dany masado

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what qualifies as an authentic culture? are some cultures more authentic than others?

I ask this from the perspective of a young african woman living in the era of globalization. This conversation started when a friend of mine told me that the choreography that I had prepared for our annual african cultural show for Michigan State University was not "authentic African" dance. This eventually translated other aspects of what it means to have an authentic culture, from the way we are raised, to the languages we speak, to how we must avoid the influence of the western world. I believe that there is no such thing as an authentic culture, and that it is much more productive to open ourselves to others and absorb the good things that exist within others. I am open to anyone who can explain to me where I've gone wrong in my understanding of authenticity and I look forward to your answers

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    Jul 2 2011: first let me thank all of you guys for even taking the time to respond to a question which is so important to me. I think Mr. Armstrong above, very clearly explains what I've been trying to say, but in much better words. In our struggle to remain authentic, are we not in fact remaining stagnant while the rest of the world evolves and leaves us behind? I believe holding on to authenticity makes us ignore the fact that we are really a fluid species, constantly absorbing ideas from each other (see democracy from Greece, architecture from Rome and Greece, food from all over the world, names of cities such as Alexandria, Georgia, Athens and the like). When do you decide what is authentically African, what is authentically American, or authentically European? To go back to my authentic African dance, I must point out that I was offended by my friend's comment because in the choreography that I did, I wanted to show to our audience that dance in Africa was no longer just the ones we did with our grandparents in the village, it was also the dance in the schools, the dance in the clubs, the dance that had evolved to a mutual exchange with other cultures of the world and has become dance just for the sake of dance.
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    Jul 1 2011: I think that when we talk about 'authentic culture', it implies a snapshot of a culture from a certain time or particular perspective.

    Culture (language and tradition?) must be dynamic, and in an era of faster and clearer global communication, this will become even more observable. Cultures that are not prepared to be influenced by other cultures will stagnate and become little more than a museum-piece.

    This is not the same as heritage (which I consider to be an individual person's own history). Nobody can tell you your heritage is not 'authentic'.
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      Jul 2 2011: Agree with Scott.Sometime read somewhere that Culture is like a flowing river that I am convinced about most. Over time it can and will change it's direction, on way of it's flow it will get many things in it some of which will get nicely diluted and be part of it, some will not so will float as a foreign body.

      May be when someone sees something floating which os unable to get diluted right then that piece can be considered "unauthentic" but that doesn't mean the whole river is so.

      In this era of global connectivty many more things coming in to that stream (rightly said by Scott) at a ever higher speed, so seems to me we can see more things floating giving a feeling of "unathenticness".

      Like river culture will die if it can not change it flow & direction as per the demand of time also not being able to dilute optimally as then one will see tons of thing floating like a polluted river.
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        Jul 2 2011: I agree too Salim, there is this one great river that we are all traversing. Sometimes we think we're the only one traveling in this great river as we seem to be comfortably riding our boat, but when we rise up and look around this river, there are other boats journeying. This great river is the fundamental unity of our beliefs, cultures and convictions.

        This great river is authentic in the great history of great people of our past we call our heritage, expounding this great heritage today is what makes us all authentic.
  • Jul 16 2011: Yes there is such a thing as an authentic culture. The Roman, ancient Greek, Aztec, E.T.C You get the point, right?

    An authentic culture is a dead culture. Cultures are living breathing things, they eat (copy memes), they breath (create memes) and sometimes they make shit (terrorists anyone?). There is no such thing as an authentic culture unless its dead and then it wont change at all.
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    Jul 12 2011: Dany I think you are basically right that culture is a perception and even within any culture there will be variations so that sweeping generalizations are seldom accurate. ie.. Buddhism is a pacific peace loving influence on a culture. But then many samurai warriors had a Zen grounding. Living cultures are constantly changing, any attempt to freeze frame a culture such as the France's Academy Francaise which claims to be the final arbiter of all things French is itself inauthentic, or perhaps not if you perceive the French to be xenophobic snobs as some people do. All cultures that I know of have had influences from others at some point in history. Only if a culture is dead and fossilized like Ancient Rome can you try and define it. Even then many aspects of "Roman" culture where influenced by the previous Etruscans and by Greece in particular and even Egyptian influence is hard to measure. Whatever influences you received directly from living relatives friends and associates must be authentic, then if you make a new dance it is still part of "your" living culture. We all interpret our past to the future. Hopefully we preserve what is good and forget what is dysfunctional. After all it is nearly certain that all of us had horse thieves, slave owners and yes even cannibals for ancestors at some point.
  • Jul 2 2011: When I think about culture being authentic, I can’t help but think about what it means for a culture to be relevant. Let me give an example from my own world (which is the easiest for me to write about): I have been learning computer programming lately, and as a result, have come to discover a computer programming culture. Programmers have their own way of talking about their work (a language), their own kind of work environment, and their own insider jokes. I don’t think any of this arose because they were conscientiously trying to create culture. They needed their special vocabulary to understandably talk about the projects they were working on. They tried to set up a work environment that would allow them to be comfortable while still being able to produce good work. They thought the jokes were funny.

