Coltrane, Ray Charles and Elvis
As a musician I struggle with the notion of cultural appropriation. The great jazz saxophonist John Coltrane was influenced not only by a rapidly evolving jazz tradition, but also Indian Classical and Western Classical music. Ray Charles loved Country and Western Music, and his classic Soul Music was an integration of Black Church Music, Blues, Jazz and Rock n’ Roll. Elvis Presley’s music was influenced by Blues and R&B music as well as country and pop music. Music tends to be evolutionary, not revolutionary. The vast majority of “brand new” music comes from somewhere.
The Diamond Approach
I recall the first time I heard the term “cultural appropriation” in 2003. This term was used by an Indian professor during my masters degree work. She seemed irritated by my participation in the Diamond Approach spiritual practice/community, which she criticized as practicing cultural appropriation. Her criticism made no sense to me. The Diamond Approach as a psycho-spiritual approach designed by A. H. Almaas, a Kuwaiti physicist (educated in the West) who was an early Enneagram student of Chilean psychiatrist and spiritual teacher Claudio Naranjo. Almaas’s work integrated Buddhism, depth psychology and Sufism in a profound and impactful integration of psychology and spirituality.
Her charge implied someone was doing something improper… someone was stealing something from someone else. Really?
From my perspective this was the case of a teacher (Almaas) with a deep desire to serve humans who innovated around work he received from a mentor (Naranjo) to create a form of spiritual development based on Buddhism and Sufism that was informed by modern depth psychology. I saw (and still see) the Diamond Approach as a brilliant synthesis of useful traditions from around the globe.
Where does music come from?
Virtual Insanity was written/recorded in the 1990’s, and as the analysis video demonstrates:
All three of these songs were written/recorded in the 1970’s.
Is this a case of the dreaded cultural appropriation?
Many (Stravinsky, Picasso, William Faulkner, T.S. Eliot) are credited with a quotes that convey the sentiment (expressed by Steve Jobs) that “good artists copy, great artists steal.” Stealing, in this case, involves many things, such as (i) truly making an idea yours, (ii) updating an idea or synthesizing it in a novel way, (iii) transforming and elevating an idea. Examples include Romeo and Juliet becoming West Side Story, the opening line of Coltrane’s solo on Someday My Prince Will Come becoming a melody in Chick Corea’s Spain and Hendrix’s version of the Star Spangled Banner.
Gimme Some Nuance
We live in a globalized world where access to all the world’s cultures are available for the first time in history. Perhaps we need a taxonomy of actions one can take in relationship to other cultures so we can approach this topic with more nuance. From a conversation with my good friend and beautiful musician Issa Noor, here are five actions to consider.
Where cultures overlap, mix and mingle, new culture is created. This keeps culture alive.
The term Cultural Appropriation frames discussions around culture through the Drama Triangle, where someone is persecuting another. Perhaps that is the case… perhaps mis-appropriation is happening. However, if the only tool you have is a hammer (Cultural Appropriation) the entire world can look like a nail. At the root of the cultural appropriation argument is a formulation referred to as R = P + P which I will address in a future post. My hope is that defining and presenting these five ways of being in relationship with culture will open space for conversations around culture with greater levels of subtlety and nuance.