Cultural appropriation in western music  

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"In 1945 The Andrews Sisters appropriated the song "Rum and Coca-Cola", which had originally been recorded by Jamaican musician Lord Invader. The Andrews Sisters' version sparked a new fad for this infectious new style, calypso. The craze reached its apex of popularity in the mid-1950s with the release of the hugely successful Harry Belafonte single "Banana Boat Song" and Belafonte's million-selling 1956 LP Calypso. Calypso also had a strong influence on the mainstream folk music boom of the late Fifties and early Sixties, which in turn became one of the major springboards for the development of world music as a genre."--Sholem Stein

Elvis Presley was the greatest minstrel America ever spawned, and he appeared in bold whiteface.”--"Ripping Off Black Music" (1973) by Margo Jefferson, incipit

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Cultural appropriation in western music as a cultural/economic phenomenon is inextricably linked with the invention of sound recording and the development of the international recording industry, but the background to its emergence covers the whole span of modern Western musical history, and what some analysts have deemed the digital revolution. This is particularly evident in cultural appropriation of music of the African diaspora in pop music.



Pre-recording era

Since at least the Renaissance, musicians, composers, music publishers (and, in the 20th century, radio stations and recording companies) have been part of a wide-ranging and continuous process of cultural appropriation that developed in the wake of the European colonisation of America, Africa, Asia and Oceania. In this process, styles, forms and influences from non-Western music—especially novel melodies, rhythmic patterns or harmonic structures—were discovered, appropriated, adapted and incorporated into mainstream Western popular music.

This appropriation process has a long history in European art music, which bears numerous traces of the adoption of fashionable European popular and folk dances into the classical genre. Dance styles like the allemande, the pavane, the galliard and the gavotte—often derived from popular folk dances—were just four among scores of "dance crazes" that swept the courts of Europe during the Renaissance and early Baroque.

However, by the time Bach and Händel were writing their great instrumental works during the late Baroque, the rhythms and timings of these dances had been already been appropriated, formalised and incorporated into the structure of elite European 'art' music. This trend continued in 18th and 19th century with folk-dance crazes like the mazurka, the waltz and the polka.

One well-known example of cultural appropriation into the European classical music genre arose from the 18th century fad known as "Orientalism", in which music, architecture, costume and visual arts from "Oriental" cultures (including the Ottoman empire, India, China and Japan) became highly fashionable. One of the most enduring artefacts of this fad is the third movement of Mozart's popular Piano Sonata No. 11 in A major, K. 331, known as the Rondo alla turca ("rondo in the Turkish style").

One of the earliest examples of crossover music is the music of French composer Claude Debussy. In 1889 the French government staged the great Paris Exposition, an event that was to have profound effects on many areas of western art and music. Debussy visited the exposition and it was here that he first heard gamelan music performed by Sundanese musicians. He was transfixed by the hypnotic, layered sound of the gamelan orchestra and reportedly returned to the Dutch East Indies pavilion over several days to listen to the Indonesian musicians perform and to study the structure and tuning of this novel musical form. His exposure to gamelan music had a direct influence on the composition of his famous Nocturnes for orchestra.

In the case of Debussy, some of this long process of appropriation also had an educative effect, and by the 1960s Western audiences were beginning to move beyond the confines of the Western musical tradition and explore traditional music from other countries and continents, and as Eurocentric cultural and social biases began to be broken down during the 1960s, music from other cultures gained increasingly broad acceptance.

Recording era

The key factor in this transition was the invention of sound recording, but it was also greatly influenced by the wide-ranging program of collection of European traditional folk music by 19th and early 20th century European classical composers and musicologists. This process was, at first, simply one facet of the multifocal 19th century passion for collection and classification, but it was given greater impetus by the growing awareness that the devastating impact of Western urban-industrial culture was decimating traditional cultures.

This collection activity took on some aspects of a crusade, as musicologists raced to preserve vanishing musical artefacts before they were lost to history. This view was a key motivation for the ethnologists who collected and preserved examples of Australian Aboriginal music, since it was widely believed at the time that the Aboriginal "race" and Aboriginal culture would eventually die out.

