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Put the Thong on the Aussie and See How He Likes It

Dispatches from /rupture

Monday, November 30, 2009

Where do you think "traditional" music ends and cultural exploitation begins?  Or does the whole question of authenticity bore you to death?  Jace Clayton, a.k.a. DJ /rupture, has strong opinions on the matter. 

"This next band is supposed to be colorful," said my friend from Ethiopia as he took the final drag from his cigarette. We were in Copenhagen, attending the annual world music industry expo known as WOMEX.

The concert opened with four white guys in jeans and button-up shirts: one was seated, playing an Indian tabla, another sat behind a rock drum kit. The other two rounded it out with keyboards and bass. They played about five minutes of atmospheric light-rock. Promotional materials explained that they 'come from one of Australia’s most remote Aboriginal communities.' Synthesizer washes flowed past reverb-hazed tabla rhythms. "I don't see any color," I said. The white dudes grooved on. My African friend peered at his concert guide.

Suddenly, as if on cue, two Aborigines appeared, creeping out of smoke machine fog, wearing only bright red loincloths, complicated headbands, and lots of white body paint. A third Aborigine held vocal duties; he wore jeans and a red shirt.

After another song or two, one of the white players told the audience that the music was "traditional." These guys, he explained, were Australian natives, and had been doing this type of music and dance for hundreds, or thousands – or was it tens of thousands? – of years. (You don't need to be so precise with mythic time).

A woman at my side told me she liked it. I blinked. "I'd like them more if the white men were wearing the red thongs and bodypaint, and the black guys had on jeans and polo shirts," I said. She looked at me in disgust. I left Yilila to their anodyne didgeridoo-rock fusion and strolled outside to watch my friend smoke another cigarette.

Imagine if one of the shirtless, pantless Aborigines had spoken to the audience between songs instead? "Our white handlers have been performing their managerial duties for decades... centuries now. This is a traditional Australian cultural arrangement..." Would I have been the only one applauding?

There's money to be had in the performance of the traditional, the rootsy, the authentic. Enough money that it's worthwhile to pretend that such things exist. How else will you get invited to Europe from your distant, exotic homeland? So you take off your sneakers and hoodie, and put on the facepaint.

World music festivals will pay good cash for groups from "remote" places whose presence reinforces the idea that our planet is still filled with the kind of mystery that allows indigenous traditions to continue without interference from cellphones or multinational corporations. Especially in Europe, where such concerts are both plentiful and well-funded. In regions where traditional music is actually traditional (read: ignored by the younger generation and/or performed solely for tourists), there is usually little money to be had. So you take off your rugby jacket and slip on a djellaba (both of which may have been imported from China, but that's another story).

Bands don't get paid to perform at WOMEX – it's considered an investment, a rare chance to display your cultural wares before a hyperconcentrated pool of booking agents and festival organizers and other professionals of the world music industry. If just one high-profile booking or management deal occurs as a result, then the trip is worthwhile.

So what about my (failed) joke – the concept, the possibility, of a thong swap? Races trade outfits while everything else remains the same: the music, the media-primed biography, the histrionic dancing, the dude rocking a tabla, the spectacle of so-called ancient culture onstage with none of the historical texture that might make it relevant to us mangy internationals, gathered together in the world's most expensive concert hall. People would be confused, vaguely insulted, a tang of cynical satire in the air – "Why are they wearing that ridiculous facepaint? This isn't Australian..." Jeans and casual dress shirts as camouflage, as 21st century masks.


Jace Clayton, (a.k.a. DJ /rupture)


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Comments [10]

Dave Quam

From the report the show it sounds like John Lomax putting the jail suit and shackles on Leadbelly but in 2009 and in Australia.

Jan. 11 2010 08:36 PM
Anthony Gray from Numbulwar, Australia

just to add, your comments that Aboriginal people are defined by wearing thongs and hoodies is an example of systemic racism that you wouldn't get away with in Australia.
Traditional Aboriginal culture and dress is alive in Australia, it never disappeared and thousands of Aboriginal Australians live their life by their culture. More power to the Aboriginal Australians, they put up with so much and now they even have to be put down by some racist DJ, a fellow musician, who should be supporting them not trashing them. These guys are the only band from Arnhem Land touring overseas. Its a great achievement for them and their remote community. They are proud of their culture and dress. Our email is we are not afraid to talk to you, you obviously are too afraid to come up and talk to us.

The boys from Yilila make so many Aboriginal people proud and happy, whether they perform traditional or modern music. You dont and never will.

Dec. 30 2009 08:53 PM
Anthony gray from Australia

Hi, I manage Yilila and play bass in the band. We are all good friends and just want to play music together. It's that simple. Yes people in the band come from different cultures and speak different languages.
We don't care about that and are suprised other people do.
We have nothing to reconsile as we never had a problem with eachother. We don't have apartied in Australia, black people and White people are allowed to play in bands together. We wear whatever we want on stage, the aboriginal members are proud of their culture and love to show it off. The lead singer is one of the only traditional songmen left in his generation, he spends most of his time travelling around Arnhem land with his family singing and dancing for everyones funerals, skin ceremonies and circumsition ceremonies. Yilila is the only business in their community and is an icon for all the people in the Arnhem region. We just wish people could understand how our music fits in with traditional life, and want to be seen as human beings. When we perform we want to be seen as a unique band from the top end of Australia. We don't care about the color of our skin, our different cultures, reconciliation, what we wear, why can't we just be a band from Australia?because that's what we are. If you see us anywhere again please come and spend some time with us, so you understand what we are really about, without the discrimination and idealism that the World music scene is plagued by.

