Thursday, August 7, 2008

travel to exotic locations, meet interesting people, and eat them

"On a search for new musical inspiration,
David Byrne unexpectedly runs into Paul Simon"
Drew Friedman for Spy Magazine,
sometime in the mid-1990s

I'm going to take a break, so for a couple of weeks I'll be posting lightly, if at all. I'm leaving today for some "white world-traveling"--if an American white guy visiting his American family members and fishing with his American father counts as world-traveling. I think it does, given how my whiteness has helped to instill in me a presumptuous sense that I have the right to go wherever I like. I'll try to think about who used to fish in the rivers and lakes that I'll be dropping lines in, and I may even try to discover who they were, and where they went, and what "white" people did to them. But as a white American, I certainly won't have to do that, and as far as I know, nothing and no one around me will be encouraging me to do that.

I might write about the whiteness of my trip when I return--I'm sure it'll be there, in many manifestations and guises, wherever I go. I'll leave you for now with some other thoughts, on another sort of white world-traveling.

In the mid-nineties, one of my favorite movies was Latcho Drom (which I've seen translated as Safe Journey), released in 1993 by Romani/Algerian filmmaker Tony Gatlif. I didn't know back then that the people the film is about, the people I thought of then as "gypsies," are more properly called the Roma, or the Romani people.

At the time, this is what I'd gathered about "gypsies," never having met any: that they mostly live in Europe, where non-"gypsies" typically despised them; that the Nazis included them in the Holocaust; that they're a nomadic people who earn a living by entertaining non-nomadic people, and maybe by pilfering from them too; and that when Americans say they got "gypped" by paying too much for something, they're using a racist slur (even back then, I did call people on their use of that slur, as I also did when I heard someone happily report that they'd managed to "Jew down" the price of a rummage-sale item, or a used car).

So I thought I was a racially and globally conscious white person, and I thought that buying, and thus supporting, what came to be known as "world music" was another good thing to do. I bought and listened to music by Youssou N'Dour, Ali Farka Toure, Lhasa, the Gipsy Kings, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and by western musicians who appropriated "world" influences, such as David Byrne, Paul Simon, Kate Bush, and Peter Gabriel.

I realize now that I was, as cultural critic bell hooks puts it, "eating the other." I was consuming a product geared towards people like me, first-world "consumers" who wanted some sort of connection to other places and especially to other peoples, a connection that we thought we could make with our money.

Music conveys to us a lot more than sound and feeling. As we listen, we add our own associations, plugging the music into them and reacting to whatever cultural, social, economic, national, and racial connotations it stirs up for us. It's a form of socially induced pattern recognition that takes place on an individual level. As a rather typical white American, I vaguely felt like something was missing from my life, something that would make me more alive, less . . . stifled. Listening to music from other cultures, and also watching "foreign films," seemed to assuage, to some degree, that twinge of vague emptiness.

The film Latcho Drom seemed especially fulfilling, because it was a foreign film full of world music. It's a documentary of sorts about the Roma, though "documentary" seems like the wrong term for it. Latcho Drom consists of unnarrated, richly textured and colored vignettes, like the two excerpts below. The camera follows different bands or groups of Roma, who always seem to be on the move, constantly singing and dancing as they go.

As I watch the film now, I notice that the documentary "subjects," the movie's Romani people, rarely if ever "break the fourth wall," by looking directly at the camera. I now realize that someone probably told them not to do that, and I also wonder just how staged the whole thing is. Actually, it's very staged--though perhaps no less wonderful for that. When I watched it several times in the mid-nineties (having of course bought a copy, so that I could better "consume" these "others"), I thought it was incredibly real. The people seemed so alive to me, and in many ways, so free. I hadn't noticed at all how carefully made this movie is, how meticulously arranged, choreographed, edited, and perhaps even "acted" it all is.

Paying attention to the subtitled lyrics reveals that an effort has been made to tell Romani history gradually throughout the film. In the second clip below, which closes the film (with, I now see, a very traditional cinematic closing, the gradually distancing "long shot"), a woman's song provides a defiant list of specific charges against non-Romani Europeans. But as I watched it repeatedly back in the nineties, all such details about real "gypsies" didn't mean much to me. I liked the music, and the passion, and the looks of the people and their clothing, and especially how alive they all seemed.

I wasn't consciously thinking about how much more alive they seemed than me, and the other, mostly white American people around me. But I now realize, that's what I was doing. I was watching and listening to something that was more about me, and what I felt I was missing, than it was about "them," and what their lives were and are really like. I thought I was encountering something new and authentic, and maybe to some degree I was. Mostly, though, I was reinforcing notions of foreign others that I already had, and I was also reaching out for something that I thought I didn't have. Something that I felt I lacked.

