Curators of Sound

Response to A Sweet Lullaby for World Music, by Steven Feld

Aurora Allshouse


In Sweet Lullaby, Steven Feld discusses the complex relationship between the study of popular music (ie, Western music) and the study of “world music” (otherwise known as ethnomusicology). He gives an overview of the splitting of these two disciplines, and discusses how it has affected the academic view of music, particularly by causing any work not produced by Western artists to be intrinsically othered. In the commercial realm, the anthropology of world music increased visibility of cross-cultural music, but also facilitated the marketing and packaging of it as a type of sonic exotica.

There is also a trace of colonialism, he claims, in the trend of popular Western artists incorporating foreign sounds into their own style, in that it allowed these artists to capitalize on the fetishization of perceived difference. This was counterintuitive to the original aims of the discipline—namely to broaden the musical horizons of Western listeners—because, like in academia, the label “world music” defined a wide variety of musical genres by the simple shared trait that they were not Western in origin. Finally, he discusses the mire of complications caused by the interaction of indigenous music and recordings with Western copyright law, which was not designed in such a way to consider the rights of indigenous artists as equitable.

Feld’s paper opens up a broader dialogue about the nexus of consumerism and academia. How, as anthropologists, do we affect the public perception of our object of study? In the case of music, how big of a role did the study of “world music” truly play in the eventual commercialization and, arguably, exploitation of non-Western music and artists? There is a trace of fatalism in the end of Lullaby; Feld almost seems to suggest that, while the splitting of the anthropological disciplines contributed to this issue, it was inevitable that “world music” would be exploited as soon as a demand for it was realized.

In his conclusion, Feld writes a veritable requiem for traditional indigenous music, citing the major changes in the various “world” genres over the past decades as a potential shift towards one homogenized global sound. This touches on one of the central themes in cultural Anthropology: the attempt to preserve cultures in situ. Is it truly better to expect non-Western musics to remain unchanged as the world becomes increasingly globalized? Or is this attitude actually denying autonomy to the artists who make the choice to market their sound to a more global audience? In such a complicated power dynamic as the global music market, who are the curators of sound?

Above Photo: Michel Sanchez and Eric Mouquet of the band “Deep Forest,” via www.hashmoder.com

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One thought on “Curators of Sound

  1. Thoughtful, well-written response to Steve Feld’s classic article. I particularly appreciate your discussion of how academia–among anthropologists and ethnomusicologists–has been complicit (unintentionally or not) in the commercialization of “world music” and how this forces us to confront our responsibility in the exploitation of non-Western musicians. Finally, although you do a fantastic job synthesizing Feld’s main points and argument, including a few carefully selected citations could strengthen your discussion.

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