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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.

Amir Khan

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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

Amir Khan

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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

Klaus Wachsmann

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Peter Cooke – Sound repatriation in Uganda “And…er…of course, I…we didn’t just leave it at that.” And a saga from the pre-digital archiving age

Klaus Wachsmann

Klaus Wachsmann

Klaus Wachsmann’s remark (quoted above) was made when a mother singer burst into tears after singing for him on one of his first recording safaris in rural Uganda in 1950. It was discussed in the two-part exchange (Ethnomusicology 59/3, Fall 2015, 475–82) following the appearance of “The audible future: Reimagining the role of sound archives and sound repatriation in Uganda” by Sylvia Nannyonga-Tamusuza and Andrew Weintraub (Ethnomusicology 56/2, Spring/Summer 2012, 206–33).

It is unfortunate that the remark was omitted from a summary transcript of the interview with Wachsmann that Lucy Duran recorded in 1983 for the British Library Sound Archive, for Wachsmann’s treatment of the woman could well have seemed off-hand. Like Wachsmann then, I now feel that two further issues need exploring—which I hope may complete our exchanges on this topic.

Privileged information

In their response (p.481) Nannyonga-Tamusuza and Weintraub suggested that I had access to privileged information, though precisely what information they referred to is unclear. Certainly, much information that ethnomusicologists dig out from libraries and archives or record from informants can be described as privileged in one sense or another. The writers possibly had in mind information derived from the interview mentioned above. Since Uganda and its music is one of my continuing research interests, I had contacted the British Library Sound Archive over a decade ago and asked for an audio copy of the Duran–Wachsmann interview; it was readily supplied and I made my own transcript. Apparently the only reason why the interview is not posted online at the British Library, like other interviews with ethnomusicologists, is because of a technical problem with the second cassette used. Click below to listen to the relevant section taken from the first cassette, where he recounts his early experiences recording in the field.

If, however, as seems possible, the two respondents suggest that the information I provided about the singer herself was privileged, the interview itself contains no more   information on her. However, what data there is about her has for some years been freely available online via the Internet (since 2009 in the case of Uganda). To discover it today is simple enough. One visits the Sounds BL site ( and enters the two words “Wachsmann lullaby” into the search box and one is presented with 18 results, all identifying lullaby performances recorded by Wachsmann and labeled as such. It is then a simple matter to locate the earliest along with the data that I referred to in my part of the exchange, namely the precise date, the place, and the singer’s ethnicity, as well as Wachsmann’s own index number (50.003); the page is here.

Klaus Wachsmann’s collection: Safeguarding, copying, and repatriation

There remains one other issue that I touched on in my part of the exchange: the time it took between Wachsmann’s collection leaving Uganda and the repatriation of good quality copies of the recordings and indexes. I mentioned that this was an area needing further research and I was recently privileged (again!) to visit the British Library and examine Klaus Wachsmann’s folder of early correspondence concerning his recordings. It reads as quite a saga on the difficulties that could face pioneer collectors during the analog era of sound recording, especially those who lacked suitable institutional support. For ethnomusicologists young enough to know only the digital era, the tale provides useful insights into archiving problems faced—I suspect—by more than one of their predecessors. I give just a summary below, but I have attempted to present all available salient details of the narrative. Wachsmann’s careful preservation of much relevant correspondence relating to the collection allows us to learn the sequence of events that eventually led to the repatriation of his collection six years later (not forty or more, as implied in EM 56/2, p. 206). The gist of this correspondence is given below, though it does not provide a complete picture of the whole sequence of operations carried out on the disc and tape collection; anyone wishing to examine the correspondence in more detail will need to visit the British Library.

The saga

Before Wachsmann’s return to the UK in 1957 to rejoin his wife and children who had left Uganda earlier, Patrick Saul, the Director of the British Institute for Recorded Sound (BIRS), wrote to Wachsmann about the recordings he had made. Wachsmann’s intent was to locate safe storage for his original media and also to find funds and equipment so that he could make sets of good quality copies to ensure their permanent preservation and to return a set to the Uganda Museum, so he was happy to allow the BIRS to store them safely and he hoped then to realize his intent with the help of the institute, for he had no suitable equipment of his own.

This proved a formidable task. The BIRS was a small charity renting part of a terraced house at 38 Russell Square, Bloomsbury, London. It had few spare resources (equipment or staff) to cope with the work needed to be done on Wachsmann’s large collection. The disc recordings needed copying to tape and editing with the addition of recorded announcements to identify each item. Wachsmann was also concerned about the decaying condition of many of the recordings, which had been made on acetate tapes in 1954 and might need repair before copying.

In what follows, for S read Patrick Saul, for W read Klaus Wachsmann and for B read W. W. Bishop (Wachsmann’s successor as Director of the Uganda Museum).

May 21 1957. S (London) to W (still at the Uganda Museum, Kampala): He would be grateful if W could make available copies of the material to the BIRS.

Oct. 12 1957. S to W: He wishes to mention to his executive board W’s suggestion that tapes be deposited. If it goes ahead they will need to give warning to the present occupant of the spare basement room that it will not be available.

Meanwhile Wachsmann left Uganda to join his wife and family in London. He needed to find employment and his health, which had suffered during nearly two decades living and working in Uganda, was not good. One must remember too that he first came to England as a refugee from the Nazi regime and had no previous permanent base in the UK.

Nov 15 1957. W to S: Sorry for not turning up yet. “We are moving house, present house is being demolished.”

Nov 23 1957. W to S: “I am afraid I will be hospitalised from 25 Nov. on—for some weeks.”

June 14 1958. W to S: “The Uganda government agrees that the complete set of the original recordings can be given to the National Institute of Recorded Sound provided that copies are supplied to the Uganda Museum. They will arrange for the tapes and discs already in Uganda to be shipped to the United Kingdom….”

Oct 28 1958. Delivery note from British Crown Agents for the Colonies to S at the BIRS: “Please receive 137 magnetic tapes, 1 tuning fork.”

Jan 1959. W to Crown Agents: applying for £200 for cost of tapes for copying discs to tape at the BIRS.

Feb 3 1959. S to W: reporting the gift of a further £100 by the Ralph Vaughan Williams Trust for purchase of blank tapes.

July 7 1959. Colonial Office to W: about request for funds for tapes.

July 20 1959. W to S: Saying he would be unable to “put my back” into helping with cataloging of the institute’s [own] folk music collection. “There is first of all the problem of transferring Uganda stuff on tapes if and when the new tapes come to us and of course provided that the acetate tapes haven’t given up the ghost recently.”

July 30 1959. News of a grant of £200 for purchase of tapes for copying.

