Music Research Institute

What is intercultural music and who are its practitioners?   

Excerpt from the "Introduction" to Intercultural Music Volume 1 ed. by Cynthia Tse Kimberlin and Akin Euba. 1995:2-5

It would be useful here to attempt a broader definition of interculturalism. Intercultural music is that in which elements from two or more cultures are integrated. The composer of this music usually belongs to one of the cultures from which the elements are derived, but this does not necessarily have to be the case. Indeed, this type of intercultural activity is thematic, being inherent in the music itself and , therefore, the origin of the composer is irrelevant to the definition. There is another type of intercultural creative activity in which the origin of the composer is the determining factor. A composer writing in an idiom acquired from a culture other than his or her own is involved in an intercultural activity, even though the music that he or she produces is not necessarily intercultural. For example, when an African composer writes a fugue in the style of Bach, in which he or she makes no use of African resources, intercultural activity takes place but the music itself is not intercultural.

In some instances, intercultural activity takes place even though both composer and all elements featured in his or her work are derived from the same culture. The music of Bartok, in which elements of Hungarian folk music are employed, comes under this category. In Europe, folk culture has become a 'foreign' or archaic entity and there is a good argument for treating the folk and art music cultures of a given European society as two separate entities. Furthermore, the act of extracting folk elements from their local ethnic or social context and placing them in an international context where they have relevance for people outside the indigenous society is a fundamental aspect of interculturalism.

Intercultural activity does not always imply creativity but can be determined by performance. In this case, the music and the performer originate from different cultures. The mastery of Western music by Asian artists (and vice versa) is an example of this category.

The flowering of brilliant executants of Western art music from Japan, India, Korea and other parts of Asia in recent decades demonstrates one of the most important principles of musical interculturalism, namely, that talent is congenital while idiom is learnt. In spite of achievements of Asian artists in Western art music, there are those (even among scholars) who continue to maintain musical expertise is bound by indigenous cultural norms. Such persons assert, for examples, that Africans could never master Western techniques and should confine themselves to African traditional music! In combating such narrow-mindedness, Blacking suggested (with reference to arts education in the United Kingdom, one of the most intercultural of contemporary societies) that "it is necessary for children to hear a piano recital by a Jamaican or an Indian and a sitar recital by an English person, if only to demonstrate the individuality and transcendental universality of the arts."1

Although it is not known when the expression intercultural music was first used, other scholars, notably Max Peter Baumann, Everett Helm and Margaret Kartomi have used this or related terms.2

In the course of the 20th century, intercultural activity has been facilitated by (a) scholarly interest in musical composition and performance from cross-cultural perspectives (b) advances in technology and communication and (c) various historical events affecting peoples and their cultures. The series, of which this volume is the first, is devoted to modern intercultural music in its global context. The book includes historical references and also focuses on issues common to intercultural music, such as the processes and products of musical creativity and performance practices. Examples if intercultural music produced during the last half of the 20th century are also discussed.

The authors of the articles contained in this volume represent diverse backgrounds and, therefore, their works should be examined not only as individual entitles but also in the context of past and current political ideologies of the respective countries discussed therein. Whether their governments advocate a form of monarchy, dictatorship, democracy or republic, these environments reflect biases which are not necessarily universally embraced by governments and individuals.

Although intercultural music is defined and shaped by musical, contextual, historical and ideological factors, not all authors use the term. Is this because the term is already understood by the society? Is it meant to convey a sense of musical interaction occurring on many levels? Or is it because it is only now becoming documented globally on a comparative basis? From the presentations and discussions among Symposium participants, we found four factors which appear to be common to those who articulate intercultural music. Composers, performers, teachers and scholars of intercultural music:

  • value highly intimate knowledge and understanding of creative and performance processes of other cultures;3 these can be achieved by synthesizing indigenous and foreign 4 compositional processes and techniques; analysing music and music making processes; participating in musical performances; collaborating with other scholars, musicians and composers from other cultures; and by becoming bi-musical, 5 which is fundamental to understanding one's own as well as other musical cultures;
  • maintain integrity of their indigenous value systems while utilizing musical elements, processes and techniques from other cultures to expand their modes of expression for the creation and performance of new music;
  • advocate holistic approaches to teaching musics of specific cultures involving methodologies applicable to diverse groups of students from different backgrounds, having different objectives and who may be unfamiliar with the philosophical and social norms of the cultures whose musics they seek to learn;
  • consider extra-musical contextual factors in determining cross-cultural approaches to musical analysis and in defining ethnic norms. For example, government policy, fringe political groups, media accessibility, marketing strategies, and interaction between philosophical and artistic expression, in part, dictate the boundaries of intercultural music.

Intercultural music includes all types of musics: the traditional and contemporary, popular and art, and range from those musics with mass appeal to the very esoteric. In view of the nature of intercultural music and the fact that we want each article to be judged on its own merit, we are concerned about terms referring to musics of particular cultures as 'music of Third World countries' or 'ethnic music' which tend to imply a schism that simply does not exist. Unfortunately the idea of separateness or marginalization still persists whenever these terms are used because they create a dual tier system. If they must be used, it should be done with caution, to clarify a point or in specific contexts. Thus, we felt compelled to delete these terms unless they promoted greater understanding of the author's particular perspective.

Previous publications written in English about the music of one culture influencing another, often gave greater significance to European and American contributions to African and Asian musics, or Africa and Asian contributions to European and American musics. Today, because of access to all kinds of information world-wide, one can witness increasing numbers of studies dealing with musical influences between African and Asian cultures and among cultures within a single locality, region or country. 

1  John Blacking, Culture and the Arts. Take-Up Series No. 4 London: National Association for Education in the Arts, 1986:17. For a more detailed discussion of interculturalism, see Akin Euba, Essays on Music in Africa 2: Intercultural Perspectives. Lagos and Bayreuth: Elekoto Music Centre and Bayreuth African Studies Series, 1989.

2  Baumann, Director of the International Institute for Comparative Music Studies and Documentation, Berlin, instituted a new book series in 1990 entitled Intercultural Music Studies. Currently five volumes have been published representing themes and approaches that are global and/or comparative. Helm's book, Music and Tomorrow's Public: An Intercultural Survey, is "international and Intercultural in scope from the start, MTP-3 was conceived as being world-wide and multi-cultural in scope". The book is not the result of research in a specific field or subject but an overall picture of music and musical activities relevant to the world today that will affect the future of musical practice and dissemination (New York/Wilhelmshaven: Heinrichshofen, 1981:xi). Under Kartomi as Symposium Director, the 1988 Symposium of the International Musicological Society and Festival of Music in Melbourne Australia, was organized around three themes Sixteen separate paper sessions were devoted to theme 2, on "cultural Interaction Through Music", which focused on case studies and theoretical investigations covering a wide range of geographical and subject areas (Symposium Newsletter, August 1987). 

3  The term 'culture' may refer either to the specific or the general. 

4  'Foreign' merely means outside one's own culture and does not necessarily refer to Western music. 

5  The term 'bi-musical' can also be interpreted as 'multi-musical' if one considers cultural differences including those from within specific cultural and geographical boundaries as well as those outside these boundaries.


[Home] [About Us]  [Intercultural Music]   [MRI Press]   [Publications]  [Purchasing Options]   [Distributor]   [Events]   [Memoriam]   [Contact]