Musicologists and leading composers like Antonín Dvořák, Zoltán Kodály, Béla Bartók and Percy Grainger made strenuous efforts to collect and record local forms of European folk music and folk song, and many folk music melodies and other musical features were absorbed into the mainstream classical tradition. A good example of this process was the enduringly popular suites of Hungarian dances by Dvořák and Johannes Brahms.

During the 19th century this collection program was necessarily restricted to the written notation of melodies, lyrics and arrangements, but it was transformed in the early 20th century by the invention of sound recording and the development of portable cylinder and disc recording equipment, enabling musicologists for the first time to capture this music in actual performance, and the new technology was eagerly adopted by musicologists in Europe and America.

This growing archive of "folkloric" recordings remained largely within the confines of academia until after World War II. But in America, these collection programs -— notably those sponsored by the Library of Congress -— were to have an immense influence on the development of the international popular music industry.

Folk-music collectors like the great Alan Lomax worked assiduously for decades to find and record examples of almost every facet of native American, African-American and European-American folk music, and the work of these many scholars, enthusiasts and collectors preserved the sound of many legendary "folk" performers and thousands of hours of priceless song and music from the American folk music tradition.

This musicological program was again revolutionised in the early 1950s by the new technology of magnetic tape recording, which for the first time allowed music collectors to make very stable, long-duration, high-fidelity studio and field recordings. The concurrent introduction of the LP audio disc format, which could hold as much as thirty minutes of continuous music per side, allowed many such "folk music" recordings to be released into the consumer market for the first time.

The availability of high-quality portable tape recorders was the key innovation that led to the inception of the two keystone labels in the world music genre. Folkways Records extensive archive of folk and indigenous music was launched in the 1950s. It was followed in 1967 by Elektra Records' influential Nonesuch Explorer Series.

These "folk" LPs—notably those of early 20th century blues music—were to bring about a radical change in the style and direction of late 20th century popular music. This process is exemplified by the huge directional change in rock music that came about when young British and American musicians (like Eric Clapton) heard the now-legendary recordings of an obscure Mississippi blues musician called Robert Johnson.

Another fascinating aspect of the changes in the cultural appropriation process can be found on the music of Dvořák, which itself was greatly influenced by his collection and study of the folk music of his native Bohemia. In the 1892 Dvořák was invited to become the director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City; the period he spent in America, and especially his exposure to native American and African-American music, led to the creation of his most famous and popular symphonic work, the Symphony No. 9, subtitled "From the New World".

This is arguably another very early example of the so-called crossover music genre, but interestingly, it also had an influence on the development of American popular music. Part of the symphony's enduring appeal is due to the nostalgic main melody in the second movement, which is said to have expressed Dvořák's homesickness for Bohemia. Remarkably, this melody was later appropriated into the formative bluegrass music genre as the basis for the song "Goin' Home" (attributed to William Arms Fisher); it soon became a bluegrass standard and was later adapted into a popular spiritual-style song.


Beginning around the turn of the 20th century, the invention of sound recording and motion pictures enabled American mass-entertainment culture to begin to develop into a major global economic and cultural force.

Simultaneous with this process, two emerging streams of non-Western music—African-American music and Latin music—were discovered by American and European audiences, and they were rapidly appropriated by the mainstream music industry. Over the next hundred years these two broad genres were to have a massive transformative effect on the structure of popular music and the direction of the music industry.

In the 1890s working-class dancers, composers and musicians in the La Boca area of Buenos Aires in Argentina invented a daring and sensual new dance style which was dubbed the tango. It took Argentina by storm and after reaching New York during World War I it became an international sensation, aided by a plethora of tango recordings and crystallised by the famously steamy tango scene in Rudolph Valentino's legend-making 1921 film The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

More or less simultaneous with the tango craze, a novel African-American style known as ragtime emerged in the United States, epitomised by the music of virtuoso pianist-composers Scott Joplin and Eubie Blake. Ragtime introduced African-derived syncopated ("ragged") rhythms into Western music and enjoyed a tremendous international vogue over the next twenty years, as well as exerted a huge influence on the subsequent development of jazz.

