Strange or Outsider Music – Which Do You Prefer?

Outsider Music

Two new information popped up recently from my readings, that may seem to be quite similar. When you think about the meaning of these two words – ‘strange’ and ‘outsider’ – wouldn’t their meaning be rather close? 

In my understanding, if someone is an outsider, it would be because that person is/acts/looks … strange. 

In a similar way – if someone is an outsider, most probably it would be because he or she is strange.

So how is it with music? 

From what I have learned recently, it is quite different when we talk about the outsider music and  a strange music. Let me explain.

First – start with the strange music. 

Did you know, that on the August 24th we celebrate International Strange Music Day? It was created in 1998 by a New York City musician Patrick Grant. The main idea is to encourage people to discover and listen to all kinds of music that they don’t usually listen to. So it should be a ‘listening without prejudice’.

What this interesting idea tries to do is, basically, to motivate music listeners to broaden their horizons. For example, if your favourite is country music, you should listen to ancient choral music, or synth-pop, or Russian military marches! If your preferred music is classical, at least for this one day in a year you should try something like jazz, or speedmetal, or the Slovak fujara music?

… Or try the outsider music?

Yes, it is true, that the outsider music sounds really strange to a majority of listeners. But so do any of the above mentioned genres of music, if you play them to an uninitiated audience. For example, if you asked my classically trained violinist daughter, she still doesn’t find much enjoyment in John Coltrane’s free jazz escapades.

So what is the outsider music you are asking? 

I think it has evolved into almost a specific music genre. Wikipedia characterizes it as – “music created by self-taught or naïve musicians. The term is usually applied to musicians from outside the music establishment who exhibit childlike qualities, and especially those who suffer from intellectual disabilities or mental illnesses.” It tends to overlap with the “lo-fi’ music. 

In its original form and in the visual art, it could be considered as an equivalent, for example, to those brightly colored Mexican folk art sculptures called ‘alebrijes’, or an Australian Aboriginal boomerang with typical dot paintings. Or many other artifacts, that turists bring home from their travels. Their function is mainly to bring back good memories from discovering foreign cultures and countries. And also to support local artisans, unless you bring back a plastic kitsch massproduced in China…

This type of a domestic artistic tradition has a rich history of untrained art, particularly folk art. In the Eastern and South-Eastern Europe it is also called ‘insitus art’ (in Latin, insitus, insita means inborn, genuine, instinctive, untrained). Just check the Gallery of Naïve Art in Kovačica, Serbia.

The distinction between the folk art and naïve art is quite blurry. Even more so in music.

Folklore music is a type of native traditional music specific to a particular geographic region and/or community, that originally was passed down orally through families and other small social groups. And similar to those artifacts, in its current form, it could entertain tourists, or help to open unknown sonic spaces to curious travelers. 

So is folklore music also an outsider music?

No, at least from the contemporary point of view. Irwin Chusid wrote a book about this topic called Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music , where he characterized it as:

“Outsider music” – mutant strain of twisted sonic art that’s so wrong — it’s right.

If outsider music lacks virtuosity, it definitly overflows with passion. You may hear it, if you listen to The Shaggs, Daniel Johnston, Jandek, or Wesley Willis. 

The truth is, I couldn’t make myself to listen to any of these for too long. Yes, you can hear the passion – but for me, that’s about it. Yes they don’t follow common rules or rudiments, as they either follow their own, or break rules all together. But why would I torture myself listening to this?

And here I am getting into a crucial point in what I am trying to figure out and write about here at Musicably. 

From my perspective, the outsider music is not to be listened. The outsider, and in fact any other, MUSIC IS TO BE PLAYED!

Yes! Musicking – playing this strange sounding music makes its creators happy, or relieved, satisfied, excited … The whole listening part, and the audience, is just a byproduct, that is not always appreciated. 


Photo: Xavier von Erlach/Unsplash 


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