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Culture Goes Global

Global communication has turned Maori chants-and other indigenous musical forms-into def jams.

Pounding drums, throaty voices and electronic pulses rock my CD player. I have entered the world of Oceania, a remarkable musical collaboration between Maori poet and singer Hinewehi Mohi and Jaz Coleman, lead singer of the British post-punk band Killing Joke. Although Mohi characterizes the Maori as “precious feathers” blown about by global forces, her music, which sets traditional chants to a techno soundtrack, celebrates their ability to surf the winds of change.

We often imagine peoples like the Maori as existing pristine and timeless, within a display case at a natural-
history museum. Yet cultures have never remained static or isolated; even in ancient times, war, trade and migration made their marks. Now, rapid transportation and global communication and commerce accelerate change. The anthropologist Renata Rosaldo compares the high-speed transformations of cultures to a garage sale, where “cultural artifacts flow between unlikely places, and nothing is sacred, permanent or sealed off.” We need to recognize the richness, diversity and creativity of this garage-sale culture. Hinewehi Mohi sings in her people’s traditional language, yet to a techno beat, enabling her songs to escape national boundaries and enter the global marketplace.

For decades, critics have depicted the international circulation of Ameri-can goods as cultural imperialism. The United States, for example, produces nine of the top ten box office films screened in Europe each year, undercutting local culture industries. Living off their domestic grosses, the big studios can offer lower rates, maintain higher production values and spend more on marketing than local competition, while the American market remains largely closed to imports.

Those days are numbered. We are no longer the world’s only powerful media-producing nation. African consumers are more apt to be fans of Hindi musicals than MTV. And even American childhood has increasingly been shaped by Asian cultural imports. Most parents now know about the Power Rangers, Tamagotchi and Pokmon, Sega and Nintendo. For the moment, English remains cyberspace’s dominant language, and having Web access often means that Third-World youth have greater exposure to American popular culture. Yet these same technologies enable Balkan students studying in the United States to hear webcast news and music from Serbia or Bosnia. Thanks to broadband communication, foreign media producers will distribute films and television programs directly to American consumers without having to pass by U.S. gatekeepers.

And they may be assisted in their conquest of the U.S. market by Ameri-can teens who have developed more cosmopolitan tastes through travel or online chatting. Some fans now teach themselves Japanese in order to do grass-roots translation and subtitling of animated films (anime) or comics (manga). They scan Japanese television guides for hot properties and post their own ratings to help parents filter the often mature content. These fans have become key niche marketers, promoting U.S. awareness and acceptance of Asian popular culture.

For signs of this coming cultural revolution, look in the world-music section of your local record shop. The lower production costs and smaller shelf-space requirements of CDs have dramatically expanded the diversity of today’s music store. Older consumers may find this totally alien. But contemporary college students now sample the once-exotic sounds of African pennywhistle, Tuvian throat singing or Scandinavian mandolin as casually as they choose between tacos, pizza and sushi. Seeking broader circulation, non-Western artists like Mohi often attach themselves to trends inspired by American artists. Madonna’s Ray of Light, for example, borrowed from bhangra, an Indian-inflected dance music that previously circulated mainly on dub tapes in ethnic grocery stores. Through such exchanges, global music enters the mainstream.

In some cases, international performers return to their musical roots, appealing to the nostalgia of their country folk now scattered worldwide. Yet just as often, they mix and match once-distinctive styles to create music unlike anything we’ve heard. Sheila Chandra’s aptly titled Weaving My Ancestors’ Voices, for example, fuses Indian and Celtic traditions. These hybrid sounds express the experience of “third-culture” youths who may be of mixed racial, national or linguistic backgrounds, and who have spent their early years moving between countries.

Some fear that globalization will destroy cultural diversity, resulting in a world ruled by American exports. Yet the world-music scene suggests an alternative, where global popular culture enters our marketplace with help from American youth, audiences demand new forms of diversity and performers fuse traditions to create novel forms that express a widespread experience of dislocation. Call it global fusion, the Third World’s answer to Walt Disney and Coca-Cola.

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