Sound Matters: The SEM Blog

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Disciplinary intervention for a practice of ethnomusicology

The statement below—signed voluntarily by practitioners of ethnomusicology in April 2017—builds on disciplinary concerns that music and sound scholars past and present have identified. It affirms the need to move beyond narrative debates and toward structural change in music institutions, toward enacting justice. The primary authors of this statement intend it to be a living document that cultivates discussion and stimulates proposals of concrete measures that can redress institutionalized inequities.

This statement has grown out of nearly a year and a half of discussion and writing. The authors intend it to generate conversation and action. Please sign using this form, providing your name and institution if you are comfortable doing so, or your initials or “Anonymous” with no institutional affiliation. To sign, you will need to scroll past all the previous names to enter yours as prompted. Signatory list will be updated daily. Response essays are welcome for consideration for publication by Sound matters.

This statement calls for active change in the practices of ethnomusicology. We believe we must critically engage with current modes of systemic violence, working collectively toward the goal of comprehensive transformation. We support a radical restructuring of professional societies, academic publications, and the multiple spaces in which ethnomusicology occurs.

This is a declaration of commitment to changing the academic structures that deny many scholars full inclusion in their fields. We gratefully and respectfully acknowledge those who have risked placing their careers, safety, and well-being in jeopardy waging these battles. Proceeding from a framework of intersectionality that understands all forms of oppression as inextricably linked, we encourage all scholars to consider their positions within these systems of inequity. At a political moment when ethnomusicology is increasingly at risk, as are the bodies and well-being of its practitioners and participants, this work is urgent.

We state the following:

The call for inclusion itself issues from within a sphere of discourse constructed by systems of oppression that unequally renders audibility and visibility.

We recognize that modern academe—ethnomusicology included—is rooted and deeply embedded in colonial ideologies.

We acknowledge that the themes, techniques, theoretical approaches, and pedagogies valued in music institutions also devalue certain musicians, music cultures, and methodologies, and we believe this value structure is inherently unjust.

We are aware that the academic system continues to reaffirm old barriers to scholars of color and members of other marginalized communities, demands their visibility while rendering them inaudible, and assigns these scholars a disproportionate burden of institutional service and emotional labor.

We believe that tokenism and diversity rhetoric potentially mask and intensify structural inequity. The language of inclusion must be actualized and further actions should be taken in order to actually be more inclusive.

We see that contextualizing and minimizing microaggressions through discourses of political correctness obscures the reality of the daily struggle for personal and cultural survival faced by our students, classmates, friends, and coworkers.

As articulated in the SEM Position Statement in Response to the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, we reaffirm our commitment to globally-engaged dialogue, scholarship, and advocacy. We believe the practices of ethnomusicology can work against racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, misogyny, sexism, heteronormativity and cisnormativity, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and war.

We pledge to:

Speak up when we observe systemic injustices. We recognize that it is not always safe to do so, and that individuals must assess potential risks before making a decision regarding whether or not to speak.

Not speak for people who are in epistemic positions different from our own.

Cultivate listening practices and create spaces for a multiplicity of voices.

Reflect on our own positionality and the inevitable biases arising from those positions. We listen thoughtfully when it is pointed out that our own biases and assumptions reinforce structural injustice.

Prioritize attention to intersectional oppressions over singular agendas that ultimately uphold structures of injustice. We seek to deploy our listening, writing, teaching practices, and service to challenge and reframe normative structures that restrict the liberatory potential of ethnomusicological work.

Require that societies and organizations to which we belong publish statements of institutional stance regarding the inclusion of, respect for, and safety of their members. This is not only a political matter: it is an ethical one that requires an explicitly articulated position.

Request that societies and institutions to which we belong ensure infrastructural support for individuals and communities facing issues of access based on citizenship, visa eligibility, mobility, and financial considerations.

Request that societies and organizations to which we belong divest their endowments from entities that maintain structures of oppression.

