Debating Culture–thoughts on “Culture vs. Commerce”

Ku‘uipo Kumukahi has been speaking in public forums on a conflict between two different approaches to Hawaiian music:  culture vs. commerce. Letʻs run with this framework.

On Hawaiian music as CULTURE: this perspective views Hawaiian music as an inherited cultural legacy, handed down from the ancients. The inherited tradition is priceless. Many performers will talk about learning as a privilege or a gift, and payment was neither given nor demanded for the transfer of knowledge from master to student, kumu to haumana. This legacy must be safeguarded against undesirable change, against exploitation, against crass commercialization, against bastardization. Preservation is an important value. It has become even more important for Native Hawaiian culture, precisely because we came so close to losing so very very much, that we treasure and hold dear what has been passed from the past.

On Hawaiian music as COMMERCIAL product: When producers see music and dance as potential sources of income–of generating revenue–then Hawaiian music and hula become commodities subject to market forces of supply and demand. Hawai‘i has been fortunate that Hawaiian music has come to national attention and popularity multiple times over the past century–the national craze for ‘ukulele and steel guitar following the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition, the swing-band music of folks like Andy Iona and Sam Koki that made its way into Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s, the attention to Hawai‘i in the 1960s when Elvis made not one but two movies with Hawaiian/local culture figuring prominently in the plots, attention to slack key guitar in the 1990s, fueled byDancing Cat recordings and touring (not to mention subsequent familiarity of slack key to GRAMMY voters), and most recently, the ‘ukulele resurgence, standing both Iz’s eloquent “Over the Rainbow” and the bold dazzling virtuosity represented by Jake Shimabukuro. Undergirding these moments of national attention is the importance of Hawaiian music and hula in Hawai‘i’s economic engine–tourism.

The two perspectives are inherently antagonistic. Culture requires stability, preservation, reiteration, replication. Commerce requires innovation and creativity. Cultural proponents object to money being generated off cultural products. Commerce proponents not only value the challenge to keep things fresh, but also, in many cases, depend on the income as part of their livelihood.

In such a conflict, there is no absolute right and wrong. Each side has its merits. Each side also has its downside. Just as no one can deny anyone else the means by which a livelihood is gained, neither can anyone impose on artists “only replicate; do not change; do not create.”

So how are we to make sense of criticism from the cultural perspective toward a commercial industry trade association such as The Recording Academy, whose GRAMMY awards celebrate excellence in the commercial world? On what grounds can cultural proponents demand control over processes such as GRAMMY voting when many voters come from the world of commerce?  Should the commercial world be held accountable to the demands of the cultural sector when the demands are not commercially viable? Should the commercial world be held accountable to the demands of the cultural sector when such demands impose limitations on artistic license?

On what grounds can culture and commerce coexist?

More thinking yet to come.

© 2011 Amy Ku‘uleialoha Stillman. All rights reserved.

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1 Response to Debating Culture–thoughts on “Culture vs. Commerce”

  1. alex reola says:

    On what grounds can culture and commerce coexist?? On the grounds of economic impact for both the dead and the currently living…Each has a consequences of generating income whether we like it or not-cultural perspective in its pure form becomes relegated to the province of academia thus generally creating commerce to the few who studied, and becomes the merchants of knowledge. Just look into the higher schools of learning, lecture circles, and publishing industries-(teachers-adventurers and authors)..we can find a lot of success in these and we never question them if they are native to the culture in which they become expert on. I’m sure they get compensated well for their expertise and even get published thus creating an ongoing royalty for their works…Now, if nobody in the world wants to study such cultural aspect in which they are proponents of, then the commerce stops, its put on hold, the royalty stops until it is rediscovered. In the purest sense it becomes part of history of that culture. Now for those who thinks that Hawaiian music ought to be the province of the native pure Hawaiians, and only relegated to the so called Percentage natives…your forgetting that the Culture of the so called Hawaiians today evolved to become what it is… a big mixture of salad with textures of ethnicity and cultures that understands, and learned where academia left of. Remember, the ukulele is not native to Hawaii nor the guitars…therefore the music, dance and any cultural aspect of being Hawaiian and of Hawaii should not be relegated to just the so called pure in ethnic pedigree…and consume only in the island…the natural consequences is cultural commerce–because we are humans…when you express and interpret music of a culture then it becomes art in its purest form and it becomes the domain of the artist in representing that culture…the only say we have being part of that culture is not supporting it–thus no dies..I’m sure the great painters, songwriters and authors of bygone era were dubbed as failures at some point until they are rediscovered..only to be claimed by the very culture that shunned them…culture and commerce goes together since beginning of time..its BS to say that the cultural aspect of Hawaii does not necessarily want monetary payback in its purest form..yet, cultural aspect of any artistic endeavor goes on the route of funding either privately or governmentally…no dies.. just look at the Endowment for Arts…let the creative spirit of the artist create and let the commerce take care of it–I’m sure that the people know the difference when they stray from the true cultural spirit in which they are claiming to represent….

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