    The culture is relevant because it is tied to the need to solve real problems that these programmers face every day. Because it is relevant, it is also authentic. When experienced programmers council newcomers to write good documentation for their programs, it is because they know the frustration that has come when others haven’t done this (hours of trying to figure out what a previous programmer was doing). Their counsel is sincere, the vocabulary is relevant, and they think their jokes are really funny.

    Thus, it seems to me that culture will lose its authenticity when it loses its relevance, that is, when it becomes divorced from the work that needs to be done and the environment that people actually live in. Because our environment changes, it seems we will only maintain an authentic culture when we preserve the mechanisms that create culture in the first place: people collaborating together to do good work, people teaching each other how to get along, and people striving to get a better view of the world around them.
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      Jul 4 2011: that is a really nice way to explain your perspective on authenticity. I never really saw it from that vantage point.
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    Jul 2 2011: As the person who coined the term "world fusion," I have devoted my life to created new music through study of the world's great traditions and through cross-cultural collaboration. Of course, I have spent a lot of time thinking about all of the various issues surrounding my life's work, and I have my own answers to the questions presented.

    The true meaning of authenticity in art is being true to your art. So for me, any art that is true to itself is authentic.

    Another meaning that people give to authenticity is for art to be made by people who are born into a certain culture, and who are trying to preserve that culture as a snapshot of how it once was. This is a noble goal, and we need people who will devote themselves to this so that seed material for our great cultures will be preserved. However, the very act of preserving the music does in fact change it, because art is vibrant and alive and must reflect the spirit of the people who create it. So, attempts at purity tend to kill some of the muse that is so important to art.

    The fact is, we need both support for the museums of culture and for expanding horizons in contemporary art. We need a lot more support for both of these. Preservationists are fighting for crumbs and need a lot more funding for their work. And those expanding horizons are expected to do so in the marketplace, which does not do a good job of supporting great art. So we need a lot more funding for expanding artistic visions.

    But there is so much potential for creating great new music as master musicians learn deep knowledge from each others traditions. This is what my band Ancient Future has devoted its first three decades to. It is important to do this with the utmost respect for the traditions: they hold the musical knowledge for future generations.
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      Jul 4 2011: the way you speak about the dynamics of art is the same way I feel about my dancing. The dance that is supposedly that of my ancestors had already been mixed and remixed not only within the tribes of our country, but also with the other nations of Africa so to ask for authenticity in my opinion, is to ask that we go back into history when populations had not interactions with each other. Even my own native language from Cameroon has a mix of english and french words in it due to colonialism so that in itself has already lost its authenticity. The purity of a culture, a'.k.a its authenticity is just non existent to me
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    Jul 2 2011: Dany,

    What a wonderful question. It has also been on my mind.

    I live in Midwestern suburb, known for its international ethic. We've sought to answer this with diverse citizens' expressions and involvement. In arts, like your dance, businesses like resident-owned restaurants, faith organizations, and public spaces which invite myriad people of different ages, perspectives and interests to gather.

    What I observe as authentic culture is that which sees expressing itself as learning history of self and the particular culture it is seeking to understand. So, for example, a dance like yours would engage what you know about your history, but also would be open to interpretation by other African American's. And perhaps invite others to interact from their perspectives. Not in the dance itself, per se. But in related dialogues.

    My view is authentic culture finds each person expressing what they know together, even if they have quite different experiences. This both enriches the lessons it offers and connects people through it.

    I like the concept of building the future from, but also with, the past. So history is retained while new history is created, evolving inclusively, somewhat organically even.

    In my community words like organic can be interpreted as squishy but when with the grounding orientation history, can elicit curiosity. Eg: it becomes easier for white CEOs, to see how, say an Hispanic marble installer is equally constructive to culture. When they learn both were taught work ethic from their father, or that they attended the same school.

    We're fortunate with leaders, including a female mayor who is Polynesian, who see how authenticity develops when diverse people share their origins and selves to co-create shared culture. By seeking to learn more of each other, understanding the process itself is critical to becoming authentic. Authenticity, then, is less about reaching an absolute standard. But of seeking it in situ, together.

