March 11th, 2009


From diaspora to panspermia

Playground Column
March 2009
From diaspora to panspermia

I have to admit I'm getting pretty excited about the Nimes Biennial 2009, which is titled L'Experience Japonaise and happens between March 24th and 28th in the southern French town famous for its Roman amphitheatre. The festival has been put together by the French label Sonore, which specializes in importing Japanese avant pop to France, and features DODDODO, one of the so-called Matsuri-kei acts I've raved about here before. L'Experience Japonaise got me thinking about musical diasporas.

I love the word "diaspora". In the original Greek it means a scattering of seeds, but it's come to mean a group of people with common ethnic roots, living -- either voluntarily or by necessity -- at some distance from their homeland. Music is incredibly important to a diasporan population, not only because religion and culture reinforce fragile cultural identities and keep community bonds strong, but also as a way to advertise the group's values and talents to the foreigners amongst whom they now live.

Now, L'Experience Japonaise will certainly advertise Japanese values and talents to the curious culture tourists who gather in Nimes in late March. But strictly speaking these Japanese are not diasporans. They're flying in -- like seeds on the wind -- to play at the festival, but they'll fly back out again when it's over, and most of them will return to Japan, where they'll continue to immerse themselves in the cultural specificities that make them so unmistakably, so exportably, Japanese.

Nevertheless, L'Experience Japonaise can't help reminding me of various groups of expatriated Japanese I've known in cities like London, New York and Berlin. Writing about an art and music collective in Berlin called La Condition Japonaise, I played on the double meaning of Super Collider, which might be a term for what happens when two cultures collide to produce more than the sum of their parts, but is also the name of the synthesising software many Japanese electronic musicians in Berlin use.

It's a complicated, fascinating process. For a start, certain Japanese pick certain foreign cities to go to, according to their personalities and interests. Fashion people might head to Paris, experimental electronic musicians to Berlin, artists to New York, designers to London or Milan. Once they get to those cities, they seem to spend half their time absorbing fresh influences, and the other half rediscovering their national identity, getting self-conscious about it in a way they never were before, learning to "perform" it for sympathetic foreigners who, in turn, find themselves "Japanized". The Japan Experience is not just an experience Japanese people have, but one they give to others.

Sometimes the native population can be more changed by having diasporans in their midst than the diasporans themselves are by their own exile. In an exhibition staged at the Japanese Embassy in London two years ago, for instance, Japanese art students talked about how their time in London had changed them. Most said they now felt more rather than less Japanese. As Central St Martins art student Emi Miyashita put it: "I feel really Japanese now. Much more than I realised before I moved here."

That's certainly been my experience as a diasporan musician. At first I was just a regional diasporan, a Scot displaced to London, recording for a record label (Creation) run by another Scot. Later, I rediscovered my Scottishness in New York (where I made a record called Folktronic full of parodies of Scottish-American fiddle music from Appalachia) and in Tokyo (where I started singing about Scottish music hall stars in an exaggeratedly Scottish accent).

You might think that living in Paris, New York, Tokyo and now Berlin would have erased my original Scottishness, but not at all; I'm currently working on a book called The Book of Scotlands, a numbered series of imaginary parallel world Scotlands. It would certainly have been more difficult to write this book while living in the real Scotland, and I would certainly have felt less tender about my homeland if I were still living there.

There are other, more subtle and metaphorical ways you could become diasporan, even without leaving the land you were born in. As a musician, you could use a musical idiom that isn't, strictly speaking, your own cultural heritage -- rap music, for instance, or reggae. You could travel through time and revise an idiom that hasn't been used in centuries; become a time diasporan and pluck on a lute. Or you could write from a gay perspective even if you're straight; become a diasporan of sexual orientation. Like the literary exile of a Henry Miller or a William Burroughs -- or a Nick Cave, for that matter -- these are techniques which might well refresh your writing.

In fact, if I were some kind of all-powerful cultural commissar, I think I'd prescribe long periods of compulsory exile for most musicians. It could only improve their material. I don't say they'd lose the "provincialism" of their local or national identity, but they might see it from a new angle, find a new taste for it.

There's another Greek word I love as much as diaspora, and that's "panspermia". This word also contains the idea of seed -- it suggests that the seeds of life exist all over the universe, and that life on earth might have originated in space. A strange red rain that fell in the Indian province of Kerala in 2001, for instance, was said by some researchers to contain spores of extraterrestrial origin.

The Panspermia idea is a reminder that, whatever nation we come from, we're all diasporans in the end: we probably came from somewhere else, and somewhere else before that. Who can even guess what kind of music we played "back home" in the Alpha Centauri system?

(This column originally appeared in Spanish on Playground.)