Aug 5 1959. Peckham (at the Colonial Office) to W: The government of Uganda has asked when copies of your recordings will be available and we are informing them that one set of the copies of the new tapes will be sent to them as soon as they are available.

Aug 31 1959. Crown agents: “Will be glad to order the new tapes as soon as it is clear what is wanted.”

While in Uganda Wachsmann had apparently acquired a Ferrograph tape recorder to copy and edit some of his recordings and he may have brought it with him to be able to continue his work.

Sept 7 1959. The Ferrograph machine is mentioned. If the Uganda government requires it urgently he would try to make arrangements to obtain a replacement more quickly.

Sept 10 1959. Peckham (Colonial Office) to S: I am telling Uganda that the Ferrograph will not be available until December.

Oct 29 1959. S to Freeland (Crown Agents for the Colonies): Specifying: “It is important that the tapes are “extra thick polyester-fibre tape (quarter inch) on 7-inch spools type 102” (Minnesota) it is badly needed in order to get on with the copying operation.”

Nov. 24 1959. Tapes were ordered.

Jan 24 1960. W to S: “I am down with flu. The tape problems have been with me ever since; this is an understatement of course… Please do go ahead with copying the new tapes as they are… apologies for the delays.”

Jan 30 1960. S to Peckham at the Crown Office: “I wonder if the Ug. Govt. would consider selling us the Ferrograph tape-recorder that we have here and—if they require to have one—ordering a new machine from the manufacturers…for technical reasons there is some advantage in playing tapes on the identical recorder on which they were recorded, if the highest quality results are sought.”

July 10 1961. Despatch order from Crown agents for LEP Transport to collect Ferrograph recorder for export to Ministry of Education, Kampala.

W now was unable to continue work on the collection.

Dec 19 1961. W to S: Could he borrow a tape recorder and microphone for editing and providing announcements between items? Could either technician help him set up the connections?

April 24 1962. S to W: “We would now be in a position to lend you the Ferrograph and a Cadenza microphone. Alternatively we could possibly get [technicians] Gentle and Snow to help you if you wish to come here to finish the announcements…”

Jan 1 1963. S to B (curator at the Uganda Museum): “We have not yet begun to make copies…simply because of pressure of work.”

Apr 9 1963. W to S: Worried because he has had “absolutely no news”.

Jul 18 1963. W to S: He would be taking up an appointment at UCLA in September adding, “This will give me the opportunity for which I longed for many years of concentrating on the recorded material from Uganda and of doing the work which still remains to be done with the tapes”. He further suggested the BIRS lend the tapes to UCLA for this purpose, with UCLA paying all costs. In return, “The university would ask for permission to keep a copy of the finally edited material for my own academic studies. A copy of this ‘final’ set of [edited] tapes would also be sent to you so that you can provide the copy for the Uganda Museum”…“It is a matter of very great importance to me to be able to finish this job as I want it to be done, and do not see a better solution of my problems anywhere.”

Sept 25 1963. W to B: Apologies for delay in replying to letter of Aug 17—his move to UCLA was responsible. Confirms that the BIRS, in whose safekeeping the material is kept, has undertaken to provide an unedited safety copy of approximately 1600 items) to W by the end of December. W will do the editing at UCLA, expense borne by UCLA. A copy of final tape and of the catalog will be made available to Uganda Museum. Meanwhile pending completion of editing S will try to get a copy done for the Uganda Museum.

Oct. 24 1963. B (Uganda Museum) to S: He hopes Institute can get copying done by end of year but failing that he will call when on leave in UK early next year.

Nov 1 1963. W to S: Mentions that B will be coming to collect the Uganda tapes early next year. “I have confirmation from the University [UCLA] that the cost of editing the Uganda tapes will be covered by them. So you see I am all set.”

Nov 2 1963. W to S: A reminder of necessity for despatching tapes to UCLA.

Dec 12 1963. W (at UCLA) to S: Has S been in contact with Bishop regarding a set of copies? “I have authority to ask you to pack, ship and insure the material.”

Dec 21 1963. S to W: “I am sorry that the engineer has not yet been able to complete the copying…He has been exceptionally busy installing new equipment and recording in theatres. We do not seem to have had the Decalian back which we lent you. Can you tell me what has happened to it, as we occasionally need a transportable disc-player.”

Jan 1 1964. S to Bishop (Uganda): “We have not yet begun to make copies of Dr W’s tapes though the discs have been copied on to tape. I do not think that the tapes in their existing state should be copied; Dr W has not yet completed editing the tapes and if they are copied and sent to you before this is done they would, in my view, not be nearly so useful as the edited copies which Dr Wachsmann tells me he can fairly easily supply once the originals are in his possession in California.”

April 9 1964. W to S: He is worried because he has had absolutely no news.

Apr 30 1964. S to W: Sorry, unable to copy tapes and discs yet.

Aug 15 1964. S to Mantle Hood (UCLA): about the imminent despatch of the tapes to UCLA. “For safety’s sake we have made a complete copy of the collection…in case of an accident to the original tapes in transit to California.” He mentions also that he had further made a complete unedited copy since the present Director of the UM states that the collection is the property of that Museum and that he will be visiting us to recover a copy to take back to Africa. He ends, “I am sorry the copying of the tapes has taken far longer than we had hoped.”

He also wrote to B the same day saying he had been expecting B to call for the tapes.

Sep 15 1964: LEP Air Services to collect packages of tapes for flight to Uganda.

Certificate of shipment dated 9/161964—68 recorded tapes==23 kilos.

Sep 18 1964. W to S: “I am often thinking of the Institute and sometimes have nightmares when I imagine the difficulties you have had to battle with.”

Oct. 1 1964. B to S: “I am happy to say that the five boxes containing copies of the recordings of Dr Wachsmann’s tapes of Uganda music have now arrived safely in Uganda.” Thanks etc.

Nov 2 1964. W to S: “The Institute at UCLA tells him it wrote to you on 27 Oct asking for details of number and size of reels so that it can send him the proper number of metal boxes” and he adds “I can well imagine how overworked you are…”

Nov 11 1965 W (from UCLA) to S: “I have been looking forward to this moment for many years….The Uganda tapes are now completely edited, and at long last I can begin to think of doing the work with the material that I always longed to do.

The major debt is owed to you. However it took me six months, with the unavoidable interruptions of someone going on holiday or something like this, to finish the job. It was absolutely necessary, and without my field notes and my analysis of many rather complicated corners, nobody else could have seen the task through. I am learning a lot about documentation that I can pass on to my students. But of course today things are different and recording with a Nagra round one’s neck is rather like handling a Kodak box camera, in comparison to what it was years ago.

