Asian Music in a Globalizing World


"Asian music" does not exist as a category of music in the sense of having a set of common characteristics distinguishing it from the music of other large areas of the world, such as Africa or Europe. If Asian music is defined rather loosely as the music played in Asia, what characterizes Asian music is its enormous diversity. This is hardly surprising given that Asia has hundreds of distinct ethnic groups, collectively making up more than half of the world's population. The languages spoken and religions practiced in Asia are equally diverse. Reflecting this diversity, the music played in Asia comes in a dizzying variety of genres, performing styles and techniques, contexts, performers, instruments, combinations of instruments, textures of sound, and concepts.

A few musical characteristics may be singled out as prevailing across broad areas in Asia, such as the presence of drone (the sounding of a continuous pitch or pitch sequence) and the preference for a buzzing quality of sound. However, we should be aware that the reference point for selecting these musical features as characteristic of Asian music is basically that of Western art music. Asian music is in fact a term used primarily by non-Asians, particularly North Americans and Europeans, though it has also entered into the vocabulary of Asians who internalize Western concepts.


Despite the enormous prominence of popular music in Asia, Western interest in Asian music has largely been confined to the traditional varieties. Until recently, Asia was viewed as a region of the world where great numbers of colorful ensembles performed centuries-old music to accompany the austere rituals and ceremonies of Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, and a host of locally based religions, and where life-cycle rituals such as weddings and funerals were conducted with sumptuous traditional music. In essence, Western fascination with Asian traditional music was an expression of exoticism. The term traditional evokes an image of antiquity, continuity, and difference: a music that was created in a distant past, that has not changed substantially over time, and that has received virtually no influence from the West. This image provides the grounds for belief in the authenticity and artistic merit of this music.

However, recent research has revealed that much of Asia's "traditional" music is in fact of relatively recent provenance despite its aura of antiquity. For example, the classical music of India (both the northern and southern varieties) was created out of colonial tension; its formation was propelled by a nationalistic desire to establish "Indian music," a potent signifier to provide a cultural rationale for independence. Certainly, the classical music of India has elements taken from previous periods, but it was during the early decades of the twentieth century that these elements were reconstituted to form the genre as we know it today.

Indonesia is known for the richness of its performing arts, and tourists from the West are entertained by various forms of music and dance, including Bali's famous kecak ("monkey") and baron (or kris, "sword") dances. Many of these performing arts were created for European and American tourists in the 1930s when the colonial government recognized the importance of traditional culture in luring tourists and creating an image of the Dutch as benevolent rulers who protected the cultures of the colonized instead of destroying them. While this revelation may be disappointing to those who seek authenticity, the hybrid music created for tourism has become for Indonesia both a means of introducing its culture to the rest of the world and a source of national identity.

Across Asia, the term traditional music is frequently used in the media, government publications, and academic writings. The image of cultural continuity projected through traditional music is important for Asian countries seeking to establish their national and cultural identity. In the Philippines since the 1950s, the spotlight has been cast on precolonial instruments and forms of music and dance forms, the aim being to establish a music culture with common roots in the precolonial and pre-Islamic Malay world. The survival of such instruments as gongs, nose flutes, and tube zithers among non-Christian groups attests to the vibrant music cultures throughout the Philippines prior to Spanish colonization.

Bayanihan, a dance troupe often described as the cultural ambassador of the Philippines, has showcased "authentic" Philippine culture through performing arts since its international debut at the Universal Exposition in Brussels in 1958. The music and dance of the non-Christian minority groups (less than a tenth of the population) figure prominently in the performers' repertoire, with the "Muslim Suite" frequently presented as the finale of their performances. The interest in the performing arts of non-Christian peoples derives from the nationalistic desire to create a pan-Filipino culture that will provide musical legitimization for a culturally independent nation-state, although charges of misrepresentation have been advanced by the minority groups against Bayanihan's portrayal of their music and dance.


