Not Drowning, Waving – a cultural appropriation case study

Over a year ago, I started just for fun writing short articles based on songs that would come up on shuffle mode on my mp3 player. The articles were intended to form a zine that I have never gotten around to publishing.

But I occasionally am reminded of this particular piece as the online debates over cultural appropriation grow more and more fervent. I don’t intend to write an in-depth article on the concept of cultural appropriation, but I do think that this article – in a specific micro-study – puts forward some of my own ideas on the issue; ideas that I think are a reasonably interesting contribution to the debate.

Not Drowning, Waving – Claim

In 2015, cultural appropriation is a hot topic. Especially in online media, where marginalised voices have a new platform, there is heaps of writing about white culture co-opting the music, clothes and imagery of other cultures to gain some kind of ‘cool’.

Cultural appropriation is not in itself a bad thing. Throughout history, one of the ways that humanity has progressed is through observing and copying other groups and the way that they did things. I think it is in fact much more natural for ‘culture’ to be shared and copied than our modern system of copyright and intellectual property.

Where it becomes problematic though, is where cultural appropriation comes alongside colonisation. So the situation we have now is that non-white cultures who have had their land and traditions forcibly taken off them now have the somewhat irritating sight of seeing their music, clothes and art become valuable commodities that can make a lot of money – usually for white people and corporations, with little credit and even less cash being given to the original source.

In the late 80’s and early 90’s, one if the best things that happened to rock music was that people in the western world discovered that other parts of the world have music too. Suddenly there were new record labels like Real World and World Circuit, new global stars like Youssou N’Dour and Yothu Yindi, and new collaborations like Paul Simon’s Graceland album, Deep Forest’s house remixes of African field recordings, and Melbourne band Not Drowning, Waving.

Not Drowning, Waving ndw1mixed rock with classical instruments, with ambient soundscapes and with traditional Melanesian music. The song Claim (title track off their third album) is a good example – the song is almost entirely didgeridoo and clapsticks played by Gnarnayarrahe Waittairie, with the band playing a very minor role.

David Bridie from the band would go on to start a record label to release Melanesian music (mostly Papuan, Torres Strait or northern Australian Aboriginal), and would record a number of film soundtracks, a feature of which would be electronic and ambient production mixed with traditional music.

In the 1980’s, I think ethical questions around cultural appropriation were less widespread (although there was quite a debate in political and music circles surrounding the ethics of Paul Simon’s Graceland album). In the expansive, exploratory vibe of the time, it made sense to take on different musical styles. That spirit of experimentation made for some amazing music. Graceland is a perfect example of the fact that even without a real commitment to the actual culture and conditions of people, you can still make some brilliant music.

But it’s never really just about the music, is it? The critique of white cultural co-option is a valid one, and anyone who thinks it’s “just about the music” is exactly the kind of person who needs to be listening to it.

So as well as purely the sound of the music (which I quite like), there is some worth in analysing the cross-cultural ethics of Not Drowning, Waving. And in this field I think they do pretty well. Rather than just a cultural dilettante, David Bridie has shown a real commitment to the music of Melanesian cultures and the people who make it – the music by releasing and promoting music made by artists who would not otherwise be given those opportunities, and the people because he has continually offered his support to the people of West Papua in their struggle to resist Indonesian occupation.

Some may debate my views here, but I’m satisfied I can listen to a song like Claim and enjoy it as an exchange of musical ideas across cultures, rather than an act of exploitation.

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