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.”