Many Asian countries are seriously concerned about the survival of their traditional music. Many forms of Asian traditional music were previously supported by royal courts, sultanates, and temples, as well as by wealthy landlords and merchants. When such premodern institutions ceased to exist or became too attenuated to patronize the arts, the performers required new patrons for their survival. While some were able to find patronage anew in governmental agencies, private corporations, and voluntary associations (in the process transforming themselves to suit the needs of their new patrons), others failed to do so and are consequently on the verge of extinction.

In South India, many performing practices of Hindu ritual music have been lost in recent years due to the lack of financial support from temple administrations. For instance, the pancamukhavadyam (five-faced drum) that was used to accompany daily worship in Siva temples lost its last adept a few years ago; he died without a credible disciple to carry on the tradition. And in Cambodia, the shadow puppet theater known as sbek thom is facing an uphill battle for survival, with only a handful of aged masters left to transmit the techniques and knowledge needed to maintain the art.

Many forms of traditional Asian music and theater cannot survive without governmental patronage. The bunraku puppet theater of Japan cannot make ends meet by proceeds from admissions alone and relies heavily on government assistance. Alarmed by the dwindling number of young disciples studying the art, the government started a school to recruit young apprentices with incentives, replacing the more individualized method of knowledge transmission. To encourage traditional arts, national awards have been instituted by some governments to recognize the artistry of the masters of traditional music. The Living National Treasure designations of Japan and South Korea are prime examples, but many other Asian countries have instituted similar honors to publicly recognize the importance of the traditional arts for national identity and thereby ensure their survival.


The dissemination of media technology has caused profound and fundamental changes in the way that Asian music is produced, consumed, and transmitted. While compact discs and other forms of digital recording have become the dominant form of music reproduction in the West, cassette tapes remain the most important medium for the majority of people in Asia. As inexpensive cassette tapes became available in the 1970s, recorded music came within reach of the masses for the first time in history. Cassette shops and street vendors are seen all over Asia, providing a wide range of music. The music from cassette tapes is often played through loudspeakers, constituting an easily noticeable element of the contemporary Asian soundscape. Through cassette tapes, many types of popular music are made available: Western popular music is sold mostly in pirated copies, providing the common musical language for young people throughout Asia and beyond, but domestically produced popular music in local languages is also proliferating through this medium.

The relationship between cassette technology and traditional music is ambivalent. While prerecorded cassette tapes have made traditional music more accessible, they often serve to replace live music. For example, many life- cycle rituals in South India that were once accompanied by auspicious music from an instrumental ensemble featuring the nâgasvaram (oboe) and the tavil (double-headed drum) are performed today to the music from cassette tapes. With cassette tapes, the sponsor of the event is able to choose from well-known musicians at a reasonable cost, instead of hiring mediocre local musicians. A similar substitution has been reported for gamelan music played at ritual ceremonies in Indonesia.

Cassette recorders have also changed the methods of teaching and learning music. Most forms of Asian music were previously transmitted orally. The use of cassette tapes in lessons has made the quicker transmission of knowledge possible, but old masters lament that students' excessive reliance on this gadgetry has decreased their powers of concentration and memory. The dissemination of cassette recorders has changed the content of performances as well. In Javanese shadow puppet theater (wayang kulit), the puppeteer acts as a social commentator in addition to narrating the story and manipulating the puppets, but now that critical comments can be recorded and used as evidence by prosecutors, the puppeteers have toned down their remarks considerably.


In today's globalizing world, Asian music is no longer played in Asia alone, and several forms have become firmly rooted outside Asia. Gamelan is probably the best-known form of Indonesian (and Asian) music outside Asia. The term generally refers to the percussion-dominated ensembles found on the islands of Java and Bali. Since a pioneering Dutch musicologist, Jaap Kunst, conducted research in this region during the 1920s and 1930s, gamelan has been one of the most studied musical genres of Asia. Performing ensembles were formed in the heyday of ethnomusicology at the American and European universities, many of which invited teachers from Indonesia. At present more than 100 groups exist in the United States alone, and at least a dozen in Europe. Gamelan ensembles are also found in Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and the Philippines.

