Dorian Gray discovers world music

December 16, 2022 0 Comments

In the cosy light of our post-colonial glow-lamps we tend to imagine that ‘world music’ was discovered, and given its long-deserved recognition, by our own generation.  We still have dozens of LPs and CDs of Indian and west African music, rooted out in Tower Records in Piccadilly Circus in the 1980s.  We kept an eye out for World Circuit records, Rough Guide compilations and more obscure labels.  The experts who guided us there were Lucy Duran, Charlie Gillett, Andy Kershaw and others.  When we could, we went to pay tribute to visiting musicians like Baaba Maal and Toumani Diamate.  Our source of definitive information, was the bible-sized Rough Guide to World Music.  We congratulated ourselves on our pioneering taste.

But, of course, all this was arrogant illusion.  ‘World music’ had been found and appreciated (though not named as such) long before we came along.  European and American ethnologists had been collecting examples of music from around the globe since the beginning of the twentieth century, if not before.  To give just one example, French musicologists recorded the remarkable valiha music of Madagascar in the 1920s, fifty years before it came to the attention of British enthusiasts.

Maxwell Ashley Armfield, Self portrait (1901) (Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery)

This truth came back to me this week when reading Oscar Wilde’s novel The picture of Dorian Gray, first published as a book in 1891.  Half way through the story, Wilde describes how the young, beautiful and narcissistic Dorian, having reacted with indifference to the suicide of Sibyl Vane, the lover he rejected, and having seen the face in his painted portrait not only do his ageing for him but start to display signs of his incipient cruelty, turns to a series of all-absorbing activities in an attempt to live out his new philosophy of self-indulgence and worship of the senses.  Before moving on to haute couture, jewelry, embroidery and ecclesiastical vestments, he first toys with religious ritual, then with oriental perfumes, before discovering another world of intoxication:

At another time he devoted himself entirely to music, and in a long latticed room, with a vermilion-and-gold ceiling and walls of olive-green lacquer, he used to give curious concerts in which mad gipsies tore wild music from little zithers, or grave, yellow-shawled Tunisians plucked at the strained strings of monstrous lutes, while grinning Negroes beat monotonously upon copper drums and, crouching upon scarlet mats, slim turbaned Indians blew through long pipes of reed or brass and charmed—or feigned to charm—great hooded snakes and horrible horned adders. The harsh intervals and shrill discords of barbaric music stirred him at times when Schubert’s grace, and Chopin’s beautiful sorrows, and the mighty harmonies of Beethoven himself, fell unheeded on his ear.


This epiphany, Dorian’s sudden discovery of exoticism that shared little with the European music he’d been brought up with, sounds alarmingly like the avidity with which our generation pounced on the music of the sitar, the oud and the koura, instruments that all seemed so enticing compared with the over-familiar guitar and piano.

Not content with inviting musicians to perform for him, Dorian sets about acquiring instruments from other musical traditions:

He collected together from all parts of the world the strangest instruments that could be found, either in the tombs of dead nations or among the few savage tribes that have survived contact with Western civilizations, and loved to touch and try them. He had the mysterious juruparis of the Rio Negro Indians, that women are not allowed to look at and that even youths may not see till they have been subjected to fasting and scourging, and the earthen jars of the Peruvians that have the shrill cries of birds, and flutes of human bones such as Alfonso de Ovalle heard in Chile, and the sonorous green jaspers that are found near Cuzco and give forth a note of singular sweetness. He had painted gourds filled with pebbles that rattled when they were shaken; the long clarin of the Mexicans, into which the performer does not blow, but through which he inhales the air; the harsh ture of the Amazon tribes, that is sounded by the sentinels who sit all day long in high trees, and can be heard, it is said, at a distance of three leagues; the teponaztli, that has two vibrating tongues of wood and is beaten with sticks that are smeared with an elastic gum obtained from the milky juice of plants; the yotl-bells of the Aztecs, that are hung in clusters like grapes; and a huge cylindrical drum, covered with the skins of great serpents, like the one that Bernal Diaz saw when he went with Cortes into the Mexican temple, and of whose doleful sound he has left us so vivid a description.


The editor of the Oxford edition of The picture of Dorian Gray tells us that Oscar Wilde found the names and details of most of these instruments in printed catalogues of instruments collected by the South Kensington Museum, renamed the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1899.  His main source was Carl Engel’s Musical instruments, first published by the Museum in 1875, from which Wilde lifts phrases almost word for word.   This reminds us that museums were already collecting such objects in large numbers from all over the world.  Western musical instruments were a natural target for the South Kensington Museum, which was dedicated specifically to the ‘decorative arts’, but its curators obviously had more ambitions, global ambitions, and sought out objects from all over the world.  In 1882 the Museum bought 201 examples of folk instruments from Engel’s own collection.  Even at this time, with the British empire at its zenith, this must have taken some investigative and fieldwork skills.

Horniman Museum

The South Kensington Museum was not the only collecting institution in this period.  Anyone who’s visited the Horniman Museum in south London will have spent some time in the wonderful gallery devoted to displaying – and offering recorded snatches of – some of the over 9,500 ‘objects made to produce sound’ sourced from around the globe.  The collection began in 1901 when Frederick Horniman, the museum’s founder, donated 200 instruments.  Much later, Jean Lynn Jenkins, an American ethnomusicologist and refugee from McCarthyism, joined the Horniman in 1954, as its first Keeper of Musical Instruments, and travelled extensively in Africa, Asia and the middle East in the 1960s and 1970s, collecting instruments, recordings and photographs.

Eventually Dorian grows weary of ‘world music’, as he does of all the pursuits he throws himself into, and retreats to Western forms of music – characteristically, to one of its most exotic and transcendental examples, the operas of Richard Wagner.  (‘Lord Henry’ is Sir Henry Wotton, the friend whose amoral cynicism first sets Dorian on the road to self-ruin.)

The fantastic character of these instruments fascinated him, and he felt a curious delight in the thought that art, like Nature, has her monsters, things of bestial shape and with hideous voices. Yet, after some time, he wearied of them, and would sit in his box at the opera, either alone or with Lord Henry, listening in rapt pleasure to Tannhäuser and seeing in the prelude to that great work of art a presentation of the tragedy of his own soul.

Oscar Wilde

The original, late-nineteenth century enthusiasm for ‘world music’ was facilitated by, and was no doubt a product of, the great empires of the period, then at their height of their power.   Everything about the Dorian Gray’s fascination with his performers and instruments – the otherness, the primitive, the ‘savage’ and ‘barbaric’, the racist – reflects the common view held by imperialists about the millions of overseas peoples they controlled.  

I wonder, though, whether our own devotion of contemporary world music, especially when we exoticize certain genres of it, is entirely free of neocolonial thinking?  For example, we tend to exalt genres we like to regard as indigenous or nativist, like Ghanaian ‘highlife’ or South African jive or a cappella, when most people in Ghana and South Africa moved on long ago to other forms, very often strongly influenced (unfortunately, we tend to think) by hip hop and other north American forms.

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