Steve Roach albums walk line of cultural appropriation

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Grammys are filled with a lot of bullshit. Somehow, they’re still kinda fun. They’re fun in the way that dumpster fires are fun. The New Age music category of the Grammys is honestly my favorite part of the whole shebang. This genre of music is itself pretty bad––it’s probably the epitome of cultural appropriation and commodification of other cultures by white artists. The man I am reviewing is no exception. Even one of the albums I am reviewing is a prime example of New Age malarky.

This may sound trite and flippant, especially giving the sensitive subject matter that I’m going to broach, but I think that compared to the other New Age Grammy nominees Steve Roach was by far the best, least culturally insensitive nominee this year. This is the best that the New Age Grammy category can hope for.

The album that Steve Roach was nominated for this year was a throwback homage to old, Berlin School-style electronic music, called “Molecules of Motion.” I think this album is great. It’s much better than the mom-and-pop jam band that the award went to this year––more on them later. I honestly think that Roach is only getting nominations now as a sort of tribute to what he has done for the genre, especially given the context of where he is in his career.

Because 2018 was the 30th anniversary of the magnificent “Dreamtime Return,” Roach released a re-imagining of the album under the title “Return to the Dreamtime.” More so than being the great musical achievements that they are, these albums stand for a more positive version of New Age music–something this year’s Grammys were sorely lacking.

Let’s get the bad out of the way first. The title of these albums should make you cringe. “Dreamtime” is a term crafted by white Europeans to describe a facet of mythology that the people of an indigenous, Australian culture, Arrernte, tried to explain to dull European anthropologists. The term has some basis in mythology, but there’s a lot of evidence that it is a mistranslation and hasty academic work. As time went on, some Arrernte people adopted the word: on the Arrernte-run website aboriginalart. com, there’s a whole section dedicated to dreamtime. However, the term has mainly fallen out of academic use.

The title is the first indication that we should be pretty suspicious of Roach on this album. The figure of the white man going to indigenous people to create art has a very high chance of being damaging, white-washing, and inaccurate when it comes to the lived experience of the indigenous people––something neither Roach nor I have any experience with.

So what’s the deal? Why defend these albums if I think they are so appropriative? Why am I giving these albums such high ratings? Music aside, the reason is because it is collaborative—an aspect not usually realized given that Steve Roach is the only listed artist when, in reality, he worked with a plethora of Arrernte men and women in crafting this work. This is by far the worst thing about the album and once again exemplifies its appropriative nature.

“Dreamtime Return” started as music that would accompany a documentary about the history of the term “dreamtime.” But when Roach got to Australia with the film crew, he decided he wanted to make his own project to more accurately capture the lived experience of the awkward word “dreamtime.” So on tracks like “Red Twilight With The Old Ones,” “A Circular Ceremony” and “The Ancient Day,” we really don’t see much of Roach at all. He really only served as a curator to get this album created and produced. Looking at the liner notes, it’s pretty clear that Roach was far from working alone on this 2-hour beast. By my research, at least 18 people with some connection to Arrernte people and culture––be it ancestry or actual lived experience–contributed. But of course this isn’t perfect. While Roach does credit the people he worked with, I find it shady that he lists the album as solely his own, especially considering that going forward in his career, he really prioritizes giving credit to his collaborators.

In an odd way, I don’t want to talk about the actual music here. Like, it’s great, go listen to it, but I think that this album’s value resides in what it does for the New Age genre. No other groups nominated for Grammys this year (or in the last three years) have presented collaboration like this.

What inspired me to write this was just how aggressively trashy the winner of this year’s New Age Grammy was. The band is a group of all-white people from L.A. The head of the group is a violinist who is classically trained and is trying to switch over to more “soulful” music. The first thing you read on their website, after the label of “2019 Grammy winner,” is “this is Kama Sutra music.” The next thing you read is a poem by famous Sufi poet Rumi, a Muslim. And, of course, the music is lead by a classically trained violinist––the whitest instrument I can think of. It’s just a mess of cultural illiteracy and blatant appropriation. While Roach’s music isn’t perfect by any stretch, at least giving him the win would define what attitudes the Grammys want to endorse.

One Comment

  1. There are so many albums that fucking don’t walk the line of cultural appropriation that could have gone up for review?????????????????

    like what were y’all thinking here. acknowledging something as cultural appropriation does not automatically make it okay to bring to the forefront? It’s like “oh if we acknowledge that this is racist then it’s fine”

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