The Deke Sharon Keynote: A Masterclass in 'Yes, But'

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Continuing my reflections on Harmony University, Deke Sharon’s keynote address is going to take a post of its own, and probably quite a long one at that. Which is entirely how it should be – his job as keynote speaker is to get people thinking, and he succeeded in starting conversations that went on all week.

His theme was ‘Divergent paths’: reflecting on the way that organised barbershop separated off from the Black vocal harmony traditions the genre had once been part of, and using examples from continuing African American traditions to imagine how barbershop might have turned out if it had not spent so much of the past 80 years as a segregated genre. This is a fabulous thought experiment through which to consider the history of vocal harmony genres, though on reflection I am starting to suspect it was also the root of many of the ‘yes, buts…’ that emerged in response.

Another thing I loved about the talk was its commitment to musical detail. Triangulating between concrete musical elements of compositional and performance styles on the one hand, and the social meanings associated with them is an approach that is always going to engage me. It’s an approach that allows you to develop your musical understanding as an epic theory – i.e. one that addresses a problem in the real world, not just in theory. And the crisis Deke wanted to address was the way barbershop routinely fails to achieve its ambition to be a popular style, how it nestles happily into its peculiar niche of connoisseurship, remaining distinctly odd-looking to outsiders.

He has a point here of course. It’s one I first wrote about in Chapter 4 of my first book, work which informed my own week's teaching about Chorus, Cults and Charisma. His suggestion that it is the contest system itself that really encourages the arms race of stylistic idiosyncrasy is right on the money. I have been thinking for a while that the ostensible loosening of style criteria for contest purposes with the intent of allowing in a greater variety of more currently popular songs has often resulted in taking normal music and doing stuff to it that would annoy its original fans.

But I think placing this within the over-arching narrative of divergent paths had the effect of taking lots of interesting and astute musical observations and flattening them into an essentialising discourse that stereotyped both white and Black musics in ways that are not entirely helpful either for race relations or for musicianship.

For example, his point about the way that the aesthetic of lock-and-ring drastically reduces the range of tone colour and inflection available to barbershoppers captures an essential dilemma at the heart of the genre. It is one indeed that arrangers and performers are grappling with in their practical explorations of what they style might become, with varying degrees of success.

Deke framed this within the aesthetic discourse of imperfection as sign of authenticity. This has been a framework for musical taste since at least the end of the 18th century, and sees perfection as somehow dishonest, a mask the music puts on to hide the humanity beneath. The metaphor evokes the wiles of the courtier or the politician, in contrast to the raw truth of the real person who won’t hide behind social convention. In this context, Singing Category and Performance Category can never be satisfied at the same time, as the more virtuousic the control of balance, tone and tuning, the more the true emotion of the song is hidden.

Clearly this aesthetic distinction is onto something – we wouldn’t still be using it if it weren’t – but to map that onto a distinction between the obsessive quest for ring in the overwhelmingly white tradition of contest barbershop on one hand versus a bunch of examples from Black vocal traditions that feature a much wider timbral palette and/or sloppier tuning on the other seems, to me, to be overly reductive.

For one thing, it creates categories that won’t contain the work of Black artists who are/were all about musical beauty: Whitney Houston, Willard White. And it’s hard enough for People of Colour to make their way in genres that are all about virtuosity without having to contend with sterotypes that would see their proper place as belonging in the world of the sonically flawed.

Casting this aesthetic in terms of race, that is, constructs Black musical traditions as a Noble Savage – as simple, untutored, authentic beings who live in a state of nature, untainted by the distortions of culture. It is, to be fair, a more flattering stereotype than one that sees racial Others as sub-human, but it remains a colonising discourse, of the type routinely deployed to block access to cultural capital. I can well remember the resentment of a Black student of mine as she told how she spent her childhood resolutely insisting that yes, she did want to learn the violin, in the face of people trying to push her into singing as more appropriate for her background.

Similar problems emerge with Deke’s critique of barbershop’s excessive harmonic complexity. Four-chord songs are accessible, he contends, so we should follow the example of the Unique Quartette, rather than bebop, which everyone finds off-puttingly inaccessible. Again, musically he has a point worth debating, but his own examples completely break his divergent paths model of segregated musics. Bebop’s complexity is often explained in terms of Black musicians re-appropriating jazz from white commerciality, its very difficulty a purposeful strategy of exclusion.

Perhaps inevitably the Noble Savage theme would emerge most vividly with the invocation of the Myth of African Rhythm. I don’t need to do the heavy lifting of this critique, because Kofi Agawu did it in a jaw-droppingly impressive article of 1995, in which he develops a trenchant and penetrating analysis of the imperialistic and colonising agendas in the way the music of Africa and its diasporas have been framed.

Groove is an easy target for anyone who wants to kick barbershop of course; the genre is notoriously poor at it, though possibly slightly less so than when I discussed this dimension of its praxis in Chapter 6 of my book.* But to elide that issue with barbershop’s racial segregation over-simplifies the problem to the detriment of all.

On one hand, it ignores all the rhythmically-vibrant traditions that don’t come from the African diaspora. The Irish dance to a different beat, but it’s a very catchy one. On the other, it puts an unreasonable expectation on barbershoppers of colour. With access to the same educational and repertoire resources as their white counterparts - arrangements, learning tracks, coaching support, general barbershop performing traditions - they are somehow expected to transcend all the habits of the genre and not fall into all the same rhythmic traps that these resources facilitate.

Deke’s concluding recommendation that barbershop should find its future by putting four black boys together and letting them get on with it typified the underlying essentialism of his narrative. It’s a solution that imagines racial characteristics to be inborn and natural, rather than acquired and refined. I note that the four black women attending HU on the Red Caps scholarship were there primarily to learn rather than teach. (That they also spread insight is a side-effect we should be grateful for, not expect.) It’s also a solution that makes the people who have been excluded responsible for fixing those who excluded them.

His underlying message, that finding ways to develop a healthier interaction between musical traditions will be good for both the artform and its participants, remains one that we can all get behind. But, you know, it’s one that the BHS is already in some ways committed to. I was left with an overall feeling that this address came two years too late. It felt like one that should have paved the way for the society’s Strategic Vision. Arriving instead a year in its wake, its radicalism was somewhat blunted.

The uncomfortable truths he articulated about barbershop’s more peculiar habits and their effect on accessibility remain ones useful to pique the genre’s adherents. And there are stories to be told of how musical practices and the social politics of race have interacted over the past century. But the social analysis needs to be as astute as the musical insights for those stories really to hang together. As it is, I’m left more uncomfortable that a narrative that attempts to heal social division may have served to reinscribe it.

* I say that, though I have noticed in recent times that the escalation of embellishment is starting to get people’s feet tangled up in the rhythmic flow again. At a tangent, this is where the Music Category’s remit to assess ‘song and arrangement as performed’ gets really interesting, as it is so often arranging devices that either help or hinder the performers.

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