    Andrea
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    Jul 2 2011: I think Joseph Pine's TED talk on "what consumers want" has a lot of relevance here. In it he stresses than one can not have an inauthentic experience because "the experience happens inside of us" and is nothing more than our reaction to the events staged in front of us. So, he says, as long as we are in fact authentic humans, all our experiences are authentic.

    He later goes on (hypocritically) into a lengthy explanation about the criteria for authenticity. It is all about being a.) honest to itself and b.) being honest to everyone else. Being what you say you are to others to yourself. Total transparency is authenticity.

    In my opinion, authenticity is an effortless, absolute honesty to one's self and others. I think you'll be hard-pressed to find total authenticity in any culture. At the same time, I believe every culture harbors authenticity to some extent.
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    Jul 12 2011: Dany, I believe “authentic” is different than “traditional” and that your friend confused the terms. To me, something is “authentic” when it comes from the heart and connects us with others and our world. The opposite of authentic would be faked or contrived. I find dance and music to be authentic when dancers and musicians play from their hearts without trying to look or sound like someone else’s definition of what they “should” look or sound like. When something comes from the heart, we feel connected to it, and, in my mind, that is authentic.

    Traditional dance and music also came from people’s hearts or it wouldn’t have lasted. Whether it is authentic, in my mind, depends on whether the players are opening their hearts to the music, dance and each other.

    (I realize I wrote that dancers “play” when “perform” is the commonly used word. However, I believe dance involves very high levels of play.)
  • Jul 12 2011: Hi Dany
    I always wanted to partake in some aspects of First Nations and Metis life. But I understood from my white child point of view that all was not well in that camp either. It helped my understanding in that we fostered children from reserves until I was 12 or 13.
    In any event I was never invited to join in the woodland life that even then existed.
    'Uncle' Kenny was a trapper, he dressed in leathers, traded skins, pushed dogs until skidoos came along, packed flour and coffee and bacon and such for four months on winter trap lines.
    I saw true culture becoming disheveled and abused by people who wanted to cash in.
    I refused to appropriate the symbols of my brothers and sisters
    somehow I knew enough to be fully open.
    Now I see all around me the 'plight' of the visible urban oboriginals
    three or four generations untangling dysfunction that merely hides a a valid culture.
    I see that things are getting better.
    I am empowered enough to occasionally wear a ceremonial beaded rawhide coat on a sunny day
    many people here have memories if not living roots in First Nation art, craft, and culture.
    I see peoples eyes well up when they remember an aunt or gramma who cured moose hides and made mukluks, uncles made snowshoes-old school- bannock making neighbor mothers, unlocked doors.
    Every memory like that is precious.

    I can't define what Uncle Kenny had, but I wanted it.

    Ray
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    Jul 7 2011: look beyond culture. thats Authentic
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    Jul 7 2011: When I first read the question, I thought of the sort of "Authenticity" that some philosophers have used. Under that idea of "authenticity", a person acheives authenticity by living in accordance with what they are and the nature of the "human condition". This requires self understanding. It requires avoiding self deception. It requires that one can figure out how to express what one truly is. Since none of us are likely to completely acheive this kind of authenticity, it is something we seek, an "aspiration", rather than something that exists.

    So I was thinking an "authentic culture" would be a culture that would exist and evolve within a group of persons that are living authentically.

    Of course, when I read the explanation below the question, I saw that Dany's friend seems to be talking about mimicking a culture that exists or had existed. Since he said Dany had failed to acheive authentic African dance, he seemed to be suggesting that the point is to become a vessel for the culture that others had created rather than to interact with that culture in a way that puts oneself on a level of being equal with the other creators of culture.

    So the real question has to do with how we should define "authenticity" which has to do with what it is we ought to aspire to. Should we aspire to mimic culture, or should we be actively involved in its evolution in a way which accurately expresses what we are? The latter may often require some mimicking of the culture we have been given, but it does not involve being caged into only mimicking what we have been given.

    You can probably guess how I would answer that question.

