All Music is métisse!

By Gérald Arnaud

Published 25/03/2005
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For the past twenty years, the expression métissage musical (musical blending) has become commonplace even outside the circle of specialist media. It has even become an essential strategy for African music as it is confronted with globalisation. However, we should question ourselves about the relevance of these trendy words, which have often become too clichéd. It is absurd, even dangerous, to believe that it is possible for any music to not be métisse (blended).

The very reliable search engine, Google counts 17,500 hits for « métissage musical » (musical blending) on French language websites. It comes up with 19,600 hits for « musiques métisses » (blended music) and 36,000 for the same expression in the singular. However, these figures are insignificant when compared to 1,170,000 hits for « world music », and 1,420,000 for « musiques du monde » (music of the world). But, world music and musiques du monde are nothing more than unlimited, insignificant holdalls. Until extraterrestrials signal their existence by sending us music, all music is necessarily world music, unless proven otherwise!
A look at the use of these expressions in the media, if it is indeed possible to trace the origins, highlights their role and meaning according to the mysterious workings of globalisation.
The term world music is the pure product of British show business.
Concerned by the anarchic proliferation of terms such as ethnopop, tribal sound and world beat, Peter Gabriel (the director of the record label RealWorld and of the Womad festival) gathered together thirty record dealers in London during the summer of 1987. They decided that from then on, only the term « world music » would be used.
Three years later, Billboard, the Anglo-American record industry’s bible, inaugurated a world music column and hit parade.
This all-encompassing expression is above all a form of exclusion. It arbitrarily and indifferently includes all music that does not belong to classic European or popular Anglo-Saxon heritage.
The the term world music has rapidly taken on a different meaning in each country. In the United States, for example, African, Caribbean, Asian, even non-English language European music as well as music from North American minority groups (Amerindians, Cajuns, Hispanics, etc) has all been relegated to the World section in record shops. Far from becoming part of a global integration effort, world music has in fact become an immense ghetto, which encompasses the music of the Others, essentially those who have been left behind in a global trend that entails using the English language. Flamenco, zouk, Edith Piaf, Romanian tarafs, Charles Aznavour and Youssou N’Dour can be found mixed pell-mell together.
As early as the beginning of the 1990s, the Francophone media and music market instinctively rose up against this unbelievable hotchpotch, which was becoming the norm elsewhere under the extremely eclectic title of world music. During the previous decade, the magazine Actuel had tried to promote the expression sono mondiale (world sound), which has become rather outdated, but which at least expresses the idea of the globalisation of music and not the music itself. The expression musiques du monde seems to have been made popular by the leading French record dealer, Fnac, which sells large quantities of what was formerly called musiques ethniques (ethnic music), or earlier folklore then folk music.
The term world music has not been abandoned, but it now refers to syncretic productions of music from different cultures.
Fnac, which calls itself a cultural agitator, has placed music at the heart of a policy promoting cultural diversity, for which France has become the universal spokesperson. Confronted with American neo-imperialism and the irresistible supremacy of the English language, music and, above all, songs, have become an official way for actively promoting the protection of multiple identities.
Seemingly contradictory concepts from all sides – differentialism and universalism, federalism and sovereignism, defence of the French language and promotion of the numerous cultures from the ex-colonial empire – come together to create a united front.
Music is becoming an essential vector for the alter-globalist movement, a global movement created and dominated by intellectuals and French unions, which the French government from Mitterrand to Chirac has tried at all costs to control and contain.
Never mind that it has never been harder for African musicians, or for musicians from the third world generally, to go on tour in France and in Europe! The fact remains that it is easier for them to get their music produced and live in the United States!
Biological Blending and Musical Blending
According to the French language dictionary, Robert, the word métis (blend) (mestiz in twelfth century French) comes from the Latin word mixtus which means mélange, or mix. However, since 1615, it has been known under its meaning derived from the translation of the Portuguese adjective metice meaning sang-mêlé (literally, of mixed blood), of a mother and father from different races.
As the Portuguese were the first European colonisers of Africa, the word was popularised and came to mean a person born of a black man and a white woman or of a white man and a black woman, a synonym for the word mulâtre (mulatto). The Robert dictionary adds that word’s antonym is pure (pure). In other words, in the French unconscious the word métis means impur (impure)!
It is, therefore, an utterly erroneous biological and genetic term. It comes from a racial-based vision of humanity, which focuses on appearance or on the colour of skin and which has long since been disproved by science. However, in the collective imagination and unconscious, the word métis (blend) has not disappeared. Rather, it has become generalised, commonplace, and sometimes even prestigious despite its contradictory nature. Although Australian Aborigines and Papua New Guineans are much more closely related genetically to Europeans than Africans, a child born of a Papuan father and a Scottish mother would be considered as métis, whereas a child born of the same Papuan father and a Senegalese mother would not.
