Samsara (2011) is a documentary that consists of various images, from around the world, of people and their lives. Director Ron Fricke calls the film a “nonverbal guided meditation…on themes of birth, death, and rebirth.” It’s hard to know which aspect of Samsara is most memorable: its breathtakingly beautiful cinematography, its utter lack of dialogue, or its deep reliance on music to drive and organize the visual action. Yet Samsara’s treatment of musical exoticism is shallow at best.
Samsara is not the first film of its kind. Director Fricke and producer Mark Magidson also collaborated to create Baraka (1992), and Fricke helped write and create Koyaanisqatsi (1982). Similarly, others have sought to present non-fictional stories in a visually striking fashion: director Thomas Riedelsheimer (Touch the Sound , Rivers and Tides ) is just one example. But what’s uniquely problematic about Samsara is its misleading, Westernized presentation of “the exotic” in image and particularly in music.
Magidson says, “The hope is that [Samsara] is a profound interpersonal experience for the viewer, but an experience that they are bringing, to some extent, from within. And not a strong point of view from us about what’s right and wrong or good and bad; it’s really just showing the essence of things the way they are, and stringing those together with amazing music that creates a personal journey.”
I certainly cannot deny the visual splendor of Samsara. However, it’s a stretch—at the least—to say that Fricke and Magidson refrain from articulating right and wrong in this film. For instance, the juxtaposition of images of meat processing plants (staffed by thin Asian employees) with images of husky Westerners devouring fast food leaves little room for the viewer’s “personal journey.” Instead, this sequence is a straightforward attempt to criticize mass consumerism, non-local food sourcing, and Western gluttony. Another sequence shows Ethiopian Mursi women wearing traditional tribal garb and holding machine guns, followed by an American family (including an early-teenaged daughter) bearing rifles. Here, too, the viewer is left with little interpretive freedom: Fricke and Magidson are clearly commenting on the intrusion of modern weaponry on traditional, peaceful ways of life.
But whereas it’s relatively easy to spot the subtext behind the film’s visual content, Samsara’s music is far more deceptive. The song underlying the abovementioned gun sequence is “Kothbiro,” by Kenyan singer Ayub Ogada. The use of a Kenyan musician’s work to comment on violence in Ethiopia is troubling, to say the least. While it’s true that violence in sub-Saharan Africa has sent waves of people from their homelands to neighboring countries (both Ethiopia and Kenya received many Sudanese refugees in recent decades, for instance), the fact remains that Kenya and Ethiopia are distinct countries. Equating them through music only propagates Western ignorance. (And in any case, The Constant Gardener , a film based on political violence in Nigeria, had already used and credited “Kothbiro” in its soundtrack. Why didn’t Samsara simply find an Ethiopian song to comment on Ethiopian violence?)
Unfortunately, Samsara also fails to include Ogada in its soundtrack, giving him only a perfunctory mention in the concluding credits. Instead, Samsara chooses to present its music as an almost wholly unified creation by a trio of white artists: Michael Stearns, Lisa Gerrard (of “Now We Are Free”/Gladiator fame), and Marcello de Francisci. These three take nearly 80% of the artist credits on the Samsara soundtrack. Given Samsara’s visual diversity, why neglect Ogada and instead present, racially speaking, such a white soundtrack?
The answer to this question has at least two parts. In the first place, Stearns, Gerrard, and de Francisci seem to lack any qualms about co-opting the (apparent) musical practices of other cultures. The behind-the-scenes video “SAMSARA: The Musical Journey” emphasizes the musicians’ desire to use live musical recordings—rather than canned software instruments—to create the soundtrack, and in fact to make these recordings themselves. “Musical Journey” underscores the musicians’ essential performative contributions to the soundtrack by including shots of Stearns playing crystal singing bowls, de Francisci playing what appear to be small conga drums and ukulele, and Gerrard singing. It’s highly unlikely that these three are experts in all the instruments they played for the soundtrack, but no matter. (With limitless takes and some basic audio mixing software, you, too, can make exotic music—no actual musicians from other cultures required!)
Yet the musicians’ overprivilege in cultural borrowing is not their only problem; ignorance also prevents them from doing justice to the musical traditions they draw from. Here’s an experiment: Listen to “Modern Life,” the third item on the Samsara soundtrack. Does it sound “ethnic” to you? Now check out “Musical Journey” at 4:43. That percussion is not the product of, say, a tribal drummer trained extensively in their own culture’s music, but of a white guy surrounded by expensive recording equipment, trying to pass off his music as “exotic.” In fact, I’d argue that, accustomed as we Westerners are to hearing a few common instruments, it’s only the relatively unusual timbre of the congas and the vaguely polyrhythmic character of the drumming that make this music sound “ethnic.”
Let’s try again. Consider “Geisha,” from Samsara’s soundtrack. Does it sound “exotic” to you? Now watch “Musical Journey” beginning at 5:20. Unfortunately, “Geisha” is not really “other” in any meaningful way – it’s simply an ersatz, a white lady (Gerrard) singing a wordless melody that includes augmented seconds and therefore meets Western criteria of the “foreign.” Yet, whereas geishas are a part of Japanese cultural tradition, augmented second intervals are not particularly closely associated with any East Asian musical traditions, but more with Middle-Eastern musical traditions. Lumping all non-white cultures together into a general “exotic” is heinous.
To be blunt, it’s highly disappointing that Stearns, Gerrard, and de Francisci employ cheap Western stereotypes of the musically exotic to create their soundtrack. And unfortunately, the music of Ayub Ogada—perhaps the closest this film comes to musical authenticity—does not even make it to the soundtrack.
Indeed, this is no ethical music. It is the most Western and colonizing of do-it-yourself approaches. It is lack of awareness about other cultures’ musics. It is failure to not hire and credit people who actually are experts in these various musics and who thus can do it right.
I can recommend watching Samsara for its jawdropping cinematography, and as a thought experiment concerning Western depictions of other cultures and their musics. However, viewers should not expect to undertake a “personal journey” when watching this film, nor to draw much “from within” themselves. Fricke, Magidson, and especially the musicians Gerrard, Stearns, and de Francisci have already done all the interpretive work here.
 Ibid., 1:36.
 “Geisha” underlies images of plastic surgery, sex dolls, female sex workers in Thailand, and a geisha, who sheds a single tear. It’s possible that Gerrard’s technically inaccurate use of melodic augmented seconds was simply intended to create a sad, forlorn ambience. However, if evoking sadness and remorse is the primary musical goal in this moment, I can only conclude that the filmmakers and musicians are noting the physically or sexually “deviant” quality of the people filmed here. And this kind of objectification is not only cruel but also contrary to the filmmakers’ stated purpose of not expressing “a strong point of view…about what’s right and wrong.”