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Coriún Aharonián

Otherness as Self-Defense or as Submission?

Third World Composer's Crossroad


All of which I will try to express in my paper is valid for the formal territories commonly called Third World, but can be clearly seen at the interior of the First World cultural life, since today, like in past centuries, the concepts of First and Third World are more related to power - and therefore, to ruling class and subdued class - than to geographic areas or to false national borders.


I am saying nothing new when stating that musical behaviours, musical gestures, musical species, shortly, musical models, act as an imperialistic mechanism within which the imposition of cultural patterns is a central point for the submission of the colonial areas and also for the homogenisation of those areas in search of a more consistent market for the capitalistic structure of power.

It is obvious that, in principle, populations use to resist imposed models, and that they regularly reject them as a first reaction. Here begins one of the complex aspects of the resulting dialectical mechanism:

  1. The normal behaviour of the centres of power (and their immediate servants) is to impose through education - in its broader meaning -, the acceptance of those models issued in the metropolitan cultural factories, bestowing on them an aura of prestige. The culture of the ruling class is the prestigious culture, and its tics are good examples to follow and to imitate, especially for the psychology of teenagers - the social strip that has the highest dynamics (perhaps everywhere, but at least in the Westernised societies) - in their search of socio-cultural novelties.
  2. Once the first feeling of being invaded has become sufficiently strong, the instinctive rejection can be blind enough as to act as an affirmation of the “sameness”, and this for many reasons. One of them, the principal one, is that the neglect of new metropolitan models means, in an already colonial area, the sclerosis of former colonial models, felt as “native” because of the lack of real awareness about the particularities of previous steps of cultural identity. What I do when rejecting new cultural products launched by the centres of power, is to stay comfortably stuck to the former models of the same centres of power (or of other centres transformed through history in these new ones). This “otherness” is a common attitude in frankly reactionary people, and has been a constant in fascist and para-fascist movements. They often call themselves “nativists”.
  3. Another difficulty for resistance is that my confinement in the models of my own historical process may be very useful for a short-term struggle, but these models are condemned to become cultural rarities isolated from the “normal” colonial world, with no possibility of communication beyond regional frontiers.

Resistance, then, is a noble attitude, and a basic principle of human ethics, but in the real world there are traps related with this primary reaction (not only at the beginning of the colonial period but also at advanced steps of colonisation), and mere resistance can become a blind alley, a cul-de-sac.


Traps are here more than an established habit. And confusion is common not only in conservative people but also in progressive people, or more precisely in people whose attitudes and intentions are progressive in general subjects. Thus, we should talk about progressive and leftist only if the solutions are really progressive and leftist, but should accept the adjectives progressoid and leftoid for those people that believe they are thinking this way but are in fact thinking in a historically contrary way.

One so-to-say leftoid trap is to accept quantity instead of quality as a valid meter for the cultural weight of something in society. This principle, very common in Western European philosophy of music, is so large that has served to legitimate populism and “socialist realism”, as well as “new complexity” or computer technocracy or empty virtuosism based on old eurocentrist structures.

Another trap is to believe that being active only in the area of popular music is enough, since art music is not a massive cultural product. This means really misunderstanding the dynamics at the interior of Western culture, since art music has - until the end of the 20th century - a leading role in cultural avantgarde, directly linked with the core of the real social power, and therefore a position of prestige and power within the very musical structure, especially since the role of opening new paths is usually reserved by popular music composers to their art music colleagues. And as a consequence, the imperialistic power keeps its role once colonial popular music has as a reference for its newness only the metropolitan popular music (which receives here and there some new ideas from the metropolitan art music), and almost never the contemporary art music of its colonial cultural area (and it doesn’t matter wheter emancipated or not from its metropolitan models).

The capitalistic imperialistic establishment still concedes to the Third World the privilege of creating its own models in popular music, apart from those dominant launched by the metropolitan factories. Here, the dynamics is complex enough as to allow a bizarre landscape: countries assigned historically to appear as First World territories, have in this 20th century a poorer popular music of their own, than countries assigned until today to appear as Third World territories. But don’t worry: there is no danger. Power remains always in the same place: in money, big money, now clearly with no necessity of the mask of state-nation used in past centuries. The Far East learns everything learnable and their groups of power wait. England - or the abstract entity of power incarnated in that physical space called England - acts together with the newcomer United States - or the similar abstract entity of power - as worldwide purveyor of popular music novelties and standards, and shares its protagonism with some associates of the historical unit - even if divided territory - known as Western Europe. So, Spain can this last decade devote itself to reconstruct with different methods its old empire of the Americas, and - victim at the same time of the games of power in popular music - sell something of its own popular music to the American populations of the same language. But Portugal - whose popular music is perhaps more creative than the common Spanish popular music - is so small, and its former colony Brazil is so big - because Portugal had not had the astuteness of balkanising its American properties -, that Brazil has swallowed Portugal through its own popular music. Brazil is a colonial territory, not for Portugal but yes for the real centres of power, and its music remains colonial for the world-wide patrons. We could naïvely say that Brazil has broken the colonial wall. But this is not true. Portugal is a non decisive territory to the games of musical power, and a regional homogenisation of Portuguese-speaking countries under Brazilian music (and television) can do things easier. The real, deep power, stands not in Brazil’s government or in Brazilian capitals, but in the same old centres of power, since Brazil is owned by the big transnationals and their smaller sisters, the big capitals still assigned to physical state-nations: Nestlé, Volkswagen, Scania, Ford, Toshiba, etc., etc. (Well, there are some Brazilian capitals too...)

The role of creating models in art music, on the contrary, is reserved as a privilege to the geographic areas related with this historical concept of Western Europe. And Germany is the principal territory assigned to that role, let us say the Ministry of Musical Affairs. Here is where we will find clearer behavioural facts related to the non acceptance of Third World countries as art music suppliers.


