Friday, September 13, 2013

Cultural fusions & confusions

Popular culture in the 1940s & 1950s was dominated by the easy listening style of Italian crooners (Sinatra, Como, Martin, Darin, Boone--there were dozens of them); even Black singers rooted in jazz like Nat King Cole became noted in the genre. But in the 1960s, the US Civil Rights Movement broke the segregation of Black music from a subculture into the most dominant cultural genres of the era--including jazz, R & B, gospel, soul, blues, & rock & roll. Motown ruled! (Though as Michael Buble, Julio Iglesias, & Harry Connick, Jr. prove, crooning is still holding its own.)

Though it is not disputed rock & roll originated in the US South, many cultural critics claim rock & roll is a hybrid of Black & white musical genres. It’s possible Irish country & folk music & instrumentation had influence on some musicians from African musical traditions but R & B dominance is really beyond dispute. One doesn’t know why they bother to argue otherwise.

Cultural hybridization in the globalized era of TV, radio, & film is a phenomenon of extraordinary complexity but by no means new to human societies. It probably isn’t an overstatement that US pop culture--particularly in its least talented & most vulgar forms--is international. Inexplicable but true. Witness Justin Bieber & the Barbie doll.  But it is just as true that there are perhaps no cultural genres in human history with as much global influence & dissemination as those from the Americas rooted in African culture. (Africans in the Americas have influenced language, law, politics, manners, religion, literature, music, art, & dance but here the genres referred to are music & dance.)

Africans, a majority from West Africa, introduced their distinctive syncopation & percussive instruments to the Americas which cohered with Spanish genres (like flamenco & paso doble) & native music & dance & transformed them. Thus we have the salsa, mambo, cha cha, rumba, tango, & merengue (which began as African mimicry of the French minuet)--as well as a vast repertoire of musical genres which continue to fuse & hybridize. We live in an interesting world.

But the cultural fusions are infinitely more complex than even that. The Spanish flamenco & paso doble are themselves the result of hybridization. To name just a few elements, flamenco incorporates body movements from Hindu dancing brought, according to some historians, by Untouchable migrants from the Punjabi region of India (other historians claim they were hired performers at festivals); Andalusian regional folk dances; Jewish synagogue chants; Arabic elements, not so much in body movements but in use of finger cymbals, tambourines & costuming; & going full circle, African influences coming back to Spain from colonies in the Americas.

All that history to explain that now we read many Arabs are concerned about the “Westernization” introduced into Middle Eastern cultures through TV programs, music videos, hip-hop music, comic book super heroes, & Barbie dolls. Of course the concern is the cultural indoctrination of white supremacist ideas which permeate much of this pop cultural stuff along with male supremacism.

Photojournalist Natalie Naccache has launched a project to document this cultural collision & has already traveled through several countries to investigate how Arabs are attempting to manage this phenomenon. Though as any feminist mother of a child clamoring for a Barbie doll can testify, it’s a lot easier to disseminate these cultural influences than to control them. In Kuwait, she is looking at a series of comic books that have superheroes from Arabic history with Islamic archetypes; & she is documenting the popularity of Fulla dolls, essentially Arabized Barbie dolls which are selling well from Egypt to Saudi Arabia.

Cultural fusions are so creative & expand the artistic possibilities that make human beings such an interesting lot--which makes it all the more important that supremacist views be challenged & defeated politically so the creative potentials of all will be allowed to flourish--& we can live in a world of music & dance.

(Photo of child with Fulla dolls by Natalie Naccache)

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