Sound Matters: The SEM Blog

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Sean Bellaviti – In search of the Organization of American States 1970s field recording collection in Caracas, Venezuela

Sean Bellaviti


Sporting a baseball cap and sunglasses, I did my best to look inconspicuous as I ascended the wide stairway leading to Venezuela’s national library. It was early 2015, and while seeming more tranquil than I had been led to believe, Caracas must at all times be treated with a double dose of caution. Once within the impressively large library compound, however, I tempered my wariness and took in the view. To the right, the towering El Ávila National Park looms over the large plaza that forms the library grounds. Boasting an impressive 819 square kilometer range, the great mountain park and the feat of eco-preservation that it represents are best appreciated at night, when it appears as a massive swath of darkness in a seemingly endless field of incandescent lights.

Across the plaza stands Venezuela’s Panteón Nacional. As the final resting place of Simón Bolívar it is one of the most compelling symbols of Venezuelan nationalism. Coming this close to El Libertador seemed fitting given that I had come in search of a collection of Latin American field recordings that owed their genesis in his vision of a league of American republics which, in its way, laid the foundation for the creation of the Organization of American States (OAS) in 1948.

The project was funded by the OAS and officially dubbed the Proyecto multinacional de etnomusicologia y folklore (Multinational Project of Ethnomusicology and Folklore). Its goal was to document the traditional cultures of many of the member states. This extraordinary undertaking took place mainly throughout the 1970s and developed into a very large collection of musical instruments and documentary materials, especially field recordings from some eighteen countries.

I first became aware of this collection through an obscure 1975 Panamanian report uncovered by my colleague and fellow Panamanianist, Nodier Casanova. The report provides a description of the Panamanian portion of the collection. What excited us most was an eyebrow-raising inventory of 68 reels of audio recordings in addition to film, photographs and extensive fieldnotes (see Hassán de Llorente 1975). All were said to have been deposited in Caracas at the Instituto Interamericano de Etnomusicologia y Folklore (INIDEF), which is now known as the Centro de la Diversidad Cultural.

In contrast to its size and significance, as of 2015 the collection seemed to have all but faded into oblivion. When attempts to locate it online proved unproductive I decided to take advantage of a 24-hour layover in Caracas to visit the Centro’s main office, a showpiece country house in the middle of the city. Here, however, my inquiries were met with puzzled expressions. One person nonetheless recalled a large number of recordings having been stored away in a room many years earlier. This news was both promising and discouraging. The collection may still exist, but what would be the state of the reels of acetate tape after 40 years of tropical heat and humidity? My search having stalled, I decided to try my luck with a team of Centro researchers who, I was told, worked out of an office in the National Library. With closing time fast approaching I hopped into one of the many “official” cabs—in my experience the safest way to get around the city—and was soon making my way into the library building.

Entering the Centro’s library office, the visitor’s eye falls upon a variety of folkloric and research artifacts, including a retired Nagra IV-S. I took the presence of this portable recording machine, once a popular part of a fieldworker’s kit, to be a good sign. On the walls are pictures of Luis Felipe Ramón y Rivera (1913-1993), Isabel Aretz (1909-2005) and other legendary Latin American folklorists and ethnomusicologists, a reminder that INIDEF was also, at one point, an elite school for students who aspired to work in these fields. In the absence of the office’s director, I quickly launched into my by-now well-rehearsed pitch to the first person who greeted me. I admit I was completely surprised when my interlocutor, Humberto José López, confirmed that there was indeed a very large collection and, better yet, much of it had been digitized and was currently in the process of being catalogued. No doubt sensing my excitement, he offered to give me a tour.

The collection is located just behind the main entrance. While the absence of cataloguing makes it hard to know just how many hours of archival material it contains, its sheer physical presence provides some indication. 24 ceiling-high metal shelves arranged in groups of four hold rows of compact disc jewel cases positioned next to larger age-worn magnetic tape reels. Filing cabinets line the walls of much of the room. These, Humberto informed me, hold the many sheets of slides that make up the collection’s photographic component.



Humberto standing next to the collection (Caracas, 2015)



Slides from the collection (Caracas, 2016)

As closing time was already upon us and I had a flight to catch the next morning, it was clear I would not be able to actually listen to any recordings on this trip. Summoning whatever patience I could muster, I bid the friendly staff goodbye and promised to return as soon as possible. And I managed to make good on that promise the following year, returning to Caracas for one week in August, 2016.

After an absence of a year and a half, the city seemed familiar, yet also quite different. As before, the capital’s security problems, serious no doubt, did not appear as extreme as many Venezuelan expats had led me to believe. I could still get around with (official) taxies, take the metro to certain destinations, and even walk through many parts of the city. Many caraceños I met were keen on showing me around, with some expressing dismay at the dismal view their friends and relatives abroad had of the city. Yet life in Venezuela had certainly not become easier. Rapid inflation and a critical lack of basic goods resulted in a steep increase in the cost of living. In order to avoid the prohibitive black market prices for traditional staples such as harina pan (cornmeal), rice, and sugar, most caraceños had to wait in long lines for a chance to buy their quota of government-subsidized goods. These tense gatherings, now a familiar sight throughout the country, compounded what was already a very difficult situation.

I was excited to revisit the collection and finally get a chance to listen to the material. Accessing the recordings, however, proved unexpectedly complicated and time-consuming. I was not allowed to handle the CDs directly, but had to wait for Humberto to convert them into MP3 files—a task that took up the entire first day. This unusual system, Humberto explained, was his idea. It was meant specifically to keep researchers from handling and potentially damaging the CDs, as these were commodities that were becoming increasingly difficult to find in Venezuela. The care with which he managed the archive was impressive, underscoring its priceless nature and ultimate fragility. I promised to bring a stack of blank CDs on my next visit, which, indeed, would be a welcome gift from any other researcher who would hope to access the collection.