One of the most discernible manifestations of globalization is the large-scale migration or dislocation of people. An unprecedented number of people from Asia now reside outside their country of origin, either within or outside Asia, as immigrants, refugees, temporary workers, students, and employees of transnational corporations. The reasons for relocation range from political to economic and educational, but regardless of the varying motivations, as people move to new sites of residence, their music travels with them.

The first way in which the relocation of people causes music to travel is through immigrants who bring the music of their homeland with them. Khmer classical music and dance are performed in some areas of the United States where Cambodians are concentrated (particularly Long Beach, California, and Lowell, Massachusetts), perhaps as actively and frequently as in Phnom Penh. Similarly, Vietnamese music is frequently performed in Westminster and San Jose (both in California), the largest U.S. enclaves of Vietnamese. The Vietnamese have also developed an active recording industry and club culture there. The Indian communities in both the United States and Britain have established many voluntary music associations modeled after those in India; these organize concerts of classical music, often by touring musicians from India. And in Germany, Turkish music thrives in the Turkish immigrant community.

Direct importation by immigrants is not the only mode of transmission, however. Music also crosses boundaries when the descendants of immigrants find inspiration in the music and dance of their parents and grandparents to which they were denied access for various reasons, including the pressure for assimilation and prejudice against immigrant culture. Their involvement in such performing arts is an attempt to reclaim their cultural roots. Let us now take a look at two examples of root-seeking music, since the capacity of music to serve as an anchor for identity will be increasingly important as more people find themselves in geographical and cultural dislocation.

Japanese Americans perform taiko at a festival in California.
This form of drumming has helped change traditional images of Asians.

Over the past three decades, Japanese Americans and Canadians have taken to performing a communal style of drumming known as taiko, which has come to be a central of attraction at their community festivals. Although the basic playing techniques and inspiration are drawn from the Japanese drumming tradition, North American taiko has developed into a genre of its own with a distinct performance style and meaning. Since the first taiko group was established in 1968 in San Francisco, the number of such groups has increased dramatically; about 150 taiko groups are currently active. Although the first group, the San Francisco Taiko Dojo, was established by a recently arrived immigrant from Japan, it was mainly sansei (third-generation Japanese American) youth who were attracted to this music.

The initial popularity of taiko among Japanese Americans rested on its political implications. Many of the sansei were raised at a time when memories of the World War II were still h5. Their nisei (second-generation) parents had been shipped off to wartime relocation camps on the basis of their ethnicity rather than citizenship or political creed, and many of these nisei came to believe in the Japanese aphorism that "the nail that stands out gets hammered hardest." For them, being Japanese spelled nothing but risk, and they encouraged their children to fully assimilate into mainstream white culture.

Inspired by the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the sansei came to realize their own cultural deprivation and began to search for their own niche in the multicultural society of the United States. Their major concerns were to eradicate the negative stereotypes about Asian Americans, such as that they are quiet (nonassertive) and hard-working but uncreative, and to free themselves from the self-depreciation and self-denial deriving from such stereotypes. For them, taiko was an effective means to achieve both goals: to change society and to change themselves.

Taiko is now making its presence felt in mainstream U.S. culture. Increasing numbers of non-Asian Americans are being exposed to this new art form. It is used in Hollywood movies, Las Vegas revues, and even amusement parks. However, as taiko becomes more visible in mainstream popular culture, the old problem of racial stereotyping has resurfaced. In the 1993 Hollywood film Rising Sun, starring Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes, the San Francisco Taiko Dojo is featured in the opening scene. Images of the group's performance are interspersed with steamy images of an affair between a white woman and a man who is unidentified but presumed to be Japanese, which leads to the woman's murder. Asian American activists severely criticized the film for its depiction of stereotypical Asian violence and eroticism and also for its blurring of Japanese and Japanese American cultures, and they held demonstrations against the showing of the film. The irony of the depiction of taiko music and its players in this film is that the performing art Japanese Americans took up as a means of fighting stereotypes came to be used in effect to reinforce them.


