Sound Matters: The SEM Blog

The official blog by the Society for Ethnomusicology

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Ana Hofman – SINGing, SOCIALizing, SELForganizing: An insight into an engaged Viennese music collective

It is the evening of 11 December in Vienna’s 15th district, and I am sitting with Jana, Lejla, and Šarlot, eagerly awaiting the screening of a documentary about a unique community choir on the occasion of its fourth anniversary. We are in Brunnengasse, known as a migrant district of Vienna, at the AU Gallery, which is starting to crowd with men, women, and children of all ages and various ethnicities, all of them warmly greeting each other. In this setting, through the documentary and a public rehearsal that soon began, I became acquainted with a most interesting Viennese singing collective, the 29th of November Choir. Vienna is a city known for its music, and one can expect many different musical networks, organizations, and professional bodies. And yet the choir members, many of whom I met at the documentary screening, do not perceive themselves as musicians at all. Rather, they claim radical amateurism, musical self-education, and self-organization. Why?

hofman 1Performance of 29th of November in front of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in support of Asylum seekers, 3 October 2012

An experimental sonic collective

Members of this self-labeled “punk choir” use collective singing to “shout” social problems, “scream” social anger and discontent, and “give voice” to those who are suppressed. The choir cherishes a diverse repertoire including partisan songs, worker songs, revolutionary songs, pop music and folk pieces from former Yugoslavia, as well as the so-called repertoire of the “global left”–the most popular songs of various social movements ranging from the Spanish civil war to recent social movements.

The choir was created by Saša and Alexander, both second-generation Viennese-born Yugoslav gastarbeiters (guest workers; a full definition is here). Its name was chosen to mark the founding date of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which symbolically associated the choir with both the legacy of socialism and the Yugoslav idea.

Initially founded as a short-term artistic project dedicated to the neglected histories of guest workers from the former Yugoslavia, the choir has grown into a self-organized music collective with international membership and a strong dedication to self-learning, street performances, and flash mobs. The choir practices a strong inclusiveness in terms of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, language, and musical genre.

While from the very beginning the repertoire did not consist only of the songs from former Yugoslavia, as the Austrian members were joined by ones from other parts of the world (such as France and Ghana), it became even more internationally oriented. The members will say that they perform in “various languages and constantly expand the repertoire,” as stated in the promotional video Bastards of Yutopia, which displays their goals and portrays their main activities–debates, rehearsals, and performances.

Bastards of Yutopia

None of the members have musical training or previous singing experience (with the exception of the conductor and most recent member to joined the choir, Jana). The internal structure of the choir does not imply fixed membership, but rather one that is relational and fluctuating. As a collectivity, it is characterized by temporal discontinuities–some singers reappeared after having been absent from rehearsals for weeks, months, or even years; others appear only at performances.

That non-centralized and self-organized nature in which music is a central link in new forms of organization, socializing, and decision-making is also visible in the fact that anyone can join the collectivity at any time and “everyone chooses his/her own level and intensity of involvement. Still, there is always a danger of transforming it into a more structured organization or disappearing,” Milan explains. The choir thus embodies the potential for sound itself to increase the ability for individuals to act collectively, also through the specific productive instability associated with the temporal nature of both the collective and its sonic actions.

In their undertakings, the choir members employ the generally rediscovered social and political productivity of utopia and the politics of hope. Particularly in the case of migrants from former Yugoslavia, it serves as an outlet for therapy and healing, enabling singers to legitimize their emotional continuity with the personal and historical past. The members of 29th of November mobilize the unique power of the sonic collective to promote idealism and believe in a better world as a “utopian rethinking of art’s relationship to the social and its political potential” (Bishop 2010: 3).

Radical amateurism

Could this singing collectivity in its very existence be a seed of a new society? Or, to put it in Angela McRobbie’s words, are these just glimpses, flashes, cracks, or moments within a landscape of capitalist domination, which entails new levels and forms of submission (McRobbie 2010: 70)? We should not forget that the potential of arts for social engagement has also been recognized by stakeholders, and contemporary forms of capitalist organization also demand cooperativeness, participation, creativity, and other practices of communal work (Gill and Pratt 2008: 19).

Yet what differentiates the 29th of November is their practice of radical amateurism with an emphasis on self-emancipation through musical self-learning, which is both a politicized strategy and a kind of existential experimental practice. The members share a common goal of resistance to the contemporary mechanisms of the privatized and deeply individualized, consumerist, and professionalized music industry by offering an alternative audio-social networking. Such radical amateurism is rooted in Rancière’s concept of self-education as an important vehicle of emancipation (see his “The ignorant schoolmaster”). Employed as a counter-response to market-led democratic individualism, the choir promotes the idea of abolishging art itself through practicing the loss of individuality as an attempt to argue an anonymous subjectivity that draws its capacity from the paradoxes of what political art should be in global capitalism.

