Category Archives: Ethnomusicology

Martyrdom and Mapuche metal

 

Seventeen-year-old Alex Lemún was shot and killed in 2002 while retaking ancestral lands for his people, the Mapuche, on the western side of the Andes in the Southern Cone. The song Weichafe Alex Lemún by the band Pewmayén memorialized Lemún as a weichafe (warrior) and helped spark a new musical movement.

Pewmayén’s fusion of ritual sounds with heavy metal both valorized traditional expressions and opened sociocultural boundaries that historically isolated those expressions from non-Mapuche society. Mapuche music is mapping new territories of sound and meaning, with serious implications for indigenous empowerment and cultural continuity.

This according to “Martyrdom and Mapuche metal: Defying cultural and territorial reductions in twenty–first-century Wallmapu” by Jacob Rekedal (Ethnomusicology LXIII/1 [winter 2019] pp. 78–104).

Above, the cover of Mapuche en la historia y en la lucha (Mapuche in history and in struggle), the album containing Weichafe Alex Lemún; below, the music video.

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Filed under Politics, Popular music, South America

Hula, colonialism, and countercolonialism

 

Hula performers began touring throughout the continental United States and Europe in the late 19th century. These hula circuits introduced hula and Hawaiians to U.S. audiences, establishing an imagined intimacy, a powerful fantasy that enabled Americans to possess their colony physically and symbolically.

At vaudeville theaters, international expositions, commercial nightclubs, and military bases, Hawaiian women acted as ambassadors of aloha, enabling Americans to imagine Hawai’i as feminine and benign, and the relation between colonizer and colonized as mutually desired. Meanwhile, in the early years of American imperialism in the Pacific, touring hula performers incorporated veiled critiques of U.S. expansionism into their productions.

By the 1930s Hawaiian culture, particularly its music and hula, had enormous promotional value. In the 1940s thousands of U.S. soldiers and military personnel in Hawai’i were entertained by hula performances, many of which were filmed by military photographers. Yet Hawaiians also used hula as a means of cultural survival and countercolonial political praxis.

This according to Aloha America: Hula circuits through the U.S. empire by Adria L. Imada (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012).

Above, dancing the hula for servicemen, 1944; below, Hal Aloma with Lani McIntyre and his Aloha Islanders, 1949.

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Filed under Australia and Pacific islands, Curiosities, Dance

Forró and St. John’s Day

 

The date on the Catholic calendar commemorating the birth of St. John the Baptist, 24 June, is widely celebrated in northeastern Brazil. Festas juninas (June festivities, or St. John’s Day festivities) take place from early June to mid-July and are characterized by the presentation and representation of diverse cultural traditions of the region.

Forró, the typical music of this period, brings together diverse musical genres, dances, and a strong festive connotation. Although forró musicians born before the mid-1970s acquired their musical competence outside of formal educational institutions, large segments of the younger generation attend schools of music (though not necessary in lieu of other learning strategies). Meanwhile, changes in the organization of professional forró activities are linked to the larger transformations of northeastern festas juninas since the late 20th century.

This according to “Musicians in street festivals of northeastern Brazil: Recent changes in forró music and St. John’s Day festivities” by Carlos Sandroni, et al. (The world of music V/1 [2016] pp. 159–79).

Happy St. John’s Day! Above and below, forró as festa junina street dance.

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Filed under Dance, Popular music, South America

Kwaito’s promise

 

In the mid-1990s South African apartheid ended, and the country’s urban black youth developed kwaito—a form of dance music (redolent of North American house) that came to represent the post-struggle generation. Kwaito developed alongside the democratization of South Africa, a powerful cultural phenomenon that paradoxically engages South Africa’s crucial social and political problems by, in fact, seeming to ignore them.

Politicians and cultural critics criticize kwaito for failing to provide any meaningful contribution to a society that desperately needs direction, but these criticisms are built on problematic assumptions about the political function of music. Artists and fans aren’t escaping their social condition through kwaito, but are using it to expand their sensory realities and generate new possibilities. Resisting the truism that music is always political, kwaito thrives on its radically ambiguous relationship with politics, power, and the state.

This according to Kwaito’s promise: Music and the aesthetics of freedom in South Africa by Gavin Steingo (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).

Above and below, Boom Shaka, whose It’s about time (1993) is widely regarded as the first kwaito hit.

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Filed under Africa, Politics, Popular music

Kalbelia and cultural fusion

 

Since being listed as intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2010, Kalbelia dance from Rājasthān is now generally conceptualized as an ancient tradition from India. However, this same dance practice, also known as a form of “Indian Gypsy” or “snake charmers’” folk dance, appears to have originated as recently as the 1980s.

Ethnographic research with Kalbelia dancers’ families has elucidated how this inventive dance practice was formed to fit into national and transnational narratives with the aim of commercializing it globally and of generating a new, lucrative livelihood for these Kalbelia families. As a new cultural product of Rājasthāni fusion, the dance finds itself at the crossroads of commercial tourism and political folklorism and is grounded in the neo-Orientalist discourses of romanticism and exoticism.

This according to “Kalbeliya dance from Rajasthan: Invented gypsy form or traditional snake charmers’ folk dance?” by Ayla Joncheere (Dance research journal XLIX/1 [April 2017] pp. 37–54).

Below, a performance from the archives of the Asian Music Circuit.

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Filed under Asia, Dance

The Mandé buzz aesthetic

 

The widespread preference for buzzy timbres in African traditional musics has been notably borne out in the Mandé region of West Africa.

The two main types of buzzing mechanisms in Mandé music are metal buzzing rattles, which are attached to the neck or bridge of various string instruments, and mirlitons (vibrating membranes), which are placed over small holes on the resonating gourds of wooden xylophones.

