Global Collaboration: A Skeptic's Breakfast.

Submitted by Phoebe Smolin on Sunday, 10/3/2010, at 4:04 PM

On Friday night, my housemates and I made a dinner that would only be possible in this modern world: empanadas and samosas with ice cream for dessert. Only in the modern, transnational world could five people in America incorporate elements of cultures they’ve never truly experienced into their daily lives. Only in this global culture could a group of American college kids forge a tradition of eating “exotic” foods on Friday nights. The impact of global collaboration extends far beyond my dinner table, however. In the music industry, the employment of technology for collaboration amongst worlds that have been completely isolated for ages has had effect that surpass the musical—the power of collaboration has found its way into the cultural and political fabric of countries, creating not only new sounds, but a new global consciousness.

The effects technology used for collaboration can be looked at optimistically. In both Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album and Congotronics, the use of technology can be seen as contributing to a new sense of unification. Vincent Kenis, the producer of Congotronics, made it a point to portray himself as equal to the members of Konono No. 1. “There was no cultural filter between us anymore,” he said, as he talked about the collaborative effort he took in producing their album. He claimed that he wanted to be the opposite of manipulative—he sat with them in a hotel room and took their feedback on every aspect of the production of the album. In Jayna Brown’s article about Congotronics, she says that the music “rises above power relations” and that equality is achieved. In Graceland, the blending of sounds from two vastly and historically different cultures can also lend to a feeling of unity that is achieved through musical collaboration. In the Meintjes article about Graceland, it’s said that “the fusion of White popular music with Black popular music is breaking down social barriers.” Though this is, of course, an extremely optimistic view of collaboration, it is charming nonetheless.

Another optimistic outlook on the effects of collaboration is the light it brings to overlooked communities. In the Meintjes article about Graceland, it is said that the album was widely received by Black South Africans because it provided a sense of hope for a community that was plagued with Apartheid—it illuminated a positive aspect of the culture. Congotronics holds true to this, as well, for as soon as it was produced by a European and spread to the western world, attention and interest was given to the Congo unlike it ever had been before. It instills a sense of pride and a view of the future for communities that have been continually exploited throughout history. The optimistic nature of global collaborations hasn’t faded in the least. Just the other day, I was listening to the radio and I heard an interesting (and extremely catchy) song that fused Arabic and Spanish. I later learned that it was a song done by an Egyptian artist named Hakim—a man who, I found out through later research—dedicates himself to using global collaboration as a powerful social message (he performed at the 2006 Nobel Peace Awards Ceremony—becoming the first person from an Arab country to perform at the event).

Take a look at this song that he did with none other than the amazing James Brown:

Of course, the technologies employed in musical collaboration and innovation can also have negative political and cultural effects. Just as music has the power to bring people together, it has the same power to pull them apart. In both the Graceland and Congotronics project, the creative authority is given to a westerner who is historically (and arguably still) superior. Paul Simon becomes the “invasive outsider” and the “benevolent musical colonizer,” according to Meintjes. Instead of portraying the musical credibility of South Africa, Paul Simon can be portrayed as trying to use the “authenticity” of the South African sound to tell the world that Black South Africa is somehow primitive compared to the modernized world. The same sentiment goes for Kenis and his production of Congotronics—though he tries to leave the sound untainted by studio manipulation, he can’t avoid his global position as the superior westerner. In a way, Kenis can also be seen as a musical colonizer, trying to take ownership of this music that he discovered and that he is spreading.

Just as a musical collaboration between a dominant and a peripheral culture can give a sense of hope to the latter, it can also result in a skewed view of the reality of that culture—a commoditization of sorts. In Graceland, the sound of South African music was sharpened to appeal to western audiences so it would be more widely received, thus leading western audiences to believe that this constructed sound is the reality of South Africa. This not only shifts the world’s view of South Africa, but, as Meintjes points out, it also gives White South Africans a tangible medium with which they can connect to South African traditions that they were never a part of. Collaboration, therefore, can become a gigantic daydream of the masses—creating traditions that have no roots. In the Konono case, the public is listening to a type of music, ripe with intentional distortion and mixtures of Sub-Saharan African and Afro-Caribbean musical traits, that was made originally as a reaction to an oppressive government. The music heard in the Congotronics project was intended for a community to band together, not to be performed on a stage in front of westerners who have no idea about the implications of the music. The west consequently begins to idolize Kinshasa for its innovative music and disregards its history. An extreme example of the imperialistic nature that collaboration can have is with Buena Vista Social Club, a project headed by Ry Cooder in Cuba. Ry Cooder, an American, recorded a group of Cuban musicians (all of whom were very old, therefore giving a romantic view of “old Havana”) and himself playing beautiful, “authentic” Cuban music (tying back to the Son style). Ry Cooder took the Buena Vista Social Club on tour with him, eventually ending up at Carnegie Hall in New York in front of a bunch of Americans who wanted desperately to believe that the history of Cuba had just disappeared and all that was left was this angelic music. Cuba, as a result, has used the Buena Vista craze as a way to define themselves and bring in tourists.

Here’s a video for one of the band's songs (featuring Ry Cooder in some scenes):

Technology has contributed to momentous collaborations and innovations throughout the world. It has expanded the musical world in enticing and beautiful sonic directions—from Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo to Congotronics to James Brown and Hakim. Global collaboration has cultural effects on the communities that they feature—sometimes good and sometimes not, depending on how you look at it. It is impossible to avoid the economic superiority of the west in any situation, and, seeing as they are usually (if not always) an authority in these collaborations, it is easy to accuse them of attempting to claim ownership over a sound. Though it is, of course, never a bad thing to be a little bit skeptical of the motives of someone in power, it also shouldn’t be a crime to enjoy these global collaborations. It’s easy to call Paul Simon and Vincent Kenis “musical colonizers,” (though the articles I've mentioned make it clear that their intentions weren't to dominate the music-- just to spread it to people who wouldn't be able to hear it without their help) but it is just as easy to simultaneously take the music they make for simply what it is—music.

Dance away!