AUTHENTICITY IN CULTURE

Mark E. Sunkett 1985

The question of authenticity always enters my mind when I engaged in conversations about the presentation of world music, especially by individuals outside of the culture originally producing that music. There is most often a historical consideration with regard to the data (music sound) and concepts (formative processes) when discussing authenticity in any culture. The fact is the people of the culture regulate their acceptance or rejection of variants as they develop within this sound data based on their understanding of the music. As a researcher outside of a society looking for these concepts of authenticity, there are two possible areas of exploration. Any existing system of archiving data in literate societies will certainly hold clues to the historical evolution of that information. With this approach it is possible to study data frozen in time as a result of some recording process. Another possibility is to seek out the teachers of tradition in the society. They may be identified by association with formal or informal institutions of learning or simply by being recognized as knowledgeable individuals in the community. These teachers are in close contact with evolving culture concepts and are the individuals who are responsible for the transmission of both data and concepts in the society.

In looking at archived data, we must rely on the collector or the transcriber of this material. With written transcriptions and analyses, we must depend on the accuracy of the system used to capture the important elements of the phenomena that would be considered significant in the culture to make that information useful in the inquiries toward authenticity. We have benefited greatly by the use of electronic recording devices. From the early sound recording devices to the current use of computers and video equipment, we have been able to record more of the music phenomena then was ever possible. These devices have proven tremendous aids in archiving contemporary materials but are somewhat less effective with historical material. We again look to the teachers. In both literate and non-literate societies we have the opportunity, through these individuals, to observe both the musical traditions and the cultural preferences and biases. There is also the possibility of receiving historical information that might not be available in any other form, particularly in the non-literate settings.

Current trends in anthropology caution us about believing too readily, information through oral history but recent music events can certainly be given credibility. As long as the transmission of information is from one generation to another within the same culture, even considering the evolutionary process and innovation, there is a thread of continuity that exists because both the teacher and the student are of that same culture. Also, as long as these participants remain within their culture context the regulatory concepts in the society will control the variants and still be the determinant of authenticity.

Once removed from the original culture context, the regulation of variants is left solely to the carriers of the music tradition. It is now at the discretion of the carrier to determine what elements of the tradition will be emphasized, minimized or discarded entirely. This process can be further complicated if the carriers of these music traditions are not of the original culture and therefore do not have the historical or cultural background in the original tradition. There does exist, in this event, the possibility for pollution to the original sound/movement and concepts.

As music traditions are subsequently passed to other generations outside the original society, what then becomes the criteria for authenticity? Who becomes the judge of authenticity. Does authenticity rest in the conceptualization of the sound material or is the reproduction of the "sound" enough to qualify the material as "authentic" in the new culture? The exploration of these questions becomes the focus of this discourse. "African Drumming Tradition" has been sustained to various degrees in the Americas since the introduction of the African slave. Once these individuals were removed from their parent culture, the processes of acculturation with other world music traditions also present in the United States have left only some of the concepts of African drumming traditions in the music of the Afro-American as well as other groups influenced by it.

Justification: After looking at music transmission in non-literate societies, through oral tradition and enculturation, it would appear that the non-African born student would be lacking some of the basic cultural information and particularly rhythmic references to assimilate the music as the native born African student might. My belief is that this culture data must be either replaced by familiar references or the cultural references must be imparted to the student in some manner in order to present the music in such a way that it would be acceptable as accurate or authentic.

The term, "Authenticity," is a difficult word because when spoken, one might immediately espouse a definition and at the same time realize that there are other possibilities. Authenticity can be viewed on many different levels. First, we should look at the sound material itself. Respected teachers and musicians in a culture, receive their authority from the parent society. If they are members of this society, their music conforms to the spoken and unspoken rules of the culture. If extreme exuberance over comes a performer, society sets the limits of acceptability for whatever is played. It is also clear that in many cases changes are inevitable. Ibrahim Abdulai, one of Chernoff's teachers, offers a clear comment on this inevitability. He says, " If an old man says that at the time they were drumming, the beat was good, I don't know what the beat was at that time, so I feel that what we are doing at present is good. And in the future they will feel that what they are doing is better than what we have been doing now. This is what will keep on happening." This short interchange between Chernoff and Ibrahim continued.

"And what will you tell them?"
"I won't tell them anything because by that time I will not be there."
"But if you are there," I asked, "what will you say?"
"I'll tell them that they are spoiling it."

If one decides to judge authenticity by a specific recorded body of music, one must realize that the recording represents an example frozen in time. The criteria used in crediting authenticity are determined by a particular period which, at best, may only be a narrow view of authenticity. If sound is the basis of the judgment, what of instrumentation? Do all the parts played on the appropriate instruments need to be present? If not, how much needs to be retained for the music to be considered authentic?

There is yet another level to which one can look for the answers to these questions, conceptualization. The underlying concepts may or may not depend on the specific instruments for a particular piece of music. Under some circumstances, some these concepts may be enough. These "rules of construction" or "formatives" may in many cases fulfill the requirements of a culture. Music seems always in a state of change. It may not be so bound to more traditional instrumentation. Substitutes may be used with all the intent and effectiveness of the original instrumentation retained. Damien Pwono offers a clear example of this in a paper written on The Reference of Traditional Elements in African Contemporary Music- The Case of Zaire, "......... today's musicians still recreate the sound of traditional instruments in their music. For example, a musician will try to make a guitar sound like mbira, or he may use an electronic bass guitar to imitate the traditional drum patterns."

