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December 27, 2009

Secret Archives publicity artwork

Orientalism is a term used to describe the imitation or depiction of aspects of Eastern cultures in the West by writers, designers and artists. Some would include musicians. Since the 19th century, ‘orientalist’ has been the term for a scholar of Oriental Studies, Orientalism is more widely used to refer to the works of French artists in the 19th century, who used elements from their travels to North Africa or the Middle East in their art.

In the 20th century, Palestinian scholar Edward Said wrote a very influential book, Orientalism, which uses the term to describe a pervasive Western practice, both academic and artistic, of prejudiced outsider interpretations of the East. He sees this as rooted in the arogant attitudes of European imperialism in the 18th and 19th centuries. Edward Said thought of orientalism as a collection of false assumptions supporting Western attitudes toward the East. He saw a ‘subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arabo-Islamic peoples and their culture.’ He thought that the tradition of false, romantic, images of Asia and the Middle East in Western culture had served as an implicit justification for Europe and American colonial and imperial ambitions. He believed that much western study of Islamic civilization was political intellectualism for the purpose of self-affirmation rather than objective study. It’s a form of racism and a tool of imperialism. The history of European colonialism distorts the writings of even the most knowledgeable, well-meaning and sympathetic Western Orientalists. Edward Said transformed the term Orientalist into a pejorative.

Secret Archives of the Vatican – Journeys Across Deserts by Vince Millett

Now, the man certainly had a point. I’ve seen many old orientalist paintings with their obsession with bare-breasted denizens of harems in a fantasy, overly mystical, east. However, ultimately I come down on the other side of the argument. Many orientalist artists were people who travelled to the east, fell in love with the land, the culture, the people, the art, the music and simply expressed that in their own creative endeavours. They weren’t necessarily evil oppressors and I don’t think supporting colonialism necessarily crossed their minds.

They did live, however, in colonialist times and operated within colonialist structures and economies. Which brings me to the current day. Colonialism and oppression have certainly not ceased but (other than with the USA) maybe such relationships between nations are more often expressed in economic and cultural domination rather than naked military involvement. So, is there such a thing as musical orientalism and, if there is, is it exploitative? Does its existence matter?

As we say on our website: The Politically Correct may (predictably) claim that what we do is neo-colonialist cultural appropriation. No; just as other artists in the Global Beats scene (such as Talvin Singh and Nitin Sawnhey) grew up exposed to many cultures and created their own sound, we make music from our collective experiences, travels and training. Who are the Politically Correct to tell anyone what they shouldn’t do? We ignore them.

Secret Archives of the Vatican – Rock The Howdah by Vince Millett

Secret Archives publicity artwork

The modern world is such that new technologies have made the flow of cultural expressions truly global. Indeed, people move around the world more freely than at any time in history and bring their musical cultures with them. There are more people in my country with their roots in the Indian subcontinent than in the North American subcontinent, for example, yet the US dominates my culture. As far as I’m concerned, when we use tablas or other Indian instrumentation or tuning systems in our music we are not doing anything exotic. It is part of the true culture of our city and is not colonialist appropriation. Also, I and the other members of the Secret Archives have travelled or lived in various nations; music drawing from our own experiences is artistically valid and honest. For example, we travel to Morocco most years (and have, indeed, played some music there). We respect the culture and we contribute to the local economy. We buy instruments and we hang with local musicians. A mentality that sees using the sounds and instruments as a negative orientalism is, in my view, wrong.

I see a different form of orientalism, one I think to be more like that of at least some of the old painters and writers. We went, we saw, we fell in love. Our view of the east or of North Africa is not a romanticised work of our aspirational imagination, nor is it rooted in any feeling of inate cultural or political superiority. No, we just went and liked what we found.

If that makes us orientalists, then so be it.

Secret Archives of the Vatican – Air Gnawa by Vince Millett

Secret Archives publicity artwork

One Comment leave one →
  1. seraphimtex permalink
    September 24, 2010 7:03 pm

    Ah, Edward Said was a brilliant man. He single-handedly crippled Western intellectual thought, you know. Imagine, denouncing loathesome aspects of some Eastern cultures as bigoted and violent meriting the adjective, “racism,” the cardinal sin of Western civilizations!

    I fear, however, that the Western media and Edward Said will not stop the American people from thinking for very long.

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