    "Authentic" culture is culture that evolves in the context of people aspiring to be authentically what they are.
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    Jul 7 2011: Authentic culture is hard to come by in my opinion. Authentic means that it hasn't been tainted by another culture. So, if you live in a family or community that blends multiple cultures then it's a blend and isn't what I would call an authentic culture. hope this makes sense...at least somewhat lol
  • Jul 7 2011: My perspective is that of a young Filipino woman, raised very Western style and shamed by my relatives for not being more authentically Filipino. I retorted there is no such thing as authentic Filipino in the way that they mean, in that something untouched by Western culture, because prior to the coming of the Spanish there was no "Philippines", that is, no country, no unified national identity. And that there WAS Pre-Hispanic culture but it's far from us now, and we have been shaped - and shaped in turn - by forces and events outside our own territorial boundaries, and we should remember it but not worship it because I fail to see how my culture is less beautiful than theirs. I think this is true for all countries, your culture as it is now may have things wrong with it but it is not in itself a wrong culture. I am as likely to admire an American pizza as an Italian one, as long as it's not rushed and sloppy. Why not? How is pasta with tomato sauce authentically Italian if tomatoes are native to the Americas? It IS authentic Italian though. Similarly, the American (or Filipino or Japanese) takes on pizza are authentically pizza as well.
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    Jul 5 2011: when you visit disney's epcot center you see relics of authentic cultures which have since evolved, largely due to technology and communication. this does not mean that current german culture is not authentic. nor does it mean that japanese and brazilian cultures are the same. relics exist in every current thing we use. our own DNA is rife with relics. culture is ever-growing, ever-changing while remaining authentic. no?
  • Jul 5 2011: I'm French with some origins in Cameroon. I suggest you to read a great writer called Edouard Glissant. He has so many great ideas about different cultures and globalisation.
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    Jul 5 2011: There is a brilliant TED Talk you might enjoy very much: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.html . If you ask me, it fits your question neatly, especially the part from 7:35 to 8:23:

    "And so I began to realize that my American roommate must have, throughout her life, seen and heard different versions of this single story, as had a professor, who once told me that my novel was not "authentically African." Now, I was quite willing to contend that there were a number of things wrong with the novel, that it had failed in a number of places. But I had not quite imagined that it had failed at achieving something called African authenticity. In fact, I did not know what African authenticity was. The professor told me that my characters were too much like him, an educated and middle-class man. My characters drove cars. They were not starving. Therefore they were not authentically African."
    ~ Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (*1977), Nigerian Writer
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    Jul 5 2011: Hello Dany,

    let me phrase my answer it in the words of Douglas Adams:

    "Anything that is in the world when you're born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that's invented between when you're fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you're thirty-five is against the natural order of things."

    A wonderful quote that I find confirmed over and over again, and I suppose it fits you friend as well. Does he make use of anything invented in the last 10, 50, 500 years in the "Western World"? Then ask him why he betrays his "authentic African culture". I often have debates in the field of bioethics, and a regular argument I hear is that doubling our life expectancy is not desirable since it would diminish our appreciation for life. I then ask these people whether they will commit suicide at age 40 for the sake of "appreciation for life" - or whether they gladly accept the doubling of life expectancy that has already occured.

    It is a conservative mindset, and such conservative thinking is always flawed: That what is traditional now has been new, revolutionary, progressive once. So why declare the standards at our birth as normal? Why not the standards of our grandparents? Of the Middle Ages? Or the Bronze Age? The Upper Paleolithic?

