Unsurprisingly, the President of the United States has said another racist thing — granted, in white supremacist language slightly less veiled than some of his previous, if equally horrifying, gaffes — and perhaps we can agree that the only sh*thole country in this equation is the U.S. But, to be honest, I might not have decided to write about the “sh*thole countries” comment — this vile and dangerous rhetoric, now so painfully normalized that I actually rolled my eyes when I first saw the headlines — if I hadn’t spent the past two weeks obsessing over Ladilikan, the debut collaborative album from the Kronos Quartet and Trio Da Kali.
It was — as so many great albums are — an unexpected discovery, brought about by an algorithmic rabbit hole: one YouTube video recommended another, and what started out as Salome score study found me, hours later, perusing the never-ending treasure trove of live performances uploaded by Seattle’s public radio station, KEXP.
Trio Da Kali comprises vocalist Hawa Diabaté, lutenist Mamadou Kouyaté on ngoni, and balafonist Lassana Diabaté. The trio are Malian Mandé griot — musicians, storytellers, praise singers and oral historians. During their performance, KEXP host Darek Mazzone asked, “What is the role of the griot?”
“If something isn’t going right, it’s our responsibility to step in for the greater good,” Lassana Diabaté replied.
Mazzone nodded. “We could use that here.”
Classical music is — in case you weren’t aware — overwhelmingly white. Audiences, composers, performers — the whole system promotes and protects white participants.
The counterpoint skeptics are itching to point out: of course classical music is white; it’s from Europe, which is also white.
Besides the obvious fallacy that Europe is or ever was without communities of color, there’s another danger at hand in this misguided belief: in accepting classical music as a white art form, we abandon any possibility of changing that. “Complacency breeds complicity,” journalist Zack Ferriday writes in an article for VAN Magazine. He explains:
Between outright nationalism and the slightly less visible institutional racial bias, classical music has been — wittingly and unwittingly — instrumental in the propagation of racist narratives over its hundreds of years. Even for The Guardian, the “biggest issue of all” surrounding Herbert von Karajan was how he produced his performances; his membership of the Nazi party tucked neatly away between parentheses.
Ferriday describes how the neo-Nazi web forum Stormfront hosts a discussion thread hundreds of pages long, its members celebrating classical music’s whiteness, denouncing atonality as a Jewish invention, and issuing bizarre and hateful declarations like, “listening to the classics FORCES you to be white.”
“The idea that classical music provides some kind of sanctuary for somebody with [Holocaust denier Vincent Reynouard’s] views (and the views shared by the Stormfront membership) should be completely unacceptable,” Ferriday writes, “and, moreover, should be something actively fought against.”
And it is fought against, in the most forward-thinking corners of the classical industry — diversity fellowships in Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Detroit; Sistema-inspired programs offering free instruments and lessons to students in marginalized communities; entire orchestras comprising musicians of color and performing works by composers who have remained invisible for far too long.
But at the end of the day, these powerful and necessary initiatives are perpetually in competition for funding and institutional support against yet another round of Beethoven and Mozart. Donors are white, ticket buyers are white, conductors and administrators, granting organizations and CEOs. The system is rigged with gatekeepers and barriers to present classical music’s public face as precisely the sort of art form that the Stormfront extremists believe it to be and venerate it for.
“It’s not the fault of classical music in the 21st century that its past can so easily be co-opted by nationalism or white supremacism,” Ferriday writes. “But sitting in the concert halls of Europe and America’s cosmopolitan cities in a usually very white audience listening to a usually very white orchestra, we don’t seem uncomfortable enough.”
Watching the President decry entire nations as “sh*tholes,” we roll our eyes. We post angrily on Facebook; we shake our heads and wait expectantly for the next headline. We don’t seem uncomfortable enough.
Trio Da Kali are phenomenal by any account, with or without a string quartet alongside them. Ladilikan is a compelling album because it’s good music, played by good musicians. It’s complex and festive and wholehearted, with minimalist loops tossed askew by unexpected syncopations, and vocal harmonies hovering over percussion and strings that delve suddenly and thrillingly into distorted and imaginative timbres. No one can dare call this sh*thole music.
There’s a precarious narrative that emerges whenever a collaboration like Ladilikan crops up. A classical ensemble joining forces with non-Western artists is seen as a “musical adventure” (The Guardian), the quartet entering “into realms unknown” (NPR). There’s a sense of unbalance in assessments like these: Kronos is lauded for daring to enter into this non-Western musical space, while Trio Da Kali — whose music is just as inventive, and whose union with a Western string quartet is just as adventurous — are hailed for adhering to tradition.
Maybe that analysis is a stretch; after all, the reviews proclaiming “adventure” and “realms unknown” invoked such phrases in a unanimously positive light. And it should be noted that the Kronos Quartet is, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest and most important classical chamber ensembles of our time, whose Fifty for the Future project is singularly responsible for the existence of a 21st-century string quartet canon founded on gender parity, cultural diversity, and financial and educational accessibility.
But there’s something about this idea of distance — of having to bridge a gap, enter a new realm — that I just can’t shake. Which isn’t to say that there is zero distance or distinction between musical traditions — the idea of music as a “universal language” being a deeply problematic myth. But if we imagine Trio Da Kali as belonging to a “realm unknown,” then, when the President of the United States calls Mali a “sh*thole country,” it’s almost easier to agree.
Trump’s sh*thole countries — countries that have withstood centuries of trauma — slavery, genocide, colonialism; exploitation and decimation of natural resources; unstable and authoritarian governments propped up by the unmitigated greed and white-supremacist dogma of Western superpowers — countries with some of the most rapid economic growth in the world, infrastructure for technological innovation, iconic writers and artists and musicians and activists — these countries aren’t as far away as we let ourselves believe.
An unknown realm only remains unknown through a willful act of not-knowing. The reason Ladilikan seems to enter a territory so adventurous, so “unlikely,” is because many of us classical music devotees — audiences, artists, critics — have only rarely, if ever, meaningfully engaged with non-Western musical traditions.
It’s the fault of woefully homogeneous school music curricula; of orchestras that insist on programming the same six composers season after season; of a classical music Machine that proudly positions itself as intellectually superior to all other genres. But it’s also our fault — mine, and yours — for participating in this not-knowing. For allowing the sheltering walls of hallowed concert halls to manufacture distance and fabricate a divide. For allowing “sh*thole countries” to feel insignificant and Other and far, far away.
For not being uncomfortable enough.
An unknown realm only remains unknown through a willful act of not-knowing. So, let’s get to know it. Listen to music from “sh*thole countries.” Seek out art and artists representing perspectives you have yet to discover. Keep your ears and mind open, register to vote, and — above all — stay uncomfortable.