An Outsider’s Gaze / Interpretation of a Soundscape and Musical Tradition

Posted by Hasan on April 7, 2013 in music research, outlooks | 5 Comments

On several occasions I find myself confronting creative works that invite me to return to the thought process behind my suggested Post-Esoteric (Oriental) Art Music Manifesto. Now that I have relocated to Seoul (South Korea) as a doctorate student who occasionally works with elements of Korean traditional music, Middle Eastern traditional music, and electronic music, I am even more drawn to the idea of creating works in a sensibly and sensitively esoteric manner. This is based on my imagination of the “post-esoteric” as being something that simultaneously departs from and returns to its origin: the esoteric (in all its rhetorically glorified aura of mystery), albeit with an intellectual underpinning.

I have recently come across the following video by the late David Fanshawe (Wiki / Official Website) in which he narrates the story behind one of his most famous works, Arabian Fantasy, which is – to my surprise – “inspired” by my native Bahrain:


At first glance, I had mixed feelings about the narration and the context in which this work is presented by the composer. However, considering that this was made in the early 1970s, in which the circumstances of the time were completely different, I must admit that I have some respect for it. To put things in context, Edward Said’s Orientalism was not published until around 1977, after many major world events related to the Middle East had taken place since the time of this work. One must also understand that David Fanshawe’s previous experience with Bahrain had somewhat colonial undertones considering that his paternal uncle was Commodore T. Fanshawe who was stationed on the island. Again, this is all from a different time and different context.

From an ethnomusicological (and moral) angle, there are a few issues that trouble me: the ease in which Fanshawe narrates that the Arab tabla (and all this time, I thought that the tabla was native to the Indian subcontinent!) imitates the pace of a camel (this is the first I’ve ever heard of such a generalisation), with the “modern Western tuned drums” called boobams and a synthesizer played by Adrian Wagner, who just happens to be the great-great grandson of the Richard Wagner. He makes no mention of the sound samples of women ululating and what sounds like men yelling at their apprehensive camels to make them move faster – which are by today’s standards too much of a cliche and bordering the absurdly racist. Upon reflection, the fact that he combines an odd “Western” percussive instrument with the description of “modern” implies that the non-Western is by default not modern. The composer/narrator talks about how modern and traditional Bahrain is at the same time,while most of his focus is on rustic looking figures engaged in traditions that had long since died out and in some cases aren’t even native to the island of Bahrain. The sense of nostalgia towards the British naval presence in Bahrain (for someone from Bahrain living in 2013) is slightly disturbing as well. It also goes without saying that the title of the piece, “Arabian Fantasy”, is demeaningly orientalist. He even goes as far as to describe the work as a “symphony of pearls and oil”, even though it has very little connection with the conventional definition of a symphony, which is also a Western musical form to begin with.

One of the things that amused me was the fact that the sound of the oil pumps and their attached background noises were used. Again, this is a negative cliche (from my point of view) but I think that perhaps the oil pumps are something that native Bahrainis would not think much of when compared to some of the expat communities who were particularly intrenched in Bahrain’s oil industry. I imagine that David Fanshawe’s Bahraini soundscape was particularly punctuated by those oil pumps.

However, all things being said, I believe that this is definitely an interesting part of music history that is in a sense personal. It affords me to think again about my own practice and how I wish to forge my own approach that is both aesthetically present and intellectually sound.

5 Responses

  1. Sophia
    April 7, 2013

    Ha! That was like the opening of Falcon Crest for a minute!!! Other times…other contexts…people like Fanshawe shaped the perpetual self-orientalising tone of most khaleeji art and even municipal art (i.e. roundabouts or the titles of exhibitions)…it’s strange … loved this post. x

    • Hasan
      April 7, 2013

      You’re right, it does have its Falcon Crest moments! I also imagined the theme music from Bruce Lee’s “Enter the Dragon” at other times. I need to listen to the entire work (which isn’t easy to come across online) soon and look for more of those orientalist clues.

      The idea of self-orientalising Khaleeji art is certainly a phenomenon worth looking into some more. It was funny bumping into you last year in Seoul randomly at around the time of the Gwangju Biennale. Best wishes.

  2. Lufdha
    April 8, 2013

    I was waiting for a scene with a stunt car going through boxes during the intro!! Nice post I enjoyed the industrial scene, a sound that I associate with Bahrain is the hissing of air conditioning, especially mid day during the summer if you choose/sent to walk to a store, the unforgiving heat drives everyone indoors to the ‘comfort’ of the AC in a sense the more granular white noise of people outside is replaced with a constant white noise of machines – a consistent flow of sound. A new white noise. Indicative of a new flow of time that will materialize soon hmm maybe I exaggerate. hehehe

  3. druzs
    April 11, 2013

    The footage of him playing the pipes is hilarious but what are you meaning by self-orientalising?

  4. Hasan
    April 11, 2013

    druzs – There are varying definitions of self-orientalising but it usually amounts to how people of a non-Western/Oriental society perpetuate negative stereotypes about themselves. For instance: Arabs from the Gulf region (or “Khaleejis” as they are called in Arabic) glorifying the stereotypes of deserts and camel-riding – even those who live completely urban lifestyles – could be seen as self-orientalising. The funny thing about Bahrain, which is the focus of this video, is that it is an island with much historical suggesting that it has a predominantly sedentary social history. In other words, racing camels in a desert is not innate to Bahrain’s history but more of an imported activity from the Arabian Peninsula (possibly to appease tourists).


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