Musical Insularity: Something Worth Thinking About

Islands, Borders, and Insularity

A world without islands is hard to imagine. That is because what an island is, much depends on who you are and where you are. A table-land is an island of sorts, if you are unable to cross the mountains surrounding it. A lake is an island for the wildlife inhabiting it. It would also be very difficult to imagine a world without borders, because so many kinds of them exist: geographic, political, linguistic, social, psychological, etc.
    Islands and borders can also be transient, rather than permanent, or even porous (a concept Walter Benjamin introduced speaking of "Naples" in 1925). Islands and borders, alone, or intersecting one another (as borders may also exist within islands) generate multifarious forms and degrees of “insularity”.

Insularity and Cultural Diversity

    Without insularity cultural diversity would not develop, because humans would be confronted with the same environment everywhere; and without barriers separating them, all their knowledge and experience would be shared. A common culture reacting to a common, environment is hardly likely to generate diversity. In fact, the point could be made that insularity of one form or another is the main factor at the origin of all cultural diversity (as in the biological domain). Insularity triggers variation and selection by giving people access to different kinds of resources, and the possibility to interact with them in idiosynchratic ways, depending on their history and experience. Do you need to send signals to be heard over long distance? In Switzerland it was done with Alphorn and Yodel; in the Canary Island of Gomera it was done with a whistled language that can be heard far away.
    In other words: environments offer diverse challenges, but even when they are identical, different solutions may be found when different sets of experience, attitudes and resourses are available. That is why it is so wonderful, to have territories surrounded by waters, small populations in out-of-the-way valleys, immigrants establishing Chinatowns and Little Italies within larger urban centers, tribal societies separated by the affluents of the Amazon River, cities that grow as veritable islands in the middle of the countryside. Wonderful because all such conditions of “insularity” develop special kinds of music.

Insularity and Isolation

    To be sure, the term “insularity” is evocative of isolation and self-containement, and yet absolute isolation is only an “ideal type,” a mental construct, useful to gauge how distant single realities may be from the model. Insularity is always relative, and usually combines isolation on some levels with opennes on others.
    One symptom of insularity is usually the persistence of repertoires showing archaic features, when compared with the corresponding genres existing on the mainland or in surrounding areas (anthropologists call it “marginal survival” ; sociologists, after William Ogburn, speak of “cultural lag”). It happens in Islands (in Mallorca ritual dancing survives, that disappeared long ago in mainland Spain; in the Faroer older forms of Danish music and dance still exist that you would no longer find in Denmark) and it happens with migrant populations as well, when immigrant communities – islands of sorts – retain behavior patterns (language, music, cuisine, etc.) in older forms, that do not undergo the evolutionary process taking place in their land of origin.

Insularity and Innovation

    Confusingly, however, marginal survival is not the only and inevitable result of insularity, as it is also possible for cultural forms cultivated in insular conditions to develop along lines that will lead them to be very different from those still existing in the locale where they originated: the steel bands of Trinidad are an example of unique creativity, where oil cans were transformed into musical instruments. Transplanted African traditions only n Trinidad produced this very special kind of instrumental music. Such creativity is at the same time the result of insularity and contacts with the outer world - without oil cans steel bands would not have been conceivable. Obviously insularity and innovation are not necessarily in contradiction. Insular territories are known to offer very special soundscapes, where the local and the non-local, living side by side, provide striking contrast. We may get to hear the U2, Genesis and Bocelli in Mallorca, as well as in Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily, or Malta, but how such international genres intertwine with the local older traditions – and what space the overall mix occupies in the life of their people – is strikingly different from one island to the other; and it is different from what you find on the nearest shore of the mainland.
    Insularity does not make contacts impossible. It rather allows more subtle selectivity about what forms of contact to accept and what others to reject. In other words, the existence of very local repertoires (not shared or claimed by others) may point to cultural isolation, but it is no sign of complete insularity “per se.” Some repertoires may only exist in one village but, at the same time, others may circulate in that village as well, even transnational ones. In other words still, insular territories can be open to innovation, they are just rather choosy about what kind of innovation and/or external influence they wish to accept. One could probably make the point that conditions of insularity are those where the dynamics of culture change can better be studied and understod.