The Music of the Other Photo: Cosmin Mirea

The Music of the Other

March 17, 202110-12 minutes read

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Cosmin Mirea

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For many of us, nothing speaks louder than music and dance. Whether it's something we do in the comfort of our own homes, something we plan the whole work-week and get to enjoy on the weekends in a club, or rather something that takes place as part of the processions during a wedding, a baptism, a sunnet, etc., the music-dance duo is a quintessential part of not only our social lives, but of who we are as people - our cultural identities.­

I know for a fact that most of us see music and dance accordingly, we give credit where credit is due - the importance and social role that has permeated (or rather has emanated from?) this construct needs little to no further explanation.

Yes, there is a huge appetite for Roma cultural products, but the Western Self wants to consume them on its own terms and conditions; they first have to go through an aestheticization, a toning down of sorts. (...) Yes, we want to consume Roma culture, but please, nothing too real, nothing too distasteful, nothing too out of control.

Moreover, the duo can be an amazingly effective element when it comes to building bridges amongst peoples and cultures; at this point, I guess everyone is at least slightly aware of the catalysing effect that music and dance have had in this sense. Thanks to the advancement and popularization of radio, recorded music and a vast array of related media products, we are now able (and have been for a while, at least since the 2nd half of the 20th century) to enjoy not only the music and dance indigenous to our geographic and cultural settings, but the ones from many other regions from the world.

Thanks to these advancements, sounds and aesthetics were borrowed and transferred from place to place, from East to West and vice-versa, resulting in a seemingly pluralist approach to each other’s cultural practices and products, including music and dance. But, as with any synergy involving two or more entities, the interaction itself as well as the resulting exchanges that took place were and continue to be subjected to a series of power dynamics. Most of us are not only unaware of these power dynamics, but we’re also completely oblivious to the fact that they have shaped the way we view “our world”, and more importantly, the way we perceive and treat those situated on the outskirts of said world.

The intention of the present article is to attempt a deconstruction of the way we, as a society, perceive the aforementioned category, namely the Stranger – that social entity that is seen as a new addition to our community, someone whose presence has extended past the point of being just a visitor but is still restricted to the margins of our community; and although the Stranger is now part of our social group, his presence will forever bear the mark of his initial “unbelonging” and the fact that he possesses a series of traits that evidently cannot be native to our group. This particular type of social belonging entails that the Stranger (the Other) retains an existence outside of Our group, as well as the fact that a certain degree of conflict will always exist between him and the group. When it comes to interpersonal relations (i.e., micro-level interactions), the Stranger can be perceived as having certain positive traits, however, when talking about large scale dealings (i.e., macro-level interactions), the Stranger is more likely to be associated with negative attributes. 1

In order to exemplify this particular type of social construct, I will primarily contextualize its development, after which I will exemplify its workings by referring to how the Roma community is perceived in Europe, how certain cultural by-products of this community are highlighted and celebrated amongst non-Roma people whilst the people who actually generate them are continuously being subjected to discrimination whilst filling in the role of Europe’s favourite Other.

Europe’s Other?

Photo: Morgan Housel
Photo: Morgan Housel

Some contextualization is needed here – exactly how did Europe and the Western world crystalize this interaction with the Other?

The political, economic, and industrial progress that were brought forth in the 18th and 19th century in the Western World marked the beginning of the capitalist market and the forming of the world as we know it today, but it also marked the beginning of an end – geographically speaking, there was nothing left to be discovered, there was no “great unknown” anymore; the voyage was over, all that was left now was tourism and trips to places that had previously been seen by others. Additionally, the 19th century market advancements also introduced a series of adjacent ideological concepts, one of them being the “scarcity of goods” theory. In this context, the “unknown” began manifesting itself as the most sought after scarcity, and the societal response was the debut of exotism – a term coined during the 19th century. Of course, the taste for different, for objects and products that originated in different cultures than one’s own had clearly existed before this point in time, but the 19th century brought a boom of sorts. In fields like the arts and literature, a particular “exotic” inspiration is beginning to be more and more palpable; orientalism and its corresponding gaze are making their way into everyday life through theatre plays, paintings, literary works of fiction, world fair displays, etc.

There was no Stranger left, nothing to be discovered anymore, the West had reduced everything through colonization and cultural assimilation; material abundance was at an all time high, and, like previously stated, the most important scarcity was the different, the strange – alterity. Maybe the answer was to simply invent an Other to fill that position. Having real people, real cultures, and real geographical spaces as a point of departure, the Western World proceeded to produce an Other, an entity designed to play a certain role, someone to help illustrate the Western Values by contrast. 2