For that reason, I believe that the potential of this choir should be considered in all possible experiential registers of the radical amateurism that it promotes. In their case the process is far more important that the outcome or impact; producing temporal socialites through music and sound is a contribution to rethinking the conservative idea of politics in favor of the little affective powers available in everyday life (Bertelsen and Murphie 2010: 139). The choir’s performances thus not only increase the capacity to act in the actual world, but also open up a wedge into an alternative ethic of living as a vision of a self-sustaining society of cooperation and solidarity, making room for new political forms that produce new distributions of power. This singing collective thus can be seen as one of a number of experiments of effective togethernesses (Stengers in Thrift 2008) that are currently taking place, aimed at disrupting given spatial and temporal arrangements and new political forms in this post-liberal moment.

Ana Hofman

Slovenian Academy of Science and Arts

More about the choir:

FB profile:


Short visual biography:

Story of Jana, the new conductor (in Serbo-Croatian):


I am thankful to my dear colleague Dave Wilson for English proofreading and the anonymous reviewers for their useful comments and insightful suggestions.


Bertelsen, Lone and Andrew Murphy, 2010, “An Ethics of Everyday Affinities and Powers: Félix Guattari on Affect and the Refrain”in The Affect Theory Reader, (ed.) Melissa Greg and Gregory J. Seigworth, Duke University Press, pp.138 – 157.

Bishop, Claire, 2012, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, New York: Verso.

Gill, Rosalind and Andy Pratt, 2008, “In the Social Factory?

Immaterial Labour, Precariousness and Cultural Work,” Theory, Culture & Society December 2008 vol. 25 no. 7-8, 1-30.

McRobbie, Anne, 2010, “Reflections On Feminism, Immaterial

Labour And The Post-fordist Regime,

Nigel, Thrift, 2008, Non-representational theory: space, politics, affect, New York: Routlegde.

Rancière, Jacques, 1991, The ignorant schoolmaster: five lessons in intellectual emancipation,Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.

Ana Hofman received her PhD in ethnomusicology from the Graduate School for Intercultural Studies at the University of Nova Gorica, Slovenia. She is associate researcher at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research of the Slovenian Academy of Science and Arts in Ljubljana and a lecturer at the Faculty of Humanities of the University of Nova Gorica. She is currently a visiting fellow at the Centre of Southeast European Studies at the Unviersity of Graz.

Her research interests include music in socialist and post-socialist societies with an emphasis on former Yugoslavia; music and cultural memory, music and gender; and applied ethnomusicology. She has published numerous book chapters and articles, and in 2009 and 2010 she was a co-editor of the International Journal for the Euro-Mediterranean Studies. In 2011 she published the monograph Staging socialist femininity: Gender politics and folklore performances in Serbia (Balkan Studies Series, Brill Publishing), which was translated into Serbian in 2012.

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Jennifer Kyker – From scholarship to activism in Zimbabwe

Kyker Image 1

During the President’s Roundtable at the 56th Annual Conference of the Society for Ethnomusicology in 2011 I suggested that ethnography is critical in sustaining a sense of urgency into the fourth decade of the AIDS epidemic. Turning to musical modalities, those infected and affected by the epidemic frequently sing aloud that which all too often still cannot be said, positioning ethnomusicologists to offer important insight into lived experiences of HIV/AIDS.Yet in the context of the global pandemic, producing knowledge alone seems insufficient, compelling us from scholarship to activism. As I observed in 2011, our discipline has long advocated that the music of all the world’s people is worth studying. To become an activist in the struggle against HIV/AIDS is an extension of this principle, making clear that the lives of all the world’s people are likewise worth saving.

Responding to HIV/AIDS through women’s education

I would like to share a few words about my personal involvement in social activism in Zimbabwe, where HIV infection rates soared to well over 25% of the total population in the late 1990s. Over the course of several extended trips to Zimbabwe during this time, I witnessed firsthand the devastating effects of HIV/AIDS, and following a year-long stay as a Fulbright Fellow in 2002-2003, I returned to the United States determined to make at least a small difference.

Seeking to identify a response that would be meaningful, feasible, and familiar, I settled upon educating orphaned and vulnerable teenaged girls, the demographic group at highest risk of new HIV infections, in the urban, high-density townships of Highfield, Glen Norah, and Epworth, where I had primarily lived and worked. Tsitsi Magaya, daughter of the famed mbira player Cosmas Magaya, offered up a name, the Zimbabwe Music Festival Association provided a start-up grant of $3,000, and in August of 2003, I suddenly found myself directing a new, 501(c)(3) non-profit organization called Tariro, or “Hope.”

