Authenticity: A word ethnos love to hate

Liza’s wonderful blog post about Gnawa music got me thinking. Her questions regarding the authenticity of what she saw in the restaurant are near and dear to most ethnomusicological research. They reminded me of the development of tourist performances of gamelan in Bali. There, very sacred music was secularized to create interesting and exciting tourist performances. And traditions, such as kecak (the “monkey chant”) were created and associated with the Ramayana for the same reasons.

Most ethnomusicologists would be the first to say these performances aren’t authentic, in the sense that they are derivatives of an original or a newly invented tradition. There seems to be no middle ground with authenticity; either something is authentic or it isn’t. We can and do argue at length over the value of authenticity and many authors writing on globalization seem to have concluded that authenticity is an outdated concept. “Embrace the hybrid,” they proclaim, “because everything is hybrid now.”

It’s interesting to consider that the first definition that popped up when I googled “authentic” was the following: “of undisputed origin; genuine.” These are two very different things and don’t necessarily relate to how ethnos view authenticity. We may be able to pinpoint the exact origin of a hybridized piece of music. What is it about that piece of music that makes it disingenuous? Knowing the origin of something doesn’t automatically make that thing genuine. There are nuances to this word that make it fascinating and frustrating as all hell. I wonder if it’s possible to search for the origins of something without considering its authenticity. Is it possible to proclaim a piece of hybrid music genuine? To Liza’s questions, I would like to add: is the concept of authenticity still valuable to ethnomusicologists and if so, how and why? What do we stand to gain or lose by setting authenticity aside, even temporarily?

– Heather

1 thought on “Authenticity: A word ethnos love to hate

  1. Great questions Heather! My friend Mike List suggested the article below as food for thought in our authenticity conversation:

    Ricker writes about authenticity in terms of food culture, and is not a fan of the term, arguing that traditions are not homogenous everywhere, and they change constantly – though neither conditions render elements of culture less valuable.

    I like that you mentioned the word genuine as well; that’s how I think of authenticity, more than origins.


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