Beyond the European Default

Tim Ferriss recently shared the following video in his newsletter. From the video’s description, we are treated to a short but wonderful performance “on the most traditional, classical and ancient vocal percussive art form of India; the mother of all percussive languages – Konnakkol.”

I found as I was watching the video, I was trying to discern the time signature being used (I suppose in the hope of finding the cadence to bob my head along with the rhythm). Most of the song sounds like it switches between some sort of 2/4 and 2/8 back to back rhythm, alternating one bar of each. For a brief moment, I was going to push this out to my network to see what my music theory friends would say, since I consider myself an amateur at best.

But then I realized that the folks who I thought would be better equipped to give me an answer were likely trained in classic music theory; that is to say, European music theory. But applying a European music theory framework would be wholly inappropriate for classical Indian music. I don’t mean inappropriate in a politically correct sense (quite the contrary, it would be a fun exercise to apply European music theory as an exercise to see where the similarities and differences are between the two music styles), but instead it would be inappropriate from a practical sense. The two musical styles share the common thread of using percussion and pitches to “tell a story” but the similarities end there. They are two styles with differing underlying grammar and syntax. Applying a different musical theory lens would be inadequate to capture the nuances of the performance, and possibly miss a richer historical context to give the performance more meaning.

It reminds me of a video Adam Neely put out almost a year ago that’s well worth a revisit because he raises important points about what we choose as our defaults – what “counts” as music. If we judge everything based on what’s been given primacy over the last few hundred years, we at best have an impoverished understanding of music and culture, and at worst continue to perpetuate a systemic bias (read: racist) in favour of some kinds of music to the exclusion of others that we deem inferior (coded as foreign, exotic, world, or worse).

This isn’t to say you have to like any one kind of music – let your tastes take you wherever and drink in the art of whomever speaks to you. It’s just important to remember that art extends far beyond the preferences we think of as universal, and that our taste should not be placed at the centre of culture.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

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