Request that societies and organizations to which we belong dedicate activities engaging social justice movements—for example, conferences or pre-conference symposia, section or group meetings, journal issues, concerts, and community outreach.

Request that societies and organizations to which we belong devote resources and attention to democratizing and horizontalizing representation within these societies.

If we are to expand meaningfully the narratives and practices of ethnomusicology, we must center marginalized perspectives and engage with current critical issues. We believe that these are our obligations in 2017.


Katherine Meizel, Bowling Green State University
Sidra Lawrence, Bowling Green State University
Denise Gill, Washington University in St. Louis
Evan Pensis, University of Chicago
Yun Emily Wang, University of Toronto
Chris Nickell, New York University
Natalia Bieletto, Universidad de Guanajuato
León F. García Corona, Northern Arizona University

Kyle Decoste, Columbia University
Tes Slominski, Beloit College
Jardena Gertler-Jaffe, University of Toronto
Max Katz, The College of William and Mary
Mary Natvig, Bowling Green State University
Gillian Rodger, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Nate Renner, University of Toronto
Susan Thomas, University of Georgia
Andrew Dell’Antonio, University of Texas, Austin
Samantha Bassler, Co-chair, AMS Music and Disability Study Group
Jason Busniewski, University of California, Santa Barbara
Lillie Gordon, University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Jonathan Ritter, University of California Riverside
Sonja Downing, Lawrence University
Eve McPherson, Kent State University at Trumbull
Eric Hung, Westminster Choir College of Rider University
Nicol Hammond, University of California, Santa Cruz
Heidi Chan, York University
Justin R. Hunter, University of Arkansas
Dylan Robinson, Queen’s University
Ely Lyonblum, University of Cambridge
Beth Szczepanski, Whitman College
Tess J. Popper, Doctoral candidate, University of California Santa Barbara
Heather Bergseth
Bernard Ellorin, University of Michigan Ann Arbor
Katie Graber, Ohio State University
Kara Attrep
Jack Harrison, University of Toronto
Edmundo Luna, Mokpo National University
Matt Sakakeeny, Tulane University
Ryan Persadie, University of Toronto
Owen Hubbard, University of Chicago
Christopher Witulski, Bowling Green State University
William Cheng, Dartmouth College
Julie Beauregard
Tanya Merchant, University of California, Santa Cruz
Jeremy Wallach, Bowling Green State University
Esther Clinton, Bowling Green State University
CJ Komp, University of Georgia
Grace Osborne, New York University
Andreja Vrekalić, Doctoral Candidate, Josip Juraj Strossmayer University of Osijek, Croatia
Gisa Jähnichen, Shanghai
Nicholas Gareiss, Independent scholar
Steven Moon , University of Pittsburgh
David A. McDonald, Indiana University
Klisala Harrison, University of Helsinki
Mark Lomanno, Northeastern University
Laura Jorgensen, University of Texas at Austin
Jeremy Reed, Indiana University, Bloomington
Lisa Beebe, University of California, Santa Cruz
Luis-Manuel Garcia, University of Birmingham
Aliah Ajamoughli, Indiana University
Heather MacLachlan, University of Dayton
Anonymous, Detroit
Anthony W. Rasmussen, University of California, Riverside
Davin Rosenberg, University of California, Davis
Travis Stimeling, West Virginia University
Joseph C. Hickerson, Portland, Oregon
Megan E. Hill, Ypsilanti, Michigan
Jessica Schwartz, University of California, Los Angeles
Matthew Sumera, Hamline University
Donald James
Richard Emmert, Musashino University, Tokyo
Scott A. Carter, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Luis Chavez, University of California, Davis
Kendra Salois, American University, Washington DC
D. Akira Stadnicki , University of Alberta
Jorge Arévalo Mateus, Association for Cultural Equity, Hunter College
Rachel Tollett, PhD Candidate, Northwestern University
