Cross-cultural collaboration in music: Equus offers a sound example

“I’ve been reading Kwame Anthony Appiah’s classic text Cosmopolitanism – Ethics in a World of Strangers. Have you come across it in your travels?”

I Google it and reply, “I am always wary of that ‘citizen of the world’ stance as it is often used by those ‘colour blind’ folk, but this looks like a really good read.”

“He’s definitely not suggesting the homogenisation of cultures into some bland, beige common expression … cue some of that cafe friendly funky ‘world muzak’ ;-)”

The above is from a recent email exchange I had with percussionist, composer, producer, musical director and friend, Peter Kennard. Peter is a bit of a pioneer in the Australian “world music” (not “muzak”) scene, having travelled widely to study non-Western musics extensively and having, over the past three decades, played with the likes of Lulo Reinhardt, Kim Sanders and Bobby Singh, as well as in various ensembles including Sirocco, Heval, and currently, Equus.

His initial email (a response to something I’d written recently about cultural competence as a necessary skill in artistic collaboration and exchange) inspired an offshoot conversation about working cross-culturally in music. I wanted a better view into Peter’s extensive experience in this area. Curious to know more about the motivations, processes and challenges contained within these collaborations between musicians who bring differing senses of identity and different musical heritages together to create something jointly from often seemingly disparate parts, I sent Peter some questions specific to his current experience of creating and performing with Equus. He responded generously:


Can you give me a short history of Equus?
Originally a recording project, Equus has a more intermittent career appearing at major festivals (Fairbridge, Denmark Festival of Voice, Woodford, National Folk), self-organised regional and state capital tours and rare Sydney club gigs. The Australian “world/folk” festival circuit is our sporadic mainstay. We get very good profile gigs – but the festival economy in Australia is reluctant to have us return in consecutive years. There appear to be real limits to audience development in Australia – and we have embraced the need to develop International/Asia regional touring ambitions.

Is there a lead musician?
We are four strong musical personalities and each has a wealth of experience – so we are all respectful of each other’s talents and experiences. Having said that the band focuses pragmatically upon providing a vehicle for Bukhu’s [Bukhchuluun Ganburged] and John’s [John Robinson] specific unique talents, which of course are profoundly shaped by the associated musical heritages: Mongolian Khoomei throat singing, Morin Khuur, Turkish Oud and Baglama Saz. Nonetheless this virtuosity specific to certain musical heritages doesn’t trap us stylistically.

How do you define Equus’ style/voice?
We all have a passion for, and vast experience playing diverse musical styles. We are most certainly not “museum folkloric”. Equus is not a “preservation society”. We simply follow our curiosity and delight…..words we have used in our publicity to describe our attitude. This is all just a natural and rather unforced expression of musical interests. I believe Equus has an emerging “voice” and “style” of its own and that we are each aware of this in our own way – although it’s something we don’t seek to rigidly define.

Equus doesn’t really do “discrete” traditions reaching out to find “common ground”. Common ground exists already – we are contemporary musicians in Australia with diverse interests. We bring our skills together in a playful way – and create a space where we can respond to each other’s musical skill set in a rather spontaneous and unforced way. We all move to a third place together.

How are musical/artistic decisions made? How are ideas formed?
The collaborative process is usually led by a particular member bringing in a compositional idea/form – quite often notated – but very often not. Bertie [Bertie McMahon] and Bukhu have been the more prolific in this regard. John has arrived with beautiful complete structures such as Shifting Sands. Likewise Bertie will arrive with charts. As percussionist I obsess with dynamic structure and rhythmic flavour – choice of instruments etc. Bukhu will often present traditional folk song forms and suggest whole new and quite radical suggestions to re-set these melodies with complex harmonic and rhythmic arrangements. We have to date had an effortless and rather conflict free time working like this. Given that we trust each other’s abilities so much I think we are happy to see each other’s suggestions as all good choices – a choice of pleasures.

Do you experiment and play? Do you hold any intentional creative development sessions?
We take a written or discussed form and play – in essence “work-shopping” an arrangement via a fluid process of improvising on the form and deciding the arrangement as a group in what has been a very respectful and open way. Play/explore, stop, discuss, agree, play/explore, stop, consolidate, commit to structure.

A good example is Travelling Song, currently half recorded for our new CD. It began as a notated idea for an instrumental piece from Bertie – with a rather West/North African almost Malian rhythmic feel. Bukhu then developed a song for a second slow movement to the piece – with new lyrics in Mongolian. We then workshopped an arrangement in rehearsal and once having committed to a structure, I then approached a local community choir to join us in this second movement. I then notated a choral arrangement and conducted the choir recording session. And so it goes…

Comment on the language often used to describe Equus. Do you have a preferred description or preferred language to talk about yourselves?
We haven’t really arrived at a definitive publicity description. I personally struggle with the 1990’s “world music” term – and even more so with this curious marketing concept, “Blues and Roots”. Equus stand outside marketing clichés to our disadvantage. How I wish we could just say we present a unique take on contemporary culturally diverse acoustic music making. But that doesn’t fly off the page with a “zing”…

What has your response been from presenters/venues?
Equus on paper can be perceived very differently from Equus in performance. Our biggest challenge would appear to be how to market us to new audiences. On paper a Mongolian/Turkish crossover/contemporary “world” music band presents all sorts of challenges and impediments to a mainstream conservative media that is still stuck in concepts of discrete monolithic cultures “reaching out across boundaries”.

