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Ethnic music and (in) progressive rock : a comparative analysis

Written by Philippe Blache

  1. Prog rock : an urban culture
  2. The situation of ethnic music and its oral tradition
  3. The music outside of its original context : a key entry for a musical dialogue


1. The urban cultures accelerate the " acculturation " process (when two or several cultures meet directly and continuously together, consequences generate changes on the cultural "patterns ") and create new forms of musical expression: amplification, electric & electronic instruments. In other words, modern languages (jazz, rock…) can communicate with native elements in a sense of " fusion " or inter-influences. Very satisfying in term of musical improvement, these meetings will participate to the development of " world music ". In some aspects, progressive music appears as an artistic answer to the search of the " difference ". It can also be considered as a valuable answer of our modern crisis and urban uprooting. However, basically ethnic rock is an avatar of western popular music and remains far from the preoccupations of populations, tribes and all " ethnic " musicians which largely ignore the sense of our sophisticated, " cold " (and progressive) musical orientations.

2. The whole of ethnic music has in common the fact to be expressed by the oral tradition and to grant by consequence a major importance to the improvisation (the notion of improvisation will be taken back by jazz music, free form rock and a large part of progressive bands which often put to the fore the technical virtuosity of the musicians: in fusion jazz for instance). Contrary to our interpretation, the term "improvisation" doesn't mean for an "ethnic" musician the aptitude to give free expressions and pure imagination. It has more to do with the re-actualization of a process, whose the extent varies in function of the cultures, in order to renew the music without making art unrecognizable or unintelligible to the other members of the group. In its original state, "traditional" music only exists in situation, in its context. From the "high" cultures (as China, India, Middle East, West…) the music is not at the disposition of every one, but reserved to a few specialists. It is based on a natural speculation, consisting of a musical theory, explicit and verbal. The music is aesthetic but sometimes connected with religious and functional motifs. In the cultural "ethnic" minorities, the music is entirely turned to the oral tradition and is always socially ritualized. It appears under an esoteric, metaphoric form with lot of symbols.

3. Without being misrepresented or betrayed in its identity, each traditional genre can exist outside of its normal context. Several musicians accomplish their performances outside of their cultural background. Some great Indian, African…soloists feel at ease outside of their country. Huge collective manifestations, musical festivals as Woodstock (with the appearance of guests as Ravi Shankar or others) are linked to the massive Western encouragement to promote musical structures outside of their context in order to have a new regard on extra-European musical heritage.

Here is a partial list of progressive items where the inclusion of "ethnic", "traditional", "world" elements are well defined:
  • Abbhama "Alam Raya" -Japanese 70's prog rock with Indonesian percussions
  • Arco Iris "Arco Iris"- a 70's Latin American jazz rock band with folk accents and a Tibetan philosophical background.
  • Between "Daharna" - German prog rock full of acoustic, "world" elements.
  • Callender, Bobby " Rainbow" / "The way" - mystical indo jazz rock project
  • Codona "1,2,3" - Side project of the sitar player Colin Walcott, it features and abundant use of African, Indian and Japan traditional music arrangements into a pure free jazz rock music.
  • Deuter "D" / "Aum" - Kraut, ethnic rock with a lot of sitar, tribal percussions
  • Embryo "We keep on" / "Surfin" - German Fusion jazz with African, Eastern influences put into in the mix.
  • Eno, Brian "My life in the bush of ghosts" - rhythmical electronic pre ambient project with middle eastern influences.
  • Fit & Limo "Terra Incognita" - progressive folk rock with African percussions and sitar
  • Flute & Voice "Imaginations of light" - Dreamy indo folk rock with a combination of flute and sitar.
  • Gila "Bury my heart at wounded knee" - Krautrock conceptual album about native Americans.
  • Magic Carpet "Magic Carpet" - Indo "world" jazz rock
  • Popol Vuh "Yoga" / "Tantric songs" / "Sei still wiss ich bin" - Traditional raga music for the first, meditative rock with Tibetan accents for the second, massive ethnic choir for the third.
  • Quintessence "Quintessence" - Indo prog rock.
  • Shakti "Natural elements" / Shakti" - Indo world jazz with the guitarist John Mc Laughlin
  • Third Ear band "Alchemy" - multi influenced psychedelic album with eastern harmonies
  • Tibbetts, Steve "Yr" / "Safe journey" - "World" jazz rock with Indonesian, African percussions.
(updated soon)

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