Sound Matters: The SEM Blog

The official blog by the Society for Ethnomusicology

Catherine Grant – “They don’t die, they’re killed”: The thorny rhetoric around music endangerment and music sustainability


In a recent edition of the SEM newsletter, Robert Garfias reflected on the issue of music endangerment:

[L]ike biological diversity, species are disappearing, languages are disappearing. And in a sense cultures are disappearing. Every few years some­body dies who was the last person who knew how to do something or other; the last person who did this or the last person who knew this tradition dies. And when that species dies, you can’t reconstruct it, you can’t bring it back. So I’m concerned about the things that are being lost forever. . .it’s terrible to lose something. (in Rice, 2014, pp. 7–8)

As the viability of music genres features increasingly as a topic for (applied) research in our discipline, it is important to keep a close eye on the way we characterize the issue. The words we choose—the rhetoric, the metaphors and analogies—reflect and reveal certain values and assumptions, and for this reason warrant careful consideration. Perhaps even more critically, they affect whether and how we take action against a perceived threat to, or loss of, music genres (for example by supporting communities to reinvigorate intergenerational transmission, secure funding, grow governmental support, or engage the media or music industry).

To begin, consider how linguists talk about the parallel problem in their field: the threat of extinction, within this century, to fully half of all the world’s 6000+ languages (Crystal, 2000). Language endangerment is a term—and a concept—so widely accepted that it refers to a whole sub-discipline of sociolinguistic research.

The rhetoric and the metaphors get significantly more uncomfortable than that. Some of them are shocking, like the terms language death (e.g. Crystal, 2000), language suicide (e.g. Beck & Lam, 2009), language murder, and language genocide (both Skutnabb-Kangas, 2000). When these terms are employed, they are used in an effort to convey strong messages about the agency and urgency of the problem of language loss. “I cannot regard people being coerced—no matter how subtly—into abandoning their languages as anything other than a form of violence”, writes David Harrison. “It represents an erasure of history, of creativity, of intellectual heritage” (2010, p.177).

Arguably, if (as Harrison believes) even subtle coercion is an act of violence, then failure to respond where a response is possible could be considered complicity in violence. This is as true of musical as it is of linguistic expressions of culture. Communities can undoubtedly be coerced—however subtly—into abandoning their music practices, and power imbalances (such as those arising from the ongoing effects of colonization) are a major force in the viability of music genres too. In a TED Talk on endangered cultures, Wade Davis reasons, “It’s not change or technology that threatens the integrity of the ethnosphere [“the myriad cultures of the world”]. It is power, the crude face of domination” (14:50-15:54).

Wade Davis on endangered cultures (click for transcript)

Yet far from using terminology like genocide or death, ethnomusicologists still tend to be uncomfortable with even the rhetoric of endangerment or loss: it’s too romantic, too colonial, too Eurocentric, too paternalistic (Grant, 2014, pp. 3-4). Perhaps the specter of “salvage ethnography” (Calhoun, 2002) looms large when, anxious about having such charges laid against us, we revert to talking about “change”, or find other ways of speaking about (or around) the problem.

But while loss is indeed a kind of change, speaking in such terms fails to fully acknowledge that specific traditions are simply no longer being practiced, against the will of the communities concerned. Nor does it adequately acknowledge the crude face of domination, or the grief of individuals and communities at the loss. As Ampush (Lucas) Ayui Chayat puts it: “If I lose my culture I’m no longer Achuar”.

One kind of rhetoric critiqued at length in our discipline is that of UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage and the concomitant notion of safeguarding it. As Jeff Todd Titon and various others have convincingly argued, such terminology, while it has its uses, embodies and invokes a defensive and preservationist approach to music genres.

More aligned with current ethnomusicological understandings of the way music works is the rhetoric of ecology and sustainability (as reflected in the Garfias quote opening this post), which has been very useful to our discipline, as Titon’s blog makes abundantly clear. Among other things, it reminds us that the maintenance of culture is a matter of future justice, of responsibility to next generations. Schippers (2015) argues in favor of the term music sustainability, which he believes “has the best chance at transcending ‘tradition under siege’ associations”, suggesting as it does “a more gentle process” playing on music genres.

