When I first arrived at Northern Illinois University, I thought I wanted to pursue jazz and dip my feet into some of the world music that NIU had to offer. Wow, did I have that backwards.

Deciding to switch my focus to a broader, literally more globalized study was one of the best decisions I have made to date, and this class was a great glimpse into the reasons why. Jazz is an amazingly dense, complex musical world, and there is so much I want to explore within it, but what this class has helped me realize it that it is just one of many amazingly dense, complex musical worlds out there. Of course, this is not to say I was completely unaware before – I had already become pretty heavily interested and involved in things like steel pan and West African drumming and love both, but if you’ve read my other posts, you likely saw my post about Hindustani music, which I referred to as “Hindustani Narnia.” Honestly, I could refer to any of the styles we studied this semester in that same way.

I have always talked about how amazed I am that there is so much music out there in the world to discover, play, and love, but getting even a brief insight into Middle Eastern, Hindustani, Korean, Carnatic, Indonesian, and Spanish theory, rhythms, dance, and singing just over the course of about four months is really an amazing opportunity. I’ve learned not only the material but, as you’ve seen, the differences in pedagogical approaches that different people take depending on their unique backgrounds.

Additionally, as someone who absolutely loves traveling the world to study different cultures’ musics and feels extremely lucky to have had and am looking forward to more opportunities to do so, getting to cover this much ground in such a short period of time AND doing so with multiple primary sources is nothing short of a blessing. Are there things I would do differently if I were teaching styles that I know well? Absolutely, but I wouldn’t know what those were if I hadn’t experienced them the way I have this semester. On the flip side, are there things I would do differently as a student if given another chance? Absolutely, and I hope I do have more of these chances so that I can continue to grow both as a musician and a person, because both types of growth absolutely exist in every opportunity, especially in music.

So now I go forward with this – people have asked me, “what do you want to do with a degree in World Music?” I’ve gotten it over and over again, as most people honestly just have no idea what the options are. Do I want to teach? Do I want to perform? What about the Arts Administration degree I got in undergrad, do I still want to pursue that? Well, the answer is yes. All of the above, and for the first time, I feel like I’m finally starting to get a clear picture of what a real, fulfilling, and sustainable life that can be.

This is a Buleria, a style of Spanish Flamenco. If you can’t tell from the video, Flamenco is known for its fiery energy and complex rhythmic structure. Complex as it may be, how complicated is it, really? In reality, the rhythms are nowhere near as complicated as they sound, but to our Western ears, their ability to dance (literally and figuratively) so quickly and smoothly around what would otherwise seem to be a simple rhythmic structure is part of what makes Flamenco such an amazingly unique style in the world.

Fortunately, we are lucky enough to have Eric Schroeder in our class, who has done some Flamenco study himself, and was able to give us a little bit of insight! It was an unfortunately short-lived overview of Flamenco rhythm and dance, but this is a style I’ve become increasingly interested in as I’ve had a chance to work with Andrea Salcedo, an undergraduate guitar major who has grown up surrounded by Flamenco – but more on that later.

As has become a theme in recent posts, this ended up being another lesson in pedagogy for me in addition to learning some Flamenco dance steps. First, Eric pointed out that the style we would be working with would be in 12, but this alone is interesting to note because, in Flamenco, you have to think of counting time like a clock; rather than starting on 1, you start on 12, so the “downbeat” is on 12, the second beat is on 1, etc. This is something I actually discovered working with Andrea, but again, more on that later. Secondly, it is important to note the groupings within the pattern – in Western subdivision terms, we would say that it is subdivided in 3+3+2+2+2, with emphasis on the first of each grouping. He then went on to show us the heel-toe foot combinations that form the basic steps of Flamenco and even played with us a bit.

As I mentioned, this was a short-lived lesson, but he also did briefly mention some Flamenco theory, mainly noting that the chord progression very indicative of Flamenco is the famous iv-iii-ii-i progression which ends up being slightly modal due to the parallelism. It is simple, but Flamenco would, without a doubt, not be the same without it.