Our music has never been about such isolated entities meeting. We have been described as so “accessible” yet when we advertise ourselves, the seeming “exotica” of the musical inspirations can sound obscure and esoteric (i.e. difficult to listen to!) for a more mainstream Australian audience.

What has your response been from audiences?
Absolute delight. There is always this sense that the audience is enjoying discovering something new and enjoyable! In Australia I attribute this to the pentatonic minor predilection of much Mongolian based folk melody that somehow resonates with broader appeal folk sensibilities (dare I say Celtic). Add this musical accessibility with the wonder of Khoomei vocal technique – and Equus proves time and time again to be a thing of beauty and wonder to new audiences.

Do you think Equus is a successful cross-cultural project? What makes it so?
Yes – a successful process. Simply put I would say what works is the open, un-precious, curious and playful approach we undertake in improvisational play as we develop a new musical idea. Is this cross-cultural? Well, I once again am drawn to unpacking that term. It already tilts us toward “monolithic” descriptions. We don’t each “represent” a singular viewpoint. Each of us already speaks multiple musical languages. Yet of course our lives “situate” us as having been formed by certain cultural inheritances. We acknowledge those prominent formative experiences – but they don’t singularly define us. Each of us embodies multiple identities before we walk into a room to meet and play. It’s a feast and we each bring many plates with many flavours to the table.

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Reading Peter’s responses, I wasn’t surprised at the challenges described. I’ve heard them before from others – including artists practising in art-forms other than music. Interestingly, the challenges are often not about the process of working/creating cross-culturally but in promoting and selling cross-cultural products. I think these kinds of challenges boil down to two bigger issues:

Firstly, the difficulty in defining the product of these collaborations lies in the inadequacy of the language we use to describe them. Old tropes are used to categorise anything that is “other” than the Western-centric mainstream.

Presenters market shows to audiences with language and within frameworks that are commonly understood and massively overused (in other words – with generalizations and stereotypes and/or buzz words). Artists struggle to define themselves in language that is meaningful to broader audiences too, often slipping into using the language of marketers and presenter/promoters themselves.

Evolution of language naturally lags behind the evolution of arts/cultural practices, because we need some hindsight to really understand something well enough to define it. But maybe when it comes to this category of “world music”, we actually have that hindsight now. Maybe it’s time now (after decades of cross-cultural activities) to find a new language and new definitions that are more nuanced and more responsive – a language that artists themselves construct rather than borrow from those packaging and selling their products. [I feel the need to say here that I think Peter is spot on to challenge my labeling of Equus’ musical products as “cross-cultural” in his response above. I take it as case-in-point that language really is problematic].

Secondly, identity is a complex, layered, fluid, perpetually constructed and co-constructed thing, as it is affected through time by socio-cultural factors. Like language and culture, it also evolves. But our regard of it and the way we speak about it is often simplistic and one-dimensional. Artists working cross-culturally are working so on many levels – not just on the level of ethnic identity. (And of course in a broader sense, as human beings, we all are acting cross-culturally on many levels all the time.) But, perhaps because identity is so hard to define succinctly we look for the quickest and easiest descriptor to define ourselves and others.

Often, for people of CaLD (culturally and linguistically diverse) backgrounds or engaging in CaLD practices, the default setting is to highlight ethnic diversity, perpetuating the notion that identity is simplistic and one-dimensional. Again, the opportunity exists here to expand the way we think about and talk about identity. With the topic of diversity being so prominent in public conversation at the moment, I already feel like we’re making progress in this regard – slowly, but surely.

Perhaps more important than the challenges outlined, Peter’s responses offer insights into a healthy process of collaboration. Some words/phrases in particular jumped off the page and really grabbed me:

Curiosity, delight, unforced expression, emerging voice, trust, a choice of pleasures, respectful and open, fluid, aware, playful, spontaneous, a third space.

And I had the thought: could these words themselves actually be the key ingredients to successful cross-cultural work? They speak volumes about the group’s approach and attitude to co-creation. They point to an inclusive stance and a sense of shared artistic control – concepts that are recognised as sound practice in collaborative projects of this nature.

I spent some time reflecting on Peter’s responses in the days after I received them and during that time I got a couple of follow up messages from him relaying how my questions had sparked debate between himself and John (oud and baglama player of the group). Peter forwarded me some more references that John had forwarded him. They are of academic anthropological works on the topics of culture, identity and cross-cultural hybrid products. His total delight was evident: “I just love this stuff – wish I had a couple of months to just READ :-)”.

With that exchange, I felt like our conversation had started at the beginning again – and it struck me, that this might be the final key ingredient to successful cross-cultural projects: an appetite by the artists themselves to keep learning/reading about and discussing the issues that affect their work, and an effort to broaden their understanding of contemporary thought around culture, identity, heritage and hybridity… And to keep at it.

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Post-script:

For those readers curious about the references mentioned above recommended by Peter and John, they are:

The Location of Culture, by Homi K Bhabha

Communicating in the Third Space, edited by Karin Ikas and Gerard Wagner

And for those curious about the music of Equus, visit: http://www.equusmusic.com.au.

For a related and just as interesting musical project – John and Bukhu’s duo – visit: http://www.horsefiddle.com

This article was first published in LoudMouth Music Trust E-Zine here

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