Tag: geopolitics

Music and (Social/Cultural) Resilience

Not only is music an important conduit for ecological awareness, it is also a powerful expression of resilience. This final post is anchored in the Caribbean, where music’s ability to instill hope and joy in spite of difficulty is affirmed time and again. Affirming the value of such music within global environmental politics may not be easy, but—if achieved—it might be precisely what we need to turn this proverbial ship around.

“Afro-Cuban dance is the dance of slaves. When they danced, it was their only time to feel free. So they could be a bird, or do a flamenco step and make fun of their owners, or just be in the sea instead of on an island far away from home. It is a dance about being exactly who you want to be in that moment. It has to look, and feel, as natural as the waves.”

So says Javier, the male lead in a film that was so poorly rated that for years I’ve been embarrassed to quote it. In many ways, Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights fell out of my favor by its name alone. But despite this, this quotation is one of the most apt descriptions of Afro-Caribbean music I know.

Resilience is in the bloodstream of people of African descent in the Caribbean. And it is no coincidence that Caribbean musical genres such as reggae and bomba inspire such joy in those who listen to, play, and dance to it. And as Javier implies, this music has always been deeply connected to the patterns and rhythms of nature—which, of course, stand in stark contrast to the oppressive system of plantation slavery which brought so many people to the Caribbean in the first place.

These forms of music and dance have also served as powerful forces for coexistence. Today, they continue to bring people of diverse profiles together to celebrate life, often outdoors in shared public spaces. They have also served to affirm humor, culture, and dignity in the face of a wide host of social, economic, and political challenges. At times, they serve as conduits for grief. And—crucially for the topic of climate change—they underscore the importance of place and shared space, for resilience and solidarity.

Musical practices remind us that community, ecology, and strength can come together through the arts.

In the Caribbean and elsewhere, musical practices—participatory traditions in particular—remind us that community, ecology, and strength can come together through the arts. These are important in any time and place, but now, in this age of climate change, they are indispensable.

Even if we have not memorized the statistics around climate change, we are certainly familiar with them. And we are equally familiar with the images that accompany them. Let’s take sea level rise: news outlets which trade in non-alternative facts tell us that sea level rise is one of the clearest and most disconcerting consequences of climate change. In the coming years, people living on islands and along coastlines are expected to lose their homes. Shocking photos have been taken to illustrate that these losses are already taking place. For many of us “island people,” the mere suggestion that sea level rise could wash away our neighborhoods is too much to handle. As always, I turn to music.

In internationally visible ways, music has been used to mobilize support for disaster relief efforts in the past. For instance: Music for Relief is a nonprofit founded (to my surprise) by Linkin Park in response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. It has since responded to more than 25 natural disasters on four continents, in each case using its position within the music community to raise funds and awareness to aid those affected by these ecological crises. The organization has also planted 1.3 million trees to help mitigate climate change.

Such efforts are wonderful and well publicized, as they should be. Yet mainstream media does not give nearly as much attention to the music of the regions affected by climate change. This puzzles me. If traditions of social and cultural resilience through music have developed for centuries in the “global South,” and if many of these contain deep ecological elements, then why is it that existing global climate politics fail to recognize and mobilize this power?

Music for Relief, a nonprofit founded by Linkin Park, has responded to more than 25 natural disasters on four continents.

Leading global relief institutions such as the Red Cross regularly conduct studies on human resilience in the face of ecological disasters, but music rarely figures into these investigations. We must honor the practices of resilience through the music that exists in our world, and do what we can to support them, so that the world’s people are able to mobilize their formidable musical resources for social and cultural thriving.

Throughout this series, I have highlighted the need for the musical and ecological wisdom of the “global South” to be more deeply recognized within global environmental politics as a whole. As difficult as this can be to talk about, the topic of resilience reflects many of the themes which unify these posts. Here are a few.

In diverse geographies around the world, the connections between music and the environment have long histories and deep implications. Music has been used in countless settings as a means by which humans can attain an intimate relationship not only with each other, but with their natural surroundings. While these practices never originate within or center around international bodies, institutions like the United Nations can play an important role in supporting music-based environmental initiatives. Within universities, international institutions, and community organizations alike, the links between music and the environment can and must be more deeply explored.

