Music plays a tremendous role in culture, both folk or popular.

Folk music is central to folk culture in that it contains actual information about the culture; the activities of the people, important “life-cycle” events (like birth, death, and marriage), as well as other factors unique to that culture.  More importantly, you can almost learn more from the music of a folk culture than you could by just reading about them.

In Vietnam, there is a song about when to plant seeds in the summer and the winter:

  • While seedlings for the summer crop are no old when they are three months of age, Seedlings for the winter crop are certainly not young when they are one-and-a-half months old.

Even the fact that they would create music about seeds and planting shows the centrality of farming, or effective farming to the folk culture of Vietnam.

While living in Eastern Europe I experienced folk music firsthand, and the diffusion of folk music.  From about 1400 to 1900, half of the former-Yugoslavia was a part of the Ottoman Muslim Empire.  (great maps and timeline here)

That means for centuries, the culture and (folk) music of the Muslim Ottoman Empire permeated the culture and musical stylings of the Orthodox Christian Serbs and Bosnians.  Many converted to Islam, increasing the cultural impact that the Ottomans had on the region.

click the pic to enlarge

Southeast Europe has also been historically to Romani people (also known as gypsies).  The Romani people, or Roma as they are called throughout Eastern Europe are a great example of cultural diffusion, as they have adapted much of the culture of the people where they live, while also maintaining many characteristics unique to their own culture.

One example of cultural diffusion via folk music can be seen in how the traditional Ottoman music gradually became adapted not only by the Serbian people into their popular culture, but also the Roma have established a reputation for their own unique brand of “gypsy” music that features distinct drum beats, plenty of horns, and turkish inspired melodies.

1st. Consider this clip of traditional Ottoman music.  The Janissaries was the Sultan’s elite army.  Janissaries were selected as children from Christian homes throughout the Balkans where they were inculcated into the Ottoman Empire and raised in Islam, and treated as one large family.

2nd. Check out this clip of a traditional Roma band in Serbia.  You will notice a similar heavy percussion and brass, and even a similar melodic feel.

3rd. Check out this very typical Serbian pop song.  I heard this music non-stop on buses and trains throughout the Balkans.  See if you can detect the musical influence of the previous two clips.

4th. Cultural Diffusion – check out this song from the critically acclaimed indie band Beirut, who have claimed somewhat of a niche for themselves by incorporating into their music influences from the Balkans.  So you have a modern indie band in America utilizing traditional Ottoman-Roma-Serbian folk elements into their popular culture music. (you really have to wait to 1:30 to hear the chorus and detect the musical influence)

Here are the discussion questions for the class regarding folk and popular music:

1. Describe the different characteristics and roles of folk and popular music in their respective cultures?

2. What is the influence of geography on both folk and popular music?

3. Describe several instances of the diffusion of popular music and its impact in today’s world?