Again, however, what was most interesting to me in the end was the differences in teaching styles. Typically, when you learn from what you would call a secondary source (someone who learned the style intentionally rather than growing up with it as a part of their culture), especially in America, the teacher ends up using a very Westernized, almost mathematical and/or theoretical approach to teaching. When you learn from a primary source (someone who is native to the source of the style), they tend to teach it the way they learned it, which is typically by rote and imitation. In Andrea’s case, I would personally put her somewhere in between. Andrea and her family are from Mexico, which is just about as far from Flamenco’s homeland of Spain as we are here in Illinois, but she grew up with older brothers already active in the Flamenco world and learned the style virtually the same way a Spaniard would, and even visited Spain to study.

With that said, when I first worked with Andrea, she was trying to explain to me how to count a Buleria (like is seen in the video above and is counted in 12), and it wasn’t until I saw a Flamenco metronome app she had on her phone that I had the mini-epiphany about counting it the same way as a clock and was able to figure out where the “downbeat” was. Additionally, she gave me an amazing amount of music to go listen to, which I did, and was never disappointed. In fact, I came to realize by listening and talking to her that there is actually a connection between Flamenco and Irish music. Geographically, this doesn’t seem too ridiculous, but it is definitely not something I had thought about since I had never really heard the two in even remotely the same context until I heard this song:

The addition of a fiddle and flute alone has the sound of an Irish folk group, but even the ornamentations on the melody scream Irish folk music. Vicente amigo is definitely considered one of the best living Flamenco guitarists from my understanding (and you can hear why if you listen to any of his music), and this music definitely has a hybrid sound to it, which is not something you necessarily hear a whole lot of if you just search for Flamenco!

All this said, Flamenco is a deep, complex world that I definitely plan on diving deeper into in hopefully the near future, but for now I will just enjoy it for all it is worth as a listener!

…after a semester of playing it? What is there left to learn?

Of course, this is a naive question – otherwise this would have been the shortest blog post possibly ever!

This week, the one and only Omar Al-Musfi joined us in class to teach us Middle Eastern rhythms. I had the chance to be in the Middle Eastern Music Ensemble, which he also directs, so yes there was a good amount of overlap, but that is not to say that I came out without having learned anything.

Even if I didn’t live by the mantra that you can gain something out of every experience, I, once again, learned quite a bit about Omar’s teaching style in an ensemble versus more of a “lecture” type setting.

At least as far as drumming goes, Omar prefers to teach strictly by rote. This isn’t surprising, as Western music is really one of the only parts of the musical world that tends to prefer otherwise. In Middle Eastern Music Ensemble, we often would be given a copy of the melody that the other players were using and told to play certain rhythms at certain places, and Omar would then usually just make sure we knew what the rhythm was called so we knew next time he referenced it. On the whole, this learning setting was pretty low-key.

On the other hand, when he came in to teach our class a handful of rhythms, we of course had to start with basic sounds (which is never bad to go back over, even for people with any amount of prior experience), but when it was time to move on to learning the actual rhythms, he handed out a packet with pages full of notated rhythms organized by time signature. After an entire semester of playing in his ensemble, I had never seen this packet before.

So why did he approach is so differently in the classroom? He knew that each setting had a different goal. In Middle Eastern Music Ensemble, the goal is to learn tunes to perform for a concert. In that class, the goal is to be able to use and reference these rhythms in the future, and given only about two hours to cover a topic worth a lifetime, he knew that supplying these rhythms in notated form and playing through a handful of them to understand how they are supposed to feel and sound would be the best use of our time, and I couldn’t agree with him more. Simple as they seem, experiences like these will undoubtedly hold a lasting effect on the way I decide to teach in the future.

This week we were visited by Dr. David Gordon, composer, percussionist, and NIU alum who is now making a name for himself writing what would be considered modern music with very strong ties to different musical-cultural traditions.

Before I even get into his music, though, I’m really fascinated by this concept of very old, traditional music having found a way to be considered modern. It is truly amazing that certain styles have not only lasted hundreds or even thousands of years, but seem to hold so much significance and complexity that people are still finding new ways to use the same rhythmic and melodic patterns that have been used the whole time.