As readers know by now, the regions most deeply affected by climate change are (and will continue to be) islands and coastlines. Many of these places possess rich musical and ecological resources which could both reinforce activist initiatives close to home and inspire others to work for climate action as well. Yet in keeping with the geopolitical narratives that most of us grow up with and often internalize, these islands and coastlines are presented as “marginal” places, removed from the centers of power and thus (by some peculiar logic) also removed from the social, cultural, and ecological resources and expertise that are necessary to promote environmental awareness and action. Within the arena of resilience, this disconnect feels particularly unsettling.

In my view, for both music and climate action to thrive together, a “centering” of these so-called “margins” is essential. The living traditions of “music and the Earth” must be respected, humbly supported, and learned from. Musical and ecological wisdom in South Asia, the Caribbean, the Pacific Islands, Africa, and beyond can point the way towards all of the qualities that we must cultivate for truly sustainable living—from listening to collaboration to resilience.

For me, the subject of music and the Earth links directly to a deep conversation about who we are as human beings—what we live for and how we define a peaceful world. If each of these pieces probes these questions just a little bit, then I may fall asleep to the sound of the waves and be content.

Composing Interdependence—Songs Along the Nile

In recent years, transnational musical collaborations have emerged, in which musicians from different countries have joined forces to promote awareness of shared ecological challenges. This article will discuss one such collaboration, the Nile Project, which has brought together musicians from throughout the Nile Delta. I will use this example to briefly discuss the alternative vision that such music can pose to our current, highly unsustainable forms of globalization.

The borders between our futures have never been so porous. Globalization and climate change have already illustrated—with startling clarity—that our wellness depends not only on ourselves and the people around us, but also on the individual and collective actions of people thousands of miles away.

We live in a time of unprecedented ecological change, in which the habits that human beings have developed over the course of the past five hundred years or so, with the advent of industrialization and “modernity,” are manifesting in unpredictable and devastating ways. The present and potential impacts of climate change are greater than any of us can easily take in. Changes in temperature, sea level rise, and disruptions to precious webs of interdependency between the world’s living beings: all of these have implications for our homes and loved ones that we cannot bring ourselves to engage with. We must—and yet we can’t. Some might say that this conundrum lies at the heart of our global inaction on climate change.

Taking action on climate change—especially when we live in places where the powers-that-be have little concern for the issue—can be painful and overwhelming. And in spite of the fact that we have more avenues for communication—and across longer distances—than ever before, we still suffer from a crisis of communication. Do the latest online platforms, like Facebook and WhatsApp, make mindful and empathetic conversation easier? Some would say yes, but I am inclined to say no. Amidst all of the changes that globalization has brought into our lives, it seems that we have not yet figured out how to bring such essentials as dialogue, music, and ecological consciousness into our rapidly expanding array of communications options.

Increased “connectivity” with other human beings seems to be propelled by changes in technology rather than genuine engagement.

Increased “connectivity” with other human beings seems to be propelled by changes in technology rather than genuine engagement. Often, our common ground is based upon the expanding reach of narrow expressions of popular culture, exported from the world’s most powerful centers for commercial media (such as Los Angeles and Mumbai). Wealth is distributed more quickly (though not more equitably) than before, through inscrutable networks of finance based in places such as Singapore and New York. And (some) human bodies are more mobile than ever, traveling on airplanes that emit colossal amounts of carbon. The wealthiest of these people travel from London to Paris to Rome, and vacation in tropical islands whose rainforests and shorelines are threatened by our shared, global disregard for the ramifications of the lifestyles that we endorse. Biodiversity, in all its myriad definitions, is put at risk by the narrative of globalization that we tell ourselves and enact: that we live in a world in which diversity, communication, and an enjoyment of the world’s beauties are more available than ever before. Yet more often than not, this globalization does not translate into new forms of transnational collaboration for environmental awareness.