Kim Nucci, Graduate student, Mills College
Beto González, Los Angeles
Shannon Garland Columbia University
Hannah Adamy, University of California, Davis
Eleanor Lipat-Chesler, Los Angeles
Sarah Hankins, University of California, San Diego
Allison Adrian, St. Catherine University
Kathleen Kuo, Indiana University
Patrick Nickleson, University of Toronto
Corey Michael Blake Lascano, University of California, Riverside
Jonathon Bakan, Toronto
Michael Odle, Little Rock, AR
Dave Wilson, Victoria University of Wellington
John Vallier, University of Washington
Rachel Adelstein, University of Cambridge
Jeongin Lee, University of California, Davis
Muriel E Swijghuisen Reigersberg, The University of Sydney, Australia
Jordan Tani, University of California, Irvine
Jeremy W. Foutz, STEAM Workgroup Indianapolis, IN
Heather Buffington-Anderson, Claflin University
Noé Dinnerstein, John Jay College, CUNY
Bernd Brabec de Mori, University of Vienna
Amber Clifford-Napoleone, University of Central Missouri
Andrea Douglass, UMass Boston
Jennifer Fraser, Oberlin College
Evan Rapport, The New School
Marissa Moore, Yale University
Steve Waksman, Smith College
Alexandria Carrico, Florida State University
Tyler Bickford, University of Pittsburgh
Jeff Kaiser, University of Central Missouri
Gavin Douglas, University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Gordon Thompson, Skidmore College
Nomi Dave, University of Virginia
Jeff Roy, Paris Sciences et Lettres
Nicole Reisnour, Cornell University
Anaar Desai-Stephens, Cornell University
Gage Averill, University of British Columbia
Christi-Anne Castro, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
Eric Martin Usner
Eduardo Herrera, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
Russell Skelchy
Daphne Carr, New York University
Hadi Milanloo, University of Toronto
Kariann Goldschmitt, Wellesley College
Ellen Koskoff, University of Rochester
Randal Baier, Eastern Michigan University
Nicholas Tochka, Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, University of Melbourne
Jesse P. Karlsberg, Emory University
Elizabeth K. Batiuk, Illinois State University
Katie Stuffelbeam, Boston University
Jennifer Milioto Matsue, Union College, Schenectady, NY
Eric J. Schmidt, University of California, Los Angeles
Amanda Modell, University of California, Davis
Ruth Mueller, Saint Louis University
Seyit Yöre, Istanbul University
Alex Blue V, University of California, Santa Barbara
Eliot Bates, City University of New York Graduate Center
Carol Silverman, University of Oregon
Ioannis Tsekouras
Kelley Kipperman, Mills College, Oakland, California
Nathan Bakkum, Columbia College Chicago
Gary Yerkins, Columbia College Chicago
Sunaina Keonaona Kale, University of California, Santa Barbara
Shayna Silverstein, Northwestern University
C. B. Henry, Independent Scholar
Adam Shead, University of Michigan
Carol Babiracki, Syracuse University
Jonathan Shannon, Hunter College/CUNY Graduate School
Anna Schultz, Stanford University
Karl J Haas, Berklee College of Music
Leslie C Gay Jr, University of Tennessee
Reinhard Straub, National Chung Hsing University
Molly McGlone, University of Pennsylvania
Shelley Zhang, University of Pennsylvania
Angela Glaros, Eastern Illinois University
Andrew Eisenberg, NYU Abu Dhabi
Shalini Ayyagari, University of Pittsburgh
Jack Vishneski, Minneapolis, MN
Jessie M. Vallejo, Cal Poly Pomona
Kristina Nielsen, UCLA
Alex Kreger, University of Texas at Austin
Michael O’Toole, University of Cincinnati
Sarah Riegler, Toronto
Leon Shernoff, Chicago
Lars Christensen, University of Minnesota
Fethi Karakecili, York University, Toronto
Mike Kohfeld, University of Washington
Liselotte Sels, Ghent University
Mehtap Demir , İstanbul University State Concervatory Ethnomusicology and Folklore Department
Tamara Levitz, UCLA
Angela Keats, Yukon.
Daniel Tan, Silicon Valley
Alex W. Rodriguez, UCLA