Case in point is Dr. Gordon’s piece “Hollow Psalm” which can be heard here. Hollow Psalm is a piece written for Javanese Gamelan and orchestra. Neither of these ensembles are even arguably new to the world, so how and why is it that it took until 2009, when this piece was performed, for it to exist in the world? This is not to say the two had never been combined before, but this was a very new idea to Dr. Gordon when he wrote it and definitely not one that had been utilized to much extent previously. My theory is that the two ensembles were simply busy discovering and enjoying other things prior to this, both as groups and concepts, which just continues the fascination with certain music’s ability to be so complex that it takes hundreds, thousands, or even more years to discover everything it is truly worth.

In addition, Dr. Gordon spent a lot of time talking about how certain things influenced him, or not for that matter. I even remember listening to another one of his pieces and asking him if a certain part was intentionally based on Middle Eastern maqam, to which he actually seemed surprised in that it had absolutely no impact on his compositional process for that piece and that it was more than likely coincidental. However, even he was the first to point out that his knowledge of the music very well could have had a subconscious effect on the piece as he was writing it.

That thought, to me, is extremely exciting. As someone who is very passionate about discovering different music traditions, learning them, and being able to mix them all together in some attempted sensible way, I love the thought that everything I am learning now may, some day, seed itself so deep in my mind that it starts influencing the things I play/perform/write without me even noticing. I can only hope to achieve this level of understanding for anything I do, but situations like that with Dr. David Gordon show me that it is all not only possible but probable, and that is one of the most exciting realizations that anyone with any aspirations can have.

I feel very fortunate to have had the chance to work with Dr. Han, the man/myth/legend that started world music at NIU back in the 70’s, during my time at the University of Kentucky, where he taught the Balinese Gamelan Ensemble during my freshman year. I felt particularly lucky that this happened early on, as it led to many more opportunities to learn and play Javanese Gamelan and Chinese music that I highly doubt I would have otherwise had.

So why do I bring up Dr. Han? He was the first of what is now three different teachers I have had the chance to learn Gamelan from, and while many of the concepts of playing the instrument have remained the same, much like having the different teachers for Carnatic music, the teaching approach was different for all three.

Learning from Dr. Han was relatively simple – he has been teaching Gamelan for a very long time to Westerners and is very used to teaching them how things are supposed to go. However, being Chinese, he did not grow up with Gamelan, and therefore all of his knowledge, even that which he gained while studying Gamelan in Bali, comes to us secondhand. While those of us involved didn’t appreciate it any less as a result, it does affect the way he understands and ultimately teaches it.

This semester, however, I had the chance to work with Pak Ngurah, the director of the NIU Gamelan Ensemble. Pak Ngurah did grow up in Bali and therefore has a very different, much more complex understanding of Balinese Gamelan. Since I had worked with Dr. Han, Dr. Wang offered me the opportunity to learn kendang with Pak Ngurah, which are the two drum parts that lead the ensemble rather than the melodic part. There were two very interesting difficulties in doing this even beyond the general difficulty of understanding all that is Balinese Gamelan.

The first is that Pak Ngurah speaks very little English, which meant that most of the learning experience was made up of monkey see, monkey do style teaching with some very broken, intermittent English words where necessary. Most days, the amount of true English conversation I had with Pak Ngurah was limited to “Hello,” “No, like this,” “Yes!” (which was always encouragingly ecstatic when I would get something right for the first time), and “Ok, bye.” Otherwise, it was a lot of him singing and demonstrating the drum parts and me attempting to imitate them as best as I could. Occasionally, he would switch drums on me and expect me to have the other part down because they tend to think of the two drums’ composite rhythm rather than each individual part, which caught me off guard at first, but I like to think I eventually caught on.

The second difficulty I actually didn’t even realize until Pak Made and his son, our guest artists for the 2016 NIU World Music Concert, arrived to work with us. As I had been told, Pak Ngurah is a very talented man in many ways but primarily a dancer, so the drum parts he showed me, while not incorrect per se, were not exact. From what I’ve been able to put together in my own head since the concert, I’m pretty sure that this is because Pak Ngurah was teaching me the parts as he is used to hearing them rather than the parts as he is used to playing them. It seems like this wouldn’t make too much of a difference, but in reality it really does. When Pak Made came in and him and his son were showing me the drum parts, at first I felt like I was learning it all over from scratch (I should also note this is during the dress rehearsal the morning of the concert). However, as time went on, I realized where Pak Ngurah (are you keeping everyone straight?) was getting his rhythms from, and I was eventually able to make quite a few parallels to what I had already learned. Of course, this is all keeping in mind that Pak Made and his son speak very good English, both grew up and still live in Bali part of the year, and have been teaching Westerners for a very long time.