To my joy and considerable relief, the large majority of recordings I listened to were of good quality—that is, they were audible with minimal pitch fluctuation and static. They bore a close resemblance to the field recordings made by Alan Lomax, in that they featured mainly informal performances that encompassed a variety of traditional forms including music, game songs, storytelling, and oral histories. Also included are observations by the researchers, as well as ethnographic interviews (many focusing on performance technique and instrument construction), which, along with detailed fieldnotes, provide a greater understanding of context.



Accompanying fieldnotes (Caracas, 2016)


The fieldnotes indicate that the researchers included representatives from both INIDEF and local institutions, the latter likely arranging the introductions and providing translations when needed. In the Panamanian case this collaborative approach yielded some interesting results; for example, the collection is much more inclusive of non-mestizo-identified traditions than would be typically the case, featuring a large number of performances by indigenous groups as well as Panamanians of African descent. The greater degree of ethnic diversity fits well with broader Latin American ideas of mestizaje, often based on the tri-ethnic mixture of African, indigenous, and European peoples, even as it differed from established national folk canons. George Amaiz, the Centro’s Collections Coordinator, reminded me that inclusivity had its limits, pointing out that the collection was restricted only to OAS member states. Cuba, for example, was notably absent in the original collection—a lacuna subsequently filled by a collecting expedition sponsored by the government of Hugo Chávez.

Throughout my stay, the Centro’s staff members were always on hand to answer my questions and help to locate materials. Through our many conversations I learned that several were also active as researchers and collectors, traveling with some frequency to specific research sites throughout the country. Although the staff members seemed very active in their various research projects, I couldn’t help but notice that the Centro received very few visitors. There was little doubt in my mind as to why this was the case. Venezuela’s precarious political situation makes for one of the most challenging fieldwork destinations in the Western hemisphere today. And indeed, the concern for one’s personal safety and the challenges outsiders face with respect to mobility and access to basic necessities (not to mention technologies), it should be emphasized, do not only apply to foreigners, but local researchers as well. Venezuelan academics, in fact, are faced with the additional problem of having to negotiate a politically charged environment where the choice to work with a particular musician or musical community, for example, can have political repercussions that may affect their livelihood and careers.

Based on my own experience, I would say that these challenges should not deter others from visiting the library and making use of the excellent resources available there. In spite of what we read about the complex difficulties that the country and its people face todayVenezuela continues to be an active and productive site for various forms of musical research—for how long remains to be seen.



Centro personnel: (front row) George Amaiz, Rosangela Barrios, Noemi Gonzalez, Irama Matheus, Kelina Campoverde Franklin Meza, (back row) Sean Bellaviti (author), Humberto José López, Juan John and Omar Pérez (Caracas, 2016)

Reference cited

Hassán de Llorente, Coralia. 1975. “Proyecto Multinacional de Etnomusicologia y Folklore auspiciado por el Instituto Intermericano de Etnomusicologia y Folklore (INIDEF) y la Direción Nacional del Patriomonio Histórico: Informe parcial de las investigaciones realizadas en Panamá entre la población afro e hispano indígena.” Patrimonio Histórico, Vol. 1, No. 4: 125-135.

Sean Bellaviti received the Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from the University of Toronto. He is currently an instructor at Ryerson University. His research focuses on Panamanian popular music and salsa, and extends to themes of nationalism, regionalism, political economy, and genre studies.

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The institutionalization of ethnomusicology: Responses


On Friday morning of last year’s SEM Annual Meeting the round table The institutionalization of ethnomusicology: Current perspectives, challenges, and opportunities, was livestreamed and the video was archived by SEM. We invited the participants of this roundtable to summarize their responses to the discussion that took place during the session. Below is the video of the full session and the responses provided by the presenters. We hope to continue the dialogue that began at the roundtable through this forum (the SEM Blog) and invite you to share this blog post widely and to add your own responses and suggestions in the comments section below. To view the archived video, click here.

Intro (summary of discussion) by Kathleen Wiens

The skills and talents that ethnomusicologists offer are vital to public culture. For many of us, public-facing work* is a life calling in which we use our skills and talents to empower and mobilize our ethnomusicological knowledge.  However, the contribution of this work within our field’s historiography is treated as peripheral. This treatment is reinforced throughout professional preparation (graduate studies) and the institutions that guide that process. Our roundtable identified ways in which academic training falls short of addressing the needs of public-facing work.

The different aptitudes and experiences of our six roundtable participants complemented one another. That the resulting whole was stronger than its separate parts was proven by the dynamic discussion between speakers and attendees. Whereas speakers identified ways in which our academic job preparation did or did not play into our current professional roles, attendees helped identify and illuminate the received wisdoms and rationales (for better or for worse) that academic culture clings to with tenacity – many of which have led to the absence of preparation for public-facing work both in the development of practical skill sets, recognition of individual talents and aptitudes, and realistic attitudes towards what public-facing work entails.

 * I use the term “public facing” as opposed to “public” or “applied” work. I use this term to describe work for which the primary intent is public engagement. This can include work that is government supported, privately funded, NGO, independent, or supported by an academic institution so long as the primary audience is public and final outcomes are aimed to be accessible by the public.

