Music and Cultural Rights

By Andrew N. Weintraub and Bell Yung. 2009. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. 328 pages. ISBN: 978-0-252-03473-2 (hard cover), 978-0-252-07662-6 (soft cover).


Reviewed by Burt Feintuch, University of New Hampshire

[Review length: 932 words • Review posted on July 16, 2010]


Composer and scholar Felicia Sandler’s essay, “In Search of a Cross-Cultural Legal Framework: Indigenous Music as a Worldwide Commodity,” which closes out Music and Cultural Rights, is a remarkably succinct, thoughtful, and provocative discussion of the tensions between individual and cultural rights in regard to human creativity. Sandler’s chapter provides both a framework and a point of view that, to this reader, grounds this book. In a volume that consists largely of case studies, Sandler’s writing provokes us to think more broadly and systematically about the specific places, situations, and issues those case studies address. Because of that essay’s significance, I use it here as a way to talk about Music and Cultural Rights, a book of genuine importance, but one that, like many other collections of papers, sometimes obscures its significance by focusing on particularities of location, circumstance, and genre.

On one level, Sandler’s essay is also a case study. It opens with a discussion of a covert field recording made by a Western musician in the Sudan. That recording—a recording of religious recitation—eventually formed the basis of at least two commercial recordings and is incorporated in various formal musical compositions in the West. It’s a troubling example. Sandler moves from the details of the story to a very useful discussion of legal precedents—although these are mostly international conventions, not law—regarding the rights of communities to their expressive culture, particularly in regard to intellectual property regimes and broad international declarations, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that articulate doctrines of rights. Most of the latter, Sandler points out, have to do with the rights of individuals, not communities—that is, they are about individual, not cultural, rights. This is true, too, of international practice in regard to intellectual property, which connects “property” (creative endeavor fixed in form) to individual ownership. Thus, as Sandler says, cultural rights are “underarticulated” in international law. Where they are best articulated on a global scale is in the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The fact is that in international legal contexts it’s sometimes easier to talk about community-based creativity in the context of indigenous cultures, although that’s not entirely the paradigm for US and Canadian folklorists. Regardless, Sandler extrapolates and sums up the issues, which “pertain to inalienable rights a cultural group has to express and develop their culture” (250). If some cultural rights seem inalienable, more controversial is the right to claim ownership of the products of cultural creativity and “to control the disposition of their cultural heritage” (250). Then factor in moral rights—do such groups have rights regarding the interpretation of their culture? Sandler’s article should be foundational in our field.

Music and Cultural Rights presents nine case studies (if we include Sandler’s piece as a case study), set in six countries, of music as it figures in what the editors, in their introduction, term “rights discourses.” The contributors are scholars, mostly ethnomusicologists and area-studies specialists. Folklorists are notable only in their absence from this volume, although some of the contributors have a history as fellow travelers, and Ricardo D. Trimillos centers his article on the representation of the Philippines at the 1998 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Each contributor focuses on a dilemma, or set of problems, resulting from the intersection of community-based musical forms and larger forces and entities. For instance, ethnomusicologist Javier F. León looks at the consequences of the Peruvian national government declaring a minority music part of national patrimony, in a context where cultural policy and marginalized communities are essentially removed from each other. Ethnomusicologist Helen Rees writes about appropriation and ownership issues of the musics of minority communities in China, with particular reference to copyright law, the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, and a set of examples of contentiousness about definition, rights of ownership, and rights of use. And Amy Ku’uleialoha Stillman wonders whether communities should have rights of access to materials collected from them, a right often denied them by the institutions that house the materials. “Is the right of a group of people to know their history undeniable?” she writes (106), a question mirrored in an issue of the WIPO Magazine (April 2010) that arrived in my mail this morning.

Music and Cultural Rights is a timely book in that it recognizes and addresses what amounts to growing international momentum in attempts to define and face up to issues of cultural rights, often within the overlapping realms of heritage and intellectual property. Certainly, UNESCO, WIPO, the World Trade Organization, and the United Nations itself, among other international agencies, are trying to limn and then address these important and perplexing matters. The issues themselves are remarkably complicated, and with the increasing pace of the commoditization of what once might have seemed unlikely, there seems, more than ever, to be a great amount at stake. In that context, it’s a bit surprising that the Internet doesn’t figure more prominently in this volume. And while the issues may seem to have an ever-increasing urgency, it’s important to remember that folklorists and other scholars have a long history of being implicated, in complicated and not always laudatory ways, in these matters. Finally, it’s striking that in a volume that I read as having a subtext—although this may be me projecting my values—that has to do with recognizing the deep value and significance of the expressive lives of cultural communities and the people who comprise those communities, all the contributors are academics. Go to the WIPO meetings, and you see strong representation from indigenous groups and other local communities. Why not here?

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.