Beirut borrows a little bit of music from everywhere--but does that make it their own?

Beirut borrows a little bit of music from everywhere--but does that make it their own?

I love Beirut the band.  Their music accompanied my paper writing in college and the break-up of my first relationship; I played it on my iPod during train travels around Europe and on my walks to the coffee shop down the street from my apartment. 

Beirut was created by a now twenty-four year-old, New Mexico native named Zach Condon. Condon plays ukulele, flugelhorn, trumpet, euphonium and mandolin, among other instruments.  His band brings more instruments to the cacophony, adding tuba, trombone, piano and glockenspiel to the ensemble.  The band has released two albums and five EPs.

There’s something transporting in their music to be sure—they use Balkan folk melodies, instruments taken from throughout the world, beats only found in the music of cultures outside our own.  These borrowed elements give their music a worldly, ancient quality not found in much music of today. But the same factors that makes Beirut’s music so appealing also makes it, by necessity, inauthentic.  Listening to it, I can help but wonder what, or who, gives permission to borrow a culture’s music?

Composers have borrowed snippets of musical heritage from other cultures for centuries.  French composers Debussy and Ravel took music from less developed Asian countries and islands, using their own interpretations of these peoples’ music in their own arrangements.  Debussy and Ravel have been accused of being musical colonialists, essentially taking over a country’s musical heritage, subverting it, and then inserting it into their own compositions. 

Borrowing happens all the time, right?  So what makes this “musical colonialism”?

I think the difference between the two might be a country’s ability to create and control its own representation of its musical heritage.  Let’s take a made-up situation, for example. Say I go to a remote, exotic island called Mezey, a place where they are unfamiliar with recording techniques or mass production.  While there, I listen to their music, grab a few of their stringed instruments, sort of remember the music in my head and then write it down later on a piece of sheet music.  I get my band to play my new composition and get a bunch of people to listen, while I say to them, hey! this is what Mezeyan music sounds like.  Which is basically what Debussy and Ravel did with Southeast Asian music in France. 

But is that what Beirut is doing? 

In a way, yes.  With their music videos, instrumentation and lyrics, Beirut purposefully creates a kind of antiqueness that removes the music from any sort of timeliness in any specific culture. 

Take, “Postcards from Italy” for example.  Beirut uses old-fashioned home movie clips in their video and chooses a kind of recording quality that replicates the spinning of a record player.  In this way, they use a false nostalgia not only for Italy, but also for an Italy in the 1960’s and ‘70’s that never even existed, essentially creating a false trail of Italian musical heritage.  

But totally writing off Beirut as a fake isn’t fair, either.  Saying that their borrowing is in some way unethical raises the question of who in art can ethically borrow anything?  Simply, the guitar and the piano are not American, per say, but they are used in nearly every American song. Modern day composers borrow from musicians who are long dead—are they supposed to cut anything that they have not been given explicit permission from the creator to adapt?  


In the end, maybe music has and always has been such a mishmash of cultural materials—beats from Russia, a piano from France, a singer from Poland—that it is not only useless, but also impossible to sort out who lays claim to what.  And perhaps we’re all too mixed up to even bother.  Beirut is good, so no matter who claims what, let’s dance.

 Sources and further reading: