World Music & Tea

Recently I was reading an article about the music genre World Music and its place in modern music culture. Many musical experts were highly critical of the term World Music and how this was marketed to a Western audience. David Byrne of Talking heads fame went one step further saying, “It’s a none too subtle way of reasserting the hegemony of western pop culture, it ghettoises most of the world’s music. A bold and audacious move, White Man!” This got me thinking about tea.

How do we view tea? How do we promote tea? How have we appropriated tea into a Western culture? Well, on reflection I think we do this in many, varied and not so subtle ways.

All of the major tea producing countries have over hundreds and sometimes thousands of years developed a tea drinking culture. I specifically point towards China, Korea and Japan. These tea culture practices we hold as an idee fixe of that countries culture instead of a dynamic and influencing form. The newer tea producing countries, however, do not have such cultures and here this may include India and the African continent tea regions and thus are ignored to a greater degree.

But here in the west we have appropriated tea to specifically exclude and marginalise the tea producers. We begin this by fetishising certain teas and tea regions, excluding others. We then build a supposed personal knowledge base around these teas and form “expert” groups. How many tea producers are invited or even appear at the many tea fairs and brewing competitions held in the west? The answer is not many, if any. At the many tea expos and expert meetings I have attended I hear the same papers being given about sustainability, work place practices and tea farming techniques by these western experts. The result is nothing other than another entry on the experts resume and a booking for the next expo. The west lauds specialised brewers of tea in competitions that are proliferating in many countries that mean nothing to the producer or for the local tea culture.

Tea and World music has a lot in common. I have always thought of my experience in tea to be something global, connecting me and cultures, opening new friendships allowing for a confluence of two people becoming “us” through tea, as World Music once was thought of. But as the newspaper article went on to say: “…World music meant the opposite: a distancing between “us” and “them”. I fear the West has now commodified tea to distance “them” too. We cannot at the moment exculpate ourselves, but we have do have the possibility to do so into the future if we change our practice.