Q&A response by Kathleen Wiens

In the months leading up to the Washington meeting, none of our roundtable participants expected that we would, simultaneous to the conference, be coping with a devastating emotional blow caused by the November 11th presidential election results. Media commentators tried to make sense of the confusing result by pointing to a deep “divide” (a lack of empathy and conversation) between people of political, financial, and educational privilege in the USA and people who feel excluded from one or more aspects of those privileges. Three statements from our morning stand out to me as speaking to that perceived divide. First is a statement (I paraphrase here) made by Janet Sturman, that “insularity has led to a current divide [between academics and non-academics]; if we leave the conversation in the academy the divide will never be bridged.” Ameera Nimjee addressed “the divide” by declaring “more than ever public work is crucial work” (my paraphrase). Eric Hung pointed towards division when he explained that he teaches about public musicology as a way of teaching how to make “allyship.” Museums and accessible cultural events are among the few remaining domains in which members of the public actively seek to have their worldviews simultaneously affirmed and challenged. As a museum professional I see evidence every day that museums and cultural events become places where hundreds of thousands of people meet, talk, learn, and develop empathy for life experiences that are different from their own.

Response by Katherine Palmer

During the discussion portion of the panel, I was most struck by Cullen Strawn’s restatement of a trusted advisor’s idea that “strict adherence to disciplinarily will kill you,” which brought a spirited laugh from both the panel and audience. Throughout students’ tenure in music school, they are being pushed to assume a major (performance, music education, music history, ethnomusicology, etc.), and to develop a deep understanding of a singular discipline within music. While focus and practice within music study cannot – and should not – be discounted, encouraging students to work across these sub-disciplines and to seek out interdisciplinary collaborative opportunities will empower them in non-traditional career paths, such as public-facing, community-based work.

Collegiate educators need to reach “across the aisle” – both inside and outside the department – to foster relationships that enable this work to happen, an idea that was echoed during our discussion. While finding time to allocate for building new relationships and seeking out collaborators may be challenging, networking will eventually begin to build upon itself into a web of people, places, and resources. As the job market shifts (as evidenced by the decreasing number of collegiate openings and increasing number of terminal degree recipients), higher education needs to adjust. Ethnomusicology, in particular, is already well prepared to work towards a more inclusive music curriculum that promotes community-focused projects and research. In a world that needs more cultural awareness and understanding, let’s encourage current students to lead rather than follow in antiquated footsteps.

Response by Cullen Strawn

Ethnomusicology’s history includes chapters on the justification of existence alongside established disciplines in academe. Today one might ask for an extension of that work relative to life beyond the terminal degree, particularly for those interested in public-facing endeavors. The group discussion following our panelists’ presentations touched on shifts in the field and their impact on students, the need to recalibrate public engagement as primary work, the importance of understanding administrative and public audiences and the “languages” they speak, and our potential to add quantifiable value in contexts of partnership, among other related themes.

If academic ethnomusicology seems out of touch with market realities and has little incentive to adjust, if it persists in minimizing, however tacitly, the worth of knowledge, skills, and abilities developed in public-facing settings, if it seeks instead faculty whose qualifications sit comfortably within a familiar mold, thereby limiting needed offerings to students, students can consider using their critical training to question whether the return on their investment in undergraduate and graduate studies will likely be enough to satisfy their goals. What other professional orientations might well complement their academic credentials? What valuable resources, whether known by students’ advisors, might already be available at their institutions? Developing and maintaining such awareness requires efforts that ideally should be in motion across all strata of higher education, but that can begin with you.

Response by León García Corona

Today more than ever, the work that ethnomusicologists do is paramount.  But how can we encourage others to follow a career in ethnomusicology when salaries are stagnant across disciplines—particularly in the humanities—and when jobs in ethnomusicology continue to be scarce?

Programs in ethnomusicology—at least in the United States—continue to focus primarily on creating future ethnomusicology professors; hence, the possibilities of other career paths have been largely overlooked. During our presentation, and as our chair highlighted, touching on the emotional devastation of the recent elections, we discussed the importance not only of ethnomusicology but also of the skills needed for ethnomusicology beyond academia.

In my contribution I shared some of my experiences and projects as a producer and education specialist at Smithsonian Folkways, such as the Smithsonian Folkways Magazine (, an online publication featuring current ethnomusicological research and promoting the Folkways catalog. This publication, in the words of Folkways curator Daniel Sheehy, is located in the crucial “sweet spot” between academic rigor and publication for a larger audience. I also shared an online database of music lesson plans ( created and used by music educators, allowing them to exchange teaching ideas while promoting the Folkways brand. Last, I shared an online educational bilingual interactive site for jazz, which included a video, a map, a timeline, and a mixer ( All of these projects faced similar challenges, primarily funding, but also access to copyrighted material and the lack of IT resources and staff with the practical skills necessary to execute them.

The presentation put into evidence the need for professionals who understand the importance of fostering and increasing cultural understanding through music (ethnomusicologists) and who also have experience in practical and mundane aspects of production; promptness, fundraising, video/audio editing, html, etc.

During our final thoughts I put some questions on the table:

  • What are current offerings in ethnomusicology programs that respond to this demand?
  • How do we reconcile the need for revenue and the dissemination of knowledge?
  • In what other ways can we combine ethnomusicological training with other practical skills?
  • What can educational institutions incorporate into the core curriculum to achieve this?

As one member of the audience put it: “the face of ethnomusicology has changed,” and the sooner we realize it, the better equipped we will be to deal with our current political and social moment.

