Category Archives: Ethnomusicology

Wampanoag music and dance

mashpee wampanoag powwow

On this U.S. Thanksgiving Day, let’s pay our respects to the Wampanoag people, who helped the refugees at Plymouth Colony through their first winter, taught them to fish and grow corn, and attended their celebration of thanksgiving after their first successful harvest.

Wampanoag music is wrapped up in dance. The beat of a hardwood stick, water drum, and corn rattles is the music of their lively social dances, while appreciation and gratitude are expressed in their ceremonial dances.

“It is part of our nature is to be in thanksgiving” said Ramona Peters, a Wampanoag woman. “It’s sort of our philosophy, so it gets threaded through both the social and ceremonial dances.”

This according to Music on Martha’s Vineyard: A history of harmony by Tom Dresser and Jerry Muskin (Charleston: History Press, 2014).  Above and below, the 2015 Mashpee Wampanoag Powwow.

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Sound of the Faroes

faroe islands

The Faroese people sing a lot. The fact that young people from the Faroe Islands are extremely successful in the multitude of popular singing contests on television is not accidental.

The Faroese have always been diligent singers, especially regarding the various genres of traditional singing, which for centuries have formed an important part of Faroese culture. With the increasingly globalized everyday life of the past 50 years or so, music from all over the world has permeated everywhere, including the Faroe Islands; nevertheless, traditional Faroese singing and dancing are still alive and well in the 21st century.

Following in the wake of four separate volumes of Faroese traditional music, a new edition, Føroya ljóð í kvæðum, vísum, sálmum og skjaldrum/Sound of the Faroes: Traditional songs and hymns (Hoyvik: Stiðin, 2014) is a  single volume covering all of the topics. Part I is on Faroese dance with melodies for both kvæði and Danish ballads, part II is on spiritual singing and Kingo singing, and part III is on skjaldur. Each part describes the genres in question and offers a comprehensive selection of melody examples with an accompanying CD.

Below, the celebrated Faroese chain dance after the total solar eclipse on 20 March 2015.

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Filed under Europe, New editions

Či Bulag and the morin huur

Či Bulag

Či Bulag (b.1944) has had a significant influence on the development of the Mongolian morin huur in the post-Mao era.

Bulag adapted the morin huur and its repertoire to the concert stage in the 1970s and 1980s to widespread acclaim. An analysis of his well-known and frequently played composition Wan ma benteng (Ten thousand galloping horses) and his efforts to adapt the morin huur to the concert stage shows how he reworked stereotypes of Mongols as simplistic nomads to represent them as both powerful descendants of Genghis Khan and participants in the modern world.

While many Mongols appreciate Wan ma benteng for its evocation of a Mongol spirit, Bulag’s morin huur model has received harsh criticism from the musical community in independent Mongolia as being too Chinese.

Mongol musicians in China have increasingly used the morin huur to balance their longing for a Western-style modernity, a project undertaken by Bulag, with recent desires to seek out a pan-Mongol (and non-Chinese) past through exchanges with the nation of Mongolia. Still, Mongol musicians continue to orient themselves around the work of Či Bulag as they debate the appropriate direction for the morin huur and Mongol music in the 21st century.

This according to “Driving change, sparking debate: Chi Bulag and the morin huur in Inner Mongolia, China” by Charlotte D’Evelyn (Yearbook for traditional music XLVI [2014] pp. 89–113).

Below, Wan ma benteng in a performance by Bulag and ten thousand galloping students.

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Filed under Asia, Instruments

An early ethnomusicology symposium

group photo 1

At a unique ethnomusicology symposium hosted by the University of Washington in 1963, 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.

The event included debates about disciplinary identity, particularly the methodological division between those trained in music or anthropology.

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—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.

This according to “Patriarchs at work: Reflections on an ethnomusicological symposium in 1963” by Beverley Diamond (Sound matters 27 July 2015).

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Zilipendwa and nostalgia

Juwata Jazz Band

Tanzanian zilipendwa is a look-over-the-shoulder metagenre whose musical subject is a moving target dependent on the current time reference.

The term was initially reserved for east and central African dance music chestnuts popular during the 1960s and early 1970s post-Independence period, but it recently encompasses the music of the mid-1970s through late 1980s, a time generally associated with the Socialist policies of Julius Nyerere.

Fans of zilipendwa are most eloquent about its value in their lives when making humorous generational distinctions with Bongo Flava, the region’s hip hop and R&B. Zilipendwa fans are also quick to demonstrate their affinity through physical expression, dancing a style known as serebuka, translated as “blissful expressive dance”.

Recently popularized on the television show Bongo Star Search, serebuka dancers take to the floor and bounce off the walls with a coterie of enthusiastic free moves and styles (mitindo) covering fifty years of popular music history.

Nostalgia for zilipendwa is far from being a melancholic rumination over days long past; it is enacted instead for the sake of health and community well-being. Zilipendwa is a conscious act towards musicking the values of a fading era, creating temporary autonomous zones where the perceived chaos and noise of neoliberal globalization are now waiting to rush in.

This according to “‘Rhumba kiserebuka!’: Evoking embodied temporalities through Tanzanian zilipendwa” by Frank Gunderson (The world of music (new series) III/1 [2014] pp. 11–23).

Above, Juwata Jazz Band, a popular zilipendwa group; below, the U.S.-based zilipendwa artist Samba Mapangangala. (Don’t worry—the music and dancing start pretty soon, and they’re worth the wait!)

BONUS! Some schoolboys getting down to zilipendwa in the great outdoors.

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Filed under Africa, Dance, Popular music

“They don’t die, they’re killed”

Sok Duch_22-02-13 copy

As ethnomusicology increasingly engages the topic of genre viability, the rhetoric used to characterize the issues must be carefully considered.