What bell hooks has written about such interactions, in her essay "Eating the Other," was so true of the "me" that I was back then. And given not only my whiteness, but also my nationality, my masculinity, my relatively stable financial means, and more, her point is probably still true of me, though to, I hope, a lesser degree:

The desire to make contact with those bodies deemed Other, with no apparent will to dominate, assuages the guilt of the past, and even takes the form of a defiant gesture where one denies accountability and historical connection. Most importantly, it establishes a contemporary narrative where the suffering imposed by structures of domination on those designated Other is deflected by an emphasis on seduction and longing where the desire is not to make the Other over in one’s image but to become the Other.

[hat-tip: Ortho @ Baudrillard's Bastard; I'd also like to note that to their credit, some cultural appropriators have gone to great lengths to be more true to the people from whom they borrow, or steal--David Byrne, for instance, who "hates" the marketing category of "world music": "It’s a none too subtle way of reasserting the hegemony of Western pop culture. It ghettoizes most of the world’s music. A bold and audacious move, White Man!."]


  1. I would be interesting in knowing how you feel about whites who try to claim everything that is deemed good in history and intelligent as their own…science, math, physics, etc. When it is well known that the Arabs and Egyptians (who were black, but many whites would swear they were white despite the numerous depictions of dark skinned Egyptians on walls) were the first to discover these things in their bulk. The Mysteries (entirely Egyptian) is the foundation on which “Greek mythology”, physics, math, and science stands.

    Let most white people tell it, they will swear it was Plato and the likes who came up with these things--the “great philosophers”. One interesting post I found was this:

    More than this…why is it a black scientist, researchers, etc. who are very skilled in their work and educated, maybe even had more years in the field as opposed to a white scientist, researchers, etc. is deemed more reputable than the black scientist or researchers?
    In fact, many whites will not listen to a black scientist or such; they would simply call it false science as if science is only made real by that of a white man or a man who follows whatever path the white man has created for himself.

  2. thanks for blogging. de-lurking (on a 'safe' topic for a white gal?) to say:

    I think Latcho Drom is a better film than you even address here.

    It's clearly staged - that's not a problem, that's film. It's what it stages and how that makes it more powerful. In Latcho Drom, over and over again, people watch each other and perform for each other, Roma perform and are watched by others (Roma and non-Roma). The film stages people watching each other, all the different kinds of spectators. From the boy peeking in to the dancing women, to the lonely non-roma mother and child watching the roma, to the roma woman looking out the train window, to the 'dancing' bear (who, if I remember, is one of the few who turns to face the camera), and more I'm sure I've forgotten.

    While the film doesn't obviously confront the viewer, it does give an extremely rich account of multiple ways of watching, consuming, sharing, appreciating, and of performing, which I see as a comment on the film and the act of watching it..

  3. Hi Macon D. My name is Eugene Johnson. I have a blog called I found your blog while looking for a land o lakes photo to post about the racism within the alleged "peace movement." Stuff white people do...I like it! Another one along a similar vein is hosted by Tom.

    Good post. Shows a self-reflection not seen in most white folks.

    I saw Yuri Yunakov, Ivo Papasov, Neshko Neshev, and I forget their drummers name, several years ago in Portland, Oregon. They are Roma who play a genre called Bulgarian Wedding Music. I did not hunt these guys down because they were Roma and I was interested in music of other nations, I hunted them down because they were some fantastic musicians playing such amazing music! There is no describing it, really. They started out as the Ivo Papasov Ensemble. Hard music to find nowadays.

    Anyway, interesting blog. Thanks.

  4. I'm not sure, because I do not know much about his music and his musical explorations: Could Ry Cooder be included on the list with Simon and Byrne? I'm referring to his work with the musicians of the Cuban group The Buena Vista Social Club.

    BTW: I thought that Wim Wenders's direction for the documentary of the group was very dull; he failed to capture the passion, the fire, of the music.

  5. The Roma people you are referencing are Romanian. Romani is how the word Romanian is pronounced in our language.

    Just wanted to clear that up in case anyone wonders where Roma is. :) I've also been understood as coming from "Arania."

  6. Macon,
    I've met someone in that movie!

    It was the first movie a hardcore gypsy jazz fan friend of mine showed me (first movie, period, that is).

    Funny it should come to me reading this here, after what I just mulled over

  7. My God, Macon, this really, really, really long vacation proves you're really, really, really white!


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