    There is no logical reason for drawing such an arbitrary line, only emotional ones like the laziness to adapt or fear for the unknown. If you are neither lazy nor fearful, if you are look forward to embracing innovations and differences instead of dismissing them in advance, then you are free to constantly evolve as long as you breath.
  • Jul 4 2011: When I think of "cultural authenticity" I can't help but think of bumper stickers that say things like "Keep Austin Weird." As was said in a previous post, cultures are alive and vibrant and ever changing. The idea that we must fight tooth and nail against change is primarily a backlash against the fact that not only is our world changing, it's doing it at a rate that is exponentially greater than it ever has before. There are innumerable factors that have contributed to this, but the outcome is the same. Our desire to sit in a comfortable, secure position has caused us to grasp on to things we see as stable and unchanging (fallacy though this may be). We don't want to knock down old homes, even though they may be incredibly energy inefficient. We want to hold on to beliefs that deep down inside we know are outdated simply because we are afraid of the consequences of developing or adopting new ones. We also want to keep things "authentic" and "original." The problem here is that these "authentic" and "original" practices and customs were once new and innovative. When someone created a certain dance in a certain cultural group, or changed existing practices, there were those that said they were not adhering to time honored traditions and had betrayed their cultures. Our modern practice of turning actual working cultural practices into sideshow entertainments are in fact doing more harm than good, but not allowing things to develop and change as they should. This contributes more to the death of cultures than to their preservation. I liken this to forest fires. In nature, forest fires develop naturally to clear out brush and debris that have accumulated over time. This allows for renewal of the landscape. We have been for some time now the suppression of this natural phenomenon only to the effect of eventually having an uncontainable blaze that wipes everything out and is far more devastating than what would have naturally come to pass.
  • Jul 4 2011: I dare to say there is no authentic culture. Everything is based in something.
    Take music by example. Or american culture that was strongly influenced by imigrants' culture(Europe, Japan, Africa, Mexico).
    Everything is a remix.
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      Jul 4 2011: you just summed up exactly what I'm thinking. There is no such thing as authenticity, and just as josh S said, "true "authentic" culture in the modern world are more or less just best guesses at what the cultures used to be for the purpose of entertainment and/or tourism."
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    Jul 2 2011: Authentic implies tradition to me, and there are cultures that hold firmly to tradition as a means of preserving the past and celebrating their way. These cultures, however authentic tend to shun outside influences at the expense of progressive growth and modernity. Never the less where it works it adds tremendous value to those societies and bonds them firmly.
    There is obviously American culture and tradition as well, but the interpretation of traditional dance and other types of performances from immigrant transplants do indeed become less authentic, because there would be no way to avoid new influences or expectations on the performance.
    I think that your friend is right about the authenticity of your "African" dance, but your performance is adding to what will become a uniquely American culture that is as authentic to American culture as the same dance would have been if performed somewhere in Africa to a local audience there.
    Western societies thrive on absorbing influences from other cultures that positively add to it's diversity and that inevitable fosters it's own unique and authentic culture that seems ever encompassing and evolving.
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    Jul 1 2011: No such thing as authentic, Dany Masado?
    Maybe there is a sliding scale, but I think the idea has some merit. Otherwise, you might allow an Al Jolson minstrel show to represent African culture. Suppose two different people were going to do your choreography project. One of them saw a five minute YouTube of an African dance of unknown origin, and another lived in Africa for 20 years and heard many stories from their grandparents about dances and their meanings and that person simply shared input from their own experiences. It seems that the latter would be more "authentic" than the former, although this would be very hard to measure. Just as verisimilitude is a valuable quality to have in a novel, I think authenticity of cultural representation has value. It's just really hard to define in any simple way. It's also hard to measure.
    Does that help?
    Mark
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      Jul 2 2011: thank you very much for you input. first I'd like to point out that what I understand as being an "authentic culture", is one that has customs that are unique to itself, customs that cannot be duplicated in any other culture. Can we truly say that in our day and age, there anything in any culture that has not been influenced by any other? The reason why this is such an important question for me it is that I believe that asking African people to go back to their authentic culture is to polarize the world even more because in attempting to gather the "sameness" of the African people, we creating an "otherness" for the rest of the world. Does this not seem counter-intuitive to a progressive world of "togetherness"? please pardon the cheesiness of that sentence.
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        Jul 2 2011: Dany, there is sameness in culture with its unique expression that other culture can see as otherness and there is also togetherness that is expressed in this unique culture as we see them as an ulitmate expression of our love, hope and trust.
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        Jul 4 2011: Dany Masado (ouch you make me think)
        Eclectic rather than exclusionary is what I am hearing. I can respect that. I can also respect the idea that our commonality is more important than our distinctions or differences, sort of a focussing on the middle of the Venn diagram instead of the edges. But when we share or make music together, for example, it is sometimes important to understand our different points of view, different timbre of our instruments, stepping into each other's shoes, in order to walk together, play together, share anything really. I respect our differences in gender, age, culture, and whatever else, yet mostly I want to validate you and myself together in our common humanity.
        Maybe more important than the "authenticity" of a culture is the sharing of its celebration.
        Mark
      • Jul 4 2011: Any contact with people from a diferent culture impacts the native culture. It's impossible get a 100% authentic and unique culture.
        • Jul 4 2011: I agree with you on this view and with the view of others that there are multiple levels to the authenticity of a culture. However, I think there are similarities in all levels of culture in the modern era.

          I think there are basic similarities in culture that most, if not all of us, have shared for large parts of our histories. Disposal of our deceased, creating a union between people in love, social stratifications, and the list goes on.

          The aspects of culture that remained different (and the list is huge) between societies have been mixing together since the age of exploration and it's only been accelerating since. Unique cultures were either peacefully integrating with each other and the less socially desireable aspects were dropped or, because of warfare, unique cultures were killed off.

          Perhaps the only places where cultures remain intact and undisturbed are areas such as the Amazon rainforest where some tribes remain deep within and isolated from the outside. Otherwise, true "authentic" culture in the modern world are more or less just best guesses at what the cultures used to be for the purpose of entertainment and/or tourism.