Another leftoid misunderstanding is the acceptance of Western values as per se values, and the consequent acceptance that the role of intelligentsias in colonial areas is to impose metropolitan models as a final aim. Almost all left-dominated institutions in the Third World are bastions of Western culture, preferably that of the past two centuries.

First World countries receive with a kind smile and even perhaps with gratitude the best Third World performers of their First World art music, performers manufactured at cheaper costs - like scientists, like other useful workers - by and in the colonial countries. Gerald Moore, Claudio Arrau, Bruno Gelber, Daniel Barenboim, Marta Argerich, Zubin Mehta, Kiri Te Kanawa, are just a few examples. They are allowed to everything in the First World cultural structure, except to use their position to introduce extra-European musical countermodels.

Cuban Revolution prepares fifty virtuoso pianists to play carefully and exactly the same Beethoven sonata and the same Chopin waltz. They have never been informed about Latin American art composers of the last five centuries. Cuban leading composers, having official positions, have no idea of what has been happening in Latin America for the last 38 years - the age of the Revolution -, but at the same time they have not understood that they should be informed day per day about what is happening in the First World, the enemy territory, because that First World still establishes the rules for everybody. Because no Revolution has created in the last two centuries cultural countermodels to those launched by the capitalistic centres of power.

When making “national” things in the Third World, leftoid structures - like their reactionary counterparts - use to concentrate all their effort on performing some dead colonial past, corpses emptied of all its eventual subversive possibilities, and transformed thus into a grotesque mask of that emptiness.

Search for identity remains as an individual responsibility for isolated composers, conscious of their social and historical role.


In principle it seems that awareness of the otherness is a first step to a true resistance in the colonial situation, and that an affirmation of the factors of otherness is an important weapon for resistance in the colonies.

The sameness of cultural models and behaviours imposed by power throughout colonial areas has no backward step. Good or bad, beloved or hated, it is a bitten apple. The populations in those areas are already contaminated. There is no medicine for this infection but to go on historically. Establishing new steps we could, perhaps, correct the provoked acculturation and work towards a future crossbreeding that can be better for the subdued peoples. And for that purpose, a real knowledge of which parts of the cake are imposed by colonisation and which ones remain as resisting witnesses of the attacked culture, is fundamental for the serious construction of strategies.

Thus, the musician who has chosen to be a cultural resistant, cannot deny the existant colonial culture, in its different aspects - from the most “pure” metropolitan elements to the most hybrid ones -, and - even more - is obliged to be updated in relation with the last-minute metropolitan novelties - those, that, in the meanwhile, can establish new steps of influence. And only then, once mastering the metropolitan resources of language, this musician can construct the proposals of alterity for the colonial mestizo music.


But otherness can also become a source of possibilities for the submission of the colonial areas. An otherness which is usually stolen from the subdued cultures. Actually, that way of otherness has been a way for permanent renewal of metropolitan models (from the sarabande to the polka, from Debussy through Picasso to Stockhausen and Cage) (or Abba, or Mano Negra). At the same time, an otherness as controlled transgression, has been a way of controlled escape of the very metropolitan population (tango, jazz, rock, in 20th century Europe), while another otherness - underestimated or not - has been used as a make-up for propaganda purposes (the Lecuona Cuban Boys principle through the BBC in Africa during the Second World War), and even a renewed otherness has been used in the metropolitan models as a carefully sterilised appropriation of the transgressive elements in the subdued cultures (World Music at this end of the millennium).

Let’s enumerate some particular situations as examples for a study of the Third World composer’s crossroad, in popular and in art music (with Western European music working as weapon for centralisation and homogenisation for the benefit of the centres of power, even if they are not physically in Europe):

  • The naïve Europeanisation, right-wing and left-wing, willingly, or believing that a non-European strengthening is achieved: Latin American church music of the colonial period, Latin American first generation of art composers after formal independence, post-card “nationalism” almost everywhere, Chinese New Opera during Maoist cultural revolution, orchestras of Chinese traditional instruments shaped as European symphony orchestras, later.
  • The drama of well-trained extra-European composers, fundamentally obsessed with the possibility of mimetism with the colonial models and of success in the metropolitan milieu (like Isang Yun, and even Toru Takemitsu in the last part of his life), and making frequently resort to some marketable “primitivism” and/or “exotism” (like Igor Stravinsky, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Carlos Chávez, Alberto Ginastera). (As they are easily accessible for a European ear, usually they become the most welcome extra-European composers to a metropolitan bureaucrat or to a transnational company.)
  • The well-meaning or badly-meaning extra-Europeanisation of metropolitan composers (often because of solidarity in the first case, or because of lack of something new to say in the second one). This trend, in popular music as well as in art music, means a permanent challenge for the independence, the firmness, the integrity, the self-criticism of the extra-European composers.
  • The conflictive creativity in Third World composers: the work that has a sign opposite to which he/she has tried to build up in relationship with the metropole-colony conflict.
  • The possible creative work that can become a real issue for the Third World composer in the dialectical structure in which he/she is involved (when understood as a rich challenge and not as a mere race for a better training under the boss's rules). This is the case of composers like Violeta Parra, Chico Buarque, Jorge Lazaroff, Juan Luis Guerra and many others in popular music, or Silvestre Revueltas, Amadeo Roldán, José Maceda, Cergio Prudencio and also many others in art music. Their existence allows us to continue being historically optimistic.

© 1996 Coriún Aharonián

This text was read at the intermational colloquium "Música e mundo da vida: alteridade e transgressão na cultura do século XX" held at Cascais, Portugal, in december 1996.



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