Response by Eric Hung

I have been heavily influenced by Stephen Greenblatt’s 1990 article “Resonance and wonder” (Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 43/4 [January 1990] pp. 11-34).  He defines wonder as something that is so unique, awe-inspiring, or overwhelming that it stops audience members in their tracks.  It’s a powerful feeling in the moment, but it is unlikely to affect the audience in a lasting way.  In contrast, he defines resonance as the ability of an artwork, exhibition, or performance to make audiences think about the wider world and the complex sociocultural forces at play.  Resonance might not generate “oohs” and “ahhs,” but it will be more powerful in the long run.

In my training as a musicologist and ethnomusicologist I learned how to study why specific musical traditions have resonance for their practitioners.  My training did not, however, teach the most important skill needed for public-facing work—namely, how to help my audience create resonance for themselves.  For ethnomusicologists to bridge the academic divide and be relevant to the wider world, we need to study not only who our public audiences currently are, but also to think broadly about who they can be.  Once we have identified a potential audience, which can be done through partnerships, we have to learn about the issues that matter to them.  We then need to present lectures, exhibitions, and/or performances that are informative, meaningful, and pleasurable to this specific audience.  We have to learn to not take ourselves so seriously, and must allow ourselves to be imaginative, creative and whimsical.

To be sure, some ethnomusicologists have done and are doing great public-facing work with unconventional audiences.  They are, however, the exception.  I think it’s time for our discipline to “center” public-facing work.  This involves learning from fields that have long studied users, such as public history, human-computer interaction, and marketing.  In this political and cultural environment, the future of our field depends on this.


Response by Ameera Nimjee

It seems transparent to me that humanities-based work in public-facing institutions is crucial at this historical moment. Reflecting on our roundtable and discussion, this year’s SEM pre-conference presentations, and of course the events that coincided with the beginning of the annual meeting in the election of a new President of the United States, this work bridges perspectives and facilitates dialogue in our ever-changing world. In my experience while working in museums, I have watched individuals and families engage in exhibitions and programming that discuss the history of migration and citizenship in Canada—stories that outline the framework of their daily lives and realities. I have listened to young second-generation Canadians practice Islam in secular spaces, transforming museum architecture into a space of ritual congregation. I have witnessed patrons and visitors learning about places and traditions in ways that are alternative to narratives presented by the media. As ethnomusicologists, not only can our work contribute to these experiences—it must do so.

Our panel presentations incited several trajectories of discussion, including one on how graduate students receive training in their curricula to conduct public work. Indeed, while the skills required to plan exhibitions, write in non-academic genres, and conduct data synthesis and navigate software can be built into graduate methods courses, I add that we must seek out projects that encourage parallel systems of learning during our careers as students. I began working in museums as an undergraduate student, and have since worked on a variety of projects in the worlds of curating exhibitions, programs, and performances that have challenged me to apply my research in ethnomusicology in new and interesting ways. I have worked on various project-based collaborative teams—a welcome break from the solitude of dissertation writing that has informed how I conceptualize my fieldwork, research questions, and disciplinary theory. I echo my fellow panelists in challenging the secondary position of public-facing work in ethnomusicology. The primacy of this work defines my ethnomusicology, and how I seek to contribute to my broader communities as my career continues.

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Gabriele de Seta – The no-venue underground: Sounding Hong Kong’s lack of performance spaces

It’s 10 October 2012. I’ve been living in Hong Kong for less than two months, and Dennis Wong is waiting for me to arrive at the performance venue and do my sound check. Fellow experimental musicians from Shanghai suggested Dennis as one of the local organizers with whom I should get in touch.

A few weeks before, Dennis asked me if I wanted to play a show at a newly-opened local venue called C.I.A. (Cultural Industries Association—the acronym is also a play on the covert and secret operations of the U.S. CIA). “Sure,” I said, “when and where?” Dennis gave me an address and asked me if I needed anything else besides a guitar amplifier. I didn’t.

Now I stand outside the Kwai Hing MTR station, which, according to Google Maps, is the closest station to the venue. As I carry my hollow-body guitar and a backpack full of effect pedals, I try to find my bearings via GPS. The air is still heavy and humid, although Hong Kong is cooler in the fall than during the summer, and there aren’t many useful reference points around the station: a convenience store, a small noodle restaurant, and an overpass leading to the entrance of a shopping mall. Behind me stands a dense cluster of residential towers and a public housing estate. In front of me I see a wall of industrial buildings, the overpass disappearing into a small crevice between two of them.


Google Street View of the industrial buildings on Wah Sing Street, where art gallery/performance venue C.I.A (Cultural Industries Association) was located. Source: Google Maps, June 2011.

I spend ten minutes circling around the block, following the directions provided by Google Maps, only to realize that there is no way of crossing the six lanes of Hing Fong Road. I memorize the address of C.I.A. and put my smartphone back in my pocket: Unit 7, 8th floor, Block B, Wah Tat Industrial Centre, 8-10 Wah Sing Street, Kwai Hing, Kowloon, Hong Kong. I head back to the station, walk through the overpass, an elevated courtyard, another overpass, down an escalator, and venture into an alleyway between two industrial buildings. I end up in a maze of streets without shops, cars, or pedestrians; only container trucks come in and out of garage doors and loading ramps. Once I find the Wah Tat Industrial Centre, I still have to figure out how to reach Block B and how to get to the eighth floor. When I reach the elevator, the security guard instructs me: “that is the cargo elevator. People go in that other one.” The only signal that helps me find C.I.A.’s metal door is the bass frequencies reverberating in the damp corridors. I slide a heavy metal door open and I’m greeted by Dennis and the other musicians doing their sound checks and preparing for the show in a large whitewashed room with no windows.

de-seta-image-2A few weeks later, my Shanghainese friend Huang Lei tells me he’s been invited to perform in Hong Kong and asks me if I can help him organize another show. I get in touch with Dennis, who kindly agrees to set up a show for Huang Lei in his “NOISE to SIGNAL” series. We coordinate the details of the event through Facebook messages and I help him designing a flyer.

