Musical Imperialism

By Dr. Tran Van Khê


This article is reprinted from Unesco Courier, June 1973*

     Almost all the countries of Asia, Africa, Oceania and Latin America are non-industrial societies. In all these countries, as in certain strata or societies in Western countries, music for the workers who constitute the great mass of the population, is not simply entertainment, a source of spiritual satisfaction, or an art cultivated for its own sake, but is closely interwoven with everyday work and life.

Professional musicians and music lovers approach music more as an art form, clothing it in theory and relating it to a certain world outlook or philosophy. Yet both for this elite and for the ordinary people, music remains bound up with social and religious functions.

Music rocks babies to sleep, and children use music in their games. It helps the laborer forget how hard his work is, it is "the food of love" and a balm for hurt bodies and minds. It sees the dead on their way and consoles the living. It provides an accompaniment to all the operations of the farming calendar, the ploughing, harrowing, sowing, planting, harvesting and threshing and the husking and grinding of the rice.

Ancient GamelanGamelan

[ missing line here …Contrary to the elite classes,] among the mass of the people, music is not an art pursued for the sake of art, but is present at all the important events of life - birth and betrothals, weddings and funerals. Farmers and craftsmen each have their own repertoire and music is present at all rural and seasonal festivities, at ceremonies to ward off misfortune, to placate evil spirits or thank the tutelary gods and guardian spirits.

Such music is usually vocal, sometimes with the accompaniment of simple but ingenious folk instruments, which provide the melody or the rhythm. It is anonymous and orally transmitted, and each performer has the right to imprint his own character upon it. Performers arc for the most part workers or semiprofessionals.

Being essentially functional, this music differs from that practiced as an art by professional musicians and connoisseurs who use more elaborate instruments, more complex vocal and instrumental techniques and more varied scales, and who have richer repertoires.

Music of this kind, seen as an art form, may have its origins in the music of the people, but differs from it in its artistic level and its function. As it is more sophisticated, it is harder to learn, and those who spend years learning it must either be able to make a living from it or be rich enough to regard it as a pastime.


Colonial maestros

In the nineteenth century, after attempting to conquer the countries of Asia and Africa by the "peaceful" method of converting the population to Christianity, the Western powers tried to overrun them by force of arms.

[ missing line here … ] independence, while others came under foreign economic control.

The vast majority of the population in the countries which thus fell under colonial rule consisted of country folk - landless peasant tenant-farmers, agri cultural workers at the mercy of landowners and moneylenders - deeply attached to the traditions of their ancestors.

Craftsmen, tradesmen and petty Officials belonged to the "middle class", forming a moneyed and partly westernized bourgeoisie. The introduction of capitalist production methods created a proletariat which worked in the mines, factories, mills and plantations. All these political and, social upheavals brought about profound changes in the musical life of the non-industrial societies. Some kinds of music fell into disuse or disappeared altogether.


Science and technology have done away with certain backbreaking jobs, but at the same time many work songs have disappeared or are about to do so. With the advent of power-driven ploughs, machines to husk the rice and modern irrigation systems, the old songs that used to accompany these operations are no longer heard. As steamboats replace sampans, canoes or sailing craft, the songs of the boatmen will become a thing of the past.

The development of science and medicine has spelt the end of the old "superstitions" in many countries. People now prefer to go to the doctor rather than the witch-doctor when they are ill, and the incantations for healing the sick, driving out devils and communicating with spirits are beginning to disappear.

Transistor radios have now penetrated even into very remote areas, and the peasants and shepherds who can now listen to music, at home are not in any hurry to go to the marketplace to listen to strolling singers, just as city dwellers are no longer so easily drawn to concerts or plays when they have television at home. Listening to the ''new" music put out by the broadcasting stations, country folk tend to imitate an urban style of singing, particularly that of well-known singers or musicians.

The worst thing about this situation is that young country folk are deterred by the "new" music composed by young people under western influences   [missing line here … ] traditional styles.

In contact with city-dwellers and listening to "arranged", "harmonized" versions of folk music, they adopt a new repertoire composed by young musicians who are often unaware of their own traditions and have merely picked up a few rudiments of western-style composition, modeling their style on that of popular songs. Creative talent and the artistic level of folk music are everywhere in decline.

Several musical genres have indeed disappeared. Chinese. Korean and Vietnamese court music is dying out now the courts themselves have gone. It is performed only on very special occasions, e.g. for national holidays, for receiving ambassadors, for groups of tourists, etc. Confucian temple music is no longer played in China and Vietnam and is only heard in Seoul and Taipei, where societies for the preservation of musical traditions have attempted to save them. The old ceremonies are no longer performed in Confucian temples.