While North American taiko music presents an example of music crossing national boundaries, internal migration also engenders the traveling and rerooting of music. Eisâ is a form of music and dance performed in Okinawa during the summer Urabon festival, when the spirits of the deceased are believed to return to this world temporarily. During the festival, the spirits are welcomed, entertained with food, drink, and music, and then sent off until their next visit. In many areas of the main island of Okinawa and the smaller islands surrounding it, each town (or section of a city) has an eisâ group with a style of performance distinct in its use of instruments, dancers' movements, repertoire of songs, and costumes. A large eisâ group may have about 50 performers, consisting of musicians, dancers, and comic relief.

Eisâ has spread to places with sizable communities of Okinawan migrants. Okinawa is known for its high level of emigration, and a large number of people of Okinawan descent now reside in Hawaii, North America, and South America, as well as in large urban centers in Japan. Eisâ performances are featured prominently in cultural festivals serving to showcase Okinawan identity, whether in Osaka or Honolulu, Los Angeles or São Paulo.

Within Japan, Osaka has the largest off-island Okinawan community, centering on the Taishô section of the city, where a quarter of the population is estimated to be of Okinawan descent. In the 1970s, the booming economy in mainland Japan attracted many young Okinawans to seek employment in Osaka, especially after the reversion of Okinawa to Japan in 1972. Faced with grim working conditions and discrimination, however, many Okinawans had their dreams shattered, and their disillusionment resulted in some tragic incidents. In 1975 an association was formed to strengthen mutual support and started organizing social activities. Eisâ was chosen as the most important activity of the association, offering members the opportunity to reaffirm their Okinawan culture.

Second-generation Okinawans who grew up in Osaka and its environs also joined the group in large numbers. They had been torn between the negative stereotypes ("dirty," "crazy," "quick-tempered," "heavy drinkers") forced upon Okinawans and the identity crisis deriving from their own dislocation from Okinawa and its culture. For such young people, playing eisâ with fellow Okinawans was not mere entertainment but a search for the relevance of Okinawan culture in their diasporic existence. According to Kinjô Kaoru, a founding member of the group, eisâ was a way for them to regain their lost identity.

Today eisâ groups are found in Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Aichi, as well as in the Osaka area. Many young mainland Japanese have also joined. And in popular music, both Okinawan and mainland musicians have incorporated the eisâ rhythm into their compositions. The best-known Okinawan musician of this category is Kina Shôkichi, whose appearance at the Atlanta Olympic games in 1996 won him international media attention. Since the 1970s, Kina's rock-based songs with Okinawan lyrics have inspired many mainland Japanese musicians to incorporate elements of Okinawan music: instruments (especially sanshin, a three-stringed plucked lute), what is known as the Okinawan scale (the major scale without the second and sixth), and the rhythm of eisâ drumming. Many Okinawan pop music groups are also using eisâ rhythms in their songs, thus popularizing them in mainland Japan.


Where will Asian music go from here? Scholars of music feared, not too long ago, that globalization might engender a "musical gray-out," an increasing homogenization of the world's enormously diverse musical traditions. The modernization of lifestyles and the global dissemination of Western music, it was predicted, would drive many forms of traditional music into disuse and oblivion. While that outcome may be avoided, it does seem likely that the Euro-American and Japanese music industries will continue to commodify Asian music under the "world music" label. Certain types of music from Asia will be selected and distributed according to the logic of the industry: Some music will be vigorously promoted to top the hit charts, while other types without such potential will be neglected or ignored.

Cultural displacement is one of the most challenging effects of globalization. Asians relocate from villages to cities, from one region of the country to the another, and to other countries within and outside Asia. As more Asians relocate, the issue of cultural identity will become increasingly important. With its power to affect emotion, music (along with other performing arts) has become a site for the maintenance or reestablishment of cultural identities threatened by relocation and through contact (and conflict) with host communities. The music of Asia will continue to be diverse; governments and concerned organizations will strive to preserve existing traditional forms, while new forms and new meanings will be created in abundance, both within and outside Asia. Through this process we may narrowly escape musical McDonaldization, a situation in which everybody on the planet listens to the same packaged music.

[JAPANECHO (August, 2000) より転載]