In the end, the short time I had to learn with Pak Made and his son was essentially like taking the strongest aspects of Dr. Han’s teaching with the strongest aspects of Pak Ngurah’s experience and combining them into one, which served as a great full-circle experience.

You can see the final result of all of this in the video from the World Music Concert here!

If you’ve been following along, you might have already seen the two posts about Hindustani music a few posts ago. As mentioned in that post, Hindustani music is Indian Classical music native to the northern part of the country, whereas Carnatic music is that to the southern part of the country, and this week we were lucky enough to learn about Carnatic music from multiple sources.

The first was actually N. Scott Robinson and his wife K.S. Resmi, who visited our World Music Pedagogy class and did a guest recital as part of a graduate colloquium. K.S. Resmi, an India native, demonstrated much of the vocal techniques explained in the Hindustani lesson a few weeks prior (and challenged us to pull back out some of what we had learned) while Scott was able to talk more on behalf of the rhythmic structure of Carnatic music, which is where many of the main differences between it and Hindustani music tend to lie.

The most fascinating part of watching the two of them present together was watching two people who were passionate about the same music explain and reiterate the ways in which they gained their knowledge and understanding of Carnatic music. K.S. Resmi grew up with Carnatic music as most native musicians do, studying with a guru starting at age 4 and attending lessons every single day until she was twelve, at which point she continued lessons but also started teaching students of her own. To this day, she still has something like 40-50 students spread in different areas of the world who she teaches via Skype. Most importantly, she has learned and teaches everything by rote.

N. Scott Robinson, on the other hand, has gained much of his musical knowledge through American academia, though he also spent significant time in India studying Carnatic music, which is actually where he met K.S. Resmi. Regardless, his background is significantly more academic, and therefore his understanding and presentation of information falls much more into this category as well. In particular, the way he explained rhythms, especially in odd meters, was extremely mathematical and worked out in a notation that could be easily read and understood by just about everyone in the classroom at the time. Additionally, he has used his knowledge to create many non-traditional pieces such as his piece “Walk of Doum,” which he actually did teach by rote (pretty insistently, I might add) and had a small group of us perform at their guest recital. I’ve included a video below – remember, these are not traditional rhythms, but more or less traditional techniques/sounds for these drums that have been appropriated into something unique.

In our actual Analytical Techniques of World Music class, however, (the one this blog is intended for, for those who have not been following since the beginning) we welcomed Dr. Vijay, a Marketing professor here at Northern Illinois University, who has had Carnatic music at the center of his life since the beginning.

Now, the fact that he is a Marketing professor should say quite a bit on its own. This should not imply that he lacks any amount of musical talent whatsoever, but rather goes to show how much this is traditionally considered an aspect of life rather than a profession. Dr. Vijay was so extremely knowledgable in his presentation of Carnatic music, and even though much of the basic information was repeated from N. Scott Robinson and K.S. Resmi’s presentation/performance, everyone felt like we learned so much just by the way he taught the information versus the way it was taught before. Even something as simple as him being impressed with how quickly we caught on to certain things as simple as matching his pitch – this goes to show that he is not used to working with people that have had any significant amount of ear training, which again does not reflect the quality of his abilities whatsoever, but rather reflects the difference in musical culture.

While the theoretical knowledge I gained from both presentations was fantastic, what was even more valuable to me was experiencing the different ways the same information was presented and how much I was able to learn from all three approaches. Culture has such a heavy impact on how we present anything, let alone traditional music within that culture, and having this invaluable experience will undoubtedly affect the way I teach anything from this point forward in my life.

This week we had the pleasure of working with Byoung Kim and Suwan Choi, who taught us the beginnings of Pungmul, a style of traditional Korean drumming. This was particularly interesting not just because I am a percussionist by trade, but more so because, up to this point, the class has been focused more on the melodic and harmonic theory behind different styles of music from around the world.