In Iran, the ta'ziya, a historical and religious spectacle comparable with the medieval passion-plays, showing the martyrdoms of the Imams (legitimate successors to Mohammed), is no longer performed in the big towns, with the exception of Shiraz, where it was presented during the international festivals of 1967 and 1970. The custom lingers on in the countryside but the plays are no longer performed with the same spontaneity as of old.

In Mauritania today, the character of the griot has greatly changed. Michel Guignard, author of Music, Honneur et Plalsir au Sahara, writes in this connection that they are becoming less and less the minstrels and familiars of the nobilitiy. Anyone can now go and listen to them on the radio. They therefore reach a wider audience with tastes and needs different from those of the minority whom they formerly served.

Similarly, the expert Hugo Zemp writes that now that the traditional way of life of the chiefs of the Senufo of the Ivory Coast has gone into decline, or has completely vanished as a result of changing political conditions, the flute orchestra has lost its raison d'etre.

In Morocco, the Near East, India and Cambodia, all observers emphasize that modern life and the intrusion of modern technology deprive folk-art of new subject matter and dry up the wellsprings of musical inspiration.

The New Music

A new music is appearing everywhere, often as the result of the "acculturation" of traditional music, a process which is no less prejudicial to tradition than the disappearance of the old musical genres. "Acculturation" is a modern term signifying the adoption by a given people of a culture other than its own, but the phenomenon is by no means new.

Japan adopted Chinese music of the T’ang dynasty, Korean music and cham music in the ninth century, and the result was the Togaku, Komagaku and Ringyagaku styles of Japanese court music (Gagaku). Vietnam not only assimilated the Chinese tradition but also the Indian, through the intermediary of the ancient Indian-infulenced civilization of the Champa kingdom while North Indian music was influenced by the music of Islam.


In the last few centuries, it has been primarily the encounter between western music and the traditional music of the non-industrial societies which has caused the most profound upheaval in the latter.

The causes of acculturation are many. In the beginning, it may be a praiseworthy desire to learn something new, a desire for progress, which incites musicians to do something different from their masters or predecessors, to give their music a personal stamp. When they had to rely on their own resources, change was slow; when they came into contact with neighboring countries, more significant changes occurred. Acculturation is the product of contact between peoples and civilizations, combined with the attraction of novelty.

Contact between countries with the same culture is very fruitful─ consider the impact of Chinese music, particularly of the T’ang dynasty (eighth–ninth centuries) on Japanese music, of T’ang and Sung (tenth-eleventh centuries)music on Korean music, and of Ming dynasty (fourteenth-sxiteenth centuries). Thai music owed a great deal to the Khmer tradition and the instruments of the p’piphat orchestra of Thailand are the same as those in the bas-reliefs of Angkor. Turkish, Arab and Persian musicians all paid allegiance to the same musical theorists.

Above all, the encounter with the West has engendered hybrid musical forms. Africa and the East have followed the western lead and some have ascribed this to the superiority of western music. The colonial peoples tried to imitate those who dominated them by the superiority of their technology, in the belief that their culture too must be equally superior, and ended up confusing progress and modernization with westernization

Lastly, the development of such media. As radio, television and records speeds the process of acculturation even more. Transistors and records have reached even the remotest villages. Under constant musical attack from all sides, young people today are drawn and fascinated by this easy-to-write, easy-to-play, easy-to-remember music, and no longer have the patience to spend years of their lives learning the traditional music. They need only learn to play a few chords on the Spanish guitar and after six months they can accompany themselves singing the western-style songs written by their compatriots. Those who fall in with the fashion of the day may become radio, television or recording stars and get rich quick.

The development of communications has also made it easier for musicians to travel. Some Oriental virtuosi, who have given concerts in the West have been impressed by symphony orchestras arid returned home with the idea of writing concertos for a traditional instrument and symphony orchestra. The result is hybrid music.

Etymologically, the words hybrid or hybridization are not pejorative. As biological terms, they refer to the crossing of different species or even different varieties of the same species. In everyday speech, a hybrid is something in which two elements of different nature are artificially combined. Applied to language, to art or music, the, term implies a certain disdain.

At the Shiraz seminar on Asian Music in 1968 and again at the Congress of the International Music Council in New York, I suggested that there were two distinct sorts of hybridization.

