I am interested in the intriguing phenomenon of people taking up exotic cultural practices. My main area of research in this area has been into Brazilian music in the ‘West’ and as practiced by ‘Westerners’. This has led me to other Brazilian forms such as the dance-martial art capoeira, Afro-Brazilian dance and the religious cult of Candomblé. Initially, I explored the meaning of samba for Western practitioners and the accessibility of this music. More recently I have been thinking about the more general concept of cultural adoption encompassing many types of music, movement and spirituality, and I am discovering what drives this interest, and what it can represent. Whereas each practice obviously has its own attractions, significations and implications, I think it is possible to see commonalities between quite a wide range of adoptions. I intend to be at once quite general and very specific about what exactly I am considering.
Specifically, I am concerned with cultural forms which come from what used to be called the ‘developing world’ and which are taken up by ‘Westerners’. Because these terms are vague and easily contested I will focus in by saying that I mean cultural practices from Africa, south and east Asia, and Latin America. (There will be exceptions and exclusions, obviously, but let us continue). The Adopters are from Europe, North America and Japan. The forms will be ‘practices’ rather than ‘products’, things that people do, rather than make; things that they do, rather than buy. They may be spread by micro-enterprises and self-employed practitioners, but are not usually disseminated by multinational companies.
The potential list of included practices is long and varied (which is what I meant by being ‘quite general’). From the Brazilian music, dance forms I have mentioned, which branch into martial art and religion, as well as carnival performance, it is easy to widen out the field into other forms of music and movement: salsa, from Latin America and its diaspora which has enjoyed great popularity in Europe for at least 20 years, to the extent that it is almost mainstream; tai chi, martial art-related and also comprising a spiritual dimension which is important in many of these examples – particularly yoga. Zumba has more commercial characteristics, but can perhaps be included. Belly dance certainly. The singing of Balkan and African songs by community choirs is relevant, even though the Balkans are a geographic anomaly which need not concern us too much, since I would allow practices which are perceived as belonging to ancient, threatened and exotic minorities in the West. As such, flamenco could certainly be in the list. Tango, of course.
Then there are people who like to learn obscure languages, an interest which requires a considerable investment in time and effort, and has little in common with learning a world language such as English or Chinese for career advancement. Finally, I think taking up an exotic religion should be included. Some of the practices mentioned already are religion-related: tai chi, yoga and much of Afro-Brazilian music and dance. Westerners taking up Buddhism or forms of Hinduism (Hare Krishna) have been around since the ‘sixties. What is more of a hot topic in our times though is Islam, in particular fundamentalist Islam. Whereas this is largely a movement of the Middle East and of the descendants of immigrants from Islamic countries, significant numbers of Westerners of Western descent are also being drawn in and I would argue that this has commonalities with (as well as some differences from) the other practices mentioned above.