Over the last seventy to eighty years, an older and rougher buzz aesthetic within Mandé music has become increasingly endangered, with buzzing largely disappearing from instruments such as the kora and the ngoni in favor of a more “clean” Western aesthetic. Considered in a wider cultural context, the incorporation of buzzing sounds within Mandé music might be connected to forms of esoteric, supernatural, and spiritual power.

This according to “The buzz aesthetic and Mandé music: Acoustic masks and the technology of enchantment” by Merlyn Driver (African music X/3 [2017] pp. 95–118).

Above and below, kora playing with nyenyemo (metal rattle attached to the bridge).

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Filed under Africa, Curiosities, Instruments

Girija Devi and ṭhumrī

 

In an interview, the Hindustani vocalist Girija Devi recalled how some performers of khayāl—the dominant North Indian classical tradition—looked down on ṭhumrī, which was considered a light-classical tradition.

“The new khayāl establishment appeared to create a climate of opinion in which the ṭhumrī and its allied genres were regarded as either easy to master, or otherwise inferior.”

“This bothered me immensely, so I decided to match the competence of khayāl vocalists on their home turf, and challenge them to match me on mine. I worked very hard on my khayāl, and performed it more widely and consistently than any other Benares vocalist in recent times. I make it a point to perform a khayal at every concert, and it consumes almost half of the duration of my recital. After that, I perform a few semi-classical pieces.”

“In the khayāl we get to the root of the raga’s melodic personality, and elaborate upon it according to the established presentation format. In the ṭhumrī we get into the emotional depth of the poetry, and express it as musically as we can. I was brought up in a family with a very deep involvement with literature, particularly poetry, so I handle poetry in ṭhumrī with sensitivity.”

Quoted in “Girija Devi: The queen of Benares” by Deepak S. Raja (Sruti 250 [July 2005] pp. 41–50).

Today would have been Girija Devi’s 90th birthday! Above, performing in 2015; below, performing the ṭhumrī Babul mora in 2014.

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Filed under Asia, Performers

Lady Jing and cultural heritage

 

Created between 1960 and 1961, Escorting Lady Jing a thousand li (千里送京娘) is a kunqu masterpiece that continuously entertains audiences and stimulates discussions on Chinese opera, gender, and politics.

A mid-twentieth century dramatization of a traditional story, the opera narrates a journey in which the young Zhao Kuangyin, the future founder of the Northern Song empire, escorts the beautiful Lady Jing home, falls in love with her along the way, leaves her to realize his heroic dreams, and vows to return to marry her in the future. Theatrically, the opera makes Chinese men and women ask how they should choose between desire and duty, realizing their personally, socially, and politically enforced gendered roles and values.

Having been performed over five decades, the opera and its performance practices and meanings have evolved, generating changing discussions and interpretations. Its recent performances, for example, underscore sustainability issues of kunqu as a genre of Intangible Cultural Heritage, thereby opening audiences’ ears, eyes, and minds to their Chinese cultures, identities, and politics.

This according to “Escorting Lady Jing home: A journey of Chinese opera, gender, and politics” by Joseph Sui Ching Lam (Yearbook for traditional music XLVI [2014] pp. 114–39). Above the original 1961 production; below, an excerpt from a more recent televised version.

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Filed under Asia, Dramatic arts

Bachata and resistance

 

Bachata, a genre originating in the Dominican Republic, can be considered music of both political and social resistance. From the direct connection between the inception of the genre and the death of the dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo to the initial marginalization of the genre by the socially elite—as well as bachata’s relationship with nueva canción, a left-wing political movement—both the origins and rise to popularity of bachata are linked to political and social conflicts.

Today bachata’s wide popularity sets it apart from its humble roots and resistant nature; however, many songs with a strong social message suggest that bachata was and still is a music of the people, and a number of recent novels and films use the genre to portray social messages and to connect the music with the Dominican people.

This according to “Insolent origins and contemporary dilemmas: The bachata genre as a vehicle for social commentary, past and present” by Patricia Reagan, an essay included in Sounds of resistance: The role of music in multicultural activism (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2013, pp. 373–95).

Above, Juan Luís Guerra, whose 1991 album Bachata rosa (below) was particularly influential in changing the reception of bachata.

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Filed under Politics, Popular music, West Indies

Çudamani and postmodernism

 

Çudamani, a sekaa (a communal club under the auspices of a ward) and a sanggar (a more tightly governed and broader arts organization) in the Balinese village of Pengosekan, is committed to studying and teaching Balinese music and dance; it is also a transnational arts phenomenon.

Çudamani is first a traditional sekaa, in the sense that it is committed to its local community, and one of the main missions of the troupe is to ngayah, or perform voluntary performance service at temple festivals. The original troupe was initiated in the late 1990s; today, the organization includes at least four different sub-groups (including children’s clubs).

The group is postmodern because of the transnational basis, the neotraditionalism, the mixing of new and traditional musics and the play of genre, the fluidity of local and global identities, and the fact that the troupe seems to defy preconceived notions of sekaa or sanggar and to transcend some principles upon which such organizations have been established. While its international notoriety distinguishes this group from most others, Çudamani’s global participation and embrace of neotraditionalism illuminates growing trends within Bali and provides a case study of circulating, 21st-century ideation on cultural representation and the role of the arts.

This according to “Between traditionalism and postmodernism: The Balinese performing arts institution Çudamani” by David D. Harnish, an essay included in Performing arts in postmodern Bali: Changing interpretations, founding traditions (Aaachen: Shaker Verlag, 2013, pp. 257–77).

Below, a performance in 2018.

 

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Filed under Asia, Dance