Friday, January 13, 2006

living the dream

Different disciplines have different cliches or stereotypes about the major cultural areas. For example, one could get the impression that anthropologists think that the only thing Sub-Saharan Africans care about is how much an engaged man should pay his bride-to-be's family for the privilege of marrying their daughter. Ethnomusicology's cliche about the same region is that live music is constant. This has not been my experience, but I did encounter the kind of prototypical activity that students of African music dream about.

Two people in my house were working away at preparing food this morning. One of them (atypically, a man) was pounding greens with a huge mortal and pestle. The woman began singing in time with his steady pounding. What was especially compelling about it was how moving I found this slice of life. The singing was quite beautiful to me - much as it would be to hear someone informally singing a child to sleep. When the same woman raises her voice to sing a Michael Bolton or Celine Dion song, however, the result to my ear is a musical disaster. I wonder if this suggests some important differences between celebrity/expert-based musical systems and folk systems, or between engagements with one's "native" system and an "imported" one. On the other hand, it may only suggest that my likes and dislikes are not those of my hosts.