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With music as a boundary marker
– music media multiculture

Studies of music and dance as organisatory factors in multicultural Sweden are being carried out within the research project Music Media Multiculture. A central aim of several of the studies in this project is to examine how the mediation of music through radio, TV, records, satellite channels and Internet helps to establish and maintain ethnic life worlds.

By means of common expressive symbols, such as language, music, dance and clothes, people can create their own contexts in Swedish society. These attributes are in no way limited to ethnic groupings. Virtually all music styles in todayıs society are ascribed qualities which link them to groups which are defined via class, race, age, values, gender, leisure activities etc. Perhaps the most obvious present-day examples are the numerous music genres which are linked to groups within what is usually known as youth culture. Youngsters within the hip hop culture, for instance, create communities across national borders by means of music and graffiti and their way of dressing and talking. Krister Malm and Monika Sarstad have described the history of rap music and how it functions as an identity marker for young people the world over in Respekt nu! Rappens rötter rotas fram (Respect now! Roots of rap revealed). But music-based communities also exist in other parts of society. In several articles Ronström has drawn attention to the emergence of a pensioners' culture in the Western world, whose characteristics to a large extent are similar to those of ethnic groups: emblems, flags, clothes and also music and dance (Ronström 1997). Establishing an identity by means of organisation or belonging to a group would therefore seem to be a fundamental human property.

In the beginning there is organization. The basic human experience is belonging and dependence. We will argue that affiliation to organizations is a prerequisite for most human action (Ahrne 1994:5).

We can see that a game is constantly in progress in society, a kind of power struggle between different groupings or organisations. Membership markers are a distinctive feature of this game. The most obvious examples are uniforms: armies and football teams display their affiliation through their clothes.

But what about ethnic groupings? How can Assyrians in Sweden show their collective identity?

The multicultural context constitutes an arena where many different groups fight for a place. Like football players and football fans it is crucially important to be visible. The ethnomusicologist Mark Slobin talks about ³cultural brand-naming² – an attempt to claim musical expressive forms as the property of the group. Just as the flag, the emblem or the uniform symbolises a certain organisation or grouping and thereby also symbolises its ideology and values, music – and musical instruments in particular – have a symbolic function as identity emblems. Bouzouki music symbolises Greek identity, the bagpipes symbolise Scottish identity, the keyed fiddle (nyckelharpa) symbolises Swedish identity, despite the fact that it is common knowledge that the bouzouki belongs to a family of long-necked lutes common to most nations around the eastern Mediterranean and that the bagpipes are public property throughout Europe, a part of a cultural heritage with roots in the Middle Ages.

In the multicultural arena the musicians – the expressive specialists – have an important status as qualified bearers and interpreters of the group's cultural identity. If something is to be made visible, it must be given shape; it must be expressed and dramatised and this requires access to expressive competence. The right kind of competence is a necessary prerequisite, but is not sufficient in itself to make things visible. Another prerequisite is relevance: visibility demands access to situations, arenas and contexts where it is both possible and relevant to display cultural differences.

A primary function of group symbols is their potential as ethnic markers. Thus music can indicate belonging and community. This entails a careful watch on the symbols that are used. A struggle for available ethnic symbols is taking place, in which cultural brand-naming functions as a kind of claim to available expressive forms. In such contexts a great deal of effort is often spent on proving historic links between one's own group and the emergence of a musical instrument, for example, or a musical genre. At the same time that a symbol indicates belonging it also marks dissociation. By marking a "We" we are also singling out "The Others". Or in the case of the Assyrians: we are Assyrians but at the same time, and equally important, we are not Arabs, Turks, Swedes, Muslims, etc.

There is an important difference between different types of organised affinity, however. Different group memberships display different degrees of compatibility, even when membership is marked with the same type of symbols. As Ronström (see above) stated, pensioners' clubs display the same type of attributes for group identity as ethnic groups: special music, dance, clothes etc. But at the same time, in another context or at another time, it is possible for the pensioner to proclaim a completely different identity which represents his or her nationality, religion, gender etc. Our actions are simply based on the fact that we possess and have at our disposal a number of identities which can be used on different occasions and in different contexts. But not all group memberships are compatible. It is obviously not possible to be both a Muslim and a Christian, for example.

Contact, further information & comments: dan.lundberg@visarkiv.se