From Appalachia to China: banjos and the guzheng

Cultural Globalization is as important as political and economic globalization, and yet sometimes receives less media and popular attention.  It can also be a useful tool to introduce students to the idea of globalization. I have a colleague who teaches the “Introduction to International Studies” class at a local community college. He begins each class with a sampling of global music, such as West African fusion or Botswana jazz. He thinks that it helps to focus the students on the content of the class. Music is like food, a touch point that everyone shares, which can share as a place to start a conversation about globalization.

We’re all familiar with fusion music, which blends genres, but there are some truly unexpected combinations. Since I like bluegrass -and am studying Chinese- a colleague introduced me to Wu Fei and Abigail Washburn’s music, which combines the the banjo to combine with the guzheng. Their album is available on Spotify.While merging Chinese folk songs with Appalachian traditions is unexpected, it perhaps is not as unusual as the music of Mikkâl Antti Morottaja, a Finish rapper who uses this musical form to help preserve the endangered language of Sámi. You can see a brief video -and give a brief listen to his music- here.

Because language is essential to a culture, it’s also used by Indigenous musicians to introduce others to their traditions, as well as to introduce their beliefs to a younger generation. Terri Lynn Williams Davidson is a Haida lawyer, artist and musician, who has used her skills to share nation’s traditions. She has published a book of photographs in which she portrays female supernatural beings, and (together with Claire Lawrence and Bill Henderson) produced an album that tells the stories of spiritual beings and places in Haida culture. If you’re curious, try searching “Grizzly Bear Town” on Spotify.

In the 1990s there was a plethora of articles and op-eds published that globalization was going to undermine cultural diversity. The world would be overrun by McDonalds and everyone would listen to American pop artists. Globalization was associated with Americanization, and people from Europe to Latin America worried about the integrity of their culture. But it turned out that digital resources allowed Philippine immigrants in the United States to watch TV from home, and to preserve their linguistic skills and identity. And other nations were able to draw American and European students to their artistic practices.

K-Pop is a huge phenomenon among my students, who may know more about the daily drama of their favorite Korean singer than any American pop ido. Whenever I teach my class on Modern Brazil there are always a couple students in the class who have come because of their deep love of Brazilian music. And even what we think of as being part of the United States’ musical identity have a global past.  As you probably already know, the banjo itself is most likely a West African instrument, and even the term may come from a Kimbundu word.  Musical fusion has been taking place for a long time.

Shawn Smallman

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