The next step is the making of sets of copies of this edited master tape. As soon as that is done, we will return the original tapes to you together with one of the edited sets. I am working on the catalogue and this material, too, will be made available to you.”

Peter Cooke


Matthew Harp Allen – Interview with David Park McAllester

McAllester 2005

David McAllester in 2005

(Photo courtesy of Alan R. Burdette)

Editor’s note: In 2004 the Society for Ethnomusicology’s Board of Directors asked Matthew Allen to interview his friend and former teacher David P. McAllester, Professor Emeritus of Music at Wesleyan University, on the occasion of the latter’s award of an Honorary Membership in the Society. They met in McAllester’s home in Monterey, Massachusetts, on 10 January 2005. A short excerpt from the interview appeared in the SEM Newsletter at that time; thanks to the efforts of Professor Allen, the full interview appears below (Allen’s interpolations are in square brackets). The text has much to offer to those interested in the history of ethnomusicology and to those who—like myself—had the honor and pleasure of knowing Professor McAllester personally.

Matthew Allen [MA]: David, we’re here, it’s January 2005 at your lovely home in the Berkshires with you and Beryl. I’ve made this trip to speak with you about your role in the founding of the Society, your impressions of what it was like to work with those colleagues, and what they were like, those founding fathers and at least one founding mother I found on the list of those early convenors of the Society. And I figured we could take it from there.

Fine. Very good. Well, I met Willard Rhodes. He was a Professor of Music at Columbia, teaching in the opera school, and conducting operas, but his daughter worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and she made arrangements for him to go and travel around the country recording Native American music from tribe to tribe. And he did it summer after summer. And you’re probably familiar with the Library of Congress series of records that was produced from those recordings. He visited a good many tribes, and he got more and more ethnomusicological as he did it. He was a very friendly, open kind of guy.

So when I began to take some of George Herzog’s courses, Willard Rhodes was there and George introduced him to me as a fellow enthusiast of Indian music. So he and I were at one of the anthropology meetings in the early 1950s, and Willard said “you’ve got to meet this man Alan Merriam” who he had met recently. They both had an interest in Africa, and so he took me to lunch with Alan Merriam. And Alan immediately began proposing that we organize an American society of ethnomusicology. What there was then was the sister to the Vergleichende Musikwissenschaft.

MA: And I gather that was fairly moribund after World War II.

It was. It was in Berlin, and a lot of the members were Jewish and had fled the country. And so this Society for Comparative Musicology had some beginnings here [in the USA] with Curt Sachs, and George Herzog, and Mieczysław Kolinski. And so there was also then after that, well, the Vergleichende did sort of collapse. And Helen Roberts, that was the founding mother, I would say; she was at Yale, or lived in New Haven, and she had done several studies herself. And she was I think sort of a secretary of this Society for Comparative Musicology, and it, everything kind of came to a halt during World War II, and after the war, the European group regrouped and got organized with the help of the United Nations and became the, what was it, if I remember, I’ve forgotten now what its title was [the International Council for Traditional Music]. It’s still going but it wasn’t as scholarly as Alan Merriam wanted.

MA: Was it called the European Seminar?

That’s what it became, I think, but it had another name…I haven’t thought of it for a long time, but it’s in all the literature. They would have festivals rather than scholarly meetings. And they would get together a whole lot of performers. And they’d all sit there and would enjoy it. And they didn’t read scholarly papers, but kind of appreciations. And some of them were scholars, and a lot of them were not. Anyway, Alan had this idea to collect reviews, for one thing, and to do bibliography. And he wanted to start a newsletter which would have a good solid bibliography, properly done. Jaap Kunst had produced something that he was calling Ethno-musicology, with a hyphen, that had some bibliography that were not…they were a bit casual. And Alan thought we could do better than that. And not only have bibliographies, but articles. So it began as that newsletter. And the idea was to get together whoever we could find who was interested in the United States and abroad, which really meant mostly Europe. And start with a newlsetter and go on to a journal. And all of that I guess is right in that issue [issue #1 of the SEM Newsletter].

But to get to the personalities of the people; Oh, after we had that meeting, Willard and I—and Merriam—went to New Haven where the American Musicological Society was having a meeting, to talk to Charlie Seeger. Because he wrote their, their organizing, he did their constitution and all the ins and outs, and had talked about this idea. And thought it would be a good idea. So we hunted him down at that meeting and broached the idea to him. So we were the four, then. And it was really Willard and Merriam who knew the field, somewhat; knew the people in Europe as well. And I was just fresh out of graduate school (laughs), at Wesleyan. But I guess I had published Peyote music (1949), and that made me one of the few people who had published anything in the field at that time. So, we got organized and we asked …I guess it was, we didn’t have a president…We had…I forget what; Alan was the organizer, and I just was doing…body work with the newsletter and subscriptions. We charged $2 a year.

MA: The first Newsletter says “we don’t have any financial obligation at this time”, but by about Newsletter 6 it was $2.

Is that it? (laughs) Oh I see; so we let them in easy. And Charlie was his imperious self, giving off ideas, and really organizing it. And Willard was the genial, friend of everybody. And Alan was the scientist. As he wrote in his Anthropology of music, ethnomusicology was going to be sciencing about a humanity. I always chuckled over that phrase (laughs). To call music “a humanity”. But, he had the American anthropologist [journal] sort of as his model, I think, in his mind. I remember on the way up Willard and I started singing some Indian songs; we’d hooked a ride with somebody who was going to those meetings, from Philadelphia, I think. Wherever it was, we drove to New Haven. And as we drove along, Willard and I started singing some Indian songs that we both knew, and Alan said, “Oh, do you have to sing?” (laughs) We were threatening his scientific stance. Though he studied drumming himself, but I don’t think he did African drumming in public. He was a very good jazz player, much interested in jazz, went to a lot of jazz concerts, wrote about jazz in his books.

MA: While we’re on the subject of Merriam’s scientific emphasis, I was struck in the reports from the field in the first Newsletter, how consistently the things that were reported on were, well, this person has been in this place for this long, and they’ve brought back this many reels of this kind of tape, taken on that kind of tape recorder (David laughs). That seemed to be the real stuff, right? They never announced it but the implicit assumption seems to be that, now they’ve brought it back to the laboratory and they’ll get to work on analyzing it. Is that an impression that that’s really the emphasis that was in people’s minds at that time?

