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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

"Our" Music

Students asked me the other day if I could not teach a class on Dutch music. They will soon leave for a week in Portugal, doing an international project with students from all over Europe. And they felt a bit ashamed that they could not answer questions about “Dutch music” – the general opinion seems to be that there is no such thing as “Dutch music”, and that whatever there is is not presentable in public (old-fashioned, or second-rank, or “bad”). The painful question arises:  are we allowed to sing “Het kleine café in de haven” as expression of our Dutchness?

I agreed to teach the class willingly. I think the question is great. “What is Dutch music”? It reads to me as an interesting subspecies of the generic “What the hell is going on here?”-question (see the first entry of this weblog). And, contrary to popular belief, there is a lot to teach about the subject. Funnily enough, when I was in Sarajevo teaching a guest lecture ethnomusicology last year I asked the students over there what they would like to be taught about – and their answer was “Dutch music”.

So off I went, for two hours, starting with Rachid (“Ik ben Rachid, ik zing voor jou het levenslied”), touching on medieval ballads, 18th-century songbooks, 19th-century folksong composers (yes, composers), the 20th century folk song recordings of Ate Doornbosch, the first (‘30s) and second (‘60s-‘80s) folk song revivals, ending up with, of course, Jan Smit from Volendam. And without forgetting to mention Sweelinck, Herman Brood, Blöf, Fungus, and Louis Andriessen.

The main question to be addressed, though, is not really whether or not there exists something like “Dutch music”. Music doesn’t exist. “Musicking” exists: making music, listening to music, dancing on music, buying music, drinking to music, composing music. And labeling music. The real question is: why would people feel the need to label music as “Dutch music”?

Many answers come to mind. Because they want to express their individual or social identity in national terms – maybe in opposition to forces of globalization, Europeanisation or migration? Because it serves political goals – reinforcing the nation-state through music? Because there is a market for “Dutch music” internationally – because of the connotation with marketing concepts such as Dutch tolerance, Dutch liberal sexual morality, Dutch liberal soft-drugs policies? Because people want to reconnect with “their” history – in opposition to the forces of modernization? Assignment for at home: invent three more plausible reasons.

What it all boils down to, again: music in itself is a neutral phenomenon, and the way people use it for their own purposes is unendingly interesting. In it come questions of identity building, boundary maintenance and boundary crossing (read Fredrik Barth), and of inventing traditions (read the Hobsbawm/Ranger-book, especially Hugh Trevor-Roper’s chapter on the invention of Scottishness as expressed in kilts and clan tartans). One of the nicest examples of inventing a tradition for me is the singlehanded invention of a Frisian folk music heritage in the 1970s by the group Irolt – also because they managed to express a Frisian identity without opposing it to – equally invented - enemy identities (the Dutch, the Groningers).

That is the reason why I often show in one of my lessons on world music a YouTube video of the folk music inspired death metal song “Trollhammeren” of the Finnish group Finntroll. Whether or not the song is musically interesting is uninteresting (personally I love the combination of grunting with the accordion) – just try to understand why this music exists as it is, for who this might be “our music”, and what the hell is going on, there, anyway.

Fredrik Barth. Ethnic Groups and Boundaries. The Social organization of Culture Difference. Long Grove: Waveland, 1998 (1969).

Evert Bisschop Boele. “De Friese folk van Irolt” [The Frisian Folk Music of Irolt]. Volkskundig Bulletin 23/1 (1997): 1-27.


Eric Hobsbawm and Terry Ranger (ed.) The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

1 comment:

  1. What strikes me usually when this question is asked ("what is Dutch music?"), is the clear surprise behind it that the answer is not straightforward. For the Dutch no fados, tango, banjo plucking or throat singing. The fact that there is a quest at all, is interesting in itself.
    Maybe we are being especially hard on ourselves when we ask "what is Dutch music(king)"? Maybe just because I don't own André Hazes cd's (or do I?), does not necessarily mean that André Hazes is not a part of my music-cultural habitat and heritage as a Dutch person?
    So yes indeed: when I am asked in international settings to sing 'something Dutch' I sing of the kite for my mother... Maybe I would do better to sing, more relevantly: "Een man weet niet wat-iet mist, tot ze er niet is, tot ze er niet is" (De Dijk).

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