Monday, February 21, 2022

Payback time: honouring the cultures that songs have been taken from

We often think of traditional songs from other cultures as just “out there” for the taking, to be used freely.

photo by Ashashyou

But every song was written by somebody, and every song is rooted in a particular culture and context. This hasn’t always been understood or acknowledged by those who have carried the songs into different contexts.

whose song is it any way?

When a song is published and appears as sheet music, it acquires a certain kind of legitimacy. However, not all songs are published by their creators.

Songs from cultures other than our own are often appropriated or re-arranged without any reference to where they came from. Usually there is very little, or incorrect, information about the source of the song, the language it is in, and the cultural context it came from.

And when a song is taught by ear, it is even easier to imagine that it is just “out there” and somehow belongs to everyone. As songs are passed around by ear they take on a mythological meaning that is constantly changing and often has no connection with the song’s true origins or cultural context.

See Songs and copyright 1: even if it’s a folk song, somebody wrote it.

the powerful take from the powerless

Throughout history, those with power have taken from the powerless.

Whether it’s the rich taking from the poor, colonists taking from other cultures, or men taking from women. Songs have been taken from people and cultures and freely disseminated without the original creators being credited in any way (or even giving their permission), rendering those creators invisible.

Or songs have been stolen from others and passed off as being written by somebody else.

Or songs have been taken from “out there”, arranged by somebody else and published as their own work.

In all these cases, the original songwriter or cultural context is seldom acknowledged. Even if they are, they may never be rewarded financially for their work. Unlike songs written by the more powerful and privileged.

payback time

To redress this imbalance, choirs that sing unaccredited traditional songs from other cultures are creating systems to repay those who created the songs.

Individual songwriters may be long dead, but by supporting their descendants or charitable organisations representing their culture, their legacy is being recognised and help is being given to new generations who will carry on their song writing tradition.

Some choirs and workshop leaders are now donating a percentage of their income as a kind of ‘royalty’ payment back to those cultures whose songs they are singing.

Here is an example of a church paying ‘royalties’ when it sings spirituals composed by enslaved Africans.

Next time you sing a song from a culture other than your own, make sure you are singing it in an appropriate context and be meticulous about finding out as much as you can about its origins (see Honouring the song).

You may also think about giving back to the culture that the song is from by supporting suitable charities or promoting musicians from that culture who may be living within your own community.

Chris Rowbury


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