The above is quite a dismal view of globalization, connection, and culture in our times. However, for the past few years, a group of musicians and educators along the Nile River are offering a new example. The Nile Project is an ambitious project in the best sense of the word. Its stated mission is to “inspire, inform, and connect Nile citizens to help them collaborate on cultivating the sustainability of their river.” The Nile is the second longest river in the world, and it quite literally gives life to eleven African countries. The Nile Project engages with people in every one of these countries—from Egypt to Tanzania to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Bringing people together is not a “side benefit” of the Nile Project. On the contrary, it is its primary goal. Exposure, curiosity, learning, understanding, empathy, trust, and engagement (in that order) are the pillars of the Nile Project. In dramatic contradiction to the dynamics of global environmental politics discussed so far in this series, common humanity is regarded by the Nile Project as the mechanism through which true sustainability takes place.

Common humanity is regarded by the Nile Project as the mechanism through which true sustainability takes place.

As is the case with the connections between music and climate change in general, the precise links between common humanity and sustainability tend not to be explored in the scholarship, media, and everyday attitudes that those of us in the industrialized (or industrializing) world commonly encounter. The brevity of this post does not permit me to elaborate the ways in which our humanity and our ecological futures depend upon each other.

Simply put, however, the qualities that true sustainability requires are the same qualities that form the bedrock of a truly humane society. Sensitivity to the beauty and the needs of others; an ability to engage honestly with friends and strangers, in the interest of a common good; a willingness to learn and test one’s preconceived notions about other people and places; a desire to imagine a future which celebrates and protects the well-being of all life: These qualities are the cornerstones of healthy humans, and a healthy Earth. In the Nile Delta, conflicts over water already take place. Thus, the men and women involved in the Nile Project emphasize the importance of collaboration and mutual understanding for both spiritual and deeply practical reasons: If we are not able to resolve our water conflicts now, they say, how on Earth will we get on when population grows and droughts become more common?

Music offers its answers

Musicians and educators are particularly well suited to carrying out the Nile Project’s mission. It’s no surprise, then, that musicians lead a significant portion of the Project’s initiatives, and also garner a great deal of appreciation and publicity for their efforts. The musical branch (tributary?) of the Nile Project consists of “an expanding collective of artists from the eleven Nile countries, redefining principles of cross-cultural musical collaboration.” It also includes a “series of community choirs applying the same principles across the Nile Basin.”

In the past five years, Nile Project musicians have recorded two albums (one studio and one live), both of which are rich and inspiring expressions of unity in diversity. The artists hail from Uganda, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Egypt (to name a few). Their first album, Aswan, was recorded after ten intensive days of creative collaboration, in which the musicians taught each other their respective musical languages, and then wove together a unified tapestry. They performed this co-created composition in two Egyptian cities—Cairo and Aswan—only four days later. Their second album, Jinja, brought in new musicians from countries such as Burundi, Kenya, and Rwanda. The mood of the album is as varied and wide-reaching as the instruments and styles that created it. For instance, the bluesy opening track, “Inganji” strikes me as a blend of the singer Fatoumata Diawara and the Tuareg ensemble Tinariwen, both from the West (not East) African country of Mali. The track “Tenseo,” meanwhile, sounds closer to the Nile’s Project’s geographic center: a haunting dialogue between the vocal style of Egyptian legend Umm Kulthum, and spare Ethiopian jazz.

Throughout the album, a variety of instruments from across the region—the enanga, a zither native to Uganda and Rwanda; the ikembe, a thumb piano; Ethiopian vocals and Egyptian drums; the adungu, a harp from Uganda—convey the profound human collaborations that were involved in producing the album in the first place.

The Nile Project musicians are currently on tour in the United States. Their itinerary is intense—averaging at one, sometimes two concerts per day. The Nile Project also continues to support ongoing programming closer to home. For instance, they have created a Choir which uses storytelling and song to illustrate some of the region’s most enduring ecological challenges. The Project also offers a Fellowship Program for young people in Nile Basin countries who wish to create “Nile Project Clubs” on their university campuses. In this sense, the Nile Project is both deepening and broadening its scope. And as always, the interconnectivity of the Project’s musicians serves as a powerful sonic metaphor for the sorts of social and cultural collaborations which are necessary for border-crossing, positive change.

