Beyond Exoticism

Timothy Taylor has a book out with Duke, 2007, called Beyond Exoticism. I asked him if he’d seen my book Critique of Exotica from 2000 – I note that he cites an early edited version of what became the first chapter – but he says it did not get in. Damn. So I wrote him while I was reading his chapter on hybridity and what he calls ‘Bhangra Remix’.

Of course I told him I thought it a pity he’d not discussed mine, given similarity of title and some themes – so it goes. Pique pique. But then also asked him if he also knew the Graham Huggan book out the year after mine, The Postcolonial Exotic, 2001? And David Toop’s earlier Exotica? All are interesting. Of course then I looked back at Taylor’s book, and saw the Toop volume is mentioned there. That’s good.

Anyway, as I’ve just read Taylor’s chapter on hybridity, I want to start a debate… he briefly discusses work that a group of us have been doing for some 15 years now. So, given his comment that we ‘set aside’ important political aspects of the music (this is not the usual criticism we get), I’m disappointed he didn’t get a chance to see that we have often explicitly discussed Asian Dub Foundation et al., in terms of a black politics, and that we did so especially in the 1996 book (Dis-Orienting Rhythms), again in the two journal collections (that I’ll list below), and again in mine (Critique of Exotica, chapter 2). There, black politics is not at all ‘set aside’, but rather is a very important guiding framework for our work. Sanjay Sharma and Shirin Housee also wrote a very important piece in the book Storming the Millenium that contextualises this discussion. How could all this work be overlooked? I think there are reasons, and will explain below. But before I do, lets admit its true that there are perhaps ways in which someone writing today – seven years after Critique, and more than ten years after Dis-Orienting Rhythms – might need to discuss the shifts in politics occasioned by increased attacks on Asians in the wake of the War On Terror. Such writing is of course underway – and much discussed at our conference in December last year at Goldsmiths. I’m disappointed Taylor does not adequately address these shifts (that some might think of as a shift away from a ‘black’ politics, but I am not convinced – the category black as a political term is not a skin tone), but at least it is a welcome change to be tested on this score by a musicologist, rather than always hearing complaints that we ignore the music in favour of radical leftism.

I’ve some minor quibbles with Taylor’s description of ADF as hip hop, not drum and bass, or as a ‘could have been Public Enemy’. This strikes me as too easy – a kind of imperious assumption that hip hop is the prism through which all parts of culture production must only be seen – a kind of blinding by bling perhaps, and though we do not ignore it, we do address more dexterous translations of hip hop and other influences – not merely as hybrid mash-up. There is a book edited by Dipa Basu that examines just this. Now, its heart warming to see Taylor endorses some of what I say – about commercialisation of exotica and on radical hybridity for example – but I think he misses a lot of the detail because he is thinking these things through the prism of a west coast musicology frame. Nothing clearly wrong with that I guess, but I would have liked to see some involvement with the politics of these issues, not only scholarly comment. That’s black, that’s not. He endorses my question ‘What would a radical hybridity look like?’, but now I want to ask for a radical scholarship alongside radical hybridity. Yep, this is something I am very keen to promote. Can Taylor fire up? Not everyone has to join the communist party or even sign up with Adorno within the academy – but I am concerned that scholarship slides into knowing quietism. And why does he seem to not like Adorno? – saying at the end of the book that he is ‘not ready to follow the Adorno route’. This of course is not necessarily to endorse the fabricated and erroneous versions of Adorno that prevail in universities these days, but I am curious to know why he felt the need to end the book with the usual ‘Adorno-thought- consumers-were- all-just automatons’ routine? I think its good to remember that Adorno wrote his essay ‘On Jazz’ under the pseudonym Hector Rottweiler

But back to the hybridity chapter – I have issues with words. If Taylor had given us something on Bhangra Remix’s non-London roots, or even acknowledged them, this would have been good. Birmingham, Bradford, Manchester are a very big part of the story. There is a sense that the Anokha clubnight that broke the scene commercially was just the mainstream cash-in on a music that was middle and northern England well before then – as Virinder Kalra keeps on pointing out, most of the interesting early stuff – Bally Sagoo, Malkit Singh, Apache etc., – comes from a one mile square block of Birmingham. So I think ‘Bhangra Remix from London’ is not the best term – and describing early Bhangra as ‘a kind of rock/pop played by South Asians in London’ also erases some important specificities, the Melas, the various clubs, the nights at the Hacienda, Sankeys Soap, etc. Debates about terminology were, as Taylor says, all important – and the bands themselves, at least Hustlers HC, ADF and FDM, were first to insist theirs was not ‘Asian Cool’ (Aki said the only Asian Cool he’d heard of was the street protests in Manningham, circa 1995) and I never heard anything on Nation called ‘Bhangra Remix from London’. I wonder why Taylor settled on that term? I know it later became the phrase most often used in the NYC scene – by Sunaina Maira, for example, in her first article for us in Postcolonial Studies 1998, but even there in NYC, Vivek Bald complicates the terms – see his great film Mutiny. My worry here is that musicology becomes scenic (hegemonic) definition, and engagement in politics, or in the politics of knowledge, gets left aside a little if these things are not continually destabilized. And here is the clincher – it demands a radical scholarship, engaged and involved. As Taylor says in the very last lines of his text, ‘the stakes have never been higher if we are to understand the world and leave it for the better’ (p212). For mine, understanding and leaving it at that ain’t the best way to translate an earlier version of this sentiment. Let’s rephrase the terms: ‘The philosophers [musicologists?] have only interpreted the world [music], the point is to change it’ (11th Thesis on Feuerbach – old beardo, my brackets of mirth]

Ah, now I’ve written this out these seem like minor matters of disagreement on the whole. Even jealousy (clearly). And this is not a book review, not yet – I should say there is much in the earlier chapters that is great, and there is a fun chapter, after the hybridity one, on country music that is very cool. The trouble is that here a critique of hybridity that should have been attractive just did not live up to the billing – it marrs an otherwise pretty good book. So let me just clearly say that on the whole I enjoyed the book very much, especially the early chapters, and most of all the commentary on the opera Schehrezade.

