work and a hashtag takes us to Instagram and thereby directly into our storyworld. This then seems like a good point of entry for those who might encounter the transmedia world we are going to create. It also offers a way of engaging with the local creative community as well as a way of discreetly drawing attention to the story among potential participants. I also like the idea of creating a character, an artist come urban witch, a trickster figure who is playful and provocative. Someone to drive the narrative forward.

This of course then provokes another question… who is this artist?

That will be the focus of the next blog post.

Reference List

Frazer, J. G., 1935. The Golden Bough; a Study in Magic and Religion. New York: The Macmillan Company.

Hidden Medway, 2007, Contagious Magic. Available at: https://hiddenmedway.wordpress.com/2007/12/23/contagious-magic/ [Accessed 26 Oct. 2018].

Irvine, M. (2012). The Work on the Street: Street Art and Visual Culture, in The Handbook of Visual Culture, ed. Barry Sandywell and Ian Heywood. London & New York: Berg, 235-278.

Penczak, C., 2001. City Magick. New York: Weiser Books

Orinoco Flow and The Tale of the Southsea

Orinoco Flow and The Tale of the Southsea Onryō

How do you describe the start of a research journey that has multiple beginnings and no clear sense of an ending? Do you start with the motivation for the research or by locating each of the tributaries for the beginnings?

I am going to start with a metaphor, the idea of a river, in this case the Orinoco. Why the Orinoco? I have no idea, I like the name and I heard it in a song once. Wikipedia says it’s one of the longest rivers in the world and it drains close to a million square miles of land. It’s a major transportation system in Venezuela and Columbia. I like the idea that each of its many tributaries starts somewhere deep in South America as a tiny trickle of water. Like a tiny idea, that slowly gathers and grows as it flows and combines with other streams to form stronger and larger flows of water. Until it finally streams as one unified flow into the sea. Though of course, it doesn’t do that, it actually fractures again into a delta of possibilities. So, the metaphor works, from a tiny idea to a strong motivating flow that itself presents multiple possibilities for creative action.

Let’s begin then with the first well spring of an idea and hopefully, what is intended as a series of blogs will begin to unfold in a way that narrates a research journey that may just result in a successful Arts Council England funding application for a transmedia story experience entitled The Tale of the Southsea Onryō (or Noh rest for the wicked).

The unravelling of audio cassette tape as an act of Urban Witchcraft

I have tried to find photographic examples of this phenomena but so far, no luck. I will keep trying as I am sure it must be out there but during the period of time when this phenomenon was common people didn’t carry cameras in their pockets, the world was not endlessly documented, circulated and reproduced for mass consumption. So, this searching for images will become a process of re-searching as I return to it again and again over time. In the 1970’s and early 80’s it was a common sight though, to see endless streams of audio cassette tape wrapped around the base of lampposts, street signs and railings. You might say it was ubiquitous and anyone alive at the time would be able to recount examples.

unraveled cassette tape

For those of you who don’t know (i.e. young people) back in those days music was widely circulated in small plastic cassettes within which was wound long lengths of magnetic tape. The tape could easily be pulled out, it would often jam and it was not uncommon for a cassette player to start spewing out endless lengths of the stuff when they broke. People would then discard the remains of jammed up cassettes and the endless loops of tape, often in public places so it’s easy to understand why this material started to collect and gather around street furniture. A simple explanation for an unwanted pollutant it would seem.

However, a conversation with someone long forgotten, possibly in a pub, a club or at a party led me to rethink the phenomena and this thought has stuck with me for a long time. They said that actually these streams of tape had been purposefully placed by Urban Witches who sought to cast spells by recording incantations on the tape and then lacing it around various public buildings, junctions and street furniture. Highly plausible I thought, at least from the point of view of a storyteller. What an excellent mystery for a protagonist to have to unravel (excuse the pun).  For many years I though occasionally about this idea and on occasion I even started to think through some ideas about character and story. It felt as though it would be a dark urban psychological thriller. Possibly revealing some governmental conspiracy, an occult battle between shady authorities and outsiders, a puzzle that would lead to… well I never got that far and the idea just sat there waiting for some attention. The difficulty was that it needed to be set in the 1970’s and it felt like more than just a short film, it would need a much longer treatment for it to work.

And that is where it sat until quite recently when I found myself challenged to create a transmedia story for a learning activity I was participating in. I returned to the idea of urban witchcraft and cassette tape and started to play with it. How could I bring it up to date, how could I make it more contemporary so it could serve as a starting point for a modern transmedia story? I thought about what the modern equivalence might be and then it popped into my mind – street art paste ups, a phenomenon that is quite common in my own town of Portsmouth. A visual medium that could just as easily be turned to the needs of an urban witch (Penczak 2001) as to an artist who just wished to brighten up the streets.

There then is the first tributary of my own creative flow as it encounters and merges with another distinctive tributary. It is this new flow that I will explore in more detail in my next blog post.


PENCZAK, C., 2001. City Magick, New York: Weiser Books