Hande Saglam, Department of Folk Music Research and Ethnomusicology, MDW
Noriko Manabe, Temple University
Rachel Harris, SOAS, University of London
Eric Lewis, McGill University
Elizabeth Bynum, University of Pennsylvania
Miriam Piilonen, Northwestern University
Wade F. Dean, University of California, Los Angeles
Anna Farhan, New York University
Kathleen Wiens, Canadian Museum for Human Rights
Joel E. Rubin, University of Virginia
Maria Sonevytsky, Bard College
Scott Hanenberg, University of Toronto
Charles Sharp, California State Univ., Fullerton
Nancy Guy, Univ. of Calif., San Diego
Tamar Sella, Harvard University
Andrew Normann, Bowling Green State University
James Roberts, Toronto, Ontario
Marié Abe, Boston University, Boston MA
Otto Stuparitz , University of California, Los Angeles
Alia O’Brien, University of Toronto
Kathryn Metz, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame
Bhavisha Panchia, Memmingen
Madison Heying, University of California, Santa Cruz
Anonymous, New York City
Lauren E. Sweetman, New York University
Sandra Graham, Babson College
Ali Colleen Neff
Andrea Low, Auckland, New Zealand
Anonymous, Canada
Paris Thibault, Boston, MA
Gabriel Solis, University of Illinois
Ashley Hirt, Eastern Washington University
Jim Sykes, University of Pennsylvania
David Garcia, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Paul Yoon, Virginia Commonwealth University
Kathleen Van Buren, University of Sheffield
Jessica A. Holmes, McGill/Montreal
Gavin Steingo, Princeton University
Jessica S. Baker, University of Chicago
Kiri Miller, Brown University
Glenda Goodman, University of Pennsylvania
Vijay Iyer, Harvard University
Amy Frishkey, Austin, TX
Meryl Krieger, Indiana University
Priscilla Tse, University of Illinois
Matthew E Knight, University of Illinois
Helen Gubbins, University of Sheffield
Ian Copeland, Harvard University
Catherine Grant, Griffith University, Australia
Peter McMurray, Harvard University
Henry Johnson, University of Otago
Anne K. Rasmussen, The College of William and Mary
Michael Iyanaga, Federal University of the Recôncavo in Bahia
Curtis Andrews, University of British Columbia
Jocelyn Moon, University of Washington
Ana María Alarcón Jiménez, Universidade Nova de Lisboa
Joseph Maurer ,University of Chicago
Dean Reynolds, The Graduate Center, CUNY
Joshua Brown
Catherine M. Appert, Cornell University
Aaron Pettigrew, University of British Columbia
Daniel B. Reed, Indiana University
Solmaz Shakerifard, University of Washington, Seattle
Anonymous POC, UoW, S
Elizabeth Clendinning, Wake Forest University
Darci Sprengel, University of California, Los Angeles
Ioannis Tsioulakis, Queen’s University Belfast
Margaret Sarkissian, Smith College
Andrea F. Bohlman, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Steven Spinner Terpenning, Colorado
Katherine Lee, University of California, Davis
Cornelius Holzer, MDW Vienna
Panayotis League, Harvard University
Kate Brucher, DePaul University
Anonymous, Oakland, CA
Beezer de Martelly, UC Berkeley
Nadia Chana, University of Chicago
Thalea Stokes, University of Chicago
Meredith Schweig, Emory University
Nil Basdurak, University of Toronto
Shana Goldin-Perschbacher, Temple University
Danielle Sirek, University of Windsor
Lindsay Wright, University of Chicago
Rebecca Bodenheimer, Independent scholar
Harris M. Berger, Memorial University of Newfoundland
Philip J Murphy Jr
Made Mantle Hood, Universiti Putra Malaysia
Andrea Emberly, York university
Joe Kinzer, University of Washington
James R. Cowdery, Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale (RILM)

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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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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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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.


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.