Ragtime and then early jazz transformed American popular music—the work of songwriters like George Gershwin and Irving Berlin was crucially shaped by their appropriation of influences from African-American music—and these genres also strongly influenced many European classical composers, especially the French composers Erik Satie, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel.

In terms of their influence on almost every facet of 20th century popular music, the successive historical genres of African-American music have, as a group, been the most significant of all the "exotic" genres appropriated into Western music. Just as they influenced each other, gospel music, ragtime, blues, jazz, R&B and rock'n'roll were also successively appropriated into mainstream Western popular music—usually almost as soon as each became known as a definable genre. It is undeniable that the various genres of African-American music have, collectively, exerted a greater influence over the development and direction of Western mass-market popular recorded music than any other force.

Alongside the emergence of jazz, beginning around 1915, Hawaiian music reached the mainstream pop market in the United States. The Hawaiian style (or, more often, western imitations of it) became a major music fad, retaining a significant audience following from the 1930s to the 1950s. Hawaiian music was itself a complex mixture of European, native Hawaiian and other Polynesian influences. This is well demonstrated by the work of one of the founders of the genre, Queen Liliʻuokalani (1838-1917), the last Queen of Hawaii before the Hawaiian monarchy was overthrown. A musician and composer, she is credited as the composer of the unofficial Hawaiian anthem "Aloha 'Oe". Lili'uokalani indeed wrote the lyrics and arranged the music but in fact she appropriated the tune from a Croatian folk song called "Sidi Mara".

Beginning in the late 1920s, a series of concerts under the aegis of the Pan-American Association of Composers, founded by Henry Cowell, brought the African-influenced music of Cuban composers Alejandro García Caturla and Amadeo Roldán and the work of Carlos Chávez, much of it rooted in Mexican folk music, to the United States.

In the 1930s, the "Latin invasion" that had begun with the tango took off again when American jazz, dance music, and popular song were revolutionized by the "discovery" of other music forms of the Caribbean, Central and South America, a process that was triggered by a significant influx of migrants to the United States from Cuba, Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands in the 1940s.

The blending of Latin rhythms and instrumental jazz was pioneered by established American musicians like Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie and by recently-arrived 'Latin' musicians like Machito and others, some of whom soon became stars in their own right. Latin beats rapidly became an essential part of the rhythmical vocabulary of American popular music, providing composers and musicians with a vastly enhanced repertoire of beats and meters. During the 1930s and 1940s, newly appropriated Latin music genres created a series of music movements and dance crazes, including the merengue, the samba, and the rumba.

In 1944 The Andrews Sisters appropriated the song "Rum and Coca-Cola", which had originally been recorded by Jamaican musician Lord Invader. The Andrews Sisters' version sparked a new fad for this infectious new style, calypso. The craze reached its apex of popularity in the mid-1950s with the release of the hugely successful Harry Belafonte single "Banana Boat Song" and Belafonte's million-selling 1956 LP Calypso. Calypso also had a strong influence on the mainstream folk music boom of the late Fifties and early Sixties, which in turn became one of the major springboards for the development of world music as a genre.

In the late 1950s, repeating the impact of the tango, a seductive new music style called bossa nova emerged from Brazil and it soon swept the world, exerting a huge effect over the course of Western pop and jazz over the next decade and beyond. Nothing better illustrates the lasting impact of this hugely popular genre than the archetypical bossa song, "The Girl From Ipanema", written in 1962 and best known via the languid bilingual crossover version recorded by Stan Getz, João Gilberto and Astrud Gilberto in 1963. Thanks largely to the enormous worldwide popularity of this single, "The Girl From Ipanema" now ranks as the second most-recorded song of all time, surpassed only by Paul McCartney's "Yesterday".

