Everybody was kung fu fighting
June 7, 2009 7:34 AM   Subscribe

"The Musical Cliché Figure Signifying The Far East", a.k.a. The Oriental Riff
posted by Joe Beese (39 comments total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
...props to previous AskMe thread that originated this post, yes?
posted by leotrotsky at 7:37 AM on June 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

Well let's just go ahead and check that one off the list of "Things I thought would remain unresolved and nag at me until death."

Thanks Joe Beese!

On a related note, I think I've found my dissertation topic in case I ever decide to get a PhD in musicology like all my friends.
posted by greekphilosophy at 7:38 AM on June 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

Holy mackeral, that's good stuff.
posted by jquinby at 7:39 AM on June 7, 2009

leotrotsky: "...props to previous AskMe thread that originated this post, yes?"

Actually, the post was inspired by the closing credits of Kung Fu Panda - which I watched with Mother Beese yesterday. But yes, Miko is on the case.

Also: the link does contain one regrettable error. The author's ignorance to the contrary, the Road Runner does not say "beep beep".
posted by Joe Beese at 7:44 AM on June 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think I turned Japanese. I really think so!
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 7:44 AM on June 7, 2009

Holy mackeral shime saba, that's good stuff.
posted by applemeat at 7:54 AM on June 7, 2009

Metafilter: Many aspects suggest that it was inspired by Sol Bloom's hootchy kootchy dance.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 7:58 AM on June 7, 2009

I am desperately trying to find a donation derby comic where they suggest they get a band together based on all these musical cliche's that signify "oriental" or "Indian" or "English" ect.

And that they call the said "Edward Said".
posted by The Whelk at 8:07 AM on June 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

This is similar to the origins of "The Streets of Cairo" (aka "The Hootchy-Kootchy Dance") -- the tune that cartoons and movies use to indicate that where we are or what we're about to see is Egyptian (or Arabian). Or rather, the playground tune that starts with "There's a place in France where the naked ladies dance ..."

The tune is not at all Egyptian, but American, composed (so he claimed) on the spot by Sol Bloom, the entertainment director for the World's Colombian Exposition in 1893. Bloom wrote the tune (so he claimed) for the "Streets of Cairo" exhibit. I'll let Cecil Adams take it from there:

Wishing to see the novel art form [of belly dancing] at close hand, the Press Club of Chicago invited Bloom to bring some belly dancers over for a private showing. The young entrepreneur gladly accepted but on arriving at the club was dismayed to find the piano player at a loss for suitable music. Bloom later claimed he hummed the tune you're asking about, then picked it out on the piano. The melody caught on and, since Bloom didn't copyright it, was soon appropriated by Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths for their own compositions. Eventually it became the standard musical accompaniment for cartoon portrayals of snake charming and other exotica.
posted by grabbingsand at 8:14 AM on June 7, 2009 [3 favorites]

That riff is in "Turning Japanese" too. Cultural shorthand is amazing.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:18 AM on June 7, 2009

This link is censored on Facebook. Facebook just reset my password twice in a row because I kept trying different ways to type the web address in my status! Hahah.. I finally got it, but damn, if this is considered offensive by some people, then some people are really boring and have no sense of humor, and besides, this is a cute and charming article! Facebook sucks balls!
posted by ChickenringNYC at 8:40 AM on June 7, 2009

I love musical cliches and citations! Here's (I think) the AskMe thread referenced in the first comment.
posted by archagon at 8:44 AM on June 7, 2009

I found a guitar instrumental from the early 1960s that uses the Oriental Riff at the very end of the song: The Quarter Notes, Oriental Rock.
posted by jonp72 at 8:48 AM on June 7, 2009

archagon: "I love musical cliches and citations! Here's (I think) the AskMe thread referenced in the first comment."

More specifically, this AskMe thread...
posted by benzo8 at 8:48 AM on June 7, 2009

Oh yeah, that one too.
posted by archagon at 8:53 AM on June 7, 2009

I like to imagine explaining this sort of thing to aliens.

ME: ... Okay, so when you hear this series of notes, or that series of notes, in this entertainment segment, you're supposed to think of this section of the world.
ALIEN: Ah. A stirring anthem from that organizational subunit occupying that segment of your planet's surface?
ME: Uh, no.
ALIEN: A traditional musical piece originating in that locale; references to it evoke both the physical and cultural evolution of that place?
ME: They don't actually play that music there.
ALIEN: *squints two out of five eyes*
ME: Think of it as ... a designator, externally assigned! Admittedly somewhat arbitrary.
ALIEN: Very well.
ME: Of course, the characters in the show don't actually hear the music.
ALIEN: *squints three out of five eyes*
ME: And that series of notes, a "riff," only has that cultural implication for this other group of people, it's doesn't hold across the globe. Sol Bloom just kind of ... made it up.
ALIEN: *takes off in saucer, does not come back*
posted by adipocere at 9:05 AM on June 7, 2009 [16 favorites]

You guys have heard "Ling Ting Tong" by the Five Keys, right? Taie Samoka Boom-da-yay!
posted by Faze at 9:08 AM on June 7, 2009

I've wondered about this for years! I always assumed it was something derived from the Mikado, or a similar popular 19th c. orientalist operetta. Thanks Metafilter.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 9:23 AM on June 7, 2009

Great research, great post. (Single link rules!) Thanks, Joe Beese.
posted by languagehat at 9:55 AM on June 7, 2009

is this riff related?
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:55 AM on June 7, 2009

There's a list of uses on wikipedia:

