Canadian readers will no doubt be aware of the rather heated national debate concerning cultural appropriation. It’s a subject that touches multiple raw nerves. But its significance demands that we address it. More importantly, it demands that we listen to those who feel hurt and offended by the misuse and misrepresentation of their culture.
Those not following the debate have surely come in contact with it. Oxford Reference defines cultural appropriation as: “A term used to describe the taking over of creative or artistic forms, themes, or practices by one cultural group from another. It is in general used to describe Western appropriations of non‐Western or non‐white forms, and carries connotations of exploitation and dominance.”
Typically, it makes ample use of stereotypes in a vain attempt to add colour to an otherwise lackluster performance. (Think Katy Perry in geisha gear.)
It all gets a bit tricky when we talk about musicians who express an interest in instruments, etc. from different parts of the world. Did Paul Simon rip off South African culture with Graceland? What about Peter Gabriel and his Passion soundtrack?
Arguably, both examples represent a faithful presentation of traditional musics. Simon actively promoted artists like Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba and Ladysmith Black Mambazo as part of his project. Gabriel went further, launching Real World Records. It served as a successful – and one would have to say respectful – extension of his World of Music, Arts and Dance (WOMAD) festival.
New Yorker Jeff Düngfelder shares a similar enthusiasm for musical globetrotting. After interviewing him by email, it’s clear to me he’s approached his debut album with genuine sincerity.
Tell me about your background.
I’m a Los Angeles transplant. For the past seven years, I have lived in the multicultural neighborhood of Jackson Heights, Queens. The neighborhood has become a significant catalyst with respect to my music, films and photography.
The album features a variety of cultural references.
My interest in sounds and images from around the world are reflected in my music. Using fragments of these sounds and images and turning them into something self-expressive is what I love doing. The process of removing elements from their original context and placing those elements within a different context – a juxtaposition which is always based on chance – sends me on an inspiring journey of discovery. Extracting a card from Brian Eno’s deck of Oblique Strategies often sheds a light on a divergent path.
What’s your take on the subject of cultural appropriation? How does an artist incorporate sounds from different parts of the world without it sounding like a kind of musical caravan?
Of course, I can only speak for myself on this subject. I believe if these sounds are sincerely used as a method of revealing myself, and not to try to be somebody else, I am fine with it. The sounds fuel my imagination. They speak to me. A Jean-Luc Godard quote I like a lot is: “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.” Optimally, I am taking these found sounds to a new place where they can live and grow. As Jim Jarmusch has said, “Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent.” Incorporating sounds from different parts of the world feels totally natural for me. What others do in terms of cultural appropriation is not my concern.
What did you use for this recording?
My toolkit focuses on using the computer as an instrument (Apple). I consider myself more of a sound artist than a musician. I create everything in Logic Pro X, with a combination of midi, virtual instruments, field recordings and found sounds, all processed and manipulated within Logic. My favorite sound creators/sources are the Native Instruments Komplete suite, and my trusty iPhone (as recorder). With these basic tools, I can do anything.
Düngfelder deserves a lot of credit for agreeing to engage on this subject. The disc is a fine example of what an adventurous artist can do with a bit of today’s tech.
Vasco da Gama is available on CD and as a digital download.