Many of us take for granted what we hear about globalization. We assume that the only form which contact across borders can take is economic, commercial, and—in some cases—neo-colonial. Expanded markets, cultural homogenization, and environmental disregard are, unfortunately, some of the hallmarks of the kind of globalization that is popular among the world’s wealthiest. However, other initiatives are taking place which affirm connections across borders in a much more vibrant and sustainable way. As the Nile Project has demonstrated, a dialogue between music and the Earth provides a solid foundation for these alternatives. We would do well to support intersections between music and the environment where they exist, and advocate on their behalf where they are absent.

The international policy landscape that I discussed in my previous post doesn’t allow much space for the sensibilities, or participation, of ecologically minded musicians. By consequence, the avenues for initiatives like the Nile Project to directly inform climate-related political decisions are far and few between. Yet the spirit of this post, as well as the others in this series, is not necessarily to highlight the ways in which music already inspires climate debates, but rather to introduce the possibility that they could do so more deeply. In order for transnational collaborations such as the Nile Project to inspire policy-making, the cooperation of a whole host of professionals—from diplomats to educators to lawyers to the public—is required. A paradigm shift, if you will, is necessary. Globalization and ecology, as expressed through music, must be “written” into the ways in which we talk, write, fear, hope, and converse about the climate landscapes of our day.

Ecological Wisdom, Living Soundscapes

A photo of a boat buoyed at the edge of a river and a the buildings in a town on the other side of that river juxaposed with a photo of a hennaed hand taken at the hilltop Rabari village of Bhadroi.
Affirming nature through music is not a new phenomenon. Cultures around the world have been practicing environment-based music for millennia, and many of these traditions continue to the present day. Using an example that is both ancient and contemporary, I will illustrate how much can be learned from musical traditions which anchor spiritual, romantic, and/or social life in the rhythms of the Earth.

The first post in this series opened with a description of the urban culture of Washington, D.C. Given that D.C. is one of the world’s most powerful political and economic centers, perhaps this is not surprising. Many explorations of social change, whether in writing or in speech, anchor themselves in cities like Washington or New York or Brussels. After all, these are the places in which so many influential decisions (including those related to both cultural policy and climate change) take place. Yet often, discussions about critical topics such as culture and climate do not extend beyond the borders of these cities and the institutions that they house. That is to say, debates about the proper course of action in the face of pressing issues rarely consider the insights that people in other places on Earth have developed over centuries and have enshrined in their social and artistic practices. For instance, while prevailing cultural forces tend to prioritize noisemaking over listening (as was explored in the previous post), there are countless places on Earth which have developed profound cultures of listening. They have affirmed “eco-soundscapes” in which both music and landscapes are approached with mindfulness and appreciation.

There are countless places on Earth which have affirmed “eco-soundscapes” in which both music and landscapes are approached with mindfulness and appreciation.

Our methods of solving global problems (specifically, climate change) sideline musical and ecological wisdom, rendering them neither “advanced” enough, nor “relevant” enough, for the task at hand.

The geopolitics of our time frequently divides the world’s people and ecologies into two categories: “center” and “periphery.” With some exceptions, the “center” is typically understood to include countries in the “global North”: the United States, Canada, parts of Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, as well as active centers of commerce in countries like China and Singapore. Though not all of these places are actually located in the northern hemisphere, they share political and economic characteristics that qualify them as geopolitical “centers.” The “periphery,” by contrast, is comprised by countries in the “global South.” And the label “global South” encompasses pretty much everywhere else: Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Pacific Islands.

In spite of the astonishing ecological and musical diversity that has developed in these enormous swaths of land, political and economic decisions made in the so-called “center” are often premised on the easy assumption that the solutions to global problems are most likely to originate in the “global North.” This assumption is convenient for those making sweeping decisions on tight schedules; perhaps this is how it acquired so much traction in the first place. However, it is wildly problematic for many reasons—not the least of which is that it automatically denies the wisdom that has developed in the global South, and continues to define the worldviews and lifestyles of millions, if not billions, of the world’s people.

The world of global environmental politics is not particularly appreciative of the musics of the “periphery”—or of music in general, for that matter. The overarching framework which governs climate-related decision making on a global scale has recently come under criticism for several reasons. All of these reasons are relevant to those of us who believe in the power of music to mitigate environmental crisis.