Just to be thorough (this’ll no doubt look like harassment, but its not meant to be) I’ll list some of the relevant stuff we’ve done on Asian musics here:

1996 Dis-Orienting Rhythms: the Politics of the New Asian Dance Music. Zed books, London

1998 ‘Music and Politics’ special issue of Postcolonial Studies Vol 1 no 3, (co-ed Hutnyk and Virinder Kalra)

1999 Sharma, Sanjay and Housee, Shirin ‘“Too Black, Too Strong?” Anti-racism and the Making of South Asian Political Identities in Britain’, Jordon and Lent (eds) Storming the Millennium: The Politics of Change. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

2000 ‘Music and Politics’ special issue of Theory, Culture and Society Vol 17 no 3 (co-ed Hutnyk and Sanjay Sharma)

2000 Critique of Exotica: Music; Politics and the Culture Industry. Pluto Press: London.

2005 Diaspora and Hybridity – authors Virinder Kalra, Raminder Kaur John Hutnyk. Sage: London

2005 Hutnyk, John ‘The Dialectics of European Hip-Hop: Fun^da^mental and the Deathening Silence’ South Asian Popular Culture 3(1):17-32

2006 Ali, Sayyid V.Kalra (eds) A Postcolonial People: South Asians in Britain – Hurst, London

2006 Hutnyk, John ‘The Dialectic of Here and There: Anthropology ‘At Home’ and British Asian Communism’’ Social Identities 11(4):345-361

2006 Dipa Basu and Sid Lammelle (Eds) The Vinyl Ain’t Final London, Pluto

9 thoughts on “Beyond Exoticism”

  1. Thanks for hooking me up with Current Musicology to review the Taylor book for them. It’s in the post so I should get it soon. The chapter you refer to sounds like a version of an earlier chapter Taylor published: ‘Some versions of differenc: Discourses of hybridity in transnational musics’ in T.G. Oren & P. Petro (eds) Global Currents: media and technology now (Rutgers University Press, 2004).

    There is a tendency in journalism and academia to simply give a range of musical practices a simple tag like ‘Bhangra’ to match with the right bunch of ethnics. It’s a crude version of the homology argument. This music stands for that social group. It’s like how all black music today like funk and R & B somehow becomes ‘hip hop’ or worse still, ‘rap’.

    Anokha wasn’t even that Bhangra-ish anyway, more influenced by drum ‘n’ bass.

    So the scene watching of US academics doing anthro on the British desis hasn’t been particularly sensitive to differences in music, region etc. (as you said). I think your criticisms point to how our critiques are situated in different ways. American discourses reflect the way they see the issues of hybridity domestically, even if they’re writing about somewhere beyond the borders. Ditto British approaches. Anthropologists are supposed to reflect on that but like other academics they often drift into the universal truth register from the particular cases they have studied. I’m not arguing for an authentic ‘insider knowledge’ but one a little less certain about how you can extrapolate grand claims from the local or particular.

    I haven’t got around to looking at your diaspora and hybridity book yet, but have you seen Marwan Kraidy’s Hybridity, or the cultural logic of globalization (Temple University Press, 2005)? It’s good on the many uses of the term as well as the dubious political uses of the hybridity concept.


  2. Hey Nabeel – thanks for pointing out Kraidy. I found you can read the first chapter here: Kraidy pdf. I had not seen this when I wrote my bits for the book “Diaspora and Hybridity”, but those bits can be seen in short form here: as Contact Zones, and in fuller form in the journal ‘Ethnic and Racial Studies’, Volume 28, Issue 1 January 2005 , pages 79 – 102.

    My other favourite texts on hybridity are mostly pretty well known, but I list them here anyway:

    Brah, Avtar and Coombs, Annie 2000 “Hybridity and its Discontents”, London: Routledge.

    Garcia Canclini, Nestor 1995 Hybrid “Cultures: Strategies for Entering and Leaving Modernity”, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

    Papastergiadis, Nikos 1998 “Dialogues in the Diaspora: Essays and Conversations on Cultural Identity”, London: Rivers Oram

    Papastergiadis, Nikos 2000 “The Turbulence of Migration”, Cambridge: Polity Press. Lowe, Lisa (1996) Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics.

    Anyway, thanks – I’ll post more on this today.

    be well – John


  3. Just wanted to tell you that your work (esp. Critique of Exotica and the edited collection Dis-Orienting Rhytms) is well appreciated here in Portugal. I am working on Sir Salman’s work, Adorno and the cultural industries, and so far I haven’t found work as groundbreaking for my study as yours and Huggan’s. Even though I was interested in a book with the suggestive title Beyond Exoticism (everything nowadays seems to be beyond: Beyond Subculture, Beyond Bollywood…)the author’s approach isn’t quite right for me.
    Anyway, you’re one of my academic heroes (even if, I must admit, you strike me as “too political”, if that’s is possible, but I guess that comes from living in the country of “bland customs”)


  4. thanks for this comment. Crikey, too nice. To political though? I was thinking not polly enough…


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