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Cosmopolitanism Revisited

By Martin Roberts

I don’t want to be Japanese. I want to be a citizen of the world. It sounds very hippie but I like that.—Ryuichi Sakamoto, quoted in David Toop, Ocean of Sound: 192.
Although the cosmopolitan is often regarded as an emblematic figure of modernity, cosmopolitanism has existed for millennia: the term itself originates in the Greek words cosmos (world) and polis (city, people, citizenry), meaning essentially “citizen of the world,” and was much discussed in Greek philosophy.
This philosophical interest has undergone a resurgence in recent years, as cosmopolitanism has become a subject of intense discussion among scholars of globalization. Historically, cosmopolitanism has been a marker of social distinction, a form of cultural capital associated with international travel and the knowledge of foreign cultures this brings; since relatively few have been able to enjoy such travel, it has usually been seen as the privilege of elites. The cosmopolitan’s class background and stance of worldly disengagement from his own culture has long been an object of suspicion on the left, but recent scholars have sought to rethink cosmopolitanism in relation to globalization in terms of engagement with rather than detachment from the world, and as a new form of global citizenship ostensibly available to anyone: in a world where societies increasingly live among one another or are interlinked by economic globalization, it is argued, cosmopolitanism, in the sense of tolerance for others and an awareness of our own responsibilities to them, has become an ethical and political necessity.

Whether in the form of aesthetic connoisseurship or political engagement, cosmopolitanism is today inseparable from consumption: the globalization of capitalism over the past two centuries has transformed cultural identities, objects, and practices themselves into commodities, at the same time raising problems of economic exploitation originating in imperialism. On the one hand, the global bourgeoisie (for they are no longer just Western) continues to reproduce the aesthetic cosmopolitanism of historical elites through global tourism and other forms of cultural consumption; on the other, an equally global community, much of it belonging to a younger generation, engage in a political cosmopolitanism which rejects the culture of consumption and participates in transnational struggles over labor, the environment, or human rights. The two are far from exclusive, of course: what may begin as aesthetic cosmopolitanism may become politicized, and vice versa.

Music has historically been a focus both of aesthetic and political cosmopolitanism. While Western musicans and ethnomusicologists have been collecting and appreciating musics from around the world since the advent of recording technology in the 1920s, since the 1960s popular music has increasingly been used as a vehicle for political cosmopolitanism. The rise of what has become known as “world music” since the 1980s has continued these processes: while initially a catalyst for mobilization around transnational political issues such as apartheid, the commercialization of global musics since the 1980s has made aesthetic cosmopolitanism a mass-cultural phenomenon and raises problems of cultural and economic politics symptomatic of larger processes within the global cultural economy. Whether aesthetic or political, however, cosmopolitanism today is no longer a Western monopoly, engaging musicians and audiences around the globe in increasingly complex relationships.

photos by stefaquer



Cosmopolitan Futures

To the extent that it involves a relatively stable distinction between self and other, the relevance of cosmopolitanism may be waning in a post-national world where the disappearance of that distinction—at least in some parts of the world—is increasingly evident. Popular music today is increasingly borderless and deterritorialized, often making it hard to find in record stores still organized by outdated categories: where do we find albums by Argentinian indie singer Juana Molina, British-Asian rapper M.I.A., or Japanese salsa band La Orquesta de la Luz? Does Tijuana’s Nortec Collective belong under Dance, Rock, or Mexico? Record outlets seem to have almost given up on such categories, as seen in the recent catch-all section called simply “Urban.”
Politically, the new arena of cosmopolitan struggle is the Internet, with music being at the center of the Creative Commons project with which Gilberto Gil (now the Brazilian Minister of Culture) and other world musicians have been involved. While efforts to establish a public archive of online global music are no doubt laudable, they further complicate earlier debates about sampling, especially as this relates to indigenous musics. They also pose a dilemma for world musicians who have only comparatively recently begun to reap the economic rewards of their talents: why should they now give their music away for free when so many Western producers have made lucrative careers from selling it? The struggle over the future of digital music is thus also about that of music worldwide, as digital media and computer networks open up both new possibilities and new risks for tomorrow’s global musicians.