Well it was in Alan’s, certainly. But Willard and I both loved the music, and I think Charlie Seeger was more literary, perhaps, than scientific. But Alan used to say there are different kinds of interpretations. One is the folk interpretation, and that’s what the people who make the music think it’s about, then there’s the scientific interpretation, that’s the scientific view of what the music really is. So he gave us a good impetus on being factual, and he and his students did, but many of them were jazz performers and had a special interest in Africa. He and Richard Waterman were both at Northwestern. They were students of Melville Herskovits. Herskovits, I don’t know what his musical background was, but he certainly did encourage musical study. He had been a student of Franz Boas, and Boas was the first anthropologist to sort of realize that music too is a part of culture.

At Harvard, where I did my undergraduate work, it was not a part of ethnology. They knew that I was singing Indian songs that I’d gotten out of books, and that I had an interest in Indian music, but it never occurred to anybody there that I might make a career studying American Indian music. Alice Fletcher worked out of the Peabody Museum collecting…Pawnee, was it? The Hocko…yes I think it was. Anyway, there were these well-to-do Boston ladies who took an interest in Indians and helped them, represented them in Congress at hearings on Indian land claims and things like that. So they were active there, but it was not a thing for anthropologists, not at Harvard.

MA: If you might back up just a little bit there, how did it come to be that you ended up singing Indian songs out of books? Where did your own interest come from?

Oh well—I am part Naragansett. That is, my grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother was a Naragansett, according to our family tradition. And I have a grand-niece who has found the name of that woman, just lately, with the advantages of the Internet. We knew what the relationship was, but we didn’t know anything more about her except that my grandmother, at her grandmother’s house, saw an oil painting of this woman—her grandmother’s grandmother. But that got me interested in Indians. And then I read the books of Ernest Thompson Seton. Is that anyone you ever heard of?

MA: No.

Well, a lot of people knew about him in the days of my youth. And he brought out something called the Birch Bark Library, and he was a naturalist. But he collected a lot of…he didn’t record Indian music himself, but in his books he included the songs that Alice Fletcher and Frances Densmore had collected, and some others too. He had something called the Wood Crafters League, which was a rival of the Boy Scouts of America at that time. And then when World War I came along, Seton protested getting into the war, and became very unpopular. And Baden Powell in England who was starting up the Boy Scouts, was very much for the war and gave the Boy Scouts the sort of semi-militaristic qualities that some aspects of scouting have retained.

So these [Seton’s works] were very appreciative of what Indians knew, how much knowledge they really had about their world. And one whole section was on philosophy, the philosophy of the red man. All of these things I ate up. And so I discovered that a lot of people came into anthropology having had a boyhood experience of Ernest Thompson Seton. I was at a gathering of anthropologists at Yale after I came to Wesleyan. And one of the Yale anthropologists said he had been at a meeting, where somebody raised the question, how many of you people have read Ernest Thompson Seton? And most of them had, and he had. It’s kind of interesting. I don’t think he ever gets mentioned in our ethnomusicology these days. Because he just printed the work of other people as far as Indians went.

MA: So he published some of the translations of Frances Densmore, for example?

Yes. So I learned some of those; those are what I was singing. I really got started on some pretty good people, actually.

And Frances Densmore became our honorary president when we organized as a society, about 1953. Willard knew her and called her up. We were at some anthropology meetings at Boston at that time. And after, she would be preisident, she said. She said as long as she didn’t have to go anywhere or do anything, she didn’t mind being an honorary president (laughs). So those were the personalities that we had, and… have you seen the book by Ann Pescatello, Charles Seeger: A life in American music? She’s a historian, and she and Bonnie Wade knew Charlie very well, visited him every year, and knew the rest of the family too, but it was Charlie they were interested in. And Ann wrote this history which is a very interesting thing, about the whole Seeger family, but particularly Charlie, the influences that made the man. I think he was a father figure to them, they saw him whenever they could.

So, in that group of four, Charlie was the great musicologist; Willard and I were almost bystanders; and Alan was the driving force in making the Journal the way it was in the beginning. And I remember further along in the years, Charlie Seeger said in one of his talks to the Society, “Of course Alan is our scientist, and what David brings is love!” (laughs)

I think he was referring to my Quakerism. I became a Quaker shortly before World War II because I knew I was going to be a conscientious objector and I had begun to attend the Friends Meeting in New York. I used to sing in St. George’s Episcopal church choir, across the street from the 15th Street Quaker Meeting, and I used to see the Quakers coming out of Quaker meeting as we came out of St. George’s church, and I wished I was there! Because the pronouncements I was seeing from them as World War II began to loom on the horizon were just what was in my mind. So I finally did quit the choir and became Quaker. It took a while. They were getting lots of people who wanted to be Quakers as they saw the war coming on. In the early years before the war, there were full-page ads by the American Friends Service Committee and other pacifist organizations, protesting the movement we were going in. There was a very strong pacifist movement.

There was an Oxford oath, started at Oxford University, where thousands of students swore that under no conditions would they engage in another World War. The First World War did not make the world safe for democracy or anybody else, and they could see the beginnings of it. There was a movement, what was it called—The Veterans of Future Wars, among students at at Harvard. One of my classmates at Harvard was Rolf Kaltenborn, whose father was a well-known commentator on the radio. As the war clouds were gathering, he had a lot to say about international relations. Rolf was the commander of the Veterans of Future Wars. And he would begin his speeches with “Buddies!” and the females in the group were “Future gold star mothers!” And the Oxford oath was afloat at Harvard, and Susan and I joined it when it came. But many of our contemporaries after Pearl Harbor changed their minds, but we didn’t.

But to get back to personalities in the Society. I got to know Helen Roberts quite well. I would visit her when I came to Wesleyan, because she was just down the road in New Haven. She was a well-to-do lady, and she had a beautiful greenhouse full of orchids, which was one of her primary interests. And she had lots of memories of George, I think George Herzog may have…let’s see; he knew Edward Sapir, and Sapir was at Yale, and I think she knew of course Charlie Seeger in the Society for Comparative Musicology, and she was a little bitter that when that was disbanded, they left her with all the cleaning up after them.

MA: What was there to clean up, David?

Well, to take care of the finances, and the records, and whatever there was left.

MA: The Newsletter said a couple of hundred dollars was left over, which was then used to start the new Society.

I guess so, and maybe we got that from her.

But one of the big financial aids in getting the Society started was Wesleyan University. Wesleyan had a financial advisor, who persuaded them to put most of their endowment into purchasing the American Educational Press [in 1949], that published things like My weekly reader. And that was bought by school children all over the country. And suddenly Wesleyan became quite wealthy. In fact we found that owning the American Educational Press was more than we could handle; it was the dog beginning to wag the tail of Wesleyan. Then Xerox bought that from us for something like 400,000 shares of Xerox stock, which was just beginning to skyrocket. So suddenly we were a very wealthy university. [Wesleyan] President Butterfield sent notes to the different departments, saying, “Can you think of unusual experimental areas of teaching and studying that we can undertake here that haven’t been thought of before—the more expensive the better?” (laughs) Almost in those words.