The video for the SoundFutures research project draws on the ecosystem metaphor to argue for the need to support music sustainability

But what of those cases where the process is anything but gentle? Where cultures are indeed under siege? The years of war and oppression under the Taliban; the devastating ongoing effects of colonization in Aboriginal Australia; the genocide in Cambodia (1975–79), when an estimated 90% of artists were killed and 50% of musical traditions were lost?

Sok Duch_22-02-13 copy

Master-musician Sok Duck, 87 years old and one of the very few artists to survive the Khmer Rouge regime, continues to make efforts to pass on his skills to younger-generation Cambodians.

Photo by the author, February 2013

In these cases, sustainability may still be a useful concept through which to gauge the various complex factors at play. But categorically avoiding terms like endangerment, loss, or extinction downplays the harsh realities of force, coercion, violence, power, and domination acting on many genres. Worse, it may also fail to mobilize action in the way that using stronger language could.

What would it mean, for example, to talk about the genocide or murder of music traditions? Perhaps most of all, such language would underscore in no uncertain terms the agency at play in many situations. Anthony Seeger is one of very few ethnomusicologists to use courageous language like this to speak about issues of sustainability: in his words, many traditions “don’t die, they’re killed, in a sense, they disappear for a reason—they’re disappeared.”

In a lecture at UCLA on February 22, 2012, Anthony Seeger talks of music genres “being disappeared” (from 1:16:50-1:18:16). Audio from Ethnomusicology Review (Vol 17, 2012).

I am not necessarily arguing for our adoption of terms like music death, extinction, or genocide. There are indeed problems with this rhetoric too. Some linguists argue that such forceful terms, applied to languages, “make it too easy to blur the difference between language shift and violence. This either makes the former seem worse than it is, or cheapens our moral language for talking about the latter” (Levy, 2003, p.230). Another problem with these terms is their finality; even if music genres are no longer living traditions, the existence even of a single recording leaves open the possibility of revival at a later date, as various recording repatriation projects have shown.

Instead, what is needed is greater acknowledgement in ethnomusicology of the reality, seriousness, urgency, and agency of the problem facing many communities trying to keep their music practices strong. Careful choice of rhetoric will go far here, because “naming realities is owning them” (Skutnabb-Kangas, 2000, xxxii). In situations where it is more appropriate to talk about endangerment than change, for example, let us have the courage to do so.

Only once we ethnomusicologists fully acknowledge—in our language and in fact—the real and imminent threat to many music genres across the world will we be impelled to mobilize consolidated local and global action in collaboration with the communities directly affected, as linguists have done for around a quarter of a century now.

Catherine Grant

University of Newcastle, Australia


Beck, David & Lam, Yvonne. (2009). Language loss and linguistic suicide: A case study from the Sierra Norte de Puebla, Mexico. In Sarah Cummins, Brigit Janoski, and Patricia A. Shaw (eds.), All the Things You Are: A Festschrift for Jack Chambers, 5–16. Toronto: Toronto Working Papers in Linguistics.

Calhoun, Craig J. (2002). “Salvage ethnography”. In Dictionary of the Social Sciences. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 424.

Crystal, David. (2000). Language Death. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grant, Catherine. (2014). Music Endangerment: How Language Maintenance Can Help. New York: Oxford University Press.

Harrison, K. David. (2010). The Last Speakers. Washington, DC: National Geographic.

Levy, Jacob T. (2003). Language rights, literacy, and the state. In Will Kymlicka and Alan Patten (Eds) Language Rights and Political Theory, pp. 230-249. Oxford: Oxford University Press .

Perley, Bernard C. (2012). Zombie linguistics: Experts, endangered languages and the curse of undead voices. Anthropological Forum 22(2): 133-149.

Rice, Timothy. (2014). Robert Garfias interviewed by Timothy Rice. In SEM Newsletter 47(4), pp. 1-8.

Schippers, Huib. (2015). Applied ethnomusicology and intangible cultural heritage: Understanding “ecosystems” of music as a tool for sustainability. In S. Pettan & J.T.Titon (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Applied Ethnomusicology, pp. 134-157. New York: Oxford University Press.

Seeger, Anthony. (2012). “What is it all for? Applying Scholarship Outside the Classroom: Indigenous Rights, Archiving, Folkways Records, and Professional Organizations“. Lecture at UCLA, February 22, 2012.

Skutnabb-Kangas, Tove (2000). Linguistic genocide in education – or worldwide diversity and human rights? Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Titon, Jeff Todd. (2008-2015). Sustainable music [blog].