This time the venue, Strategic Sounds, is located on the 10th floor of the High Win Factory Building in Kwun Tong District, an industrial area on the other side of the Kowloon peninsula. Huang Lei, Dennis, and I end up playing an improvised set together, a twenty-minute mess of prepared guitar, crackling electronics, and distorted feedback echoing down the grimy ventilation shaft right outside the venue.

Throughout the following year, I was generously invited to play a few more shows at Strategic Sounds and C.I.A., meeting several of the experimental musicians active in the city at the time. Later, both venues closed down under the pressure of increasing rents and the challenges of sustaining an independent performance space in Hong Kong, a difficult enterprise even when eased by the relatively cheaper rents of vacant units in industrial buildings.

The author improvising with Shanghai-based musician Huang Lei (as 大小) and local organizer Dennis Wong (as Sin:ned) at Strategic Sounds, Hong Kong, November 2012. Video by Rolf.

Of the eight venues where I had the pleasure to play experimental music during my three years in Hong Kong, seven were located in industrial buildings. Besides C.I.A. and Strategic Sounds, they ranged from Dimension+, a small makerspace attached to an artist studio, to Hidden Agenda, a long-standing live-music house well-known among local independent music audiences. During these years, I also enjoyed live performances by some of my favorite musicians and bands, such as Makoto Kawabata, Hijokaidan, and Laibach, which played in shows organized by the same people I hung out with in former factory premises.

The two factors that pushed Hong Kong’s experimental musicians to find spaces in the post-industrial peripheries of the city were the infamously high cost of Hong Kong’s real estate market and the lack of suitable and welcoming performance venues in more central areas. The pubs and clubs hosting live music in central Kowloon and Hong Kong Island predominantly featured DJs and cover bands that catered to the tastes of the commercial audiences that they rely on for financial stability. Given the scarcity of spaces like garages, squats, cellars, and warehouses, experimental musicians turned to the industrial buildings hollowed out by the recent delocalization of factories. Other local artists and creative enterprises had also started taking advantage of these empty spaces.


“Performance area” signage on a mezzanine of the A.C.O. stairwell delimiting KWC’s live set during Sound-On-Site: Space Oddity #1: From Below show, January 2015.

The first Sound-On-Site show organized by booking agency Twenty Alpha and record label Re-Records at A.C.O. (Art & Culture Outreach)—performed at the end of January 2015 and aptly titled “From Below”—poignantly exemplifies  the lack of performance spaces for the local underground and experimental music scenes in Hong Kong. Rather than playing in the small bookstore located on the 14th floor of the Foo Tak Building, the three performing musicians decided to set up their equipment on different landings of the stairwell: laptops on small stools, with amplifiers turned on their side to fit the constraining spaces, cables dangling between floors, and performance areas marked off by improvised signage. Puzzled audiences moved up and down the stairwell, trying to figure out how to reach the floor from which the sounds were coming, or sat on the concrete steps listening to droning frequencies reverberating through the building, which itself became an essential architectural component of musicking. “This reminds me of Beijing,” commented a friend visiting Hong Kong from Mainland China, “but where in Beijing musicians are taking back hutong alleyways and old housing, here it’s all about industrial infrastructure.”

Jonathan Solomon, Ciara Wong, and Adam Frampton have defined Hong Kong as a “city without ground,” lacking the concept of “ground” both physically and culturally. It is somehow ironically appropriate that in this city without ground, underground musicians find themselves relegated to a precarious “overground” actively created out of fleeting spaces strewn across the upper floors of post-industrial peripheries. These precarious venues appear and disappear following the inexorable inflation of property prices, leaving local show organizers to work in the present tense with whatever space is available at the moment.

Predominantly sustained by personal passions and practices cultivated in spare time carved out of full-time non-musical careers, Hong Kong’s experimental music scene finds its most reliable spaces on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other social media platforms, where shows are organized, promoted, documented, and inscribed in the event geography of the city. Riffing on a locution coined by Rob Hayler, the British musician Jon Marshall describes the experimental music scene of Western Russia as a “no-audience underground,” a fluid social milieu in which performers also double as organizers, promoters, critics, and audiences. The situation in Hong Kong isn’t very different. Yet, despite the recurring lamentations of local musicians and organizers, diminutive audiences are not the biggest issue faced by the community. The precariousness and ephemerality of performance spaces determines the elastic and resilient fabric of the local experimental music scene, which could accurately be called a “no-venue underground.”


Evrim Hikmet Öğüt – Soundscape of a coup d’état

F16 jet istanbul 7-15-2016

F-16 jet flying low over Istanbul, 15 July 2016


Editor’s note: What follows is the author’s translation of an article that appeared on 17 July 2016; the original Turkish version is here.

It was an extraordinary, traumatic 24-hour period. We do not have a full grip on the details of what happened, but it is highly possible that it will result in bringing more authoritarianism and stronger polarization, fear, anxiety, and intervention in the lifestyles of almost half of the people in Turkey, along with many other catastrophes that we fear to think and say aloud.