So, then [Wesleyan Music Professor] Dick Winslow had the vision to say the direction the Music Department could go in would be ethnomusicology, but we had better be prepared to turn into a very large hard-working enterprise. We’ll have a great many students. The music department at that time was a kind of ornament to the college at that time. And maybe once every few years, somebody would do an M.A. in it, but it was not…it was just making music and it was preparing young gentlemen to have a musical side to their background. And to get out there into the field and to get a world perspective was not what the department chairman at that time had in mind. And then he retired, and Dick took his place, and it is what Dick had in mind. So we went out to UCLA, and visited their program, and got a lot of great ideas and picked up Bob Brown who was there. That is, Dick met him, and liked him very much; and I don’t think he even realized though what a dynamo Bob Brown was, in his quiet way. But he couldn’t get Bob out of his mind and we made him an offer and that’s where he came. And he gave us an impetus that we’re still moving with.

MA: David, why couldn’t he get Bob out of his mind? Was Bob showing an entrepreneurial flair already, or sort of a program-building propensity?

No, I don’t think we saw that; what he saw was this quiet-spoken charming person, musical to his fingertips, who had already been in India learning to perform the music. I think it was the performing that attracted Dick. That of course was the big emphasis at UCLA anyway.

MA: When you went out there was that around the time T. Viswanathan was at UCLA, from 1958 to 60?

Hmm…I think he was Bob Brown’s friend already. I mean, Bob had met that family in Madras. I’m not sure about that. I know that they had Japanese music with Miss [Namino] Tori, and Indian music with Viswa and Ranga [flutist-vocalist T. Viswanathan and his brother, mṛdaṅgist T. Ranganathan], those were our first musics. And right away Bob had a bunch of students singing sa ri ga ma and performing, and one of the early ones was Jon Higgins, who was such a star in India, the Indians couldn’t believe it.

So, by these circumstances, we were the ones who took off in the East, and UCLA were the ones [in the West], and Mantle Hood studied with Jaap Kunst and brought back the idea of bimusicality. And Mantle, I don’t know why he wasn’t in on it from the beginning with us. Maybe it’s just so far away, or maybe because he had his own empire to build. But we quickly enlisted his aid, and we certainly knew about his program, and he was very generous to us and very receptive, and we attended some of the famous seminars that he and Charlie Seeger gave together. Mantle attached Charlie as a kind of local god (laughs) of the program at UCLA. They had a very happy relationship there developing their machine to do transcriptions [the melograph]. Accurate transcriptions were the big issue… and this was going to be a machine that did it without human failures.

MA: That’s interesting—now, was that picked up with enthusiasm at Wesleyan to the same extent?

No. I think maybe we received one of their outmoded models, but we didn’t have anybody there who picked up with it and got interested in it. But certainly, the performing emphasis was joyfully accepted at Wesleyan and still is there.

MA: And did Alan Merriam like the idea of this machine that could do these very scientific, supposedly scientific transcriptions? Or was that restricted to just UCLA?

I think maybe one or two places that tried to use it, but it never was really operable. It was a prelude to what can now be done with computers. But it was…And it showed certain things people were quite excited about, such as in some singing, you have a certain pattern drawn by the little pen on the cylinder moving around, and you’d see the vibrato, and then you’d see in some singing, some vibrato on that one, and that explained why it sounded the way it did, and kind of gave you a mechanical glimpse of something that was happening, that was an exciting idea.

MA: Well David, I’ve known you to be a little deferential about the founding of the Society and your own role, but I wonder if could you talk a little bit about what were your own ideas at Wesleyan, what were your passions? How did you want to see the Wesleyan program develop? What was really important to you?

Well, I’m trying to remember those times…Because it was Bob Brown who was bringing visiting artists. He had an insatiable hunger for more visiting artists of more musics. And for quite a while, Wesleyan was able to go right along with it, and the program got very large very quickly. I was…had started [in] the Anthropology Department about this time. And I visited the Music Department, as it were, and some of my anthropology students became ethnomusicology students, but I didn’t really…resign from anthropology until the Society was organized, I guess. Then I really did move, well, when we built the new music building, I moved out of the anthropology building altogether. But for a long time the archive of the music program was in the basement of that little building on the corner of Wyllys Avenue and High Street.

MA: I remember one vacation when you were going away, when I emptied the dehumidifiers for you. It was in bad shape…

It was terrible. Yeah. (laughs) Well, then it moved into the new building. But in the old building, in a bad rainstorm, there’d be puddles on the floor in that room that we had. It was nicely fitted up, except it was in the basement of an old building. The Outing Club used to be in that basement. And they had it all fitted up with slab siding so it looked like the inside of a log cabin. (laughs)

MA: I was just reading an article on the web about you—this is where your essay on Coyote Song was published. It mentions that the collecting you did amounted to the largest collection of Navajo ceremonials and music in the country, evidently, and I guess that’s now housed at Wesleyan.

Well, there was a recording of—George Herzog and a number of other people were hired by Mary Wheelwright, who started the Museum of Navajo Ceremonial Art in Santa Fe. She was a Boston blueblood: Mary Cabot Wheelwright. And she bought a hacienda on the Rio Grande, and she got to know a particular medicine man, and she recorded nearly all of his songs. And she hired artists to make watercolor reproductions of his sand paintings. And I think it was something like 5,000 recordings that she made of a number of different ceremonies. And they were on wax cylinders. That’s what was available at that time. But George [Herzog] was one of the people who was supposed to be transcribing those, and never got around to it. But several Athabascan language experts worked with her, and they transcribed the texts into a proper phonetic alphabet.

Much of that is duplicated at Wesleyan. And all of that…where else did it go? I think maybe to Indiana, too. And the reproductions of sand paintings all went back to the Navajo tribe in due course. But I think that maybe is the biggest collection, on those wax cylinders. And Edward Sapir the linguist recorded a lot too. And I got into Navajo studies transcribing some of those wax cylinders. I worked for Harvard, with a lab assistant to transfer them from wax cylinders to tape. And I began transcribing them myself, and those transcriptions are at Wesleyan. And then she asked me to do some other recording. She was trying to get those published in some form or other. And I thought the wax cylinders weren’t really publishable, for lack of technical perfection, full of all kinds of incidental noises.

