Category Archives: Ethnomusicology

Basel’s early musical life

The musical history of Basel, Switzerland dates back to the founding of the Augusta Raurica by Caesar’s general Munatius Plancus and the construction of an amphitheater where music, pantomime, and ballet performances took place after the city’s founding in 44 B.C. A diocese was established in Basel as early as the 4th century, and Gregorian chant was popularized there in the 9th century under the aegis of Haito (Bishop of Basel from 807 to 823). Little is known about the musical life of Basel in the first millennium; however, it appears to be similar to that of other bishoprics.

There were also several singing schools in Basel, and choral singing was practiced by monks. From the middle of the 13th century onward, the names of professional singers regularly appeared in the accounting books of the city’s church institutions, although the services of these musicians were probably already in demand earlier. Choral singing had become a permanent fixture in urban churches around the middle of the 15th century. Conrad von Zabern, author of Opusculum de monochordo (1462) and De modo bene cantandi (1474), apparently learned to sing at the Basel Cathedral. The surviving treatises and liturgical manuscripts belonging to the Carthusian, Preacher, and Dominican orders also document the diverse musical life of the urban monasteries.

Read on in an entry on Basel in MGG Online. Below is a video of contemporary choral singing at the 2023 European Festival of Youth Choirs held in Basel. Above is a panoramic map of Basel dating back to around the late 15th century.

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Filed under Antiquity, Europe, Middle Ages

New resources for RILM Music Encyclopedias

New for 2024! RILM Music Encyclopedias has just added four new titles to its continuously growing collection of historic and current reference works. Embrace a global scope in your research with new, multilingual, full-text content for a new year. Here is a list of the new resources.

Felipe Pedrell, gen. ed. Diccionario técnico de la música (1st ed.; Barcelona: Isidro Torres Oriol, 1894) xix, 529 p. In Spanish.

Felipe Pedrell, gen. ed. Diccionario biográfico y bibliográfico de músicos y escritores de música españoles, portugueses e hispano-americanos antiguos y modernos: Acopio de datos y documentos para servir a la historia del arte musical en nuestra nación (1st ed.; Barcelona: Tipografía de Víctor Berdós y Feliú, 1897) 2 vols., xix, 715 p., 88 p. In Spanish.

Nancy Groce. Musical Instrument Makers of New York: A Directory of the Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Urban Craftsmen (Stuyvesant, NY: Pendragon Press, 1991) xxi, 200 p. In English.

Warren Bebbington, ed. A Dictionary of Australian Music (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1998) xiv, 361 p. In English.

Start your search in RILM Music Encyclopedias.

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Filed under Ethnomusicology, Literature, Musicology, RILM

Turkmen genocide and the Geök Tépé muqam

The 1881 genocidal massacre of Turkmen people by imperial Russian troops in the village of Geök Tépé forever altered the musical culture of the Muslim nomadic tribes of Central Asia. During the 18th and 19th centuries, Tsarist Russia’s thirst for conquering new territories fueled a desire to access commercial routes and the warm water ports of the Indian Ocean. Occupying the Turkmen lands was as a primary goal as the Turkmen nomadic lifestyle in the area presented a threat to the stability of the southern part of the Russian empire. Russians decided to attack the Tekke Turkmens who lived in Akhal to subjugate them. The vast conquest was accompanied by the mass killing of people to gain access to their lands and resources while expanding the Russian empire. In the battle fought at Geök Tépé, approximately 15,000 Turkmens, mostly innocent civilians, were killed while the Russian army suffered only around 400 casualties.

In the absence of written history, Turkmen collective memory predominantly relied on songs and melodies. For the Turkmen, the most important events, including the massacre, were remembered in music passed down from generation to generation, thereby building a collective cultural identity. The melancholic instrumental and vocal muqam performed by traditional musicians have for generations expressed collective grief. Turkmen muqams include three main categories: music inspired by real events in society, heroic and lyrical muqams, and descriptive muqams. In the music inspired by real events in Turkmen society, bagşys performed the role of historians or narrators of the Turkmen history and communicated historical facts through their music. These muqams are often found in times of war conflict, or injustice. The Geök Tépé muqam is likely the most famous of them all.

