Traditional Folk Music in a Polarizing Europe: An Expedient to Cultural Sovereignty?
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“Folk” or “traditional” music is commonly used by governments, political movements, and NGOs to bolster cultural identities and to promote cultural heritage. On the one hand, folk music is implemented to assert difference by signifying the particularity of cultures. On the other hand, this particularity undergirds humanitarian music projects where diversity of musical traditions is meant to signify universal values. The efficacy of music in human rights practices has only recently received critical attention, and scholarship on traditional genres in this context is scarce. A critical discussion of contemporary folk music instrumentalization is becoming increasingly urgent, as cultural debates in Europe and beyond are polarizing and nativist populist movements are drawing traditional music into exclusionist, xenophobic, and racist frames of cultural protectionism. I argue that in times of polarization, music NGOs, governments, and political movements use musical heritage as an expedient to assert or maintain cultural sovereignty. To conceptualize folk music as a resource for humanitarian and political cultural sovereignty claims, I draw on George Yúdice’s concept of cultural expediency, Simon Bornschier’s “new cultural divide,” sovereignty discourse, and (ethno)musicological scholarship. I focus on the humanitarian perspective in a case study of the NGO Jeunesses Musicales International (JMI) and its folk music program Ethno World. Through an analysis of primary sources and JMI’s organizational structure, I pose that while adhering to the humanitarian understanding of cultural sovereignty, JMI’s network relies on public funding and national policies, placing the network in the domain of cultural sovereignty of the state. Using Ethno Sweden, the first ever Ethno program, as a case study, I examine the gathering in relation to Swedish cultural policy and speculate how it may be affected by the national government’s recent shift towards the right. I compare opposing claims of cultural sovereignty where Swedish folk music serves as an expedient and address practical limitations of Ethno Sweden’s humanitarianism through twenty-four semi-structured interviews with Ethno participants, folk music activists, and representatives of youth music organizations. Finally, I suggest folk music’s expediency to cultural sovereignty leads to a diffusion of political and humanitarian objectives in the cultural heritage arena, a persisting romanticization of traditional folk music genres, and an ineffective reliance on music as a universal language in humanitarian music projects.