So I took one of the earliest—the earliest tape machine that was available to the public, called a Soundmirror—out there, and re-recorded quite a bit of material for her, and for me, to work with. But she certainly needs to be mentioned as far as—and she is—as far as Navajo studies go. Her Museum of Navajo Ceremonial Art is now called the Wheelwright Museum; and much of it has been transferred to the the Navajo Tribe, to their Cultural Center in Tsaile, Arizona. She was interested in similarities between the art of the mandalas in Tibet and the Navajo sand paintings. She went to Tibet several times. And she recorded hundreds of sand paintings with various artists, bringing medicine men to her museum. And the particular [Navajo] medicine man she worked with is buried there; she kind of adopted him. A man named Hastiin Klah, which means Mr. Left Handed. And a good many of his recordings have been transcribed.

There was a man named Father Bernard Haile, a Franciscan friar, who went out from Cincinnati to the reservation and essentially became a Navajo. He learned, really, to speak Navajo, and he became a friend of Navajos, and I think he became a Navajo himself. He learned to think like a Navajo. He was right there at Chinle where…and he worked with Frank Mitchell, the man that I studied with for ten years.

So…all these things come together, don’t they? She, Mary Wheelright, was a very powerful lady. She said she never married because she never found a man strong enough for her. And at one point she said she felt I was her spiritual son, and we certainly got along together, did a lot of work together.

My tutor at Harvard—the Harvard system is that you have a faculty member who is your tutor, and your particular advisor—was a man named Clyde Kluckhohn, who became Mr. Navajo Scholar of those days. Nowadays people don’t think much of his work, but in those days he was the new young person on the scene. He had studied with Freud, he had been to Vienna, he was a psychological anthropologist and a literary man as well. Something very different from the sort of explorer-anthropologists that we had at Harvard at that time. When he joined the Harvard faculty it was a moment of change, that he was…he kind of civilized the anthropology department. So he interested me in the Navajos, and pretty soon, we were…in his linguistics course, we had Navajo speakers, a family, so we could hear Navajo pronounced by father, mother, and children. And we began to be trained, and really quite good linguistic training for those days. Linguistics was just taking off as an important part of anthropology.

To go back to Charlie [Seeger], he was imperious as I mentioned. And somewhat arrogant. And he didn’t, what’s the word, he didn’t suffer fools (laughs). And he gave a pretty high tone to the Society and its development accordingly. I wonder if anybody quite understood him. Have you read much of his work?

MA: It’s difficult.

It is. Sometimes Tony [Anthony Seeger] has given some lectures and written some articles to explain what his grandfather was saying, and I’m not sure they were all that much more easily understood after Tony finished (laughs).

MA: I never saw him speak. I saw Buckminster Fuller speak, and sometimes I felt some similarities in the prose and the intentional use of language. I know that Fuller would make up words that would be just what he wanted to say, he totally would disregard as to whether they would be in common parlance. His idea was, well you come to me, I’m not coming to you.

He was at the Center for Advanced Studies at Wesleyan. One time a student and I went to a jazz concert and walking across campus we met some friends of ours, the Rosenbaums, who were on their way to see a lecture by Buckminster Fuller. The jazz band concert was over two hours late, the jazz band was stuck on the road. Finally we had to leave, and as we did we met the Rosenbaums coming back from the Buckminster Fuller talk. They asked us how the jazz concert was and we said well it hasn’t begun yet. And we asked how Buckminster Fuller was, and they said, he hasn’t stopped yet. He didn’t show any signs of stopping, and they had to leave.

I showed him a picture of a teepee that I’d built with fibreglass and he got very excited. He said, “This is the basic structural form!” He loved ideas. When he came for that visit, he was staying with [classicist-philosopher] Norman O. Brown and his family and they said he never stopped talking the whole time he was in their house. He just gave off ideas. He was one of the first people I think who was hired by big corporations to come and just talk, because they knew there were wonderful ideas all through it that would be useful, even if they didn’t understand them.

But he often loved to say some basic things, like, you have to know how much a building weighs, the way you do when you make a ship. And he was saying how much safer it was to travel by air, because human beings don’t like to be off the ground. They build cars with very sloppy engineering, because it’s running on the ground. And cars are much more dangerous than ships are, and ships are nowhere near as safe as airplanes are. The further you get away from our original topography, the more careful we are, and the better our engineering is. He loved to make pronouncements, and made a dozen a minute.

MA: Can I ask you to talk about one more thing while we’ve got the tape rolling? When we talked on the phone the other night you were telling me you’ve really had a second career since you left teaching at Wesleyan. Other things are going on. I wonder, how does the whole trajectory of the Society look to you? What seems logical to you about how one evolves in their tenth or twentieth year as an ethnomusicologist? How do you make sense of the way the Society has grown and changed?

I’ve been mulling over some of these ideas, since I’m going to be on the panel in Atlanta [at the 50th SEM conference] this year. I was a product at the beginning of Herzog, and I was…he drilled and drilled me in making transcriptions. And I was trying to make good transcriptions. And I wasn’t seeing the music from a humanistic point of view, that is, that it was music of people. And my experience, once I got among the Navajos, caused me to drop out of anthropology. I dropped the scientific point of view to a large extent, and I became…um, an advocate of the Navajos, rather than an objective viewer. And I was certainly among those in ethnomusicology who began to value the… the views of the people who make the music, more than the value of the trained scholars who were studying it.

I also respected the Navajo apprehension of having their material misued, because they consider their music has a life of its own, and it’s vulnerable too to misuse, it could lose its power. It’s something…it’s religious, it has a function. And I began to get answers to my questions that reorganized my thinking. And so I’ve never written THE BOOK on Navajo music, for instance. Merriam, who wrote Ethnomusicology of the Flathead Indians, asked me one day, “McAllester, when is that book on Navajo music coming out?” (laughs) So I’ve written little articles about this song or that song, but I haven’t felt that I ever knew enough to write Navajo music.

In fact I had my eyes opened at the University of Sydney in Australia where I was a Fulbright professor for a while. I gave a talk in the anthropology department, and they said “Why do you use the word music to describe what the Navajos do? Isn’t it really prayer? Or magic? Or something other than…Does our word ‘music’ describe it at all?” And I just hadn’t thought of that. And their word is not…they don’t have a word. So if I wanted…

I had [prepared] a questionaire in the early days: “How do you feel when you hear music?” You know, I wanted to get into what their feelings were. And the question came out in Navajo like, “Well you know there’s drumming, and there’s shaking a rattle, and there’s singing ceremonial chants, and there’s singing squaw dance music—squaw dance songs, and how do all those different things affect you? How do you feel when you hear them?” And the Navajos said to me, you maybe have heard me tell this before, they said, “I’m alright! There’s nothing wrong with me!” It was a completely different answer to a question that I didn’t know I had asked, which was, “Are you affected by witchcraft? Are you being bewitched?” I got right into a subject that I didn’t want to discuss at all, which is at the core of music…or much of what we call their music. Because it’s healing, it’s dealing with witchcraft, it’s dealing with strong forces of disharmony that have to be controlled somehow. And, yet when I see a book about Navajo witchcraft and sorcery and things like that, it upsets me because we have such different attitudes towards those things. Those words themselves are pejorative and condescending.

