Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Mapping the Meanings of Dance Music

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Mapping the Meanings of Dance Music

Article excerpt

Caspar Melville [*]

By adapting global music trends, are young people dancing on the graves of their cultures or building new hybrid identities?

In the black townships around Johannesburg, South Africa, a new music culture is taking hold among youth. In the small clubs and storefront shebeens of these impoverished dormitory towns, young people are eschewing the government-sanctioned "authentic" music of Afro-jazz bands in favour of recorded sound. Just as Jamaican sound system operators back in the 1950s or South Bronx hip-hop DJs in the mid-1970s discovered, two turntables, a mixer and a microphone (made in Japan), a supply of vinyl records (pressed in Europe or the U.S.) and a competent DJ are all that is required to get the party rockin' until dawn.

Local eruptions of globalised "club culture" frustrate simplistic notions of authenticity (shouldn't Africans listen to African music?) or attempts to wrest a definitive meaning from youth culture (linked so often to music). The township kids have punctured and deflated the over-simplified analysis often surrounding Afro-diasporic music. In many cases, paths are traced from African origin--the music's "authentic roots" -- through to its re-articulation ("whitening") or commodification ("sell out") by greedy corporations based in the modern Western metropolis. That argument falls apart in places like the townships, where youth adopt music with Afro-diasporic roots (house music was born in the black-latino urban gay clubs of the U.S.) but routed through the cities of northern Europe. For these young people, it represents a highly valued link to the West--much as their heavily logoed jeans and baseball caps function as status symbols. But is their rejection of Afro-jazz for Euro-house a subtle form of reverse a ppropriation (whereby kids have adopted the music as their own) or merely bad faith (a rejection of their culture)? Music scenes like these are far too sophisticated to fit into the cramped confines of binary (either/or) analysis.

Instead of delivering easy answers, these music scenes raise critical questions: is globalisation a sign of the world's unification or cultural imperialism? Is this embryonic youth culture just another example of one-way globalisation--vinyl singles being exported from the First World to the Third along with Coca-Cola, designer jeans and other markers of conspicuous consumption, in the endless cycle of seduction and exploitation? Or is this the story of creative adaptation--youth as cultural bricoleur, mixing and matching symbols of prestige to create their own, autonomous subculture? Township DJs play house records at around 90 beats per minute (bpm), far slower than the 130 bpm pace preferred by the European audience. The reduced speed turns the propulsive, hectic "banging" into a glutinous and out-of-focus funkdub, more in keeping with the drinking culture of South Africa than the drug-induced speed of European scenes. With a flick of a pitch control, black youth resignify and re-claim a Europeanised form of "black" (Afro-American) music.

Replacing rock

Are these young South Africans building new hybrid identities or dancing at the funeral of their own cultural traditions? As Jeff Chang notes in his assessment of hip-hop (see p.23), it is never clear whether youth music cultures "reflect a hybrid youth rebellion or capitulation to global capitalism."

Therein lies the great promise, as well as the central dilemma, for academic analyses of youthmusic cultures, particularly "dance" or electronic music (house music and its derivatives), which has arguably replaced rock as the most globally significant popular form. Whether it is Detroit techno in Birmingham, trance in Goa (see p.51) or funk in Rio de Janeiro, there is no single theory to explain the meaning of dance music scenes. We simply cannot resolve the youth rebellion/commercial co-optation couplet once and for all.

Caribbean social theorist Stuart Hall reminds us (taking as a given the unequal distribution of wealth in a world "structured in dominance") that the basic principle of popular culture is contradiction, and that there can be no guarantee that the "meanings" encoded into cultural products (TV ads or records) will be those "decoded" by the audience. …

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