Retro-Cosmopolitanism and Nostalgia

With the sedimentation of popular music’s successive historical phases, a culture of record collecting has gained momentum, along with expanding markets for re-releases and vintage recordings, and spawning new “retro” genres such as lounge music. A similar nostalgia is evident in world music, as the recent revivals of Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat or the Brazilian Tropicália movement attest. As such examples show, the search for cultural capital today involves a cosmopolitanism of the past as much as of the present.
White hipster DJs such as Gilles Peterson have amassed extensive collections of vintage African and Brazilian popular music, while cosmopolitan musicians based in New York, Paris, and Tokyo draw eclectically on 1960s French, Brazilian, and Japanese pop. Such retro-cosmopolitanism is especially rampant in Japan, where vintage Western jazz or world music recordings can be found which ironically are often only available in the West itself as Japanese imports. The extreme cosmopolitanism of Japanese musical culture finds expression in Japanese popular music itself, from Pizzicato Five’s extended homages to Burt Bacharach to Haruomi Hosono’s brilliant reconstructions of 1950s-era American exotica. These cosmopolitan musics in turn feed back into Western musical cultures as new sources of cultural capital and musical


Cosmopolitanism and Subcultures

If cosmopolitanism is historically associated with dominant musical cultures, in recent years it has also become ubiquitous among musical subcultures. While they have been increasingly disembedded from their place and time of origin, music-based subcultures such as punk, goth, hip-hop, or rave were nevertheless at their inception “home-grown” in the sense that they developed in a specific national context, at a particular historical moment, and were embraced primarily by youth living within that context. As subcultural styles have become globalized, however, cosmopolitanism has increasingly entered the subcultural domain as it becomes possible to choose from a range of subcultural lifestyles other than those of one’s own culture, many of which center on music.
Japanese youth culture is an extreme case in point, with group identities covering pretty much the entire subcultural spectrum. At the same time, new musical subcultures have emerged organized around tourism and cultural consumption, such as the tribes which rotate between destinations such as Ibiza, Goa, or Bali. Finally, cosmopolitanism itself has a principle of subcultural identity among youth who define themselves not by their allegiance to any particular style or group but by the eclectic range of their musical knowledge and tastes.



Cosmopolitanism and Ethnomusicology

What was later to become world music originates in the historical conjunction of colonial ethnography and the history of recording technology, the founding of ethnomusicology as an institutional discipline, and its establishment of a vast archive of ethnic musics collected from colonial subjects. Ironically, many of these historical recordings have in recent years been “rediscovered” and released commercially, blurring the historical line between ethnomusicology and commercial world music. For collectors of such recordings, cosmopolitanism thus takes on a historical dimension in addition to its geographical one.
Sampled ethnomusicological recordings have become a staple of worldbeat albums, for a rather obvious economic reason: since the recordings were made a generation ago, musicians were anonymous, and most of them are no longer alive anyway, royalties are not an issue.

Cosmopolitanism and the Avant-Garde

Inasmuch as the avant-garde, as an aesthetic project, involves a spatial practice—a quest for the frontier, a continual pushing back of the dividing line between known and unknown “territory”—it leads almost inevitably to cosmopolitanism. From Claude Debussy’s encounter with Javanese gamelan at the 1889 Universal Exposition in Paris to the imaginary Africas of Brian Eno and Ryuichi Sakamoto, cosmopolitanism has a long historical association with the avant-garde and is arguably one of the defining characteristics of modernist music. Modernist composers travelled widely and the non-Western musical cultures they encountered often transformed their own musical practice. Steve Reich and many others went to Bali; Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla-symphonie (1946-48) draws on Indian scales and rhythms; Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Telemusik (1966) resulted from a visit to Tokyo.
From the 1970s, cosmopolitanism becomes an increasing force in experimental forms of jazz, from the fusion of the Mahavishnu Orchestra to the Panafricanism of Alice Coltrane and Miles Davis. Cosmopolitanism remains a key value in the works of contemporary avant-garde composers, producers, and musicians, with influential figures including, in addition to Eno and Sakamoto, Bill Laswell and John Zorn. While the Kronos Quartet’s Pieces of Africa (1992) is symptomatic of world music’s impact on the musical avant-garde, it is no less exemplary of how “Africa,” along with other musical destinations—Bali, Japan, Brazil—continues to serve as a source of inspiration, as well as social distinction, for (post)modernist avant-gardes.




