Music professor Gavin Douglas in Thailand
Gavin Douglas, Professor of Ethnomusicology at The Grand Palace, Bangkok Thailand
Photo credit: Gavin Douglas

“What does a white college professor, born in Canada and living in North Carolina, have to say about Southeast Asia?”asks Gavin Douglas with a wry laugh, but quite sincerely.  

It only takes a brief look at his university bio to realize that he is being very modest:  

 “A professor of Ethnomusicology in UNC Greensboro’s School of Music, Douglas holds BMUS and BA degrees from Queen’s University in Ontario, an MM from the University of Texas, and a PhD from the University of Washington.  He is the author of Music in Mainland Southeast Asia (Oxford), a text that explores diversity, political trauma and globalization across Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.  His other writings can be found in a variety of journals and edited volumes on topics such as state patronage of the arts, music and politics, ethnic minority traditions, and the sound worlds  of Theravada Buddhism.”

 He can now add “film consultant”, because in 2019, Douglas’s resume and research caught the attention of a big name in Hollywood.

“Out of the blue, I got this email from Disney, asking if I would be interested in acting as a music consultant for their next film, Raya and the Last DragonI guess it was my book – I imagine I got tapped because I’d done work over a span of several years and many countries in the region. Raya and the Last Dragon takes place in this magical, mythical Southeast Asian inspired place. It’s a corner of the world  that Disney hadn’t yet explored.”

But Douglas has.  He says he first visited Myanmar, Burma as a student, looking for a place to “be different in the world.”  He lived and worked there for a year and a half, and he returns every three or four years for research and field work.

“The music is so interesting to me. The politics are so interesting.  As a guitarist I did workshops and taught lessons.  I also took lessons with the senior masters.  It’s how I did most of my research.  Those lessons helped me develop relationships.  I got invited into homes, had meals, met families, and that’s how I got the stories.”

That’s also how he ultimately got the consulting gig.  When production was beginning on Raya, Disney was putting together what they call the “Southeast Asian Story Trust”, a group of consultants on everything:  food, textiles, architecture, language, martial arts, dance, and other cultural representations. Douglas’ publications qualified him to serve as a music consultant.

In that role, Douglas provided information that would help composers bring the appropriate sounds of the region to what was largely a big orchestral, western style score.  He started out by submitting lists of instruments and audio files.  Because  Raya and the Last Dragon takes place in a mythical place and not a specific country, it was important that the sound be broadly representative but not too specific.

“I gave them information about things that might be hot buttons, and helped make sure the sound wasn’t too localized or connected to a specific religious tradition.  Disney sent me early drafts of the film, and I went through them second by second, listening for things that might sound too outside of the region, like maybe too Chinese or too Japanese, which for most Southeast Asians would be a problem.  I listened for tuning systems that might sound too tempered, and to make sure the sounds matched up with the locations like a city, a tea shop, the palace, an open market.  It was a study of sounds in the environment, of sounds that cue a certain place.   That was fun to do.”

Douglas says most of the other members of the Raya consulting team are Southeast Asians, and he finally got to meet them in a virtual gathering after a screening of what would be the final product.

“It was a wonderful moment.  Most of the other consultants were dialing in from places like Thailand or Burma or Laos or Vietnam.  It was so great to be together and hear them sharing their reactions to the film, saying things like ‘I recognize that soup in the cafe scene’, or ‘The shape of that textile on the costume was perfect’, or ‘The martial arts scenes were exactly like what I remember my grandfather doing.’  Suddenly these people who had never been anywhere near represented in a globally distributed film could see themselves.”

Douglas says he’s using the experience as a springboard for discussions in the classroom.

“Representation is a big question we’re wrestling with in academia these days – how do we make sure all of our students feel like they belong.  For me, ethnomusicology is anthropology and music combined – trying to understand music within a cultural context.   It used to be that musicology was Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and ethnomusicology was all the rest.  But that’s the music that most of humanity engages with.”

“It’s been a great experience to share with my students.  I ask them, ‘What are the different perspectives?’ Then we watch a scene and talk about how the music is representing or misrepresenting.  Disney certainly didn’t take all of my advice.  They still have to cater to a largely western audience.  For example, nasal singing is generally not enjoyed by western ears.  It might be more authentic but not as palatable to the ticket buyers.  So, I ask my students to talk about ways to handle that from a consultant point of view.”

Would Douglas do it again?

“It was fun, it was satisfying, and it was engaging.   It was stimulating. We can critique mass media and corporate entertainment, and rightly so, but when you have a chance to participate, you should.  If I’m in a position of privilege as a professor at an institution, then that should be an opportunity to facilitate change.  I think Raya is the best film Disney has done along these lines, and I think you should, by all means, go see it!”

SEE IT WITH CVPA:  Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon is the feature film at Spartan Cinema in LeBauer Park on Friday, August 13th.  The event is open to the community, with special invitation to CVPA Alumni, Faculty, Staff, and Students to visit our table for Spartan swag, activities, and pre-movie music.  Free and Family Friendly.  Click here for what to  know before you go.

Story by Terri W. Relos

Photo credit:  Gavin Douglas