Learn more in “Geok Tepe muğam: A musical narrative of Turkmen massacre in 1881” by Arman Goharinasab and Azadeh Latifkar, an essay included in the volume Music and genocide (Peter Lang, 2015).  Find it in RILM Abstracts of Music Literature.

Below is a video featuring a contemporary muqam performance by Zuleyha Kakayewa and Hatyja Owezowa on television show in Turkmenistan.

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Filed under Asia, Politics, Popular music, World music

All hail the queens: Women in rap (1984-97)

Roxanne Shante on the mic.

Women have been part of hip hop expression from its early days, primarily as part of MC crews such as the Funky Four Plus One and Sugar Hill’s female group, Sequence. For most of hip hop’s recorded history, however, women MCs were mostly seen as novelty acts, with a few exceptions. In the mid-1980s, some female artists were popularized momentarily through answer songs, which ridiculed popular songs by male acts. These answer songs included Roxanne Shante’s Roxanne’s revenge (responding to UTFO’s 1984 song Roxanne, Roxanne) and Pebblee Poo’s Fly guy (responding to the Boogie Boys’ 1985 song A fly girl).

MC Lyte strikes a pose.
The early rap group, Sequence.

Some of the most enduring female hip hop acts released premiere albums in 1986. Salt-N-Pepa was the most commercially successful hip hop group with its first album, Hot, cool and vicious. Queen Latifah emphasized strong social messages and women’s empowerment on her first album, All hail the queen. MC Lyte recorded her first album, Lyte as a feather, at this time. Many women artists who appeared or recorded during the early 1990s adopted the extant masculine-oriented hip hop images prevalent in hardcore rap music. MC Lyte, for example, recorded a hardcore album in 1993 entitled Ain’t no other–the album’s first hit single, Ruffneck, was MC Lyte’s first gold-selling single. After the decline of gangsta rap music in the mid- to late 1990s, women remained on the periphery of mainstream hip hop, apart from the occasional pop hit, such as the platinum-selling Atlanta-based artist Da Brat’s Funkdafied (1994).

Cover art for Lil’ Kim’s Hardcore and Foxy Brown’s Ill na na.
“Supa dupa fly” Missy Elliot.

By the late 1990s, artists such as Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown publicly celebrated or exploited female sexuality through explicit lyrics and widespread publicity campaigns that presented these scantily clad artists as sex symbols. For the most part, however, women artists failed to receive respect within the hip hop community as competent MCs and recording artists, although achieving mainstream success. Many of the writers and producers for the female groups were men, particularly through the late 1990s. The year 1998, however, was pivotal for women in hip hop, especially as rapper-producer-songwriter Missy Elliot began gaining notoriety with her debut album, Supa dupa fly (1997).

Learn more in The Garland encyclopedia of world music. The United States and Canada (2013). Find it in RILM Music Encyclopedias.

Below are some videos from this early period of hip featuring women rappers. First up is the music video for Queen Latifah’s Ladies first, followed by Roxanne Shante performing Roxanne’s revenge (on VHS tape from around 1984!), and a 1985 recording of Pebblee Poo’s Fly guy.

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Filed under North America, Performers, Popular music, Women's studies

Joni Mitchell and 1960’s women’s sexual freedom

Born in Fort MacLeod, Alberta in Canada, a young Joni Mitchell (born Joan Anderson) moved to North Battleford, Saskatchewan with her parents shortly after World War II. Inspired by an older friend, she begged her parents at age 7 to allow her to take piano lessons which lasted for a year and a half. After moving to Saskatoon, Mitchell contracted polio, which she recovered from with the care of her family and her interest in music. As she recalled in a Rolling Stone interview with Cameron Crowe in 1979, “I guess I really started singing when I had polio. Neil [Young] and I both got polio in the same Canadian epidemic. I was nine, and they put me in a polio ward over Christmas. They said I might not walk again, and that I would not be able to go home for Christmas. I wouldn’t go for it. So I started to sing Christmas carols and I used to sing them real loud. When the nurse came into the room I would sing louder. The boy in the bed next to me, you know, used to complain. And I discovered I was a ham. That was the first time I started to sing for people.”

In her teens, Mitchell scraped together enough money to buy a ukelele and performed regularly at parties and coffeehouses in Saskatoon. Following high school, in 1964, Mitchell attended the Alberta College of Art in Calgary, but only for a year. Instead, she preferred performing at a local Calgary coffeehouse called The Depression—she moved to Toronto soon after in search of success as a folk singer. In 1966, she managed to secure a spot on the bill of the Newport Folk Festival. It was at this time that her marriage to fellow folk singer Chuck Mitchell ended, and with nothing to tie her down, Mitchell moved to New York City to be closer to venues on the U.S. eastern seaboard. With the recording of The urge for going by Tom Rush and other cover versions by a variety of artists, she was able to get bookings west to Chicago and south to Florida. New York was still elusive but with the help of manager Elliot Roberts she landed gigs in town. While performing in Coconut Grove, Florida she met David Crosby of The Byrds who was impressed enough with her talent to convince Reprise Records to record and release the Joni Mitchell album in 1968.

Mitchell’s early records mapped the sexual terrain of the mid-1960s–the period during which premarital sex lost its taboo status and became a normative part of maturation and development–from a woman’s perspective. Mitchell’s songs employed a strong storytelling component, putting into popular circulation narratives of sexual freedom that engaged with emerging social practices in a manner consistent with countercultural values while helping to legitimize the new choices available to young women of the 1960s.

Learn more in “Feeling free and female sexuality: The aesthetics of Joni Mitchell” by Marilyn Adler Papayanis (Popular music and society XXXIII/5 (December 2010) 641–656. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2010-7782] and in an entry on Joni Mitchell in The Canadian pop music encyclopedia (2020) in RILM Music Encyclopedias.

Below is Joni Mitchell’s 1969 performance of Chelsea Morning, a song addressing the moral codes governing so-called appropriate sexual conduct for women.

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Filed under North America, Performers, Politics, Popular music, Women's studies

A Christmas ritual of Colombia’s Afro-Andean community

Every year from Christmas to Epiphany, the communities descended from the African slaves who mined gold for the Spaniards celebrate the Adoraciones al Niño-Diós in the Andean valleys of Cauca in southwestern Colombia.

The celebrants sing and dance until dawn in front of a creche set up in one of the village houses. A group of six musicians, unusual because it includes violins, accompanies the women who are the singers and the leaders of the ritual.

The tradition is documented on the CD Colombie: Adoration à l’enfant-Dieu (Département du Cauca) (VDE-Gallo 1349 [2011]).

Revisiting this classic Bibliolore post which originally appeared in December 2017. Happy Holidays from RILM!

Below is a brief documentary on Auroras al Amanecer, the group featured in the recordings.

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Filed under Religious music, South America

Theravāda Buddhist music across borders

Theravāda Buddhist music of Thailand and China emphasizes the intricate relationship between time, space, synchronic and diachronic perspectives, and cultural memory. Synchronic structure acts as both an intermediary and a result of diachrony. In Theravāda Buddhism, music traces elements of cultural memory manifested in various types of ritual practice found in both China and Thailand.

Comparing the musical practices of these two countries enables an exploration of the similarities and differences in their musical characteristics within the organizational structure of their Theravāda Buddhist cosmological systems. Historical time in Theravāda Buddhist music, considered as “monumental time” or “social time”, correlates with spatial expressions of musical structure, highlighting the cultural affinities and contradictions that structure music in Theravāda Buddhist traditions across national borders.

Learn more in “Zhong, Tai Nanchuan Fojiao yinyue de jiegou erchongxing bijiao yanjiu” (A comparative study of the dual structure in the Theravāda Buddhist music of China and Thailand) by Dong Chen (Zhongyang Yinyue Xueyuan xuebao/Journal of the Central Conservatory of Music 2/171 [2023], 42–58). This Chinese journal is a new addition for 2023 in RILM Abstracts with Full Text.

Celebrating International Migrants Day on December 18 with music that crosses borders!

Listen to Thai Theravāda Buddhist monks chanting Dhammacakka Sutta below.

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Filed under Asia, Religious music

Shane MacGowan, the last of the spailpíns

The Pogues’ pugnacious punk frontman may well be the last inheritor of the wayward spailpín singers. Throughout its history, Ireland has found figures to express its dreams and torments, or at least its boisterous fighting spirits. Mid-19th-century Ireland found such figure in James Clarence Mangan. Mid-20th century Ireland discovered a few such figures in Patrick Kavanagh, Brendan Behan, and Luke Kelly. In Shane Patrick Lysaght MacGowan, a native of Puckane, a village in County Tipperary, Ireland found a late 20th-century inheritor to this wayward legacy.

Ever since planter colonialism beat down the haughty, aristocratic-minded bards, Ireland has maintained a consistent subaltern tradition of poets and singers. The tributaries that fed into this tradition, which for lack of a better term, might be called a spailpín culture, ranged from sean nós and folk ballads to music hall and dancehall fare. Songs of hard labor and hard living, of wandering and exile, resentment, and loss emerged from this culture, nurtured by two languages to form part of the musical repertoire.

The Pogues in 1990.

Shane MacGowan came of age in 1970s England when the rock world, no stranger to its own forms of dissolution, was being convulsed by punk, a raucous, aggressively atonal anti-musical genre that gave the finger not just to the soppy pop of the mainstream culture industry but to all bombastic stadium rock. Out of the merging of these two unlikely patrimonies was born the legend of The Pogues. If Riverdance announced the birth of a slick and synchronized new 21st-century neoliberal, post-nationalist Ireland, was it the fate of The Pogues, and specifically MacGowan, to be the last of the spailpíns, the tail-end of a tradition stretching back to Eoghan Rua and Cathal Buí?

Read on in the article “Shane MacGowan: The tail-end of a great Irish tradition?” by Joe Cleary (The Irish times [13 January 2017]). Find it in RILM Abstracts.

Below, MacGowan and The Pogues perform with The Dubliners an epic version of The Irish rover.

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Filed under Europe, Performers, Popular music

Leenalchi, Korean music, and nationalism

The South Korean pop band Leenalchi consists of four singers, two bassists, and a drummer. Their 2019 album, entitled Sugungga, was based on a pansori piece, and the song Tiger is coming saw significant success after the music video was used to promote South Korean tourism. Leenalchi’s creative interpretation of pansori’s rhythm and harmony attracted over 50 million views for the video and launched their international career. Behind this success, one can also see the historical development of gug’ak (Korean traditional music) and efforts to restore, modernize, popularize, and globalize it. Part of this modernization process has been the fusion of pop music and gug’ak.

After 35 years of Japanese occupation (1910-1945) and the subsequent Korean War (1950-1953), the restoration of tradition became a national priority for many Korean musicians. Under the direction of the Korean government, installed under the Japanese administration, various aspects of Chŏson culture, including the education system and performing arts, suffered a drastic decline–court music was no exception. In this context, Korean traditional music sought restoration, and moreover, an increase in its repertoire through new compositions. 

Nationalism played a significant role in the modernization of Korean traditional music. According to Kim Hee-sun, South Korea sought a cultural identity that was uniquely Korean, and traditional music became integral to the narrative of nationalism. Cold War politics further reinforced the role of Korean traditional music as a tool to promote anti-communist ideologies in opposition to the North Korean regime. Through numerous overseas performances during the Cold War, South Korea presented itself as a civilized and cultured nation. Furthermore, Korean traditional music was performed at world events like the Seoul Olympics in 1988 to bolster national pride and identity among South Korean people.