First, technology seems to rule the roost in climate negotiations. Many high-level decision-makers assume that technology will provide the solutions to most, if not all, of our climate-related concerns. The tech wizards of today have developed solutions to many seemingly intractable problems; surely, then, they can solve our ecological challenges. This emphasis on technology tends to sideline arts and culture, distracting both policy makers and the public from the power that arts and culture often have to inspire, comfort, and unify people in the face of shared challenges. Music, of course, is one of humanity’s most ubiquitous artistic and cultural phenomena. Climate change, I argue, is humanity’s greatest challenge. That the two rarely come together in high-level negotiations is more than a little unsettling.

Second, much of climate-related problem solving in the “centers” is premised on a certain conception of science. (Though often, as we are seeing now, even science itself is discredited by our most powerful leaders—but this topic is too unreal for this particular post.) The methods and metrics of “Western” science are seen as more valid forms of environmental insight than, for instance, traditional ecological knowledge systems that have been maintained for centuries by societies around the world. Many of these knowledge systems incorporate music, with ecologically derived instruments, compositions, and performance norms reinforcing the links between humans and the eco-soundscapes which surround us. These two cultural characteristics—ecologically minded resource management and ecologically minded music—accompany each other too frequently to be mere coincidence. Though these connections are rarely probed by mainstream music lovers, they exist and could possibly yield essential insights if observed.

These features of global environmental politics marginalize ecological knowledge in the global South and music in general. This is unfortunate, because when these two come together, we find some of the wisest expressions of both sustainability and musical culture in existence.

Take, for instance, Vedic chants. Vedic chanting is an oral tradition from the Indian subcontinent. Composed in Sanskrit, the Vedas constitute the earliest body of Sanskrit literature, as well as the oldest Hindu scriptures. Vedic chanting is often considered the oldest unbroken oral tradition in existence. And it is a living tradition, as relevant and sacred to the world’s Hindus as it ever was.

One of the most acclaimed albums of Vedic chants in recent history is Chants of India, directed and arranged by Ravi Shankar and produced by George Harrison. In an interview several years later with Krista Tippett, Ravi Shankar’s daughter Anoushka Shankar (who also worked on the album) discussed the relationship between these ancient chants and the natural world. She explains that most Hindu gods—to and for which these chants are typically sung—are connected to natural elements such as water, fire, or earth. She goes on to say that “om,” the primordial sacred sound, is supposed to contain “the full power of the universe.” These features of Vedic chants are not merely points of conceptual interest. On the contrary, they are inseparable from the actual vibrations that are produced by this music. This music has been engaged in the practice of attaining harmony with the universe from the very beginning. We might say, then, that this tradition comes to us today with thousands of years of ecological nuance in its history.

Here we see that if we celebrate the ways in which music and ecological knowledge have co-evolved in our world, then this could open up not only a new policy arena in the world of climate change. It might allow us, for instance, to broaden our conversation about how ecological awareness might be promoted to a wider public. At present, most people associate climate awareness with statistics and photographs too sad to recount. But ecologically oriented music could inspire the artistically and culturally minded among us to participate in a wider process of consciousness raising, with creative possibilities we may not have considered before.

The resonances between music and ecology also create space for a new worldview. This worldview affirms the capacity of art, and humanity, to generate the insights required to change our unsustainable lifestyles at their foundations. With all due respect to technology and Western science, I believe that wisdom, a change of heart, and cultural joy are required in order to turn this proverbial boat around.

Centers of power need to recognize the cultural expertise (ecological and musical) contained within societies in the global South.

In my view, the lesson to be learned from this is that centers of power need to recognize the cultural expertise (ecological and musical) contained within societies in the global South, and defer to their leadership in the world of climate mitigation—particularly its social dimensions. Amplifying the message of organizations and collectives that are currently affirming these connections (one of which will be explored in the next post), and doing everything in our power to ensure that they have the resources and global platforms necessary to continue their work, are possible ways to support such leadership.

Because in all honesty, which is a more enlivening expression of humanity’s power and beauty: a morning raga or one of those diagrams depicting how geo-engineering is supposed to work?

I, for one, have my answer ready in case policy makers ask. And I hope they will.