The oppression of the coup d’état attempt has already turned into a collective and summoned frenzy where attacks on Alevites, Syrian refugees, and people drinking alcohol outside started to occur.

There will undoubtedly be a great number of analyses of 15 July 2016 and its aftermath. My intention is not to add another one to the list; instead, I will strive to describe those 24 hours through their soundscape, which, I believe, presents highly fertile ground for sociological analysis. Some of the sounds I mention below have entered our lives for the first time and in a very striking manner, and we have been constantly talking about sounds for 24 hours whether we realize or not.

Although this time we did not see Hasan Mutlucan on the screen, and the coup did not come with the “sound of combat boots”, what heralded the events to follow was sounds. On the night of 15 July a social media post by a friend in Ankara about F-16 jets flying over the city gave the first hint of something going on. Of course, what enabled her to notice the fighter jets was the loud sound they made: a sound that we, living in the western part of the country, are not used to hearing. After a short while, upon noticing the sound of a helicopter over my apartment in Istanbul, I joined those sharing posts on social media in an attempt to make sense of the commotion outside.

As the night went on and the sounds of the coup become varied with sirens, ambulances, clashes and blasts, these sounds enabled us to learn about what we could not see as well as bringing forth the emotions of surprise, fear, and anxiety. For us, the newest and the most striking one was possibly the explosion-like noise coming from the jets that break the sound barrier—a sonic boom.


Jets and sonic boom


The opposition to the coup did not stay silent during 15 July and its aftermath. The strongest sound against the coup attempt came from mosques. From mosques, which use the ezan (adhan) sound to designate the spatial limits of their community, this time came the sala to invite the citizens to the streets. The sala, which serves to notify the community of an all-concerning event in an Islamic context, was used in line with its purpose, defining the ideological content of the news as well.


Sala and bombs


In addition to the sala, untimely ezans and announcements inviting people to reclaim the motherland, posts indicating the recitation of the fetih sura and other parts of the Quran from different mosques—even a call for jihad from a mosque in Ikitelli—circulated on social media.

While citizens responded to the call by taking to the streets chanting the tekbir and slogans, the oppression of the coup instigators started to be celebrated with honking, the salavat, the Turkish National Anthem and the mehter anthems coming from cars. (Mehter music is an incredibly influential tool for the current government in shaping the space of public struggle.)


Salavat and tekbir


Our conversations, which incessantly continued in both public and private spheres, constitute another auditory aspect of this 24-hour period. That the conversation among children playing in front of my apartment focused on the opposition between the soldier and the police indicates the reach of vocabulary and the world of meaning surrounding the coup.

Sounds/noise play an influential role in creating a space of public struggle and strengthening the hegemony of both the government and the opposition over masses, regardless of their ideological orientation. Sounds are far more effective than verbal expressions in their appeal to the collective memory and ability to reach across wider space. Thus, while reading 15 July through sounds, we should keep in mind that neither the choice of these sounds nor their impact on us is coincidental.

No coup attempt brings democracy. The idea that a coup attempt can be oppressed by public reclamation of democracy, and people’s own willpower, is important. However, the fact that this willpower in the current example is far from a real, all-encompassing discourse of democracy emerges as a startling reality.

If we describe it through sounds, the mehter music and the audioscape of the street protests in the aftermath of 15 July point to a cultural and historical context that is far removed from providing democracy for us (as phrased by by Erdoğan Aydın in the TV program Türkiye’nin gündemi on 16 July). We do not have the option of leaving the demand for democracy to these sounds and giving up the struggle for making ourselves heard. That is, we have to speak up.


Istiklal Avenue on 16 July (includes mehter music)


Evrim Hikmet Öğüt earned the Ph.D. in ethnomusicology at the Centre for Advanced Studies in Music (MIAM) at Intanbul Technical University with the dissertation “Music in transit: Musical practices of the Chaldean-Iraqi migrants in Istanbul”. She currently works as a teacher and research assistant at Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University. Her website is here.

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Abstracts for Ethnomusicology Vol. 60, No. 2 (Spring/Summer 2016)

Domesticating Otherness: The Snake Charmer in American Popular Culture

A.J. Racy
University of California, Los Angeles

Abstract. Metaphoric allusions to otherness are widely encountered and oftentimes taken for granted. Exploring the use of the snake-charming theme in American popular media, I discuss why and how such a supposedly foreign theme is borrowed, metaphorically adapted, and locally applied. The central premise is that such a process is integrally linked to the borrower’s own history and cultural outlooks. Besides reflecting my own first-hand experience, the narratives engage relevant discourses on representation, exoticism, imagination, metaphor, and power. Generally, the research illustrates how tropes of otherness acquire their forms and meanings as they become localized, or domesticated.


Sounding Against Nuclear Power in Post-3.11 Japan: Resonances of Silence and Chindon-ya

Marié Abe

Boston University

Abstract. In this paper, I explore the tension between the socially mandated silence of jishuku and the sounds of anti-nuclear power street protests to investigate how chindon-ya, an ostentatious musical advertisement practice on the street, has become politicized as a sonic emblem of the recent anti-nuclear movement in post-3.11 disaster Japan. By listening to both the sound of chindon-ya at demonstrations and the weighty silence of jishuku together, I suggest that chindon-ya sounds are foregrounding new political possibilities, enabling a broader-based movement towards, and beyond, what anthropologist Marc Abélès calls “the politics of survival” in contemporary Japan.


