Folklore music: tralira and folderol!

[Translation of the article „Ethnomusik: Tirili und Tralala!„]

Is folklore music more than ”tralira” and ”folderol”? Of course! What a question?! So it does have a significant connection to its context of origin? Why then do we learn so little about the origin of the music of our folk dances? Where do the musicians come from? Who are they? To what extent are their background and their biography important for the music they are playing? Why does the music sound the way it does? What other references does this music have, for example to the occasions on which it is played?  

The U.S. music ethnologist Michael E. Veal explains (1) that the circulation of the so-called world music always involves its separation from the places and time of its origins. According to him, we listen to the music without having to deal with its history. He considers it tawdry to tear the sounds out of their context and to foist them on a Western audience from an aesthetic point of view.

It is precisely this „tawdry foisting-on“ which is happening in our IFD as long as nobody feels committed to explain what we are hearing. Not even the majority of those who bring this music to us feel duty-bound there. In that way folk music indeed turns to be a ”tralira and folderol”, especially when we, the dancers, are not even told what the song is about to which we just have danced. 

The same thing applies to dances being handed on with insufficient or missing background information: they are degraded into nothing more than nice movements, although there are so many contextual clues in dance music and songs and so many interesting stories to be told. (Examples are numerous here and in the rest of the relevant folk dancing media.) 

We do not learn, for example, why that one recording of a dance sounds so mechanical and machine-like, while the other appears lively, sensitive, and euphonious. And it really wouldn’t be a feat to talk a few bars about the musicians, the orchestra, the different styles and fashions that exist both in traditional and in contemporary practice of folk music. Ultimately, this unscrupulous use of musical pieces manifests a lack of respect for those who have composed, arranged and performed them.

In our opinion, folk dance teachers – even those who pass on dances in the second, third or umpteenth place – should know that folk dance music does not emerge somewhat spontaneously out of the blue. It has been created by artists who deserve to be mentioned just as well as the choreographers. The dancers should be informed especially when, deviating from tradition, apples are mixed with oranges – for example a Macedonian dance to a Roma song from Hungary. (2)

Secondly, it is a small but essential contribution to the understanding of foreign cultures if the dancers can link the song lyrics to the respective dance. Many times we have been told by dance teachers that they did not have the lyrics to a song recording they used, and that they did not know what it was about. Is this what cultural work looks like? And – if passing on folk dances is not cultural work, is it then just plain business?

Finally: the sound quality! Maybe sometimes poor quality cannot be avoided. However, there is an increasing number of bad dance music recordings taken from YouTube videos that we have been offered during the last years. On an original CD or a purchased download the quality of the music would be significantly better. If you include legal recordings in your music research you will care more about the artists than if you just quickly snatch an item from the bargain counter. 

At this point ”tralira and folderol” separates from well-founded cultural education: by dealing carefully and responsibly with the musical material. The same applies to the dancers. Anyone can become active and ask for background, explanation of lyrics, sources. It is in everyone’s hands whether their dance material remains pretty arbitrary or whether it allows them precious insights into the respective culture.  


(1) Interview in the German newspaper taz on March, 22, 2019. http://www.taz.de/Ethnologe-zur-Bewahrung-von-Musik/!5579557/

(2) Examples:
1. Jeni jol on Rumelaj
2. Romsko Bitolsko oro from Paul Mulders on Tu jésty fáta of the Band Kanizsa Csillagai, newly interpreted by the Swiss Trio Weliona.