Making a Difference?: The Micropolitics of Musical Strategies Among Malawi’s Volun-Tourists — Ian Copeland

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Within the logic of development-driven sensitization, the dissemination of “best practices” is buttressed by moments when target populations are asked to demonstrate mastery of their new knowledge. Through ethnomusicological analysis and participant observation, Ian Copeland describes presentations conducted by one US-based NGO that uses the arts to inculcate safe health procedures amidst the Southern African AIDS epidemic. Such lessons are complicated by their instructors, volun-tourists who pay for the experience of serving foreign communities. The songs and plays developed by community participants demonstrate not the mere parroting of advice, but radical transformations of local cultural and political norms. Yet for the volun-tourists, perhaps the most influential segment of the audience, such messages are lost to tenacious preconceived notions about African creativity and traditions. Rather than the radical positive change for Malawians that the NGO hopes to inspire, these programs might serve mostly to reinforce and validate the ideologies of American participants. Such communicative barriers expose that the limits of demonstration often lie in the audience’s capacity for reception, and suggest that international operatives would benefit from more conscientious exposure to the language and aesthetics of the communities they attempt to engage.

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