Zach Galifianakis, a contemporary musical comedian, includes the Oriental Riff in his act:

Whenever my Asian roommate walks in the door, I play this. [he plays the riff] And she says "Zach, why do you do that every time I come in the room?" and I say "Because I don't have a gong."

posted by drjimmy11 at 10:13 AM on June 7, 2009 [3 favorites]

China Girl, Iggy Pop
posted by eustatic at 11:32 AM on June 7, 2009

Also A Passage To Bangkok, Rush.
posted by stinkycheese at 12:01 PM on June 7, 2009

Also A Passage To Bangkok, Rush

I first heard that song when I bought "Exit, Stage Left" when I was maybe 12 years old. It took me years to realize it was about pot smoking, even though I was the type of stoner that saw references to pot smoking in everything. In retrospect, it's so obvious: "sweet Jamaican pipe dreams, golden Acapulco nights".

This is a great post. I mean, I guess I figured that these little musical cliches had always existed, and never thought that they actually had an origin.
posted by DecemberBoy at 1:48 PM on June 7, 2009

David Chappelle had a really funny bit about this motif on Conan a ways back, but my Google-fu is not good enough to find it...
posted by ericbop at 4:05 PM on June 7, 2009

I first heard that song when I bought "Exit, Stage Left" when I was maybe 12 years old. It took me years to realize it was about pot smoking,

Ha, it took me well into my 20s too. Rush is not exactly a band known for lyrical subtlety, but somehow it slipped past me that EVERY SINGLE LINE refers to drugs (hash as well as pot)
posted by drjimmy11 at 4:37 PM on June 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

Brilliant post, Jo Beese.

A friend of mine works for a telly company best known for making formulaic reality/game show programmes, flogging the format to the US, then re-importing the US versions. Apparently, when the US-made shows are prepared for broadcast over here, as well as recording new voice-overs and adding those 'some scenes created for entertainment purposes!' warnings, they have a lot of hassle editing scenes with racist backing music - she's mentioned this 'Oriental' riff in particular, but also 'snake charmer' music popping up whenever a Middle Eastern or Asian person makes an entrance, mariachi band music for Mexicans, &c..

The same dodgy musical stereotyping happens here all the time too, obviously, I just find it interesting that there are such different broadcast standards in different places for this sort of thing (I assume the telly company are acting on Ofcom rulings, not some heightened sense of cultural sensitivity).
posted by jack_mo at 4:44 PM on June 7, 2009

Man, Betty Boop was pretty racist.
posted by empath at 6:00 PM on June 7, 2009

I think the other important part of the signifier is the use of consecutive fourths - this is something I was taught never to do when I was studying Western music theory. "Hong Kong Garden" by Souxsie and the Banshees also opens with an Oriental riff, all based on consecutive fourths.
posted by awfurby at 10:17 PM on June 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

yeah, HK garden was what i linked just above.

i wink & point my tongue out at you, since emoticons are frowned on here
posted by UbuRoivas at 10:36 PM on June 7, 2009

Last year, my high school concert band played a mind-numbing medley entitled "A Stowaway on Santa's Sleigh", which consisted of different Christmas carols adapted to stereotypically represent the music of a certain area of the world. The "Asia" section (lasting precisely six bars, as opposed to the half-page devoted to Italy alone) opened with this very riff, followed by a gong. It was absurd.
posted by punchdrunkhistory at 10:40 PM on June 7, 2009

Oh, and since the reference to "Hong Kong Garden" reminded me of this - is there anything similar for the "Middle Eastern riff" (...also quite prominent among cartoon snake charmers) - i.e. that opening the Cure's "Killing an Arab"?
posted by punchdrunkhistory at 10:43 PM on June 7, 2009

Man, Betty Boop was pretty racist.

Man, you weren't kidding. At about the halfway point, a really offensive "mammy" caricature pacifies a really offensive "pickaninny" caricature with a giant watermelon.

I guess it's not that bad for 1935, though, when lynchings still occurred.
posted by DecemberBoy at 11:29 PM on June 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

More specifically, this AskMe thread... - benzo8


for a second I thought it was this AskMe thread
posted by jfrancis at 12:20 AM on June 8, 2009

@punchdrunkhistory: The "Killing An Arab" riff is just playing up and down a vaguely Arabesque-sounding scale (i.e., something like A, Bb, C#, D and such); basically, a scale where you have a lot of 1- and 3-semitone intervals will sound vaguely Middle Eastern to Western ears.
posted by acb at 4:53 AM on June 8, 2009

Wikipedia also mentions it's in "Young Folks" by Peter Bjorn and John. And I thought, how could I have missed that? Of course. It's whistled. A key part of the leitmotif of the "Oriental Riff" is that it has to be played on Asian instruments or in an Asian context (e.g. "Turning Japanese"). Separate it from the context and use the instrumentation and it loses its power.
posted by dw at 10:10 AM on June 8, 2009

Neat little post in that "archaeology of everyday life" way.

posted by Wolof at 1:01 AM on June 9, 2009

Joe Jackson - Chinatown

It doesn't quote the same tune, but it still manages to at least evoke "Chinese" (IMHO). I dunno why; maybe someone who knows music better than I do can explicate.
posted by Eideteker at 6:15 AM on June 9, 2009

To me the Joe Jackson tune just sounds vaguely "oriental" because he bangs away in a pentatonic scale, which is another way of making something sound instantly exotic (as distinct from Western).
posted by awfurby at 2:33 AM on June 12, 2009

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