To Borrow a Phrase

To Borrow a Phrase

For many years now, the UU Musicians’ Network (as well as ministers, religious educators, leaders, and laypersons of many faith traditions) has been wrestling with the tangled nest of issues usually referred to as “cultural appropriation.” In fact, this issue is so loaded, so fraught, that for some years in UU musician circles, we were directed to instead use the term “cultural misappropriation.”

You may have noticed that at UUCC, in services and in concerts, we consistently try to bring to our beloved community the music of many eras, countries, styles and cultures. This is in line with two of our foundational UU Principles, “the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” and “the goal of world community.” It is equally in line with the Sources of the Living Tradition, which speak of “direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures,” of “wisdom from the world’s religions,” and of “religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith.”

Thus, we bring to our community music (and poetry and art) originating from a wide variety of cultures and genres throughout history. As important as this is to us all, still some complex and difficult issues are raised.

For example, when we perform the music of Bach, should we try as much as possible to hew to historical performance practice? Modern musicians know a good deal about this, but we can’t be North Germans living in 1740- our lives are so different; we hear, think and feel differently. Does it falsify this music to perform it on modern instruments, at modern tempos in modern acoustical settings? Is it acceptable to perform it “wrong” – ripping it out of the context for which it was composed? Are these performances hypocritical If we do not individually or collectively share all (or any) of Bach’s religious beliefs?

Many UU churches perform, from our modern hymnals, the music of various Native American cultures, again removing a cultural artifact from its place, time, religious and communal context- is this acceptable – and if so, how shall we reframe and contextualize it, so as not to disrespect it?

UU congregations love, revere, enjoy and perform Gospel music and Spirituals from African American traditions, most often in arrangements by superb Black composers and arrangers of this generation and earlier. But what constitutes an acceptable performance by a mostly White choir or community chorus of a such a work? How do we deal with the language itself?  Does the fact that a cultural artifact comes from a historically oppressed/enslaved/decimated people imply a special set of obligations (including never appropriating it)?

What’s acceptable and respectful borrowing? What’s stealing?  Is merely studying (as we do), respecting (as we do) and striving for some kind of personal and collective authenticity enough?  What’s ‘authentic’? (As an ethnologist friend says- “What’s authentic is whatever just happened”).

No answers. The UU bumper sticker tells us- “The question is the answer.” Stay tuned.

In community, and with respect- and with thanks to Anthony, Carla and Michael-
Tom Benjamin

One Comment

  1. Becky Reese

    Tom,
    So glad you raise this. I appreciate the variety of music. I have heard from some members that they are troubled by our changing the words to traditional hymns, doing white versions of African American music, and some other concerns. I recognize the validity of those concerns (especially the need to be fully respectful), and I also want to experience and enjoy a taste of other cultures. Bravo for putting the issue out there. It’s one of those things there isn’t an easy answer to, but it is healthy to discuss it and to always be mindful of the potential impact of our actions.

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