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Saving endangered musical cultures – the remarkable Sustainable Futures project

Australian Aboriginal yawulyu/awelye
Chris Bowen
| February 2, 2016

How do we maintain the sometimes fragile ecosystems of specific music practices at a time of rapid global change? A group of Australian-led international researchers working on the Sustainable Futures for Musical Cultures project have come up with some answers, and a website with rich resources.

In music as well as the environment, many of the world’s traditional music practices and cultures are under threat. From Australian Indigenous music – where one researcher has identified that up to 98 percent of music traditions may be lost, to West African dance-drumming and Vietnamese chamber music, common themes emerge. These are contributing to a potentially vast loss to the world’s musical and cultural diversity.

Causes range from demographic and social change to technological disruption and political environments, leading to loss of oral and other ongoing cultural traditions. As leading ethnomusicologist Anthony Seeger notes “music is ‘being disappeared’; there’s an active process in the disappearance of many traditions around the world”.

At the same time, many music traditions are flourishing, sometimes nourished through migration, tourism, and the digital world.

How do some traditions thrive, and others disappear? How can a balance be achieved, that sustains distinctive cultural and musical practices, and ensures unique cultures and their music are not lost forever?

These and other questions were explored by a group of researchers led by Queensland Conservatorium Research Centre at Griffith University in the Sustainable Futures project. This five-year project across multiple countries examined a series of distinctive case studies of nine different musical traditions.

They explored the concept that “the more vibrant genres may reveal strategies towards revival and longevity” which could support cultures under threat, and have developed a model to understand and seek to foster sustainability across these traditions.

This project underscores international efforts to protect and champion cultural diversity led by UN agency UNESCO who have prepared a World Report on Cultural Diversity, and the International Music Council who have produced a report on Protecting Musical Diversity by Dr Richard Letts, former head of Music Australia.

The Sustainable Futures project has created a website with rich resources across its various themes:

  • Exploring dynamics of music traditions, explored in nine case studies
  • Considering how music practices might be re-positioned in the modern world
  • Highlighting global challenges such as changing values, attitudes, and political and market forces
  • Generating practical tools to assist communities in forging their own musical futures

Explore more at the project website:

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