Parallel concerns in the field of linguistics have long involved the term language endangerment, and some linguists have argued for the use of more uncomfortable terms—language death, language murder, language genocide, and even language suicide—in an effort to convey strong messages about the agency and urgency of particular situations.

The current focus of some ethnomusicologists on ecological concepts such as sustainability is encouraging, but few scholars are bold enough to use more violent rhetoric when it is justified.

This according to “‘They don’t die, they’re killed’: The thorny rhetoric around music endangerment and music sustainability” by Catherine Grant (Sound matters 15 April 2015).

Above, 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; below, the video for the SoundFutures research project draws on the ecosystem metaphor to argue for the need to support music sustainability.

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The encyclopaedia of music in Ireland

irish encyclopedia

Edited by Barra Boydell and Harry White, The encyclopaedia of music in Ireland (EMIR; Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2013) is the first comprehensive attempt to chart Irish musical life across recorded history. It also documents Ireland’s musical relations with the world at large, notably in Britain, continental Europe, and North America, and it seeks to identify the agencies through which music has become an enduring expression of Irish political, social, religious, and cultural life.

EMIR is the collective work of 240 contributors whose research has been marshaled by an editorial and advisory board of specialists in the following domains of Irish musical experience: secular and religious music to 1600; art music, 1600–2010; Roman Catholic church music; Protestant church music; popular music; traditional music; organology and iconography; historical musicology; ethnomusicology; the history of recorded sound; music and media; music printing and publishing; and music in Ireland as trade, industry, and profession.

EMIR contains some 2,000 individual entries, which collectively afford an unprecedented survey of the fabric of music in Ireland. It records and evaluates the work of hundreds of individual musicians, performers, composers, teachers, collectors, scholars, ensembles, societies, and institutions throughout Irish musical history, and it comprehends the relationship between music and its political, artistic, religious, educational, and social contexts in Ireland from the early middle ages to the present day.

In its extensive catalogues, discographies, and source materials, EMIR sets in order, often for the first time, the legacy and worklists of performers and composers active in Ireland (or of Irish extraction), notably (but not exclusively) in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It offers to the general reader brief lives of Irish musicians throughout history, and it affords the specialist a detailed retrieval of information on music in Ireland hitherto unavailable or difficult to access.

Below, the nocturne in B flat major by the widely influential John Field, one of the composers covered in the book.

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Crunching ballads

punch cards

In the 1940s Bertrand Harris Bronson became one of the first scholars to use computers for musicological work.

For one of his projects he encoded melodic characteristics of hundreds of tunes collected for the traditional ballad Barbara Allen on punch cards, so a computer could ferret out similarities. His project resulted in four groups of tunes, members of which came from both sides of the Atlantic with varying frequency.

This according to “All this for a song?” an essay by Bronson reprinted in his collection The ballad as song (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969, pp. 224–242).

Above, an illustration from the article (click to enlarge); below, the classic recording of the song by Jean Ritchie, a singer Bronson deeply admired.


Filed under Curiosities, Ethnomusicology

Una colección de patrimonio musical español

Paciendo el rebaño

The Fons de Música Tradicional at the Institució Milà i Fontanals (CSIC-IMF) in Barcelona has more than 20.000 melodies, copied on paper, collected between 1944 and 1960 throughout Spain; most of them were compiled through the 65 folkloric missions and 62 notebooks presented to competitions organized by the Folklore Section of the former Instituto Español de Musicología of the CSIC, in which 47 researchers participated.

Launched in 2015, Una colección de patrimonio musical español/Una col·lecció de patrimoni musical/A Spanish collection of traditional music heritage is an open-access database comprising digitized materials of the music collected in the competitions and missions of Andalusia, Balearic Islands, Castile-La Mancha, the Castile and León region, Catalunya, Galicia, the Murcia region, and the Valencian community; more materials from these and other Spanish regions will be incorporated later.

The site can be navigated in Spanish, Catalan, or English; searches may be organized by source, location, researcher, informant, genre, or title. Audio files of the melodies will eventually be added.

Above, notation for the instrumental tune Paciendo el rebaño; the full record, which includes other visual materials, is here.

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Filed under Europe, Resources

Alan Lomax and multiculturalism

lomax radio 1940

When Alan Lomax accepted a position as the Assistant in Charge of the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress in 1936 he became a gatekeeper to the largest repository of recorded traditional music in the country.

He subsequently worked to infuse traditional music into mainstream culture and, in so doing, to publicize his interpretation of American culture and society—an interpretation that placed the American people, a category that included racial and ethnic minorities as well as the economically dispossessed and politically disenfranchised, at the center of the nation’s identity.

During the 1930s and 1940s he pursued this goal by developing radio programs that highlighted the music of American traditional communities. These included shows designed for children, including Folk Music of America, which aired weekly on CBS radio’s American School of the Air.

Lomax used this program as a forum to teach children about American cultural and political democracy by highlighting the music of socially, economically, and racially marginalized communities, often including guests from these groups to sing and explain musical traditions on the air.

An examination of the principles that motivated Folk Music of America, along with the artists, songs, and commentary that Lomax included, reveals a strong connection between the ideas of cultural pluralism that emerged during the World War I era and popular constructs of Americanism that developed during the later decades of the 20th century. Ultimately, Lomax’s radio work helped to lay the foundation for the multicultural movement that developed during the early 1970s.

This according to “Broadcasting diversity: Alan Lomax and multiculturalism” by Rachel C. Donaldson (Journal of popular culture XLVI/1 [February 2013] pp. 59–78).

Today would have been Lomax’s 100th birthday! Below, an example of his move to PBS in 1990.

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Filed under Ethnomusicology, Mass media, North America