If you aren’t familiar with or haven’t heard Pungmul before, it’s an extremely energetic, powerful style of drumming that you’ve likely heard out of context before, especially in film music attempting to set battle scenes set in East Asian context. This is very much a generalization, but utilization nonetheless. Regardless, if you haven’t heard it, here is an example:

Like many traditional cultural musics, Pungmul rose out of its use as accompaniment for rituals, a way of overcoming heavy farming labor, and eventually in marketplaces and villages by traveling troupes. Something particularly interesting to me about this, however, is that, while drumming is very common for traditional music to accompany rituals, a lot of the music that came out of farm labor was vocal music since that tended to be both the most convenient and least physically taxing, but in this case something very physical was their way of overcoming physical labor. The idea of drumming being used therapeutically is not a brand new concept, but this is still very intriguing to me. It makes me wonder about the science behind the types of endorphins released when someone is drumming or just playing music in general, which is a concept I have heard and read about in the past as well. Regardless, is it obviously something Koreans have understood and utilized for a very long time.

The other aspect of Pungmul that undoubtedly grabs my attention is the symbolism. I am a sucker for symbolism in any sense, but especially in music and musical traditions. The costumes seen in the video are made up of five distinct colors representing what they consider the five elements – water, fire, wind, soil, and metal.

On a more modern level is Samul-Nori, a modern interpretation of Pungmul (seen in the video above), which directly translates to “the play of four instruments.” These four instruments listed below represent different parts of what come together to create the sound of a storm.

  1. Kwenggari (small gong) – represents thunder
  2. Jing (large gong) – represents wind
  3. Janggu (large hourglass-shaped drum) – represents rain
  4. Buk (barrel drum) – represents clouds

If you go back and listen to the video included at the beginning, you can see and hear each of these sounds represented.

If you’re interested in learning more about Pungmul/traditional Korean drumming, make Byoung Kim is the Executive Artistic Director at the Global Pungmul Institute in Wheeling, IL, and you can check out more about what they do here!

…to talk about “world music.” Not just the concept, but the term.

When you Google the definition for “world music,” it defines it as “traditional music from the developing world.” Merriam-Webster defines it as “popular music originating from or influenced by non-Western musical traditions and often having a danceable rhythm […].” Personally, I absolutely hate both of these definitions, and like David Byrne explains in his article entitled “I Hate World Music,” (which I highly recommend reading, and that isn’t something I do often), I have really come to hate the term. Let me explain why.

The closest thing to any amount of all-inclusive truth in either of these definitions is the phrase “traditional music,” but even this is largely untrue about music categorized as world music. The only reason this is close to true is simply based on stereotypes. When someone who has not spent time studying this field, which in all fairness is most people since it is a pretty new field of study relatively speaking, is asked what they think is considered world music, the most common response from musicians and non-musicians alike is, more often than not, a reference to African drumming, Latin music, or Asian music, all three of which can very easily be broken down into hundreds of categories of their own. Just within African drumming, there is West African drumming, within West African drumming is Ghanaian drumming, and within Ghanaian drumming is Ewe drumming, and within Ewe drumming is a popular style called Gahu, which is finally just one style of African drumming. Similarly, within Asian music is Korean music, within Korean music is South Korean music, and within South Korean music is K-Pop, which houses the famous “Gangnam Style” by Psy. Who out there would put Gangnam Style and traditional West African drumming of any style in the same category? Anyone? Anyone at all? No? I didn’t think so… so why are we doing this on a regular basis?

Some of you may be saying, “But Gangnam Style isn’t in the same category as West African drumming,” which is correct, but only because Gangnam Style gained popularity. For those of you that still spend any amount of time or money at a record store or pay attention to the “genre” section of any digital music library, I guarantee you will find many things under the label “world music” that sound just like Gangnam Style – which, coincidentally, sounds just like most American pop that was being released at the time – but are in a different language and therefore considered “world music.”

In fact, some of them may even be European languages and European-based bands. Why does this matter? Let me do the politician thing and answer that by asking you this – do you consider Europe to be part of the developing world? Most people would not, yet that’s part of Google’s definition. Additionally, Europe is typically considered part of the Western world (particularly in terms of music and culture), yet Merriam-Webster’s definition says “world music” is “originating or influenced by non-Western musical traditions.” Well, technically (as I’m sure some of you may already be thinking), to say European music was originated from and/or influenced by non-Western musical traditions would be true…well, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but so is American music. Every bit of it. Even jazz, the one style of music actually attributed to the U.S., is heavily based on African and Afro-Cuban musical traditions, especially regarding rhythm.

