The problem with “ethnic” woodwinds

June 20, 2014

I mentioned in a recent post that I am trying to get away from using the term “ethnic” woodwinds, one that I have used frequently in the past as a catch-all for the instruments I play that aren’t modern Western flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, or saxophones. The term was problematic from the beginning, since, for example, I was using it to include instruments like recorders, which fall squarely under the umbrella of Western music traditions, but are arguably period or historical instruments.

Additionally, I find that the term “ethnic” increasingly grates on my ear as too ethnocentric and limited a view, and incompatible with my real attitudes concerning music from cultures and traditions other than my native ones. For example, it’s clearly not politically correct to lump non-white people or non-Americans together under the label “ethnic,” so it doesn’t seem to make sense for me to use similarly divisive and condescending language to refer to musical traditions, either.

photo, Vernon Hyde
photo, Vernon Hyde

I currently favor the term “major modern woodwinds” as an acceptable (though flawed) shorthand for all the Western orchestral woodwinds plus saxophones. But there isn’t a really accurate and culturally-sensitive way to lump together the woodwinds that don’t fall into that category. I frequently need to express verbally or in writing what instruments I play. If I am speaking to someone musically savvy, I can say that I play “woodwinds” and they will assume that I play most or all of the major modern woodwinds. They are unlikely to just assume, though, that I can also play recorders and dizi and Lakota flutes and a bunch of others, and that might be information that I want them to have.

Recently I expressed this concern on social media, and got a few interesting suggestions. “World” woodwinds came up, and is what I have adopted for now on this website, though I think ultimately it has some of the same issues as “ethnic:” aren’t my clarinets “world” instruments (and, for that matter, don’t they have ethnicity, too)? Someone else suggested “woodwinds of various cultural origins,” which I think is pretty good but too wordy to be practical. Someone else suggested that I simply list the instruments individually rather than trying to affix a single label; I think this idea has clear merit in terms of cultural sensitivity, but it does fail the practicality test.

It’s tempting to consider something clever like Pedro Eustache’s term “multidirectional flute soloist,” but, though charming, it doesn’t communicate the concept with any clarity. I have also experimented with materials-based terminology as in “wooden and bamboo flutes,” but this isn’t inclusive enough and ultimately has the same problem as the word “woodwinds” itself—wood construction isn’t what makes a woodwind a woodwind.

So for now it’s “world” woodwinds, or perhaps “woodwinds of various cultural origins” when that kind of wordiness is practicable. I welcome additional suggestions in the comments section.

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