Bossa nova was also an important influence on two innovative streams of popular music in the early 1960s. One was the shortlived but very popular British-originated music craze known as Merseybeat, the pop style epitomised by the early songs of The Beatles, which combined popular song structures and rock'n'roll instrumentation with rhythmic inflections taken from bossa nova.

New York was one of the epicentres of the Latin-jazz crossover, so it is not surprising that the other major pop style to show a strong influence from bossa nova was the so-called "Brill Building Sound", exemplified by the work of the New York-based songwriter teams like Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Gerry Goffin & Carole King, Neil Sedaka & Howard Greenfield, Jeff Barry & Ellie Greenwich and especially Burt Bacharach and Hal David.

Influences from African music also began to appear in the 1950s. This process included one of the more controversial examples of cultural appropriation process, exemplified by the pop song "The Lion Sleeps Tonight". A version of this song was an American #1 hit for pop band The Tokens in 1961, and it was credited to American writers, but in fact "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" was actually an unacknowledged rewrite of the song "Mbube", written and recorded by South African musician and composer, Solomon Linda, in 1939.

"Mbube" had been a major local hit for Linda and his band, The Evening Birds, reputedly selling 100,000 copies there, but its success at the time was entirely confined to South Africa. Some years later, a copy of Linda's recording reached the renowned American musicologist Alan Lomax; he passed it on to his friend Pete Seeger, who fell in love with it, and it was Seeger who was mainly responsible for popularising the song in the West.

Seeger recorded a version of the song with his noted folk group The Weavers in 1952, retitling it "Wimoweh" (an inaccurate transliteration of the song's original Zulu refrain, "uyimbube"), although at this point it should be noted that the politically-aware Seeger did give Linda a partial credit in the Weavers' arrangement of the song. The Weavers scored a US Top 20 hit with their studio version, and had further success with a live version of the song included on their influential 1957 live album, recorded at Carnegie Hall, which led to it being covered by The Kingston Trio in 1959.

The Weavers' Carnegie Hall version of "Wimoweh" became a favourite song of The Tokens—they used it as their audition piece when they were offered a contract with RCA Records—and this led to them recording it as their first RCA single. However, it was at this point that the lyrics were re-written by the band's producers—who took full credit for the song—and it would be several decades more before the full story of the appropriation of Linda's work became widely known. Sadly, by then Linda had long since died in poverty.


See 1960s music, Cultural appropriation in western music of the 1960s


Another important landmark in the growth of the world music genre, and one which is often overlooked, came in 1970 with the popular Simon & Garfunkel single "El Cóndor Pasa", taken from their multi-platinum selling Bridge Over Troubled Waters LP. The theme was endlessly copied and used all over the world, for instance in parody about downed F117a plane El kondor pada, and many other. Like Harrison's use of sitar, Paul Simon's use of Andean folk instruments (including the pan flute) was a pop music "first". His evocative English-language adaptation of a traditional 18th century Peruvian folk melody by Jorge Michelberg gave many listeners their first taste of the flavour of Peruvian folk music, and when the song was released as a single it became a hit in many countries, earning a Top Twenty placing (#18) on the American charts.

Also in 1970, Breton singer and musician Alan Stivell (having already played the Celtic Breton harp on stage as a child, and toured since the mid-sixties) recorded his first professional album ( Reflets ("Reflections"), a fusion of Celtic musics with different new experiments and influences. The originality of this is also Alan Stivell's awareness, prefacing the record as a manifesto of what he called first "Ethno-modern" music, meaning exactly what World Music means for many people since it became fashionable. His instrumental album Renaissance of the Celtic Harp increased the popularity of that instrument, and promoted the fusion of Celtic music with other musics, as did the European best-selling live album recorded at the Paris Olympia (1972). His 1979 Symphonie Celtique mixed Celtic musics with different ethnic cultures, rock, jazz-rock, and especially with a symphonic orchestra and choirs. He continues to experiment with different combinations of these and more electronic elements, especially on 1 Douar ("One Earth") (1998) and Explore (2006).