Cover art for Leenalchi’s 2020 album Sugungga.

The modernization process also included establishing Korean traditional music departments in higher education. Historically, traditional music was associated with those of lower social status, due to the lower position of musicians in Korean society. However, the establishment of these departments, with government support, elevated the status of Korean traditional music from a low status art form to a respected and even elite profession. For instance, the four singers in Leenalchi are graduates of Seoul National University’s Korean traditional music program, which was established in 1959.

At the end of the Cold War, Korean traditional music adapted to the global market and was used as a tool of national propaganda. The increasing number of young musicians graduating from Korean traditional music programs opened new doors, allowing musicians to explore new forms of Korean traditional music. For example, several projects involved Korean traditional musicians in transnational ensembles, situating Korean traditional music in a global context. In 1993, under the leadership of Park Bum-hoon, a group of musicians from Chung-Ang University joined Orchestra Asia, a group consisting of musicians from Korea, China, and Japan. At the 2009 ASEAN-Korea Summit, musicians from Southeast Asia were invited to perform together with Korean musicians in a large orchestra. More recently, Korean traditional musicians, such as the members of Leenalchi, have taken different approaches to fusing popular music cultures and positioning themselves in a global market.

Leenalchi performing at WOMAD 2023.

Developments in Korean traditional music, situated in a new social context beyond the court, enabled musicians to explore their creativity in novel ways. Listening to Leenalchi, free from the constraints of the static “Korean traditional music” label, one hears the breaking of the aural connections between traditional music and national politics–signaling a new era of Korean music as Leenalchi and others venture beyond the realm of tradition.

–Written by Shiho Ogura, RILM intern and MA student in Southeast Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore.

Below is Leenalchi’s well-received video promoting Korean tourism.

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Filed under Asia, Mass media, Performers, Popular music

Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq

Indigenous artists are often placed within the tidy binary of traditional vs. modern. Indigenous culture is considered frozen and incompatible with modernity. The creative and communicative outputs of Inuk avant-garde vocalist Tanya Tagaq demonstrate a larger political project of undermining mainstream representational practices regarding Indigenous identity (particularly in Canada) and presenting Indigenous-centered sounds and perspectives. While Tagaq has constructed an artistic identity that challenges the simple binaries of past/present and traditional/modern, mainstream media has relied on representational practices of a settler colonialist mindset. Tagaq makes her agency clear in both her artistic output and in her social media activity. Media coverage of Indigenous artists and Tagaq in particular, dismantle the self/other and modern/traditional binaries with reference to her albums–Animism (2014) and Retribution (2016)–and social media wars in which Tagaq’s celebrity status has incited both reactive and active critique of Indigenous (and specifically Inuit) representation in Canada. In turn, she presents her own narrative as a deliberate strategy of cultural and political self-determination.

Cover art for Animism

Tagaq’s music often tackles themes of environmentalism and Indigenous rights. The Inuk throat singer uses live performance and audiovisual media to engage themes of climate change and environmental violence. Her work diversifies the discourse of environmentalism to include the voices and environmental trauma experienced by marginalized peoples, specifically North American Indigenous-centered sounds and perspectives. Songs such as Fracking and Nacreous respectively are simultaneously expressions of ecological protest and healing, as Tagaq listens with urgency and uses embodied musical practice to explore the aurality of pipeline politics and other forms of ecological imbalance and harm.

Read on in “Welcome to the tundra: Tanya Tagaq’s creative and communicative agency as political strategy” by Alexa Woloshyn (Journal of popular music studies 29/4 (2017). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2017-29128] and “The aurality of pipeline politics and listening for nacreous clouds: Voicing indigenous ecological knowledge in Tanya Tagaq’s Animism and Retribution” by Kate Galloway (Popular music XXXIX/1 (2020) 121–144. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2020-1537]

Below is an improvised throat singing performance by Tagaq, followed by the video for the song Colonizer (from her 2022 album Tongues).

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Filed under North America, Performers, Politics, Popular music