Cultural Borrowing

I take a martial arts class a couple of times a week. One of the things we do in there is Kali. Most people use plain rattan sticks. Some people tape the ends so they wear out more slowly. One of the advanced students has one stick made out of a different material: maybe rubber or plastic? So most strikes sound similar but with timbral variability, then the one stick stands out when it strikes.

I really love listening to the advanced students drill. When they all show up, there are multiple pairs of them doing drills. And different drills have different rhythms. Different pairs go at different speeds. And of course they do different drills in different orders and start and stop the various drills at different times. The way the sounds interact is really amazing. Sometimes I think I want to write a piece for Kali and electronics, but I’m not sure how I feel about the cultural borrowing and making it into a spectacle. But I think there should be a piece every time they practice.

This and the ink brush micro-composition I wrote the other day have got me thinking about cultural borrowing. I’m sure there’s tons of academic literature on the topic of whether cultural borrowing is good, bad, or indifferent; what it means to culturally borrow; and all the nuances of what can make it affirming rather than horribly insensitive. But I don’t know that literature. I’m vaguely cognizant that cultural borrowing is inevitable, some people find it offensive while others find it affirming, and what makes people who feel their culture is being appropriated perceive it as negative or positive is really complicated.

Sometimes I see cultural borrowing and it feels like exoticism and it rubs me the wrong way. Some things feel like respectful borrowing. And some things that some people might consider borrowing don’t feel like borrowing at all. In a multicultural society, when has something just permeated the dominant culture to the point where it’s not borrowing? Is it no longer problematic if I feel cultural ownership of something?

It’s funny that I find myself concerned with cultural borrowing as I write music but not when I take my martial arts class. Is this because I feel more responsibility as a cultural producer than as a cultural consumer? I have primarily been exposed to these concerns in the context of academic music, so it’s possible I’ve been trained to notice any whiff of cultural borrowing in music but I ignore it when it occurs elsewhere.

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