Firstly, there is the sort which impoverishes, which sometimes destroys the national character of one of the two traditions involved, which is what happens in most cases when the music of the East or of Africa comes into contact with western music. Oriental or African musicians accompany songs based on particular tonalities on a piano tuned to an equally tempered scale, or use clarinets, saxophones and even electric guitars to perform traditional music, playing common chords or arpeggios to punctuate the musical phrases of traditional music. Hybridization in such cases is detrimental because it tries to apply the instruments and style of one tradition to another tradition with which they are incompatible.

On me other hand, there have been cases of beneficial hybridization, where the borrowing of foreign elements has led to a new flowering of a particular tradition. This was what happened when the music of Northern India came into contact with the Islamic tradition, when Japanese court music was enriched by the influence of T’ang dynasty Chinese music, Korean and cham music, and when Vietnamese music assimilated both the Chinese and Indian traditions.

The effect is beneficial because the elements borrowed are compatible with the original tradition.

Can we reverse the trend?

Acculturation has reached epidemic proportions and caused havoc among the musical traditions of the non-industrial societies, because instead of borrowing from the West new and constructive elements such as would lend new vigor to their own musical traditions, Asians and Africans have borrowed elements which are incompatible with the basic principles of their traditional music.

Acculturation is a universal phenomenon. What we must try to do is to turn the potentially destructive forces involved into constructive forces. The problem appears to me to be one of incompatibility and compatibility. Whereas the combining of compatible elements produces a successful "graft" the incompatibility of the elements concerned causes '''rejection"'.

A very thorough knowledge of one's own national culture and the culture from which the elements are to be borrowed is needed in order to avoid "rejection". Unfortunately, the leading exponents of the traditional music, aloof in their ivory towers and blinded by their own superiority complexes, refuse to allow change and in many cases are unfamiliar with any tradition other than their own, which they consider to be the only valid one.

Young people, on the other hand, are only interested in western music, the only form they consider valid, the music of their own country being regarded as mere "folklore". Thus neither the traditional musicians nor the young are capable of distinguishing which elements are compatible and which are incompatible and thus avoiding a type of acculturation which is prejudicial to their traditions.

In many countries, the new music corresponds to a new need, the need to sing together at mass gatherings. It has thus made its own contribution to the awakening of national consciousness and to preparing the peoples of those countries for the national liberation struggle, and has hence fulfilled its historical mission. In. most cases, however, such music leaves a great deal to be desired from the artistic point of view.


Several young musicians have studied composition in the conservatories of Europe and America and have adopted the western musical idiom once and for all. The general public is not yet receptive to their music, but at the same time it has lost interest in traditional music, which now only has a minority audience. Private concerts are given less and less frequently, while radio, television and records plug the new, heavily westernized music.

I do not agree with the fatalistic argument that traditional music is dying and must soon disappear to make way for another type of music, which, though perhaps less authentic, is more in keeping with the needs of modern society.

The traditional music of the non-industrial societies is not "dying"; it may be sick, but the thing to do with a sick man is not to kill him off or to let him die without trying to cure his sickness. The present trouble may turn out to be nothing more than growing pains—if proper steps are taken straight away.

The rebirth—-not the survival—of musical traditions is, needless to say, a problem, which requires primarily a national solution. The cultural and educational organizations, public and private, and the governments of Asia and Africa could improve the teaching of traditional music, raise the standard of living of traditional musicians and reorganize national musical life.

Western countries could, however, help us in our task of rescuing our musical heritage, by showing an interest in our authentic traditional music.

Performers of such music who have been invited to give concerts in western countries enjoy greater prestige among their compatriots.

The International Music Council and International Institute for Comparative Music Studies and Documentation have not only helped the western public to appreciate Asian music at its true worth but have also helped to restore the confidence of masters of the art of traditional music in Asia.


Tran Van Khê is not only a specialist on Asian music but an accomplished performer himself. He comes from a Vietnamese family that has produced several generations of musicians and has an extraordinary knowledge of Asian musical instruments. He at present directs the Centre for the Study of Oriental Music at the Sorbonne's Institute of Musicology in Paris. He also heads a research team at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, also in Paris, and is a member of the Uncsco- sponsorcd International Music Council. For his recordings and commentaries on Vietnamese music he was awarded the Grand Prix de 1'Acadcmiu dcs Disqucs Francais in 1960 and 1970 and the Deutscher Schallplatten Preis (1969).

*NOTE: This article was taken from a very tattered xerox, made about 30 years ago. A few lines of type were not readable, but I found the article so valuable that i felt it worthwhile in transcribing it. Bracketed areas "[ ]" indicated where the original text has been lost.