In the mood for a rant? I am!
Consumerism and a museum mentality are definitely evident in the Balkan music and dance scene. “There is a lot of that collecting mentality. Oh, that tune, I want it,” Jane explained. One can collect tunes, step patterns, and musical instruments, just as one can collect folk costumes or records. There is a strong desire to possess the “objects” of one’s fascination….Whether or not this collecting appetite is utilitarian, it is often insatiable.
While it may pander to consumer cravings, the Balkan scene continues to be a living tradition, according to the author, Mirjana Laušević. How does it compare to the old-time scene in that respect?
The Balkan scene distinguishes itself from a number of American folk scenes that seem to have shifted rather decisively from “tradition” to “orthodoxy”….”A traditional society has been transformed into an orthodox one when what was a matter of course (what was once absorbed and habitual) has become subject to rules, formal teaching, and scrupulous attention to textual authority.”
Maybe I’m just cranky because I hurt my wrist and can’t play for awhile. But I’m familiar with both the Balkan and the old-time scenes, and the old-time scene has far more rules — rules that I think can limit our development as musicians. A few rules I’ve learned:
- Banjo players shouldn’t play chords. They also shouldn’t play too many melody notes, and they “can’t” be the lead melodic instrument.
- Old-time bands shouldn’t create arrangements.
- Fiddlers “can’t” learn a tune from a banjo or any other instrument, so if the fiddler doesn’t know the tune, the group “can’t” play it.
- The way Big Name played a tune on Important Recording is the “right” way to play it.
- If a fiddler introduces a new tune, the first question is, “Who did you learn that from?” The answer determines the acceptability of the tune.
People have told me that these rules protect tradition. But I have trouble believing that there never existed a clawhammer player who played chords, and there was never one who played without a fiddler. There was never a band that worked out an arrangement, and never a fiddler who picked up a tune from a banjo player or just backed someone up. And Big Name always played that tune exactly that way, and every musician in whatever period we’re preserving wanted nothing more than to sound exactly like Big Name.
I understand that if there were no rules, the community could no longer be distinguished from the mainstream. But these particular rules seem to have become unquestioned orthodoxy, and in my opinion they limit our growth as musicians.
For example, the Irish and Balkan scenes allow many more instruments to take the melodic lead, so more players are encouraged to learn new tunes and jams are less dependent on one person. It’s also considered okay for someone to play an occasional “advanced” tune that’s hard to follow, because there’s no rule saying everyone must be included all the time. I think the advanced tunes inspire newer musicians to improve their skills. Both scenes also allow some creative use of chords, and guitarists get to play something other than boom-chuck.
This kind of openness encourages musicians to grow. They want to learn some theory so they can improvise and find cool harmonies. They want to become strong melodic players so they can lead that new tune at the next jam. They want to experiment with different rhythms and arrangements so they can shape the experience of the audience or dancers.
I wish I saw more of this in the old-time scene, but then one could argue that it wouldn’t be the old-time scene anymore.
In the unlikely event that you’re still reading this: Do any of the old-time rules bug you? Or do you happily accept the rules because they help create a well-defined community?