Reflecting on Cross-Cultural Music Making Perspectives

This week I couldn’t help but return to Kim’s article on cross-cultural music making after viewing Mississippi Masala this week. Inter-ethnic relationships is a very interesting topic to me, because I have one myself. Music represents a form of communication that transcends language, which is why I’m so interested in cross-cultural and bilingual music. What’s causing artists to incorporate certain sounds and instruments from “other” cultures? Kim uses embeddedness theory to answer this question, but she does so without getting the perspectives of people who MAKE cross-cultural music. I don’t discount embeddedness and how it permeates everything, but I think, especially as anthropologists, we should not forget ethnography and the importance of perspective.

Kim claims “cross-cultural music making” (CCMM) is a product of power dynamics between nation-states BECAUSE of historic and economic relationships. Basically, she just means we need to think carefully before making assumptions regarding CCMM because there are many factors behind why someone would mix more than culturally distinct style of music. For example, Vietnamese Southern Trap music is a form of cross-cultural music.

Kim assumes that artists who use sounds, instruments, vocals, and language from another culture to create music are capitalizing on exoticism. This means artists just use those sounds because Americans attribute foreign instruments to being “mysterious” or “exotic.” It can also be about power too, Kim argues. The reason a Vietnamese artist would use an American style of music as the basis for their song is because of the Vietnam-American War and this idea that people in Asian countries are becoming more “Western” or “American.”

But I have trouble understanding these concepts in relation to the act of creating content. Of course there are political motives for doing such a thing. The war split many families when refugees fled their country for the safety of the United States. As a result, the 1st generation refugees had kids, and then their kids had kids. But many Vietnamese-Americans in the United States have family in Vietnam who never left. Since travel is open between the two countries now, many have reconnected with those they had to leave. The Vietnamese community is very much a transnational community. American and Vietnamese culture are inevitably mixed up at this point, and that’s why we have Pho restaurants over here and Pizza restaurants in Viet Nam.

True, the history of this whole relationship with Vietnam is particularly unsettling when you look at it on a macro scale. Policy and economic strategy is part of the reason we went to war in the first place! If we didn’t get involved, who knows if we’d have Pho shops popping up all over the place. So yes, that explains why an American artist would hear or find Vietnamese music. But it doesn’t explain why it’s appealing to people. Or why hybrid forms of music are immoral.

In my opinion, creators are constantly thinking about developing their own thing by bringing new approaches to an already existing art. You have to understand what’s popular and why, in order to appeal to it in your music. Which brings me to yet another concept I had buried deep in the back of my brain. I learned a bit about how items get borrowed by other cultures and how new features are added in an introductory Archaeology class. I think this can be used to understand cross-cultural music making. If only I can remember the method! I’m starting to get close to remembering what is in my mind, and here’s what I got so far.

Trans-cultural diffusion is the spread of cultural items between individuals or groups. I can’t recall the specific terms for the process, but there is a comparative method used in Archaeology that came back to me while writing this post. Basically, it’s that we can trace how cultural items are spread by comparing their different forms relative to their locations with other item. I think this will be a prime topic to research because I see some connections with cross-cultural music making and the spread of different forms of music. Perhaps there is something from Archaeology that I can bring to the table. Look for that post next week!


Kim, Jin-Ah. “»Cross-Cultural Music Making«: Concepts, Conditions and Perspectives.” International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music, vol. 48, no. 1, 2017, pp. 19–32. JSTOR, JSTOR,

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