And so I just got more and more aware of how little I knew, and how much I did not want to be discussing things like that in our forums. So there’s where I began to, as some anthropologists would say, I opted out of my profession. And I wasn’t doing my duty (laughs). I was a traitor to my training. So you could say I got Navajo-ized, which I think I did up to a point, to the extent what I learned was valuable. But as I say, I resigned from the American Anthropological Association and published very cautiously, and kept out of some areas altogether.

So I guess maybe I found that I couldn’t be a scholar of this material. I could be an admirer, and I could, well for instance I made kind of a career of the work of Carlos Nakai, the flute player. Because that was a kind of Navajo music that didn’t have all this in it, and yet it was Navajo music. And at first I just thought it was ridiculous, and then I began to see how it was Navajo music. And so that was one of my secondary careers. And I didn’t see that I had any need to see all and tell all. That comes up every now and then among anthropologists; how much do you tell of what they’ve trusted you with?

MA: As someone who’s just received tenure and who’s enjoying very much for the first time the latitude to choose my next project, when and how I desire to do so, as you speak I’m thinking of the young scholars in the field who are of course driven by the need to publish for professional survival.


MA: What does one say to them in the light of how…you gained a certain reticence? I wonder what words you have for the young people in the Society.

(laughs) Pick your area. I remember once I was on a panel on field work; and Bill Malm was one of the people. And Bill was listening to me and some other people who worked in cultures where there’s great sensitivity about exposing their music and religion to the general world. And he said, “I work in radio studios!” (laughs) He said “If I had to go and work with shamans, where there’s all this secrecy, and danger, real danger, danger that you can…” [end of tape].

Matthew Harp Allen

Wheaton College


McAllester, David P.

1949           Peyote music. New York: Viking Fund Publications in Anthropology, no. 13.

Merriam, Alan P.

1967             Ethnomusicology of the Flathead Indians. Chicago: Aldine Press..

Pescatello, Ann

1992              Charles Seeger: A life in American music. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

group photo 1


Beverley Diamond – Patriarchs at work: Reflections on an ethnomusicological symposium in 1963

The memory of the symposium is still quite vivid to me and it comes as something of a shock to realize how long ago this was. (Robert Garfias, “Introduction and Commentary. Reflections on the Symposium,” p. 2)

A valuable historical resource is available at this link, thanks to Robert Garfias. I offer a few reflections on this resource in hopes of stimulating some other posts about disciplinary history and the ways to read the ideas of our academic predecessors (and thankfully also our contemporary elders in some cases) .

garfiasRobert Garfias

 The document is a set of photographs, a symposium introduction by Garfias, presentations by prominent ethnomusicologists of the day, and transcripts of their discussion at a unique ethnomusicology symposium hosted by the University of Washington in 1963. We should cherish the fact that two participants and others of their generation are still active in the Society for Ethnomusicology. Presenters described their views of the discipline with particular attention to fieldwork. It was a heady moment in the discipline, one where there was a sense of a distinctive emerging disciplinary identity only a few years after the first conference of the Society for Ethnomusicology, and in the midst of the first expansion of academic positions at UCLA in particular.

The presenters were Mantle Hood, Harold Powers, Shigeo Kishibe[i], who developed the ideas for the symposium and suggested participants, Robert Garfias, William Malm, David McAllester, Nicholas England, and Alan Merriam. Among the discussants were Charles Seeger, José Maceda, Willem Adriaansz, Max Harrell, and Tom Kassa; the discussion transcripts also include interventions by the medievalists James McKinnon and David Morton. A single woman attendee, identified as Ayame Tsutakawa—a promotor of Japanese arts who was married to George Tsutakawa, a sculptor who taught at the University of Washington’s School of Art at the time—is visible in the symposium photographs.

KishibeShigeo Kishibe

Garfias describes the presenters as “the second generation of ethnomusicologists” (after Hornbostel, Stumpf, Kunst, and Sachs), a phrase that is accurate as simple description but one that has a certain aura of import, perhaps even entitlement. The import was noted explicitly by Mantle Hood, who describes the meeting as “one of the most distinctive conclaves of active participants in the field of ethnomusicology in my experience.”

At the same time, they expressed vulnerability to a greater degree than one currently sees at most ethnomusicological gatherings. It was a safe space, perhaps because they were all men, all somewhat established and feeling honored to be there. The vulnerability is evident in stories about fieldwork failures, problems of access, and other difficulties that they encountered. Malm frames his presentation as “confessions of an ethnomusicologist.” Garfias reflects on American assumptions about their own prestige in the world when he says “my arrival on the scene did not cause the sensation I had somehow hoped for.” In a couple of instances, there are admissions that they could only “feel” the music of their own culture.

They were, in fact, mostly early to mid-career scholars at this point, except for Charles Seeger, the elder statesman at age 77. While Garfias was the youngest, all were in their thirties and forties except McAllester and Kishibe, who had edged into their fifties. Garfias notes the absence of Bruno Nettl but one could also look in vain for other established colleagues: Rhodes, Kolinski, Wachsman, Richard Waterman or John Blacking. The selection was partly due to Shigeo Kishibe’s original intent to gather Asian studies specialists, who predominate; Kishibe and Garfias then expanded the group somewhat with McAllester, England, and Merriam.

group photo 1

The photographs depict this array of rather formally attired men, seated at a conference table with ashtrays at every space, the smoke-encircled enclave of dark-suited men an iconic image of academic patriarchy. It’s hard to read body language from the photos, although I can’t help but observe that Seeger looks distraught with head in his hands in two of the photos (including the one above). There is an outer circle with lesser knowns (including graduate students perhaps, or ensemble directors such as Max Harell, who was not yet appointed at UCLA and, as mentioned above, Ayame Tsutakawa).

While audio recordings were played according to the transcripts, the technologies that are visible in the photos include, predictably, a blackboard, a few pens and pads of paper, those ash trays, some coffee cups, and print materials. The need for print—to show photos or transcriptions perhaps—was clear in the pre-digital era. Nonetheless, the magnitude of the stack of books surprises me: about three dozen, arranged almost like ramparts down the centre of the table between those seated on opposite sides. Some photos show individuals looking intently through some of the volumes. This physical and visual validation of literacy had parallels in their discussion.

What can we learn about their motives for studying other cultures?

