Following up on my spring 2014 visit, this summer I was airborne to the 2014 Guiyang Summer Festival of Indigenous Music in Guizhou Province, China. The event was the first time Guizhou cultural officials featured artists from beyond their home country. One of the primary reasons for my spring trip, as it turned out, was to help them determine what artists would be appropriate and accessible from among an ocean of music traditions.
The Smithsonian contributed some expenses to send three Smithsonian Folkways ensembles there, members of the Delicious Peace Coffee Cooperative, Los Texmaniacs, and Rahim Alhaj, respectively for Ugandan, conjunto and Iraqi music. All are deeply steeped in their musical traditions and quite cognizant, in my opinion, of their place in the grander scheme of things, in the world. I asked the artists to be aware of their role as live ambassadors of traditional musics of the world beyond China’s borders and to take note of musical ideas shared with other festival participants.
My assignment was to assess what impact performances by international musicians, particularly the three Folkways groups, have on local traditional musicians and audiences. Our Chinese colleagues agreed to photograph, document with audio and video recordings, interview artists and audience members, and thereby help us understand how it all worked out. I was and remain keenly interested in whether the concept of “authenticity” changes over time, but only time will tell.
One of the most studied aspects of impact is that of musical change over time, measured in decades or generations, as music is shared across borders via personal contact and media. In this case, that will have to wait. For me, a challenging issue arose.
I puzzled, mulled, fretted. How can I possibly assess the transformative inner experience of an audience member whom I may never meet, who comes from China, who doesn’t speak English, whose entire life has been spent in a culture so different than my own? Really, the inner experiences of individuals are what I want to know more about. Music serves many, maybe countless purposes for different individuals: entertainment, relaxation, ritual, reflection, promotion of ideas or things. You know this already.
One of those inner experiences, of particular interest in assessing the Guiyang festival, can be when a person encounters music expressive of a traditional community’s identity. The music I’m speaking of must originate in a geographical locus, and the performer must be steeped in that place’s tradition, with feet on the ground and intellect “out of the way”—a recipe for what is often called “spirit” to come through. Such sounds sometimes resonate deep inside a listener, to reflect something vital, something that until that moment is missing in her or his understanding of life itself. Anecdotally, it does not seem to matter if the listener is of the same cultural tradition as the music-maker.
Such a realization can even move one to alter life’s direction, to find some way to create, remember or sustain what was missing, and thereby change forevermore. I’ve heard people tell of this transformative effect of music many times. When I was a boy, an Oriental dance album so enthralled me that I learned to lip-sync its Arabic lyrics and offered to perform for any visitor to our family home. Listening to that material opened a window to another cultural frame. Indeed, I’ve set my life’s direction by my own profound musical experiences. And, to be frank, setting up opportunities for others to encounter that sort of transformation has motivated me for nearly half a century, as a composer, performer, and producer.
Traditional marketing studies cannot capture this data. How many ensembles? How many audience members at each performance? Gross revenue from ticket sales? “Did you enjoy tonight’s performance?” “Yes.” “Will you come again next summer?” “Yes.” Not to say that such evaluations have no place, but those are not issues I have competence or knowledge to assess.
Anthropologist Robert Plant Armstrong was deeply affected by his encounters with African art and wrote several volumes probing how art operates upon us, including aspects of the transformative experience of the sort I’m referring to with music (Armstrong: 1971). I reviewed Affecting Presence in preparation for the trip, so I did leave U.S. soil with a belief—not a certainty, mind you—that there might be observable impact in children attending the festival, the villagers in rural Dimen, and officials of the Department of Culture of Guizhou Province.
Having returned, I await the reports from colleagues in China.
Atesh Sonneborn is the associate director for programs and acquisitions at Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. The most satisfying aspects of his career include his encounters with communities quite unlike his Chicago birthplace.