Society, Media and Culture

Musical Strategies in Breaking Down Boundaries

Music has an immense capacity to bring people together and foster cultural understanding. Case studies from the UK show us how entire new musical genres have emerged from the encounter of different musical traditions, and how the cultural landscape of a nation can be enriched thanks to the influence of migrant communities and diasporas.

Borders across Europe serve two key cultural roles: they define areas of shared cultural heritages (languages, foods, music and rituals) but also represent meeting points where ideas have the opportunities to meet and cultural practices can be shared. Culture itself has been shared across European borders for centuries, with the freedom of movement brought by the EU’s creation only further fostering exchanges of ideas. Chefs from Italy have shared their cuisine across borders, the English language is taught in many European countries and is widely spoken as a second language and Austrian music is being performed by renowned orchestras across Europe and the world.

With the increase in human migrations due to the refugee crisis and climate change, we are seeing tensions created in communities. These new arrivals are often, misguidedly, perceived to be a threat to an established way of life. Within this context one of the most important strategies to promote social cohesion is cultural engagement. The idea is simple: gather the established and new communities together and share their different cultural heritages, then provide an opportunity for both communities to forge new shared traditions and practices.

The British context

Countries like the UK give us enlightening case studies of the potential of music to improve social cohesion. The UK has historically reaped the benefits of cultural migration. Immigration from commonwealth countries has helped change the culinary and musical landscape of the British Isles with bustling high streets dotted with South Asian restaurants and Caribbean music becoming common place on national radio. Both these examples have also given birth to new cultural identities of shared heritage developing British culture to be inclusive of migrant influences in a positive manner. That is not to say of course there has not been resistance from the far right, but their attempts to claim a purist British folk culture has backfired. The now defunct British National Party created CD mixtapes of English folk music to pass through school gates to children. They had not asked the artists’ permission to use their music and it led a number of them to set up Folk Against Fascism, a group of traditional practitioners resisting hyper-nationalism, refusing to allow the BNP to claim British folk culture as their own.

In a recent interview Chantal Mouffe, Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster, argued that: ‘A lot of people, particularly those of the popular sector, were undeniably affected and at the same time attracted by globalisation. What is important, in my opinion, is then to fight to transform this common sense. And, of course, common sense is something built in different ways: that’s why artistic and cultural practices are so important’ (Mouffe, 2015). Put simply – artistic and cultural practice, at the heart of recalibrating a notion of “common sense”, have the power to expose the myths of right-wing populism, and make us think about new forms of communal existence.

Music in particular has been effective in encouraging the forging of new identities and the arrival of new voices to the national soundscape. The British festival tradition has encouraged audiences to experience sounds from across the globe and artists from different backgrounds have embarked on remarkable collaborative projects. One example of this is the Musicport Festival held annually in Whitby, North Yorkshire. The festival was founded by Jim & Sue McLaughlin, with a will to bring multiculturalism to a predominantly white seaside town. The indoor music festival invites global sounds to have a stage in return for providing the town with cultural exposure and musical experiences they otherwise wouldn’t have had. Whilst it is difficult to measure how successful such an event is in changing minds about multiculturalism, the large crowds dancing to music from far flung corners of the globe may be an indicator of reasonable success. What is also important about this festival is its simultaneous connection with localism. The stage is also provided for local performers from British folk backgrounds, allowing elements of British heritage to be present amongst a globalised celebration and have a strong voice.

New influences shaping British culture

In the UK many cultural circles suggest that some negative attitudes towards multiculturalism are based on an uncertainty about the presence and indeed composition of British ‘identity’. The far right argue that British culture is being stamped out by multiculturalism but cannot seem to describe exactly what is being eliminated. There has been some reticence in displaying symbols which denote British cultural identity for the general public to celebrate due to the appropriation of symbols such as the British flag – the Union Jack – by far right groups, who place it in direct opposition to multicultural society. There is also a problem with Britain being itself a composite of many regional and provincial cultures. Wales and Scotland, for example, both have well carved unique cultural heritages and identities. The Welsh cultural identity has been revived around the Welsh language, the protection of which is prescribed into law. Scottish cultural identity has been supported by its cultural exports from the highly successful global sales of Whiskey, to its relative preservation of clan histories allowing global Scottish diasporas to reconnect with their lineage. England has a deeper challenge in finding a cultural voice in that there are clear cultural divides between regions. Music has provided a chance to explore cultural identities in new ways and allow British musical identities to sit in sync with other national identities.