Cosmopolitan Pop

The increasing cosmopolitanism of Anglo-American popular music is in part attributable to the advent of world music. The past decade has seen the emergence of a “world-music effect” across the spectrum of Anglo-American popular music, as 1970s rock dinosaurs jam with world-music artists and DJs drop world-music samples into their mixes. Hybridized musics from around the world, themselves the result of the globalization of Anglo-American popular music, are gaining in popularity in the US and Europe, from Latin-American rock en español to J-Pop. Hip-hop enjoys global dominance, but nowhere more so than among suburban white American teenagers.
Cosmopolitanism is at its most conspicuous in club cultures, where celebrity DJs are the new jet set and the word “global” is repeated like a mantra on album covers. Popular bands may be from Iceland or Venezuela, while band members in the US and Europe are often of mixed nationalities and ethnicities. In short, cosmopolitanism has emerged as a dominant principle of today’s global music industry, with Madonna’s Indochic and Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku Girls only the tip of a very large iceberg.


Aesthetic Cosmopolitanism

While the concerts and movements discussed above were in most cases organized by Anglo-American musicians, they also included the participation of musicians from the non-Western nations involved or other Third-World nations. It was not long before these musicians began performing at the concerts and on the albums of their Anglo-American hosts, and releasing albums in their own right. Political cosmopolitanism among certain Western musicians was thus accompanied by an aesthetic cosmopolitanism in relation to non-Western and non-Anglophone musical cultures, and sought to promote these in an implicit critique both of the ethnocentrism of Anglo-American musical culture and of the global cultural imperialism of its music industry. The more successful world musicians, such as Senegal’s Youssou N’Dour and Brazil’s Gilberto Gil, have since become influential figures in the promotion of their own national musics.
What came eventually to be known as world music in the 1980s took various forms: the now outmoded genre of Worldbeat, in which Anglo-American musicans and producers collaborated—often under unequal conditions—with non-Western musicians; traditional and popular musics of former colonies or other non-Anglophone nations; and the hybridized musics of postcolonial immigrant communities. World music labels such as RealWorld, Shanachie, or Luaka Bop thus became a vast cosmopolitan archive of global musics with which Anglo-American popular music began to mutate in the decades that followed. While the role of Anglo-American musicians such as Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, David Byrne, and Ry Cooder in the cosmopolitanization of Western popular music cannot be undersetimated, the musics they have helped to popularize were themselves already highly cosmopolitan: Brazilian tropicalismo was predicated on a cannibalistic incorporation of Anglo-American popular music in a climate of cultural nationalism; supposedly native African musics were already hybrids incorporating Latin-American or Caribbean musical idioms originating in the cultural flows of the Black Atlantic; Japanese popular music is largely defined by its adaptation of globally-circulating musical styles, from bossa nova to noise music.


Political Cosmopolitanism

The development of what has become known as world music since the 1970s was initially related to the emergence of a political cosmopolitanism associated with larger global processes: decolonization, followed by postcolonial migration to former imperial centers; the ongoing globalization of media and communication; the growth of international tourism; the countercultural imaginary of the “global village” and the Whole Earth movement; and the global travel of musicians themselves. The involvement of popular music in protest movements has a long history, of course, but since the 1960s it has taken on a global dimension as musicians have begun to take an active interest in issues such as famine relief, human rights, or climate change, and have sought to intervene in them by mobilizing their often large audiences.
The Concert for Bangladesh organized by George Harrison and Ravi Shankar at Madison Square Garden, New York, in 1971 initiated this phase of political cosmopolitanism, culminating in the Live Aid/Band Aid concerts of the 1980s, and continuing into the present with the Free Tibet or anti-WTO protest movements. Political engagement of this kind has today become almost expected of bands and their audiences, at times prompting dismissals of it as a marketing ploy. Protest concerts and similar events have become almost a daily occurrence, while the mass audiences of previous decades have cohered into cosmopolitan communities whose global scale has enabled them to pose significant challenges to national governments and transnational corporations.