It has become a cliché to say that music is a universal language. For as long as we deny the fact that a racial-based vision and consequentially, racism, are unfounded, it will remain dangerous to talk about musical blending and blended music. That is to say, to confuse an absurd, outmoded and fallacious vision with an enlightened, exclusively cultural concept that stems from the universal history of music.
But, for the time being, let’s accept the popular terms musical blending and blended music. The words did not even exist thirty years ago. As far as I know, they first appeared in 1984 in an edition of Revue Musicale (a magazine directed by Francis Pinguet) entitled « Un monde musical métissé » (A blended musical world).
During the same period, the Angouleme Jazz Festival, which had just finished celebrating the opening of its African, West Indian and Indian Ocean music programme, renamed itself Festival du jazz et des musiques métisses, and then more simply Musiques Métisses. In June 2005, it will be celebrating its thirtieth anniversary.
Even the scientific community, which is generally wary of neologisms, has quickly assimilated the questionable concept. Today, on the Société française d’ethnomusicologie (French society for ethnomusicology) website, half a dozen of its members proudly claim to be experts in musical blending!
History That Dates Back To Prehistory
It does not suffice to say that music is common heritage to all humanity.
As we well know, our common ancestor is the Cro-Magnon man, named after the French archaeological site where its remains were exhumed for the first time. We also know that our ancestors co-lived on earth with the Neanderthals.
We recently discovered that the two species played music and used the same types of instruments. Examples of flutes and whistles carved from reindeer phalanges and tibias all tuned the approximately the same way have been found. The oldest (found in Slovenia) are more than 40,000 years old! Others, more recent, were used for a long time in Périgord (France), Siberia and in North America. They most likely served as models for the very sophisticated ocarinas earthenware flutes, which were derived from bird hunter decoys, and which were of very similar design in South America and Central Africa.
The spread of musical instruments worldwide was likely the first phase of what we are now calling musical blending. Another instrument, the lithophone (mostly likely a predecessor of the xylophone and balafon), which is made from stones that are chipped, shaped and then tuned according to a pentatonic scale, is almost as ancient and still exists today in as such distant regions as Vietnam and Togo, where it is played by the Kabiye people, from the Eyadema ethnic group.
String instruments are to be found all over the world in some form or other and provide a perfect example of the universal origins, not to say blending, of instruments worldwide.
Up until the relatively recent appearance of musical writing and then of recording techniques, which only really became properly operational in the 1880s, songs were not included in the history of music. The ancient history of music around the world can, therefore, be established solely through instruments, both real and portrayed.
In Europe, it is easy to show how the circulation of instruments remains the hidden side of musical blending. Most Irish people don’t know that the bouzouki lute, which is a feature of their traditional orchestras, is in fact a Greek instrument. Similarly, the guitar is a typically African instrument as it was brought back by the Portuguese no later than the beginning of the seventeenth century.
Afro-American History
It is important not to confuse the following three notions: blending, whether biological or genetic; cultural symbiosis, which is the very foundation of the dynamics of relationships between individuals and societies; and finally musical evolution, which has its own laws that are sometimes entirely independent from biological and cultural exchange. It is, therefore, completely absurd to talk about musical blending.
The best proof is that most popular music listened to around the world today, came from a mix that occurred in the United States between the beginning of the fourteenth and twentieth centuries. That is to say, in one of the rare societies in which biological blending had almost never existed and in which segregation was an absolute and almost sacred rule.
While many people of mixed parentage were born (often a product of rape when African women slaves were raped by their owners), they were considered to be Negroes and sexual relations with them were forbidden.
All over the United States, and even in New York, it is still rare, in 2005 – a century and a half after the abolition of slavery – to see a « mixed » couple walking down the street holding hands. There is still an obvious taboo concerning so-called interracial sexual relations.
Paradoxically, blues and gospel music-the universal models of musical blending – originated from this society of social and sexual segregation as early as the beginning of slavery. Blues music is the result of an encounter between work songs, the memory of griot songs and instruments borrowed from employers and the acclimatisation of the European melody, of the romantic lieder to African pentatonic scales. Negro spirituals are a miraculous mix of traditional African vocal polyphony and Protestant choral harmony. Jazz music represents the revival of improvisation and complex African rhythms in European orchestral music.
Between 1940 and 1950, the mix became explosive and lead to rhythm’n’blues then to rock’n’roll. Is it still possible in this case to talk about musical blending?