In 1973 Cameroonian jazz musician Manu Dibango scored a surprise worldwide hit with the single "Soul Makossa", a piece considered one of the forerunners of disco. Although Dibango came from a jazz background, the single contained elements drawn from the Cameroonian folk music style known as makossa, and Dibango became one of the very first African musicians to achieve significant success in the mainstream western pop market. "Soul Makossa" also became a prominent example of cultural appropriation, when Michael Jackson "borrowed" 77 seconds of music from Dibango's single and incorporated it into his song "You Gotta Be Starting Something", from the Thriller album, forcing Dibango to take legal action against Jackson.

In 1975 there were several important "popular" releases that gained wide recognition and exposed pop audiences to new musical influences. In February, Led Zeppelin released an ambitious "Arab-pop fusion" song, the ten-minute epic "Kashmir", from their Physical Graffiti LP. The song was strongly influenced by composer Jimmy Page's interest in Arabic music. Although its length made it an unlikely hit, the song became a firm favorite on American FM radio stations and was even played on Australian pop radio. Although Led Zeppelin has quite fairly been criticized for their repeated uncredited appropriations of the work of black American blues musicians like Willie Dixon, and while "Kashmir" is a clear example of cultural appropriation, like "El Cóndor Pasa" it did have the positive effect of opening the ears of many fans to a previously unknown realm of non-Western music.

In November that year Joni Mitchell released her LP The Hissing of Summer Lawns, featuring the innovative track "The Jungle Line", which mixed traditional African drumming and synthesiser. For this recording, Mitchell was accompanied by the musical group the Royal Drummers of Burundi, who were visiting America at the time.

Two other musical events in 1975 which had a significant impact on the development of World Music can both be largely credited to Marcel Cellier, owner of the Swiss record label Disques Cellier.

That year Cellier released the dazzling Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares, the first volume of an eventual three-album series of recordings of Bulgarian vocal folk music, performed by the Bulgarian State Radio Choir and Trio Bulgarka. In the years that followed, particularly after the album's re-release through the British 4AD Records label, the Bulgarian Voices album became a significant cult hit in many countries and created a huge groundswell of interest in this thrilling form of eastern European folk music, leading to the 1980s collaboration between Trio Bulgarka and acclaimed British singer-songwriter Kate Bush on her 1989 album The Sensual World.

Cellier's other big hit of 1975 was Flutes De Pan et Orgue ("Pan Flute and Organ"), a 1971 recording of traditional Romanian pan flute music, performed by virtuoso Romanian pan flautist Gheorge Zamfir, and accompanied by Cellier himself on organ. The international vogue for Zamfir's music is largely due to Australian film director Peter Weir. His 1975 film Picnic at Hanging Rock, one of the most successful Australian feature films of the period, featured evocative music from the Cellier disc on the soundtrack, and the film's success created widespread interest in Zamfir and his music.

The popularization of the album was, ironically, the inadvertent outcome of a frustrated plan. Weir had been introduced to Zamfir's music a few years earlier, and when he began production on Picnic he decided to use pan flute music on the soundtrack; he approached Zamfir to compose original music in the same style, but Zamfir declined, so Weir was obliged to return to the music he had originally heard and licence some of the tracks from the Cellier LP. The irony is that, although it made him internationally famous, Zamfir would have made far more money from the publishing rights if he had composed the original music Weir wanted—since all but one of the tracks on the Cellier LP were credited to the ubiquitous "trad. arr. ...".

In 1978, Matthew Montfort formed Ancient Future, an ensemble of 28 members having musical masters of a song traditional to the master's country play the song along with them. Ancient Future blended rhythms, harmonies, and melodies from all across the world and mixed them together along with jazz, rock and other genres of music to combine what became world fusion music.

Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, the English film director, Jeremy Marre, travelled the world for his Beats of the Heart series, shown first on the UK's national Channel 4, recording and interviewing so-called world music artists.

1980s to present

Burundi beat

In 1986, Paul Simon re-emerged as a catalytic figure when he revisited the world music / pop fusion concept he had first used on "El Cóndor Pasa" in 1970. His influential, multi-million-selling Graceland album bore the unmistakable stamp of Simon's recent discovery of South African township music, and he recorded the album with leading South African session musicians and the vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. These musicians performed on the subsequent concert tours, as did two other special guests, exiled South African music legends Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela.

Simon received some criticism for his decision to record in South Africa (which was being economically boycotted by most Western nations for its Apartheid policies) but his championing of township music focussed enormous attention on South Africa and its indigenous musical traditions, as well as the struggle against Apartheid. The success of Graceland was likely directly responsible for a massive upsurge of western interest in the music of southern Africa, as well as making Ladysmith Black Mambazo (whom Simon had first seen on Jeremy Marre's film, Spirits of Resistance) into international stars.

Many other British and American artists contributed to the growing popular awareness of "world music" during this period. After establishing his solo career in the late 1970s and early 1980s, former Genesis lead singer Peter Gabriel was heavily influenced by African and Middle Eastern music; he became a key figure in the founding of the WOMAD organisation and later established his own "world music" label, Real World, which recorded and released successful albums by artists such as Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn. Gabriel featured Senegalese mbalax singer Youssou N'Dour in a song on his hit album So in 1986, paving the way for N'Dour's success as one of the biggest "world music" stars in the West. The later music of American New Wave band Talking Heads drew heavily on influences from African and Afro-Cuban music, notably on their album Remain In Light. The album was among several experimental post-punk recordings directly inspired by the Afrobeat of bandleader Fela Kuti. Kuti's style itself began as an appropriation—a merger between the traditional styles of Kuti's home Nigeria and the R&B and funk music of African American artists like James Brown. Many other African musicians, as well as those from other regions of the world, also drew influence from African American music, Afro Cuban music and other music from the West, ensuring that appropriation was continuous in many directions.

In the early 1980s, Talking Heads' main writer and lead singer David Byrne also recorded a significant album called My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, in collaboration with the band's producer of the time, Brian Eno. It was strongly influenced by musical styles outside the standard "rock" genre, employing African-style percussion and Afro-American funk rhythms. It is also notable as one of the first rock albums to make extensive use of the then novel technology of sampling, incorporating vocal and musical samples from a wide range of sources including Arabic music. Dub music, a more atmospheric offshoot of reggae, was also appropriated as a rhythmic and production influence by many electronic musicians and underground rock bands of the era, particularly in the United Kingdom, where reggae had achieved mainstream success.

Sampling came into wider use among hip hop DJs, who appropriated rhythms, vocal parts or backing music from existing songs and pieces and combined and manipulated them, usually to serve as backing for rap vocals by an MC. Hip hop music began as an underground urban phenomenon in the 1970s, achieved mass popular success by the late 1980s and early 1990s, and by the end of the century it had become dominant over rock as the largest selling style of pop music and the primary musical export of the United States. The importance of musical appropriation to hip hop culture has often been controversial, with many legal challenges to uncredited samples, and heavy criticism for instances where paid samples simply copied the sound of the original song (for example, Puff Daddy's sampling of a hit by The Police). However, many hip hop musicians and others have argued that sampling in hip hop is no different from the often uncredited appropriation white classical and rock musicians made of earlier black music styles such as jazz and blues, and that the DJ's creativity, as well as that of the rapper, allows the song to depart significantly from the original sources. Samples in hip hop are typically only brief snippets of the original, though they often utilize the most recognizeable riff or hook of the song. Many hip hop songs sample other forms of African American music, as well. Hank Shocklee of the influential hip hop group Public Enemy has publicly debated the practice with funk bandleader George Clinton, who sued Public Enemy for sampling one of his songs without permission.

As of the 2000s, sampling has become a common form of appropriation in pop music, which has drawn increased influence from hip hop. For example, Barbadian dancehall/pop singer Rihanna's 2006 hit "SOS" drew directly from the song "Tainted Love" by 1980s English synth pop band Soft Cell. Although both were successful on the Western pop charts, the two acts may have been seen to reflect very different cultures before the appropriation.

See also

cultural appropriation, western music and crossover, cross-cultural

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