Mumford and Retroculture
Watching the above parody, I thought about about an NPR story from about a month ago about “retro-acculturation,” in which musician Marco Polo Santiago went back to Oaxaca, Mexico, where his parents were born to learn “cumbia,” an Afro-Columbian hybrid music they once listened to:
Santiago, 36, was born in Los Angeles and is also a native English speaker. He grew up playing hip-hop and heavy metal. But now, he leads a band in Oakland that plays an Afro-Colombian style called “cumbia.” Santiago’s journey from hip-hop to cumbia began a couple of years ago, when he took a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, where his parents were born. He came across a woman playing a quijada — that’s the skeleton of a donkey jaw.
“It was my first time witnessing that,” Santiago said. “You’ve got a piece of carcass on stage that you are using as a musical instrument, and I was just fascinated by that, you know?”
… Santiago is a textbook example of what Jackie Hernandez calls “retro-acculturation.” Puerto Rican and raised in Manhattan, Hernandez is the chief operating officer of the Spanish-language Telemundo television network, which has made it a point to reach retro-acculturated Latinos.
It turns out the term has been in use for some time now, but my only encounter with some variation of it before hearing it on the radio had been this 2007 essay from TAC, by Paul Weyrich and Bill Lind:
One of conservatism’s most fundamental impulses, and one of its most valuable in a time when history is neglected or forgotten, is to recover good things from the past. Traditional cities and towns, passenger trains and streetcars, are examples of this tendency, which we label retroculture. The next conservatism should incorporate retroculture as one of its guiding themes, a basis for its actions beyond politics. Want to fix the public schools? How about Schools 1950? We already have retro cars such as Volkswagen’s New Beetle and the Mini. Why not retro manners and retro dress? It would be nice to see men’s and ladies’ hats again instead of kids’ underwear. By making old things new, retroculture might offer a counterweight to the endless spiral downward that pop culture decrees in everything. If fire is needed to fight fire, perhaps fashion should be used to fight fashion.
So what does this have to do with Mumford and Sons? Well, for starters it seems obvious that they tap into some sort of retrocultural impulse, but they also illustrate its limits in an important way. Just as investments in trains and streetcars Lind and Weyrich cite as the embodiment of retrocultural transportation often end up as public sector boondoggles or payoffs to monopolistic companies, much modern retro-sounding music ends up as upper-middle brow emotional validation in service of big entertainment. Besides, it’s not exactly clear what they’re recovering.
That wasn’t always the case, but we’ve (arguably) lost the participatory musical culture on which particular genres–such as cumbia, or American folk music–depend. I’m not sure there’s anything that can be done about that, and that dissolution itself has given rise to interesting new forms, as I wrote in a recent essay for the Umlaut, but it ensures the permanent retro-ness of the retrocultural project.