Cosmopolitanism and Empire

Cosmopolitanism arguably begins with empire, in the contact zone between coloniser and colonized, in the space of often unequal encounter and exchange with the cultural other, where we—whichever side we are on—may begin to admire, imitate, even on rare occasions aspire to become the other. Writing on Javanese court rituals during Dutch colonial rule in the nineteenth century, Sumarsam notes that “European popular music was heard on many court occasions. Sometimes European music was played in turn with gamelan, and sometimes they were played together” (1992: 69). The Dutch were apparently no less appreciative of Javanese music and dance. We see here that cosmopolitanism is far from being a recent phenomenon; Javanese music itself originates in Java’s earlier encounters with Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. A century and a half later, there were almost a hundred gamelan ensembles across North America; gamelan is regularly performed there by musicians from Java and Bali, while it is also taught at American universities by people like Sumarsam, and performed by American musicians dressed as Javanese or Balinese.


Further Reading

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. 1998. “Cosmopolitan Patriots.” In Bruce Robbins and Pheng Cheah, eds., Cosmopolitics: Thinking and Feeling Beyond the Nation. Cultural Politics, volume 14. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press: 91-114.
———. 2006. Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. New York: W.W. Norton.Breckenridge, Carol A., Sheldon Pollack, Homi K. Bhabha, and DipeshChakrabarty, eds. 2000. “Cosmopolitanisms.” In Public Culture 12:3: 577-89.
———. 2002. Cosmopolitanism. Millennial Quartet, vol. 4. Durham: North Carolina: Duke University Press.Chanan, Michael. 1995. Repeated Takes: A Short History of Recording and Its Effects on Music. New York: Verso.

Dunn, Christopher. 2001. Brutality Garden: Tropicália and the Emergence of a Brazilian Counterculture. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Feld, Steven. 2000. “The Poetics and Politics of Pygmy Pop.” In Georgina Born and Desmond Hesmondhalgh, eds., Western Music and Its Others: Difference,
Representation, and Appropriation in Music. Berkeley: University of California Press: 254-79.

García Canclini, Nestor. 1995. Hybrid Cultures: Strategies for Entering and Leaving Modernity. Foreword by Renato Rosaldo. Trans. Christpher L. Chiapparai and Silvia L. López. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

Garofalo, Reebee, ed. 1992. Rockin’ the Boat: Mass Music and Mass Movements. Boston: South End.

Griffiths, Paul. 1978. Modern Music: A Concise History from Debussy to Boulez. London: Thames and Hudson.

Jenkins, Henry. 2004. “Pop Cosmopolitanism: Mapping Cultural Flows in an Age of Media Convergence.” In Marcelo Suárez-Orozco and Desirée Baolian Qin-Hilliard, eds., Globalization: Culture and Education in the New Millennium. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kun, Josh. 2005. Audiotopia: Music, Race, and America. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Milano, Brett. 2003. Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Roberts, Martin. 1993. “‘World Music’ and the Global Cultural Economy.”
Diaspora: a Journal of Transnational Studies. Oxford University Press. 2:2: 229-42.
———. 2006. “Notes on the Global Underground: Subcultures and
Globalization.” In Ken Gelder, ed., The Subcultures Reader. Second edition. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Robbins, Bruce. 1998. “Comparative Cosmopolitanisms.” In Bruce Robbins and
Pheng Cheah, eds., Cosmopolitics: Thinking and Feeling Beyond the Nation. Cultural Politics, volume 14. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press: 246-64.

Sumarsam. 1995. Gamelan: Cultural Interaction and Musical Development in Central Java. Chicago and London: Chicago University Press.

Tomlinson, John. 1999. Globalization and Culture. Cambridge: Polity Press, and Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Toop, David. 1995. Ocean of Sound: Aether Talk, Ambient Sound, and Imaginary Worlds. London: Serpent’s Tail.
———. 1999. Exotica: Fabricated Soundscapes in a Real World. London: Serpent’s Tail.

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