Black Like Me: Caribbean Tourism and the St. Kitts Music Festival

Jessica Baker
University of Pennsylvania


Abstract. In recent years the St. Kitts Music Festival has become a platform for popular American, Jamaican, and a relatively small number of local Kittitian-Nevisian artists–a shift that mirrors the changing demographic of audiences who attend the festival. These contemporary artists represent the black faces of Caribbean tourism that have previously been unacknowledged within discussions of mass tourism in the Caribbean. This article questions the stability of categories such as tourist, local, and visitor by examining the St. Kitts Music Festival as an occasion for local engagement with American blackness as one aspect of modern Kittitian identity and Caribbean tourism.



On Hybridity in African Popular Music: The Case of Senegalese Hip Hop

Catherine M. Appert

Cornell University

This article critically considers the legacy of hybridity in African popular music studies and questions whether contemporary African engagements with diasporic popular musics like hip hop call for new interpretations of musical genre. Through ethnographic research with hip hoppers in Senegal, I explore how practices of musical intertextuality reinscribe global connections as diasporic ones and challenge the conditions for musical hybridity. I argue that the formal parameters of musical genre themselves constitute conscious and strategic social practice that situates human actors in local and global place.

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Thomas W. Ross – Amir Khan and the South. II


Grape, banana, and coconut

Because the goddess Sarasvatī holds both the book and the vīṇā, we are encouraged to summon both mind and heart in the pursuit of any learning.

This apparent contradiction has guises such as left brain/right brain, Apollo/Dionysus, and many more. It’s handy for sketches of the familiar: Herbie Hancock/Wynton Kelly, Béla Bartók/Aaron Copland, or Steely Dan/Justin Bieber.

But Indians seem to acknowledge a middle ground between these extremes: the triumvirate of South Indian composers, Tyāgarāja (1767–1847), Śyāma Śāstri (1762–1827), and Muttusvāmi Dīkṣitar (1775–1835), are likened to the grape, banana, and coconut. The first you pop in your mouth immediately. The second has to be peeled. And the third has a shell protecting its alabaster treasure.

The three are called vagayakar, ill-translated as composer: the term implies an equal mastery of book and vīṇā, of words and music. Dīkṣitar, for one, came from an illustrious line of musician-scholars whose formidable pieces betray a poet’s knowledge of Sanskrit.


Viswa told me that he first learned Dīkṣitar’s highbrow, gnarly, big-design coconut pieces, to the neglect of the other two composer-saints. Such august fare earned his early performances the gossip of being one-sided, so he added Tyāgarāja (the ultimate bhakti popularizer) and Śyāma Śāstri (a middle-ground) pieces as an appeasement. Same with swara kalpana, improvised solfege: they joined his concerts as a nod to mainstream Karnatak orthodoxy.

Dīkṣitar’s semi-legendary life has striking parallels to the eclectic and somber Amir Khan’s. The vīṇā -playing devotee of Shiva visited tirthsthans (pilgrimage sites) all over India, including a stint in Banaras. His interaction with the glacial-tempoed dhrupad singers and bīnkars of that music-drenched town (when indeed the Hindustani and the Karnatak weren’t so far apart as today) seem to me likely to have had a profound effect on his compositions.

The Word and the Lute, the Sword and the Flute. Amir Khan was an alert and thoughtful gatherer of influences that he came to call the Indore gharānā or school. A common cultural memory of Mughal/Rajput, worldly and ascetic, resonated between the disparate worlds of a Muslim animus of khayālthe North and a Hindu anima of the South. Khansahab admittedly could be downright ponderous in the slowest of his Jhumra (14-beats). I’m not the first to nod off with him occasionally. But his rāgas were leavened later in a performance by astonishing flights of tān melismas, even while retaining their bhāva or particular flavor.

The Balasaraswati family style also championed the leisurely and architectonic together with the sensual and the pyrotechnic, both by their renderings of the Dīkṣitar repertoire and in the sultry seriousness of the padams with which Bala ended her concerts. This musician’s musician’s milieu was Amir Khan’s during his visits, where the admiration went both ways. It’s a good guess that the impossibly slow tempi of his opening khayāls were encouraged, if not by direct influence, by a common taste for gravity.

In the Balasaraswati style, here’s Muktamma’s version of Dīkṣitar’s devastatingly gorgeous “Vīṇā pustaka dhāriṇī” (we were taught it in Jhampa tāla, a slow 10 beats, 7 + 3). Like Ahīr Bhairav in the North, the rāga Vegavahini (also called Chakravakam) is 1 ♭2 3 4 5 6 ♭7.

Borrowed and stolen

Amateurs borrow, professionals steal. (Variously attributed)

Two Dīkṣitar pieces have recently been given amateur or professional treatments by the North, I’m thinking: “Vātāpi Ganapatim” and Anandamritavarshini. From the latter, I hope to shed light on a mystery rāga by Amir Khan, sometimes called Amirkhani.

