No Bagpipes on the Beach: The Music/Climate Theory

19 11 2009

Historians often talk about the correlation between race and music in America, and it is a fascinating topic to consider.  Jazz, blues, soul, reggae, gospel, R&B, and hip-hop are all traditionally “black” forms of music, while rock, punk, country, and bluegrass are more traditionally “white.”  

You can trace many of these diversions back to slavery– gospel and blues music arose from an oppressed, abused generation of American slaves who needed songs and spirituality to get them through the day, and the sounds and the lyrics of gospel and blues music clearly reflect that suffering.  Soul music is essentially a fusion of gospel and blues (with some rhythm added in), jazz originated in the early 20th century Deep South among African-American communities, reggae sprung up in Jamaica as a conglomeration of African and European musical influences with a Rastafarian twist, and hip-hop obviously has its roots in African tribal rhythms, which is why these forms of music have always been considered primarily “black” (these are obviously enormous simplifications, but I don’t have 200 pages to discuss). 

A lot of what we call “white” music– namely country– was clearly influenced by the aforementioned forms, but splintered off in the early 20th century, probably on purpose so as to separate itself from the culture of “race records.”  

This is all very interesting to me, but I’ve always wanted someone to push it further.  For instance, why did incredibly different kinds of sounds develop in different parts of the globe in the first place?  I’ve had this theory for a long time, based on personal observations, that the music of a particular nation is heavily influenced by its landscape and weather patterns.  

It can’t be a coincidence that I only go through hard-hitting reggae phases during the summertime, or when I’m on vacation at the beach.  The sounds lend themselves to a hot, sunny, laid-back, slow-paced life, similar to every day existence in Jamaica.  There is no way that reggae music could have been invented in Russia or Finland– I doubt anybody walks to work in Moscow with “Buffalo Soldier” blasting through their headphones.  That song reeks of humidity and margaritas.  

My musical tastes have always seemed to shift with the seasons.  Songs on my iPod that I consistently skip over in the summer suddenly grab me again when the leaves change– namely, high-energy Euro electronic music.  Remember that song “Not Gonna Get Us” by T.A.T.U, the two Russian teenage girls that danced around in their underwear pretending to be lesbians in their music video as a publicity stunt?  I got so used to skipping over that song in the random shuffle this summer that I forgot it was on the list.  Then suddenly, as I was walking to bars the other night in my sweater and boots, it came on and my finger froze.  I let it play, and it was absolutely glorious.  Techno fits in Russia; it fits in Berlin; it fits in D.C. during the colder months.  It doesn’t work in Bora Bora, or Costa Rica, or New Orleans.

In fact, there are entire instruments that I avoid hearing in warm weather, such as bagpipes.  Can you imagine sitting on the beach in Hawaii listening to bagpipes?  But when a blanket of grey covers the sky and the winds pick up and you find yourself in the UK countryside contemplating death, nothing quite captures the mood like a good bagpipe.  It’s no surprise that bagpipes are the national instrument of Scotland (I made that up, but it’s also probably true).  

Man Bagpiping in Crappy Weather

The landscape in Scotland is beautiful and contemplative, but it’s not especially sexy, and the music reflects that.  By contrast, Rio de Janeiro, with its tropical climate, long stretches of beach and jutting cliffs is just about the sexiest city I’ve ever seen.  The people run around half naked jabbing straws into wild fruits and gyrating to samba music, which is some of the hottest, most evocative music you will ever hear.  It can’t possibly be a coincidence.

I’m not sure what my point is, here, except that it’s really interesting to actually sit down and think about those things that feel so natural and obvious to us that we forget to question them, like the music/climate connection.  

…Isn’t it? 





3 responses

19 11 2009

i hear ya!
do me one favor though, please explain this:

steel drums?! it just doesn’t seem to fit “the climate”…

19 11 2009

Let’s not forget Ella Fitzgerald’s SCAT – incredile timing – can go anywhere. I am not an Opera lover but especially Wagner, heavy German – belongs only in an Opera House. On the other hand, Gilbert and Sullivans operettas, HMS Pinafore, The Mikado etc. very British, fun, great timing, good solos and chorus – international but not Caribbean. For those who like to go back in time. Now the CELLO – this is my favorite instrument. A good cellist like YoYo Ma, (spelling?)for instance, can take you to any mood – soulful, exciting, even Jazz. I could sit anywhere in the world, close my eyes and listen to him forever.

23 11 2009

I agree, but I can’t figure out a system to explain it all! I got as far as Bjork, bagpipes, island vs. continental, brazil, hot and cold, body temperature, and the sexy.
Back to work.

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