Elvis Presley, who spent his childhood going to black Baptist churches, transposed his experience into the « country’n’western » music of white farmers.
His impresario, Colonel Parker, summarised the result thus, « The colour of rock is neither white, nor black, but green… the colour of the dollar! » (1)
A One-Way Exchange
Far from belonging exclusively to countries such as Brazil and Cuba, where biological blending has become commonplace, musical blending also largely exists in countries where interracial relations are almost non-existent. In South Africa, some of the most blended music in the world arose out of the apartheid era. In fact, by the end of the colonial period, this was the case everywhere in Africa. In 1920, when highlife music was born – the first example of music in which it is possible to distinguish African and European influences – whites and blacks never dated, nor even married in Ghana. In Brazzaville and Leopoldville, it was not mixed couples who invented the Congolese rumba, the first modern pan-African music, which was the inspiration for many of Tino Rossi’s songs as well as traditional rhythms such as kongo, kuba, luba, mbochi, and so on.
Most African musicians are shocked when people say that they play une musique métissée (blended music). In Africa, the adjective métis (blend) has kept its first, biological meaning. It is generally considered to be negative as the following quotation from Sam Mangwana clearly illustrates. The talented Congolese singer from Angolan origin, who represents the most blended music in central Africa, recently declared, « I’m against excessive musical blending! I find the world music trend, which consists in mixing Celtic music with Senegalese Djembes or Yvette Horner’s accordion, very strange. Musical blending is fine, but everyone should keep their own specificity. Culture needs to perpetuate certain things. Culture is the identity of a people, of their origins and needs to refer to this at all times. » (2)
There are countless other African artists who, like Sam Mangwana, cautiously experiment with audacious musical exchanges. In the field of music, they all embody the contradictions of a continent that is trying to find a balance between its past and its future, between its heritage and its desire to innovate, between its identity and its desire to interact with other cultures. However, the continent, unfortunately does not have the economic means, whether individual or collective, to freely assume this contradiction.
Diversity versus Exoticism
In 2005, when we talk about musical blending, we must also consider the problem in economic terms. And, it is not very reassuring to hear what someone like Patrick Zelnik, former director of Virgin-France and founder of the independent label Naïve, has to say. « Despite unprecedented musical blending, cultural diversity is deceptive. In the music industry, only five major companies control 75% of the music market. For the past ten years, globalisation has given rise to unprecedented musical blending, which has chipped away at the foundations of America’s supremacy in terms of creation. However, this apparent diversity must not hide an increasing concentration of only a few best-sellers. » (3) Like so many others, Zelnik advocates the creation of a « Conseil mondial des cultures » (world culture council), which would be similar to the UN’s Security Council. « But it would need real political and legal power. Without voluntary international regulation, the globalisation of cultures will be imperialist and dominant cultures will wipe out diversity. »
Those who prefer uniformity may wonder what the purpose of diversity is.
Is it not, in principle, the ultimate consequence of musical blending?
This is not certain. What is at stake in the diversification of the musical scenery known by all human beings, is not its simplification, but rather an invitation to each person to listen more often and more intensively to the music of others. In the past, we called this exoticism. The universal admiration of
cultural barriers, discovery, travel, etc.
« Songs of the world, music from elsewhere, blended music: the unprecedented moves, reveals and deconstructs our perception…alert and on the lookout in the fog, our keen ears keep us open, » writes Hervé Lenormand (4) (5).
This message has reached millions around the world who are being joined by an increasing number of people who believe that music, in all its diversity, is the strongest link between them.
Just how blended it is, is not really important.
The word métis should have disappeared long ago from the outdated vocabulary of the colonial period. In 2005, what is métis and what is not? In any case, all music is blended, and has been so forever, without exception. This is the reason why music is the deepest, strongest and most physical link between human beings since the beginning of time.

1. Translated by Africultures for the purposes of this article.
2. Afriqu’Échos Magazine, June 2004. Translated by Africultures for the purposes of this article.
3. Le Nouvel Obervateur, n° 1996. Translated by i for the purposes of this article.
4. « Navigation à vue », Revue internationale de l’imaginaire, n°11. Translated by Africultures for the purposes of this article.
5. Translated by Africultures for the purposes of this article.
Gérald Arnaud was born in 1957 in Montagne Noire (Black Mountain), France. After studying philosophy and political sciences, and after obtaining a Bachelor of Arts in art history, he worked at Fnac selling books and records. After being chief editor of Jazz Hot (1980-86), Gérald Arnaud decided to live from his writing and never minces his words. Independent journalist, author of novels on jazz, archaeological and musical documentaries and married to an African women, he decided to cultivate his strange passion for the black continent and its diasporas.///Article N° : 5730


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