Genres and open-eared listening

People in Okinawa sometimes ask if I ever listen to other kinds of music. As you can see from a quick glance at the Roots Music from Out There category on this blog I do indeed listen to a lot of non-Okinawan music. Although this blog only covers what is loosely labelled roots music (whatever that is) I also listen to lots of stuff which wouldn’t be called roots at all and most of it would, I suppose, be classed as pop or rock.

Music genres are being crossed and defied so much nowadays that trying to categorize becomes almost meaningless. This may be inconvenient for the music critic but is good news for the listener. So Kendrick Lamar is a rapper but that only tells part of the story. His album To Pimp a Butterfly borrows and subverts such an array of styles encompassing funk, jazz and soul that to call him a mere rapper is almost an insult.


I’ve been reading Elvis Costello’s memoir Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink. It’s an illuminating read. Costello was borrowing styles right from the start of his career in the 1970s. I was already well aware of the similarities between ‘Pump It Up’ and Bob Dylan’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ and when I saw Costello in Japan many years ago he even ran the two songs together to underline his own stylistic appropriation of Dylan’s song. But what I hadn’t thought about much, until reading his book, is the multitude of other musical motifs and lyrical borrowings in his songs.

Costello’s fascination with another Dylan song ‘Is Your Love in Vain?’ inspired the opening of his own composition ‘Possession’ while the first line of that song is the same as the first line of The Beatles’ ‘From Me to You’. More surprising (though maybe not so much when you think about it) is his borrowing of the grand piano style from ABBA’s ‘Dancing Queen’ to rescue one of his most popular songs ‘Oliver’s Army’ from what he calls an uncertain fate.

Elsewhere in the book he makes the obvious but often neglected point that you don’t have to choose between different kinds of music. You can like it all. To this I would add that it isn’t a competition or it shouldn’t be. I love Shoukichi Kina. I love Benito Lertxundi from the Basque Country. I also love Leonard Cohen but I love Macklemore & Ryan Lewis too. I love the late great Hedy West and her ballad singing and banjo playing but that doesn’t stop me being thrilled by a great pop song from Taylor Swift.



The master guitarist Bob Brozman once told me: “I only find big egos in small musicians”. He believed that the best musicians were completely open-eared like children and placed no special value on one kind of music over another. The same applies to listeners with the proviso that everyone naturally has their own favourites and musical tastes.

But listening to something new can be very refreshing. In some sense it can be argued that the best music is always that which is being made today and to access new music from all over the world is easier now than ever. I recently downloaded for free a collection of 100 songs from artists at this year’s SXSW Music Festival in Austin, Texas. This came courtesy of the estimable NPR music site. The good thing is that I hadn’t previously even heard of more than a tiny percentage of any of these musicians. Expecting to like only a handful of the tracks, I ended up loading more than 80 of them onto my iPod… in time I might even get around to liking some of those I left off.


Explore posts in the same categories: Notes from the Ryukyus

2 Comments on “Genres and open-eared listening”

  1. Yu Tamura Says:

    This was such a lovely read as I too listen to a vast range of music and to hear, no read you writing about Kendrick Lamar was fantastic! And thank you for sharing Bob Brozman’s comment. Horray to open-ears!

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