Educating girls, shaping individuals

At the heart of Tariro’s work is our recognition that women’s education represents a key intervention in preventing the spread of HIV; as the Global Coalition on Women and AIDS has observed, “Growing evidence shows that getting and keeping young people in school, particularly girls, dramatically lowers their vulnerability to HIV… Evidence from Zimbabwe shows that among 15-18 year old girls, those who are enrolled in school are more than five times less likely to have HIV than those who have dropped out.” Yet in Zimbabwe, no child attends school for free, and the ability to pay school fees, buy required uniforms, and purchase necessary supplies is increasingly out of reach for over a million children who have lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS.

Working with local headmasters, Tariro identifies academically gifted girls at risk for dropping out of school, and who in many cases have already spent extended periods of time out of class. We currently sponsor over fifty students, paying school fees, purchasing uniforms and supplies, including sanitary products, and making textbooks available through a lending library. Reflecting the power of individual voices and stories, a common theme within musical ethnography, Tariro offers students highly personalized attention. Further distinguishing our localized approach from that of larger, multinational aid organizations, we are committed to supporting students throughout the duration of their education, maintaining sponsorship even at the university level.

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Pauline K., Tariro’s first university graduate, completed her Bachelor’s degree at the University of Zimbabwe in 2010

The role of music and dance

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Tariro students with mbira player Sekuru Tute Wincil Chigamba, center left, and dance instructor Daniel Inasiyo, center right)

From the beginning, music and other forms of expressive culture have featured prominently in Tariro’s work. For many of our students, music, dance, poetry, drama, and visual arts constitute important means of self-expression. In a society where HIV/AIDS is often stigmatized, these artistic modes help young people speak openly about the disease, and share their experiences as individuals living in communities deeply affected by the virus. These expressive forms are likewise ideal activities in a setting with limited resources, as students can engage in them at little or no cost. In the following video, for example, a group of Tariro students living in the informal, peri-urban township of Epworth perform an original song they composed about HIV/AIDS. The same group of students regularly wrote poems and staged dramatic skits dealing with HIV and related issues, such as child abuse, giving them a platform to publicly communicate a children’s perspective on the epidemic.

Tariro also offers students the chance to participate in more structured musical experiences. Every Saturday, our students gather on the grounds of Chembira Primary School, a government institution with the motto “The home of traditional dance.”

Kyker Image 4

Daniel Inasiyo demonstrates choreography for a marimba arrangement of mbira music

Under the instruction of Daniel Inasiyo, the school’s traditional dance instructor, Tariro students join forces with the Chembira traditional dance group, learning to sing, dance, and play indigenous genres such as mhande,jukwambakumba, and mbira, as well as the neo-traditional Zimbabwean marimba.

Tariro students perform mbakumba

Many of the musical styles Tariro students perform are rarely represented in scholarly literature, or in extant recordings of Zimbabwean music, which have focused predominantly on mbira and related popular styles. After the demise of Zimbabwe’s National Dance Company in 1991, these styles have also increasingly disappeared from public performance contexts in Zimbabwe, with the exception of a few annual festivals, such as Neshamwari and Jikinya. Through public performances at venues such as the German Zimbabwe Society and the Mannenberg, as well as a set of self-published field recordings entitled Maungira EZimbabwe, our students participate in maintaining the audibility of these musical forms within the contemporary Zimbabwean soundscape, eliciting deeply enthusiastic responses from listeners.

Music, ethnography, and social justice

As Jeff Todd Titon has observed, applied ethnomusicology is more than a “process of putting ethnomusicological research to practical use,” reflecting instead a broad “desire to intervene with music on behalf of peace and social justice.” Engendering true social change is a long and difficult process, and Tariro’s modest successes do not diminish the many challenges inherent in our work. In an environment characterized by macroeconomic instability, hyperinflation, frequent power and water outages, and political upheaval, we see a small percentage of our students drop out of school or fail their exams each year, and at least one of our former students has died. Tariro must likewise negotiate pronounced disparities of power, from the household gender relations confronting our students to the legacies of capitalism and colonization that shape our very existence.

Inherent within our work, the methodologies of musical ethnography have greatly contributed to Tariro’s ability to navigate this complex situation. Joining our localized approach and long-term commitment to educating girls in Zimbabwean communities affected by HIV/AIDS, the participatory nature of Tariro’s traditional music and dance ensemble, which offers students the chance to develop musical skills, form social networks, and acquire cultural knowledge in a supportive, peer environment, points even more explicitly toward applied ethnomusicology’s promise in responding to issues of social justice in the field.

Jennifer Kyker

University of Rochester

[Originally published on 4 March 2014]

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