In 2013 the World Music Exhibition came to Cardiff, the capital city of Wales. World Music Exhibition acts as a trade show for organising festivals and tours as well as record distribution for “world music” artists. (I use the term ‘world music’ here in reference to how so-called traditional and fusion types of music are marketed and distributed, although I find the term problematic). By hosting the exhibition in the UK it allowed smaller British festivals to access booking agents for artists and to find new acts to push their audiences’ sonic boundaries. The convention also provided an important manifestation of the British “world music” market, positioning traditional folk music from across the country as part of this global market. This almost invited British music to be seen as a cultural ‘other’, going against a somewhat traditional colonialist narrative. By placing British traditional music within the “world music” umbrella it becomes part of a multicultural musical outlook.

Traditions of the diasporas in the UK

Alongside festivals creating multicultural experiences and the forging of a strong British traditional musical identity, there has also been the forging of new musical traditions only made possible by immigration. The greatest examples of such occurrences were forged through the commonwealth migrations in the 1960s. The Indian diaspora collaborated with the sounds of Anglo-American pop to create Bhangra. The Afro-Caribbean diaspora brought to the UK Ska and reggae music, resulting in several new musical genres including Lovers Rock and Two-tone music (called so due to most band have black and white members, hence two skin tones). Within these newly forged British-based musical traditions we see two approaches: the establishment of a British cultural element within diasporas and the connection between immigrant communities and white British communities.

In 1996 Susan Koshy conducted a cultural conversation with Kenyan-born filmmaker Gurinder Chadha (‘Bend it Like Beckham’, ‘Bride & Prejudice’) about her experiences as a Sikh within British society for the Hutchins Centre for African American Research at Harvard University. During the published conversation Chadha discusses the importance of Bhangra music to her identity as Koshy recalls:

‘For Chadha, however, the most powerful symbol of the syncretic diasporic culture of the time was British Bhangra music. British Bhangra combined Punjabi folk rhythms, electronic instrumentation, Bombay film styles, and Western disco. Bhangra identities created a space where it was possible to wear Indian clothes or talk Punjabi in public with flair and gave Chadha an empowering and enriched sense of the possibilities of being Punjabi, black, and British’ (p.150, 1996)

It would appear that for Chadha, Bhangra allows the full manifest of her personal cultural identity. The music allowed a diaspora to connect with both their roots and their cultural present. Because the musical identity in part is forged by British musical influences, it becomes accessible for audiences that are familiar with UK popular music.

Two-Tone music has interesting socio-cultural roots in that it created connectivity between white British working class musicians and Afro-Caribbean both deprived by the merciless Thatcher-led government. Groups formed in performance of Ska music highlighting a variety of social issues common both to white and black Brits. United in their relative poverty the musicians created some of the most definitive musical social commentaries of the age. The Specials song ‘Ghost Town’ became an almost unparalleled commentary of Thatcherite Britain’s decimation of industrial towns which became abandoned.

Music across borders

All these examples demonstrate how migrant communities have helped forge a multifaceted British cultural identity which is more open, adaptable and accessible. From these cultural strategies it is worth considering the further ways in which music and the culture more broadly can participate to enhance cultural integration for new migrant communities or refugees entering the UK. We must actively organise and create opportunities for cultural conversations to share commonalities and differences. Through shared experiences comes the opportunity to exchange and experience these differences and commonalities in a positive manner, be it through: food, going to a music performance or celebrating a national holiday.

The European Union can also function as a mechanism to facilitate cross-cultural conversations. Already the EU funds collaborative artistic projects but there is greater potential: if projects are targeted and cultural cohesion is fostered, artists will open our eyes to the commonalities we share. Music as an expressive art can transcend European borders and redefine them. By sharing such deep and important cultural expressions across borders and at meeting points we can remind ourselves of our human capability to creatively express our identity.

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Musical Strategies in Breaking Down Boundaries

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