Dec. 23 2009 10:32 AM
andres from colombia

it sounds like cumbia in Brooklyn for wihite kids Aka Dj Rupture

Dec. 15 2009 12:14 AM
S from Australia

This one is complex. There are aspects of Australia that are still very colonial, especially in the Northern Territory where the racial discrimination act has been suspended since 2007.

In that part of the world, and especially if one is living "on country" exchanges between "black" Australia and, really, the rest of the world are negotiated via intermediaries.

For bands such as Yilla there are certainly opportunities to be had on the world music stage and these, as you say, "anodyne" indigenous/non-indigenous collaborations are actively encouraged – to promote a semblance of reconciliation and export a particular brand of Australian multiculturalism.

Radical indigenous hip-hop, reggae & rock has been developing for a number of years, but even in Australia have very limited audiences. Add into the mix geographic distance, difficulties of language and a range of social and cultural issues. And besides, do you think more radical/critical acts would have such opportunities, or even be appreciated on these world music circuits?

Maybe it's just another case of don't hate the playa...

Dec. 12 2009 12:15 AM
maureen. from NY

This was incredibly painful for me to read as a white Australian living in NY.I'm too old to be a hipster but this isn't about appearing cool.Maybe this music is a clumsy and inept attempt to help heal the brutal past.I do totally understand where you are coming from.I guess I think it's a process of learning to understand and appreciate Aboriginal culture.In the past it's been treated like garbage,something out of the Stone Age,freakishly alien or just laughed at and shameful.The history is so painful and raw andso recent and in some ways it will never be made right.I do understand your anger and no I don't want a gold star for doing so.I guess you also need to talk to the performers and find out why they are doing it.Australia isn't NY and many Aboriginal people are shy.It would be really interesting to interview them and perhaps get their take on NY.

Dec. 02 2009 04:36 PM
tnit from chair, desk, spare room, neighborhood, city, Australia

The headline drew me here wondering, why would an Aussie mind it if you put a thong (that's a flip-flop to you, headline writer) on him? Unless of course you only gave him one.

Otherwise: what scatalogics said. Too many assumptions on the writer's part imply a general lack of knowledge about the performers' culture. Interesting that it never occurred to him he might not be qualified to write critical comment.

Wonder if he has seen the Chooky Dancers? The cultural mashup there will give his neurons a little tingle.

Dec. 02 2009 03:59 PM
Rob W from Hoboken, NJ

Y'know it's a very sticky issue, the matter of the Anglo / European and artists from other cultural backgrounds in collaboration, and the balance of power there. Certainly many WOMEX-type artists aspiring to the international touring circuit are connected with Anglo intermediaries who help get them there, whether or not those intermediaries actually play in the band. (I've been to WOMEX a few times and seen a few things like this group as well, that made me cringe, that might not fly here where we tend to be a little more sensitive to these things, sometimes.) But you know I can think of one group at least (maybe you can think of others) that tried consciously to accept the Jace Clayton thong-swap (or at least thong-share) challenge: Juluka, the Apartheid-era collaboration led by South African Anglo musician Johnny Clegg and South African Zulu musician Sipho Mchunu. They blended and exchanged musical styles and visual styles too: Clegg would wear traditional Zulu garb in concert - which during Apartheid was very significant.

Dec. 01 2009 01:31 PM

I think the lack of cultural understanding goes in every direction. The relationship between the Native Australians and their White neighbors is not ancient history, like it is in the US. There were Aboriginal tribes who had never seen a White Man until the 1960s. These musicians may not speak English. The parents of these musicians may have been completely unaware that there were other races or a world outside the Red Center of Australia.

I think the fellows performing behind the Aboriginal musicians feel they are doing something good for them, since the harsh transition of Aboriginal communities to the Modern world has left them wracked by grinding poverty, alcoholism and sexual abuse. The White Australian response has so far been very paternalistic and ineffective.

Dec. 01 2009 11:55 AM
Jon Bovi from Boston, MA

Why do you fault the white 'handlers' and not the Aborigines as well?

If the white handlers put on the facepaint, as you suggest, that's just blackface for a new generation.

Sure, cultural tourism/tokenism/exploitation is easy, lazy, and distasteful. But it's also too easy to knock off a quick criticism and pat yourself on the back. So let's dig a little deeper:

Why do you, as a Western man, feel you have the right to tell them what they should and shouldn't be doing? Why do you, as a Western man, feel entitled to criticize these aborigines (lower-case a) for trying to make a buck?

Am genuinely interested in your answers, would love a response (here or at your blog)

Dec. 01 2009 10:50 AM

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