The most indicative examples of this type of imaginary construct would be the 19th century travel journals – scores of Western writers flock to places like the Balkans, the Ottoman Empire, the Far East, etc. with the sole purpose of collecting data about these “far” and “exotic” lands and report back home with this valuable new information about the Stranger, this important scarcity everyone had started to pursue. It’s important to understand here that by this time, thanks to the capitalist endeavours that had proved to be extremely lucrative, the West felt that it could issue various judgements of the surrounding world based on its own thinking systems, ideologies, projects, aspirations, etc.; this alterity dialectics implied that many communities that didn’t adhere to the European religion, reason and civilization, were devalued and perceived as inferior. Additionally, this is the point in history when nationalism, the founding principle of modern Europe, is established – this meant that an additional alterity was now in the works, an alterity within the white European culture. This type of alterity was aimed at strengthening the identity of whoever enunciated it, basically an aid in one’s quest of defining a national identity. 3

At this point, one might justifiably wonder… well, what could be point of inventing an Other? What role might this paradigm be attached to? For example, the Oriental space as a construct played a key role in the European collective mentality – it offered them the perfect place to escape to (at least mentally). The Oriental sphere at this time was perceived as a place of legend and great riches, a world filled with myths and wonders of the Old World; it was associated with a strong feeling of nostalgy towards an immemorial past, and most importantly, it offered an alternative to the European reality, a reality defined by more and more constrictions and social rules. Therefore, the Oriental construct, under the Romantic dialectics of the 19th century, became this refuge (at least mental one) from the new socio-economic determined way of living that now characterized most of the Western World. 4

Of course, the Western and Oriental archetypes were perceived as two entities defined by totally incompatible set of values; one could not be a part of both worlds, one was forced to adhere to the principles of the European Self, or be pushed into the Other category.

Fast forward to the 21st century - our contemporary existence is very much influenced by this dialectical system setup by European powers hundreds of years ago. What is definitory in this construct of alterity and its adjacent discourse is the landmark of the Centre; the Centre, a spatial element of a rather imaginative nature, is basically the birthplace of the ”normal”, the place where ”normal” is king. From this site, judgements and opinions pertaining to other bodies that are not part of it are very easily emitted. Nowadays, it would seem that the Centre is occupied by the Western white civilization and, consequently, at least in its opinion, the West’s cultural norms are the only ones acceptable and applicable to the entire human civilisation.

In today’s globalist existence, the Other is everywhere, everyone is an Other for somebody; in this peculiar paradigm, everyone has its place related to the Centre, and therefore anyone can postulate their own Other, the Other exists from a multitude of perspectives. The discourse of alterity, other than being a social construct, has real consequences in the real world. Those who have occupied the Centre, have carefully instated social structures and value systems that reflect their own interests and that keep them in these privileged positions, whilst the Other is kept away towards the periphery. 5

Ork Musi Zabun. Source: YouTube printscreen
Ork Musi Zabun. Source: YouTube printscreen

The music of the Other

So, what does all of this have to do with music and dance? In my opinion, everything. The imagologies that the European Self has constructed for the various people has managed to ban them to the fringes of society, and they are no random thing. These types of images play a key role in an uneven power rapport.

Pertaining to our case study, the Roma people are perceived as always possessing musical talent, as being native fortune tellers, and more importantly, as always being poor. If a Roma person manages to make a good life for himself, he is somehow perceived as being an oddity, as not quite a true member of the community. 6Theoretical approach aside, I can personally attest to this last section; I can’t even begin to count the number of instances where my ethnicity was a matter up for debate. I’m not exactly white, so I’m perceived as an Other by the majority, and yet I apparently don’t live up to the stereotypical image of a Roma person that the same majority holds; therefore, I can only be “one of the good Romas”. “If only more of your kind were like you” I hear, as if that was supposed to be some sort of compliment. After many of my performances on stage, at least the ones with a mostly white audience, I’m greeted by fans that strike up random conversations with me, conversations that inevitably lead to the question “So, where are you from? Were you born in Romania?”. I try my best to avoid this type of awkward interaction, but eventually I have no choice but to explain to people that I’m Roma, and that indeed I was born in Romania. “Ohhh, so that’s why you’re so good on that drum!” Honestly, this type of harmless curiosity is nothing but that – harmless, but it is indeed a symptom of a much bigger issue.

The Other is obviously a reductive construct that the Western Self (consciously or not) imposes on a large number of people – on those who are different from the Western Self, but somehow can be understood by the Self, maybe even assimilated and subdued. In a weird paradoxically way, the Western ideal of the universal man (all of us adhering to the same set of values and principles) was what birthed discrimination and racism in the modern sense. Western racism stems from this particular desire of the Self to impose his set of values to the rest of mankind. This set of values also includes greeting the Other, that entity distinct from the Self that comes from a separate culture, that possesses a different way of living and way of thinking, and who is considered an outsider; but this greeting of the Other, at least in the Western paradigm, only takes place when the Other accepts this reductive universal ideal. In this context, I, as someone who is different from those who occupy the Centre, have one of two choices – either accept and internalize the Western Self’s system of values and subsequently try to fit into his world, or forever be cast away on the outskirts of society. 7