MalmWilliam Malm

Malm is perhaps the most explicit when he says that he seeks to help cultures survive, perhaps foreshadowing current debates about cultural sustainability. Powers, on the other hand, overtly wants to change teaching methods “to try and teach the students [in other cultures] to think…Westernize them to the extent that they are perceptive on a more conscious level.” McAllester explains that he has “felt most success in the role of the preserver of the tradition, though why a stranger from outside should feel the call to do this understandably escapes the imagination of many of the local people.”

There are some predictable aspects to the symposium presentations, many of which are noted by Robert Garfias in his fascinating introduction. He points out debates about disciplinary identity, and particularly the methodological division between those trained in music or anthropology. Garfias sees this event as pivotal in staking out the oppositional ground that Merriam and Hood would occupy through the 1970s.

In spite of traces of continuing interest in questions of universals, the terms of and reasons for their different positionings were presented as quite rigid and stark categorizations, binaries in most cases, although Charles Seeger attempted interventions on several occasions to dismantle some of these: simple/complex, fixed/improvised, tribal/urban, literate/non-literate, sonic structures/culture, musicologists/anthropologists, insiders/outsiders. To our eyes over half a century later, various conflations of these binaries amount to highly problematic over-arching and totalizing constructs that are racist at worst and rigid at best. The entwined and porous processes of cultural production and reception that we more often focus on today would probably have been unthinkable for some of the 1963 participants.

MerriamAlan P. Merriam

I wonder, however, where our own blind spots lie. Do we yet acknowledge problematic concepts that underpin settler colonialism or recognize their traces in our work? I will also add some observations about issues that they did not discuss directly but referenced nonetheless: interdisciplinarity, embodiment, technology, and ethics. Notably absent are discussions of power relations, and for the most part there is little mention of international, national, or local events that shaped musical practices.

Group phopto 2

The assumptions that underpinned various disciplinary formations were baldly asserted and occasionally questioned. The most blatant of these was the assumption that anthropologists (e.g., Merriam and McAllester) should study African or Native American music while musicological approaches were more appropriate for the art music traditions of Asia. Malm avoided stating this directly but rather indicated that he is a “product musicologist.” Powers reflected a widely held musicological view of the time, that in cultures with elite art traditions, music is separable from the cultures as a whole. He goes on to state that “a privileged ruling class” and “more or less independent theory of music” are marks of “civilization” and this is what “permits” scholars “to work in musical terms.” Merriam also veered toward a racist simplification when he referred to Africa “where you don’t tend to have a very differentiated type of society.” England stated more ambiguously that “the level of culture at which the people under investigation exists is the primary factor governing methodology in an ethnomusicologist’s work.”

McAllesterDavid McAllester

McAllester, on the other hand, questions the hierarchies, with reference to the “century of dishonour” in dealing with Native Americans, and by modestly asserting that “I need more musical sophistication than I have” to study Navaho music well, noting in his presentation the many genres that Navajo have created, alongside their sand paintings, silver work, and rug weaving., He argues that “a tribal music may well be as complex as a classical music,” not that “one music is more ‘social’ or more ’musical’ than another, but that the interests of the observer are likely to be more social or musical according to his background.”

Among the musicologists present, Powers has the greatest dislike for fieldwork, commenting in a response to McAllester that “when you started talking about the kind of work that you do, and how much you do, I figured I would spend the summer at the seashore!” Garfias recalls Seeger’s response to the discussion of such disciplinary distinctions: “Seeger—I can see him throwing up his hands—argues that we cannot allow this kind of scholarly anarchy to take over the field, one kind of ethnomusicology for one music and a different one for another.” Some argue that teamwork is the only way to do ethnomusicology adequately—a comment that was quite thinkable for American scholars in a period when such academic teams were sponsored by U.S. agencies but was unthinkable for those working in less affluent countries. Malm, for instance, believed that a single scholar could not do a good job on the broad range of both musical and anthropological topics of relevance to understanding music. Seeger’s response was classic: “Then we don’t do anything very well, but we live.”

A conflation that surprised me concerned improvisation, a topic that was inevitably tied to the validation of notation, literacy, and fixity, but was also used by some to hierarchize different cultures. Some offer culture-specific comments about improvisation. Hood reflects on the complications of group improvisation and the different degrees of completeness in scores for gamelan. He proffers admiration for the subtle way repeated patterns are varied. But his ambivalence shows when he asserts that his teacher “could not impart the fundamental principles which support improvisation.”

Maceda and PowersJosé Maceda, Harold Powers

Powers quotes Hood on the relatedness of fluent improvisation and cultural competence, but is unequivocal when he states that “a single disadvantage in working with Indian music…is the necessity of learning to improvise.” McAllester again tempers the discussion by observing that while Apaches improvise funny and sometimes critical verbal speech in the middle of songs, Navaho would be “scandalized” if they witnessed such a performance. He also questioned the print-driven emphasis on a “note” arguing that “Maybe you have a false reality, something that doesn’t really exist—a note.”

The sweeping assessments of improvised music vis à vis composed music, as well as examples from local practice that demonstrate the falsity of such sweeping assessments, are arguably echoing today. Improvisation scholars now more often claim the moral high ground, arguing that such responsive musical practices are vehicles for building community or imagining future possibilities. Some contemporary improvising musicians respond, as McAllester did in 1963, with examples that show the cultural specificity of their practice and the problematic nature of searching for universals.

While many participants were skeptical about the feasibility of studying sonic and performance aspects while attending equally to cultural issues, they had little fear of interdisciplinarity. Kishibe’s historical work on T’ang Dynasty music was far-ranging. Given the fragmentation and scarcity of materials, he turned to such things as literary materials, court historians, and even books on medicine, aware of the difficulties of interpreting fragments found in these sources. Hood’s well-known fascination with science is evident in his description of collaboration with cognitive and computer scientists.

Hood_edited-1Mantle Hood

In hindsight, one can see that other topics were prescient: Garfias’ multisensory presentation of embodying sound, as he describes instrument construction as well as playing techniques for the “sound of bamboo”; Merriam’s call for re-studies; Malm’s acknowledgement of media as a factor that shapes what an ethnomusicologist might or might not choose to record; McAllester’s concern with listening practices and his constant attunement to the perspective of the culture bearers with whom he worked.

The shifts of emphasis in our discipline during the last half century have indeed been extensive and multifaceted. It is all too easy to think that we know better, rather than seriously exploring what made their ideas thinkable at a certain time and place. This fascinating set of papers should encourage such exploration. Of course it will be equally fascinating to see what ideas will stand the scrutiny of ethnomusicologists in another fifty years.

Beverley Diamond

Memorial University of Newfoundland


[i] Japanese names are given Western-style here, with the family name second.


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