“Decolonising classical musics?”
Classical Music and Colonialism
At the Goethe-Institut symposium “Decolonising Classical Musics?” participants discussed colonial aspects of classical music.
By Hannah Schmidt
Ludwig van Beethoven was fascinated by exoticism, cultures other than the familiar European ones and their representation in art. He was not alone with this in the classical music tradition. As part of The other Beethoven(s), the Goethe-Institut now focused on this genuinely European, often colonialist view of other cultures – specifically in the field of classical music – in a symposium entitled “Decolonising Classical Musics?” On Sunday, in Berlin’s radialsystem, musicians, composers and scholars discussed questions of trans-traditional music, postcolonial perspectives and contemporary composition.
The role of African art music in classical musicIn his keynote talk, musicologist Kofi Agawu from the City University of New York (CUNY) spoke about African art music and its role in classical music. Using various works of African Pianism from the twentieth century as an example, Agawu demonstrated the influences of colonialism on the musical awareness of composers and clarified the specific peculiarities of the genre that are independent of this. “We always see critics who believe that African composers are reproducing European developments,” said Agawu. “But we have to stop believing that European history was linear. Some styles like minimalism or post-minimalism can hardly be called complex.”
In contrast, many works of African classical music could have arisen from the nascent avant-garde of the 1920s – but were composed decades earlier. Nevertheless, names of African composers such as Joshua Uzoigwe, Akin Euba, Ayo Bankole, Emmanuel Gyimah Labi and Olufęlá Şowándé are still not very well known, which, according to Agawu, has various reasons. He sees one of these reasons in white “scepticism about the capabilities of Black people and people of colour.” Yet, “Whiteness or being European are not self-efficacious categories when it comes to creativity. African art music describes a modernity that entails constant redefinition – it is dynamic.”