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Asking questions about the makers of music can be revealing. We often identify and describe music makers in a way that reflects our own values and experiences. In the Western classical music tradition, the composer is often seen as an all-powerful creator. Scholars studying Western music can see some of the concepts of genius and individualism that helped to shape post-Enlightenment European culture by studying the way certain composers are honored and revered.


In many societies throughout the world, composers are not placed on a pedestal and musical “talent” is not believed to be possessed by only a few fortunate souls. For the Kaluli of Papua New Guinea, the songs of birds are expressions of deeply-felt sentiments. Performing these songs is crucial for carrying out a variety of important ceremonies, from weddings to food distribution. In singing these songs, people all take their part in a musical pattern that connects them to the natural world and provides emotional release. Therefore, to get through life—to get through the day—everyone must be some kind of composer or musician. A similar principal is at work among Asian Americans who participate in karaoke singing. In this tradition, the act of participating in the karaoke performance is considered to be more important than how well someone can sing. In learning to replicate beloved popular songs, the individual becomes part of a historical continuum symbolized by the act of repetition.


When first approaching a culture’s music, you might set out to identify who the “musical experts” are, what they do, and how people evaluate their skills and personalities. Among the Mande people of West Africa, experts in speech and song are highly valued as advisors to kings and guardians of history as well as artists. These male artists, known as jaliya (singular, jali) inherit their craft from their fathers. Jalis memorize elaborate genealogies and heroic stories. Before the modern era, they commanded the respect merited by a learned person and had significant duties in the affairs of state. In a nonliterate society, a jali’s performance was once the only way the historical past could be brought in close contact with the living. British rule reduced the wealth and power of the royals and the jalis alike. Yet these performers (seen at weddings and other social occasions) helped the Mande people to retain their music as an important aspect of their culture.


It is also important to ask questions about how these musical experts are regarded. What is daily life like for musicmakers? Are they allowed to make a living at their craft? Are they given special status, or treated like pariahs? In some parts of India, composers and musicians constitute separate castes of people who must endure a lower social status. In a place where music is made not by local citizens but by “outsiders” and “others,” in places where musicians and composers are subject to controls and restrictions, there are key questions to ask about the power relations that shape their lives and their music.


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