As music is always compared to language, is it not possible to consider the "theory" of the music the determining factor of Authenticity? Does the sound vocabulary have the potential for reordering or does it have only limited possibilities? If so how much sound material is interchangeable: How long is a phrase?

If concept rather than sound is the primary determinant of Authenticity, the results would be much less drastic in the continuing musical evolution. And specific individual identities may be lost in time but there will be between all the music forms a link defined by concept.

Where does innovation lye in relationship to change? It certainly accounts for a major part of it. In such occasions it will be the society which accepts or rejects the creative attempts. Changes in sound and concept will be monitor in each performing occasion. In such a situation the consensus of the immediate culture in context has the right to determine. In the course of this study I looked at all of these possible questions.

Context also, has a profound effect on presentation of music. For a piece of music to be authentic, must it be performed in a particular setting. What of ritual and ceremonial music? Does it loose its meaning outside of the intended context? If a particular piece of recreational music, which normally goes on for hours is shortened, is it any less authentic. Can the structure and form of that piece of music be authentically represented in that short a time? If this music has associated with it a song and dance steps are they not also a part of this music. If not present, what of its authenticity?


As part of the work I did in Pittsburgh with two local African drumming groups, I considered the problems associated with the term authenticity. I had hoped to arrive at a single working definition of "authenticity," I did not. What I did get is a clearer understanding of the various levels on which authenticity can be questioned. Timothy Rice offered a model that proved helpful in clarifying a set of parameters in his article, Toward The Remodeling of Ethnomusicology" (1987). I used Timothy Rice's suggested model for Ethnomusicology, "historical construction, social maintenance or in this instance social context and individual adaptation and experience", in conjunction with the Merriam model of "sound, concept and behavior." Together they present at least nine ways to question "Authenticity". Any one of the nine levels can be grounds to evaluate authenticity but it would seem realistic to assume the more areas concluded to be positive, the closer to "truly authentic" any subject studied would be.

There were also clarifications on other topics that could be of help to any one interested in working with the transmission of music not of their culture. The individuals involved in this study were American students learning African music but the same observations may have other applications. The first statement clearly indicated that all three generations place "Concept and Sound" as the most important constituents of authenticity. There is a balance between the two. In this study, it is clear that one informant had a preference for Concept and another for Sound, but each is tempered with the other. Historical matters seem to have little relevance. Social context and extra musical issues were also, of lesser significance.

In dealing with African rhythms several approaches had successful results. The use of composite rhythms which include one hand playing the pulse and the other hand playing the intended rhythm. The simplification of a rhythm and gradual elaboration upon it is the most appropriate approach until the specific part is achieved. The need to externalize pulse, which may not be done in the indigenous culture, became clear. The use of standard terms to discuss items that might not have been possible in the indigenous culture also seemed helpful. As an observation, there seems to be no substitute for repetition as a learning device for the student.

However one decides to interpret authenticity, there can clearly be other ways. I was particularly interested in transmitting music foreign to my culture. The same questions, however, can be asked about American or any other music. In my inquiry each participant was satisfied that what they were learning and what they were teaching was authentic.

When talking of concepts one can ask, how many are there in African drumming? What are they? This could certainly warrant a separate study in itself. Calls and breaks are signals for drummers, singers and dancers. Who gives them, why that individual, why a signal at all? Form is a concept, but why does it exist and how extensive is it in a given culture? Extra musical components that contribute directly to the sound like costuming of drummers and dancers exist as concepts. The movements of the dancers themselves are a visual representation of the drum rhythms. Is that not yet another concept? This would seem to be just the beginning.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Anku, William Oscar. "Rhythmic Procedures In Akan Adowa Drumming" Thesis University of Pittsburgh, 1986

Chernoff, John Miller, African Rhythm and African Sensibility, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, l979.

Hood, Mantel, The Ethnomusicologist, Kent: The Kent State University Press, l982.

Hood, Mantle,"The Reliability of oral Tradition." Journal of The American Musicoligical Society XII (1959): 201-209

Jones, A. M., " African Music in Northern Rhodesia and Some Other Places." THE OCCASIONAL PAPERS OF THE RHODES-LIVINGSTONE MUSEUM, No. 4 (1958) pp. 45-80.

Merriam, Alan P., The Anthropology of Music, Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, l964.

Nettl, Bruno, The Study of Ethnomusicology: Twenty-Nine Issues and Concepts, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, l983.

Nettl, Bruno, Theory and Method of Ethnomusicology, New York: Free Press, l964.

Nketia, J. H., Drumming in Akan Communities of Ghana, London: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd.., l963.

Pwono, Damien, "The Relevence of Traditional Elements in African Contemporary Music: The Case of Zaire" Paper delivered during the Pan African Confrence Terre Haute, 1987

Rice, Timothy, "Towards the Remodeling of Ethnomusicology" Ethnomusicology, 31.3 (Fall l987) pp. 469-488.