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.