So, if every bit of music we ever knew is based on non-Western music, then by definition is everything world music?


It really is that simple. Based on the definitions we have, all music in all the world could and should fall under the term “world music,” and this is exactly why it is an awful, almost useless term. When we already have the general term “music” (which people already debate), why do we have another umbrella term that could literally mean anything? It’s like when someone asks what kind of food you like and you say “the edible kind.” This is one of my personal favorite responses, but because I know how uncomfortably vague it is. Sure, there is some food that certain people may dislike so much they may consider it inedible, but at the end of the day, if someone tells you they prefer edible food, you’re still going to give them this look:


So stop telling people you like music from the other 75% of the world that is not otherwise categorized. Believe it or not, there are more kinds of “world music” out there than types of music you and I are familiar with, combined. So get out there and discover it!

“But Michael, what do I call it?” How about…what it is? Everything has a name – every song, every style, every cultural/musical region. Don’t just panic and call it something at face value, because that kind of laziness is what created things like racism and stereotyping in this world. No one is perfect, myself included; in fact, my degree will have the words “world music” on it, but this doesn’t mean I can’t be proactive and call things what they are as I learn them.

So next time you hear, pick up, or buy something that sounds foreign to you, don’t just put it under that blanket “world music” category. Take the opportunity to learn something new and grow as a human being, maybe even tell your friends! Society may call those people “nerds,” but in reality everyone starves for knowledge, so if everyone has it, we just have an educated society with some killer taste in music, and who wouldn’t want that?

Improvisation. It’s known and loved in many parts of the world, and in Western music is most notably used in things like jazz and rock. I’d be remiss to not reference a clip of one of the greatest guitar soloists in American popular music history here:

What made Prince so great at soloing? Could he just run up and down his guitar playing random notes faster and put on the more sexually-driven show that America always seems to crave? It would probably be wrong to say aspects of that statement didn’t contribute to his fame, but they are not what made him such a great soloist. Rather, Prince had an incredible knowledge of music theory. This is not to say that he approached every song and solo with, “Okay, what are the exact names of each of the chords and scales in this song and which modes can I use over them,” but, simply put, he did have a legitimate musical understanding of what would work and what wouldn’t. For those of you who don’t consider yourself musically inclined, firstly I would bet against you, but more importantly for this post, it’s important to understand that, to the average listener, only a certain set of notes are going to sound good in something like a guitar solo, and it takes someone with immense experience and knowledge to be able to dance around them the way Prince did.

At this point, you’re probably wondering, “Why is this post called ‘Hindustani Music’?” That’s fair. I talked about Prince for a while. However, that’s because improvising in Hindustani music, conceptually, is no different than Prince making his guitar gently weep. Check out this incredible North Indian Classical Fusion piece where Jai Sovani-Garud, our gust lecturer for this series, is featured as one of two vocalists. At the 3:28 mark, the soprano saxophone begins to improvise. Pay attention to each note he plays as closely as you can, even if you don’t catch every single note.

Now ask yourself, why does it sound so good? You’ve heard bad solos before, everyone has, and you know when someone is playing something that just doesn’t sound good. Even if you aren’t particularly intrigued by this style of music, you can listen to his solo and know that he is doing the correct things without having studied any of this music, or any music in your life for that matter. Why? Because, just like Prince, what he is playing fits within the scales/modes used in this lavani-bandish (the two styles used in this particular tune) fusion.

Like mentioned in my previous post, this is based on a scale system that uses syllables similarly to the Western solfege system. You can see the different syllables below:

Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti | Do (same as bottom note, one octave up)

Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Nee | Sa (same as bottom note, one octave up)

So as you can see, Do and Sa are the same, Re and Re are the same, Mi and Ga, and so on. What makes Indian Classical music unique is how these notes are altered, which you can read more about in the previous post. Below is a video of Jai giving a brief overview of Hindustani music. Around the 2:00 mark she starts explaining the scale system mentioned above and sings an example of Bhairav (one of the scales also mentioned in the previous post).

For more information or examples of Hindustani music, make sure to check out Jai’s YouTube channel, Indian Raga!