At a first glance, despite being Europe’s most hated minority, the Roma have managed not only to permeate the transnational European festival scene, but Roma music has become one of the main pillars of what is now perceived as the pan-European “sound” by scores of young people (Kaminsky 2015, 143). With the help of various DJs, performers, music curators, etc., Roma music is now a staple at festivals, parties, and even concerts alike. Although a very “generous” endeavour on the behalf of the majority to allow us to participate in mainstream culture thusly, the Western Self’s altruist actions have been proved to have questionable intentions before; humanitarian actions undertaken in all places of the world by the Western agent, although applaudable, include a veiled substance – by sharing and imparting its values with the Other (e.g. Christian missionaries converting those who receive help in disadvantaged regions of the world), the Western Self is actually preparing the Other for assimilation. Once the Other has been domesticated and integrated in Our system, a controlled alterity is subsequently promoted in the form of cultural products.8

Yes, there is a huge appetite for Roma cultural products, but the Western Self wants to consume them on its own terms and conditions; they first have to go through an aestheticization, a toning down of sorts. Yes, we want to hear live Roma music in public venues, but we want it to sung by white and “presentable” performers (be sure to add a couple of brown faces in the band, for the sake of being “genuine”); yes, we want to listen to Roma music at parties in the form of DJ sets, but no songs newer than the 2010s please; yes, we want to dance to Roma music, but please make sure we’re talking about simple, Bregović-esque rhythms. Yes, we want to consume Roma culture, but please, nothing too real, nothing too distasteful, nothing too out of control. Yes, you’re invited towards the Self, towards the Centre, but please leave your Other demeanours at the door.

Like previously stated, this type of power dynamics is amongst the ones who shape and influence the way that the Other is able to operate in the world of the European Self; speaking from my own experience, many Roma musicians are forced to portray themselves at certain events through various ethno-orientalist images (i.e. essentialist views of non-Western societies that have been adopted by the members of said societies themselves; basically, assimilating the imagology associated with your community by the Western Self) 9 in order to appease white audiences and be able to earn a living.

Looking towards the future

Will the Western Self ever choose to truly greet and accommodate the Other, or will it continuously invest time and effort into upholding the current power structures that gatekeep the Centre and its set of values? It is my opinion that the current actions and trends that are being displayed all over the world, trends that seemingly want to articulate the best interest of the Other in rapport with the Western Self (i.e., political liberalism and the “politically correct” movement), are nothing but one of the following:

(1) further developments of internal alterity within the Self. Based on the way it chooses to view and accordingly treat the Other, the Self has internally manufactured yet another alterity, one that once more seeks to satisfy the need for variation of the Western agent.

(2) the type of “missionary work” the Self has sponsored before. Still very attached to its values and principles, the Self is trying to find ways to ingest the ever-growing masses of the Other – this time by dramatizing its own demise and consequently deceiving the Other that it has gained something.

The Self will not give up its place in the Centre willingly. From my standpoint, the only process which will lead to the freeing up of the Centre is the self-cannibalization of the Western agent; in its constant search for alterity, seeing as how there is nothing left to “invent” outside of itself, the Western Self will indeed proceed to internally diversify ad infinitum until nothing of the original substance will remain. All that will be left to do then is for another Self to occupy the Centre.

  • 1. Simmel, Georg, and Kurt H. Wolff. 1950. The Sociology of Georg Simmel. Simon and Schuster. (143-146) ↩︎
  • 2. Baudrillard, Jean. Figures de l'alterité, 1994; Radical Alterity, 2008. ↩︎
  • 3. Boia, Lucian. 2000. Pentru o Istorie a Imaginarului. (124-126)↩︎
  • 4. Todorova, Maria. 2009. Imagining the Balkans. Oxford University Press. (12-13)↩︎
  • 5. Boia, Lucian. 2000. Pentru o Istorie a Imaginarului. (121-130)↩︎
  • 6. Boia, Lucian. 2000. Neculau, Adrian, and Gilles Ferréol. 1996. Minoritari, Marginali, Excluşi. (54)↩︎
  • 7. Baudrillard, Jean. Figures de l'alterité, 1994; Radical Alterity, 2008. ↩︎
  • 8. Baudrillard, Jean. Figures de l'alterité, 1994; Radical Alterity, 2008. (↩︎
  • 9. Carrier, James. 1992. “Occidentalism: The World Turned Upside-Down.” American Ethnologist, no. 2 (May): (198-199)↩︎
    1. Further Reading:

    2. Kaminsky, David. 2015. “Introduction: The New Old Europe Sound.” Ethnomusicology Forum, no. 2 (May)
    3. McLemore, S. Dale. 1970. “Simmel’s ‘Stranger’: A Critique of the Concept.” The Pacific Sociological Review, no. 2 (April)
    4. Moscovici, Serge, Eddy Van Avermaet, and Gabriel Mugny. 1985. Perspectives on Minority Influence. Cambridge University Press.

    About the Author

    Cosmin Mirea

    Musician based in Bucharest; his area of interest includes the Balkans and the Ottoman cultural heritage from this area, as well as from Turkey. Currently working on a PhD centered around Roma culture in the Balkans.

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