Appropriation, Re-appropriation, and the Musical Fourth World: The Politics of “Borrowing.”

The phrase “artists do not create in a vaccum” was repeated endlessly in a design seminar I took last semester. The Professor ceaselessly stressed the importance of the context in which creativity is manifested. However, a fine line exists between creative inspiration and theft of cultural property. When a dominant segment of society takes and re-signifies creative property from a subordinate segment of society, appropriation, a type of creative or cultural theft which inherently involves an imbalanced power dynamic, has occurred. This is often made possible by far-reaching modern telecommunications technologies, providing worldwide access to obscure recordings and artists. What happens, then, when these same technologies allow a culture to re-appropriate these elements of culture, re-signify them, and effectively re-localize what has been made global by appropriation?

In A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery: Transnational Music Sampling and Enigma’s ‘Return to Innocence,’  Timothy Taylor explores this process of appropriation and re-appropriation through a scenario in which a sampled indigenous traditional reached the original artist’s ears and sparked a heated controversy. The sampled and re-mixed song’s sheer popularity exposed the original indigenous artist to its (mis)use. Taylor not only documents this original act of appropriation and the dialogues which followed it, but the re-appropriation of the original indigenous melody by the same local group from whence it came. This process took place between the Kuo Ying-nan (an Ami artist who recorded several tracks of traditional Vietnamese music, including “Elder’s Drinking Song,”) Enigma (the German group who appropriated and sampled the recording,) and The New Formosa Band (who eventually re-appropriated the same “Elder’s Drinking Song.”) The original Recording was little-known, done by an ethnomusicologist through the Maison des Cultures du Monde and the Chinese Folk Arts Foundation. However, when the group Enigma sampled the recording in the track “Return to Innocence,” it grew to such immense global popularity as to re-reach the Kuos, resulting in a widely publicized lawsuit (Taylor 60). One of the most fascinating aspects of the resulting dialogues recounted in Taylor’s Article was the responses to the lawsuit by the fiercely loyal Enigma fans. One fan refers specifically to the original track as lacking finished qualities of “dance beats and other vocals,” (Taylor 72) and this view of indigenous culture as resources to be mined, refined, and presented as “finished” is important in the ideological justification of appropriation.

Taylor states that the logic behind appropriation often involves the business jargon of “globalization,” and that this word is often used to mask old patterns of exploitation, of this very idea of “mining resources.” However, just as “globalization” serves as a context for appropriation, “Glocalization” serves as a context for re-appropriation (Taylor, 78) In the case of Enigma and “Return to Innocence,” this re-appropriation came in the form of The New Formosa Band’s album Circle of Life. This album was created, unlike “Return to Innocence,” with collaboration and permission from the Kuo’s (Taylor). The album’s jacket situated Kuo as a “World Musician,” surrounded by green and connected to nature. It incorporated modern (almost Enigma-like) beats and instruments (which could, arguably, be a from of subtle reverse appropriation) and even the title suggests the cyclical nature of re-appropriation in a world where both global- and glocalization occur.
The series of events described by Taylor, however, is no clean circle: it is no where near that balanced. While re-appropriation and reverse appropriation may expand the means available to indigenous communities to reclaim or revise their own culture, the dominant culture will continue to mine the resources, musical, artistic, and cultural, of indigenous peoples all over the world. Hopefully, reverse appropriation and re-appropriation may create common elements among different musics of the Fourth world, and these similarities may lead to dialogues between communities previously separated by absolute difference. Hopefully, these dialogues may lead to the strengthening of legal protections of collective and individual indigenous cultural property. However, these hopes are countered by fears that the cycles created by re- and reverse appropriation may obscure or threaten the preservation of cultural traditions, and by the realities of situations similar to the events described by Taylor. While it is true, “No one creates in a vacuum,” created material, particularly indigenous cultural property, can be carelessly re-signified or mined as “raw material” in such situations; this is at the heart of the particular power imbalance inherent in the process of musical appropriation from indigenous culture.

Published in: on April 18, 2011 at 7:11 pm  Leave a Comment