A tribe losing its head?

(November 01, 2007)

Tribalism in music is unavoidable.

Today we live in a tribalised society. Instincts that found form with Mods and Rockers, evolved into Hippies, Skinheads and Punks, then metamorphosed into a plethora of tiny tribes - each with their own dress, language, style and music. Fine though that may be, today’s tribes group people ‘out’ more than ‘in’.

The difficulty is many tribes do not live long; their existence is a collection of fads. That means they reject anything with heritage, history or tradition attached to it. That’s because it’s much the easiest to deride and exclude. The common exclusion is tradition – in society, art and music. They remain bound in exclusion. Our society, its disparate communities and its music are moving ever more towards fragmentation and exclusion.

That after all is the main way that groups of people define themselves - how they exclude other people. It’s as if it’s our doom to define ourselves by excluding this or that. Then this or that becomes a threat and everyone exclaims surprised. Individuals have long discussed this phenomenon and tried to seek answers. Unfortunately, the answers come not from individuals but from people – and that’s part of the problem. There’s a difference between ‘persons’ and people. You can have a conversation with and debate with ‘persons’. People are scary, rabid groups that exist in a pack environment and react with a mob attitude.

So where is this coming from or going to?

The answer to the first part is easy. It comes from many discussions in music venues (not using the term ‘folk club’ or ‘rock-pub’ for the minute) and at music gatherings (not festivals or concerts for the moment) during 2007. It occurred to me that writing about developing folk music needed valuable input from areas outside folk. So these discussions have taken place across the widest spectrum of music.

There is a disturbing amount of anger. Yes really. From almost every side when you ask for views on differing musical genre; something the members of ‘the tribe’ don’t like. Remember please that we are talking about music we don’t like. Not interracial hatred, religious bigotry or political beliefs – it’s music. The immediate response is that anything outside ‘the tribe’ is regarded with suspicion or ridicule – it’s ‘old-fashioned crap’ or ‘tuneless noise’. I’ll let you work out who was referring to what. The vehemence with which they express these points of view you have to hear to believe.

The tribes fragment

What amazes me is the attitude above is now appearing within tiny fragmented groups or ‘the tribes’ themselves. I’ll explain. Sitting in some of those music venues and at music gatherings that focus on folk music I’ve asked discussed the same issues. Now usually the venom vanished from the views but they were strongly held nonetheless. For instance, ‘psych-folk’ took a heavy panning from most avid ‘trad-folk’ fans. Equally, many of the ‘folk-rock’ and ‘thrash-folk’ association felt that anything with the prefix ‘trad’ attached to it was so far past its sell-by date to be dangerous to consume.

Do you know what? I’m confused. In fact, I’m so confused I’m going to continue this one a lot further. If there’s anyone with strong views to contribute I’d love to hear from you. This one will not just ‘go away’. Mostly, because I won’t allow it to disappear without trying to find some explanation, because to be honest the attitudes I’ve met have surprised (perhaps shocked) me. Watch this space.

(The headline to this piece is used with due recognition and reverence to that masterpiece by Nicholas Monsarrat - thought I'd get that on the record before someone decides to pick me up on the reference.)

Click here to return to the Comment page