Sometimes it seems that social scientists and environmentalists have taken ownership of the world, or at least the study of the world. Despite the fact that global competency is meant to touch all academic disciplines, discussions usually begin and end with anthropologists, political scientists and the like. We often forget that in the arts—music, drama, literature, painting—the crossing of cultural boundaries is commonplace and has been for a very long time. Thus it was good to see that the 2013 Global Mini-Conference, a public portion of the Institute for Curriculum and Campus Internationalization (ICCI—the directors don’t like it referred to as Icky), included amidst sessions on safe water, sexual violence, coffee production, climate change, human trafficking, and the like, a couple of sessions that spoke to the function of art in a global context.
One of those sessions investigated issues of artistic tradition and popular culture. Lynn Hooker, of IU’s Central Eurasian Studies department, introduced Romani history and culture, with its diaspora extending back more than a millennium. The musical world of the Roma was determined by the ‘Gypsy’ epithet imposed on them by the cultures they passed through. Ever persecuted, they were perceived to be capable only of “lower” art forms. However compelling, accomplished, original—the music of the Roma, at least as it was generated from within its own culture, was not awarded status as serious art. Romani music was permitted a place in high culture only when “purified” by composers who themselves were not Romani: Liszt, Bartók, Brahms; the list of composers influenced by Romani music is very long indeed.
Instead, Romani music blended with local folk music and became a feature of popular venues, weddings, public houses, holiday celebrations. As an essential part of popular art, it carries meaning and value to larger numbers of people than “high art” can, and has become equally indispensable. Its popularity offers a livelihood to Romani musicians, many of whom have established worldwide reputations, such as Hungarian restaurant musician Sándor Lakatos, Macedonian singer Esma Redzepova (Queen of the Gypsies), or the hiphop group gipsy.cz.
Jennifer Goodlander, of the Department of Theatre and Drama, then introduced the popular tradition of wayang kulit, shadow puppets, whose performances can last days and must go on even when no one is watching. The tradition of shadow puppets is as ancient and revered as the Hindu epics of the Mahabharata and Ramayana, whose roots are older than the Bible. The puppeteer has almost the rank of a priest. The puppets themselves have special status. Though seen only in shadow on a translucent screen, they are lovingly and brightly painted. There is even a ceremony of marriage between puppeteer and puppets.
Goodlander has studied with a puppeteer in Bali. She demonstrated how this tradition revivifies itself with each new generation by bringing in local color and details relevant to the audience of the day. After introducing and animating the ancient character of one particular clown, she flashed onto the screen an image of Homer Simpson. The aptness of the analogy was undeniable.
Romani music provides connections to Romani past, but was culturally pigeonholed by external ethnic hostility. Despite that prejudice, it absorbed local folk traditions wherever it went and earned a significant role in popular culture all over Europe. Shadow puppetry, another art of the people, provides a revered link to ancient culture via an avenue that is constantly repaved with elements of the popular familiar present.