I was taught “Vātāpi,” the closest to a potboiler that Dīkṣitar ever wrote, by S. Ramanathan at Wesleyan in 1963. The kṛiti, in the sunny rāga Hamsadhvani, is the icing on a serious composerly cake, albeit well-wrought:

Later I learned its Northern offshoot in the same rāga, starting with the words “Lāgī lagana”. The little khayāl appropriates, as it were, the first two lines of a famous poem (and no more) without acknowledging it’s by someone called Robert Frost. This in turn has recently spawned its own grotesquerie in an army of high school-level sitārists fronted by dark-skinned ringers from the South:

Amir Khan’s quick khayāls in Hamsadhvani retain some of the rāga’s lightheartedness. Its smile is wider than a major scale. In this rendition, he keeps Lagi lagana’s basic melody but abandons the brief Brjbhāshā text, transforming Dīkṣitar’s sagati variations into a brisk drum-syllable tarānā:

But what of this mystery rāga? One of the last recordings Khansahab made, at a Calcutta gathering, featured an unknown rāga that he treated with his characteristic introspection. It combines the optimism of the Kalyāṇ family with a lowered 7th degree: 1 3 #4 5 ♭7. Any effort so far to parse it points South, either as an arcane offshoot of the Vāchaspati family or, I’m guessing, as an ingenious twist on the rāga to Dīkṣitar’s most famous and accessible tune, “Ānandāmritavarshinī.” It differs from the mystery rāga only in its 7th degree, and given the preference in Bala’s household for Dīkṣitar’s music, I think Khansahab lowered the 7th degree of Āmritavarshinī for what’s now called Amīrkhānī:

Although we must be thankful for all of Khansahab’s contributions, this last caps a career which included an openness to anything musical transpiring in the Madras home of his hosts, the Balasaraswati family.

Thomas W. Ross

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Thomas W. Ross – Amir Khan and the South. I


In The sword and the flute, an exquisite documentary on Indian culture told entirely with miniature paintings, the court and the temple offer clashing views of human experience. The dominance of the 16th-century Muslim Mughal emperor, Akbar, adopts a symbiosis with the Hindu Rajputs that is evident in Indian music even today. The lighter-skinned potentate stands respectfully while hearing the great Tansen sing songs that depict the cowherd girls sporting with a dark, flute-wielding god, Krishna himself. Thus the ascetic meets the worldly in a rich mulligatawny brew.


That courtly Northern master, Amir Khan, was in a similar stance to the Southern Balasaraswati family style. It was mutual admiration, and he always stayed with Bala when he had a concert in Madras. One could hazard that two minorities, the Muslim and the devadāsī temple-dancer caste, were equally challenged to excel. Khansahab’s father didn’t let him perform in public until he was thirty; Bala’s and Viswa’s performances, stellar though they might have been, were met only with fault-finding from their mother Jayammal.

The dynamic of North/South borrowing today retains the Mughal/Rajput imbalance: There are numerous examples of Karnatak musicians doing credible and even excellent renditions in Hindustani style, but the reverse is not true.

Amir Khan, however, was an alert witness to the depth in the Balasaraswati style, where some of the most inventive and profound music could happen in friendly competition between Bala and Viswa while sitting around preparing the evening meal. Because Bala engaged even me in lick-trading at her house, it’s hard to imagine musical exchanges not arising with some frequency, on an Olympian level, between herself, Viswa, and Khansahab during his stays.

And yet the same Karnatak rāga Chārukeshī, from Amir Khan and, say, M.S. Subbulakshmi, reflects these contrasting world-views.


From the get-go Amir Khan diverged. He learned sāraṅgī from his father before settling on singing. He introduced a super-slow version of tālas for the dhrupad-like development of his slow khayāls. And he appropriated rāgas and rhythmic concepts from Karnatak music. I think these came especially from the family of Balasaraswati.

Without a gecko on the wall, we can only guess at the specific nature of Amir Khan’s musical exchanges with Bala and her family when he stayed with them in Madras. He surely kept his own twice-daily riyāz practice, as he did with me in my Calcutta flat. I remember the house scene in Madras as rāga- and tāla-soaked, continually.

Here I’m thinking about Ranganathan, Bala’s brother and one of my first Indian teachers at Wesleyan. In addition to the special skills needed to accompany dance, like any good mṛdaṅgam player Ranga never stopped figuring out pieces, at or away from the instrument. In his final days, bed-ridden, he seemed to do nothing but. At odd hours, he’d call up old students like me:


T. Ranganathan

Tom. This one’s in khaṇḍa [5 beats]. Do you have a pencil and paper? Any number fits in this piece. They won’t get it because it’s anti-dramatic. [By “they” he meant the general Indian audience.]

Two people are talking. At each exchange, the first person (A) keeps his speed, while the second (B) talks slower. So it’s

A: x.
B: x.
A: x.
B: 2x. [Twice as slow]
A: x.
B: 4x. [Four times as slow]

This gives you 10 exes, so everything fits in five beats, regardless of the value of x. So for the tisra (3) version of this ingenious little piece (spoken simply as ta ki ta), you’d have:

A: (3) ta ki ta
B: (3) ta ki ta
A: (3) ta ki ta
B: (6) ta – ki – ta –
A: (3) ta ki ta
B: (12) ta – – – ki – – – ta – – –

which gives 30, a multiple of 5. Try it with 4, 7, 9 . . . they all work!

Wow. I’m not a math person, but this is elegance itself. It’s really a paradigm for making more pieces, itself a model modularity.

Although Bala refrained from improvised swaras in performance (“too unladylike”!), the entire family were rhythm whizzes, and it’s very likely that such pieces as Ranga’s were aired while Amir Khan was a guest. In a rare interview, Khansahab speaks of his rhythmic approach in the dhrut (quick) sections of his music. Without acknowledging the devadāsī family specifically, he rattles off the classic Karnatak jātīs (in the traditional order!): chatusra, tisra, misra, khaṇḍa, and sankīrna, 4, 3, 7, 5, and 9.

Amir Khan was of course also a master of North Indian rhythmic approaches. There was, for instance, a legendary exchange of sophisticated pieces one evening between him and the great tablist Ahmedjan Thirakwa. But he obviously benefited from his stays with perhaps the most eminent music and dance family of the South.

Thomas W. Ross