A recent Guardian article on the politics of Eurovision (based on this study) reported that
countries with high levels of support for populist, radical right parties voted more for songs from other countries that featured what the authors call “ethno-traditional” cues.
At first this may confuse the “Guardian-reading tofu-eating wokerati”, many of whom are doubtless devotees of “world music” in some form. But while traditional cultures, the world music scene, and Eurovision may not always be clearly distinguishable, they are not congruent; moreover, the agendas of ethnomusicologists may differ from those of performers and audiences in the societies concerned—among whom there’s a wide spectrum of tastes, amidst widely differing political contexts.
Béla Bartók recording Slovak folk singers, 1907.
The music of “the folk” has long been regarded as a counterpart to elite culture. As Bruno Nettl observes (The study of ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions, p.406, under “Diversity and difference”), academic research tends to champion diversity, speaking out for neglected minorities. But one finds an overlap between nationalism and liberation from empires on one hand, and regional pride or Kumbaya-esque world music fusion on the other, with the lines often blurred. Nettl (p.435, under “Trying to make peace”) also observes the role of music in national and ethnic conflicts for contexts such as sporting events, political rallies, and wars.
Michael Church’s Musics lost and found makes a convenient survey. In the early days of collection, folklore was often conscripted to nationalist goals, as in east Europe (see e.g Fiddles and racism). In Franco’s Spain (Musics lost and found, pp.124–5), the culture of sub-groups (Galician, Catalonian, Basque) was downplayed; while flamenco seems to have been largely exempt, in Portugal fado was linked to fascism.
While the political allegiances of local communities may be hard to discern, in the USA and Britain the folk scene has long been associated with the left. In England, the “Christian socialist” Cecil Sharp was followed by a succession of left-leaning collectors and performers. But quite apart from the socialist heritage of British folk music, the Last Night of the Proms has become a focus of Brexit nostalgia. In the States, the Lomaxes were joined by singers like Woody Guthrie and Peggy Seeger; folk was the soundtrack for post-war protests. (In rock music, also commonly assumed to be anti-establishment, there’s a similar unease when ageing rock stars turn out reactionary—see e.g. here).
Modern nation-states have adopted a prescriptive, and proscriptive, stance towards their indigenous peoples. A classic case is the Chinese regime’s portrayals of its ethnic minorities, notably the Uyghurs (e.g. here) and Tibetans (e.g. Sister drum, and How *not* to describe 1950s’ Tibet). Within the socialist bloc around east Europe, whose heirs are perhaps the main breeding-ground for the ethno-trad movement, there was considerable resistance to state fakelore (tellingly evoked by Milan Kundera in The joke).
So besides the winning Eurovision entries of Ukraine, we can’t celebrate the Buranovo Babushki so innocently:
On one hand, the Eurovision voting blocs may regard each other as allies; on the other, beyond the media bubble, Brexiteers are not renowned for their enthusiasm for Balkan turbo-funk; and Greek-Turkish fusion is unlikely to feature on playlists of the far-right denizens of those countries. The Guardian article comments:
The populist radical right tends to be associated with very national narratives, a kind of inward-looking, nativist defence of domestic cultural traditions against the modernising, homogenising influence of globalisation.
This seems a worthy agenda—but Nettl’s comment that “ethnomusicology values a cultural mosaic, rather than forcing everyone into a melting pot” needs unpacking too. While regional diversity indeed tends to undermine narrow nationalist agendas, whatever one feels about the world-music fusion scene, it can lead to another kind of homogenizing grey-out (cf. the “Rough Guides phenomenon”, and Songlines).
However inconclusive, the Eurovision analysis makes a reminder that different performers and audiences will attribute different meanings to music (see e.g. Terylene).
For more on Eurovision, click here and here. See also Critiques of artistic competition.