The case of the ‘disappearing body’: habitus shift and bodily practice

In Shawn Lindsay’s 1996 article ‘Hand Drumming: An Essay in Practical Knowledge’, the author describes his (her?) process of learning drumming in preparation for doing anthropological fieldwork.  Drawing on Merleau-Ponty and Bourdieu, Lindsay explores the idea of ‘practice as a mode of bodily understanding’, prefiguring a recent resurgence of interest in habit as social and embodied practice (see Body and Society journal’s recent special issue on habit) by exploring repetition and habit in learning a musical skill.

The main contention Lindsay raises is that ‘the habitus must be envisaged as possessing the capacity for generating practices which are not in themselves “inherent in the particular conditions of its production” (Bourdieu:1990, 55) but are actually transformative of those conditions'(p200).  (A nice link with our ‘discourses of transformation’ discussion last month – see previous blog post).  Lindsay notes that learning a new skill – in this case drumming – ‘presents a threat to the habitus in that it entails a reworking and a revitalising of the body’s corporeal schema (Merleau-Ponty 1962:142)’ (p202).  In his drumming practice, the learning of a complex rhythm brought about a ‘habitus shift’ which altered his perception of the timing of this particular beat from hearing 6/8 time to hearing hemiola time, i.e. two against three.  This shift occurred while drumming with his teacher and another student, in a circle, and to his surprise, it was accompanied by a visualisation of the construction of the rhythm between the three drummers, in the form of a floating triangle.

Our discussion in our September meeting circled around this idea of whether bodily practice can transform habitus.  This idea of transformation focused on the shift that Lindsay describes between the moment of not being able to do something and then being able to do it; and also around the embodied capacity which Lindsay describes acquiring, that of a particular kind of active relaxation.  He describes how ‘an essential element of feeling a rhythm is being able to relax your entire body’ which doesn’t mean ‘a lack of energy’ (p208), but ‘cultivating a body that is actively, habitually relaxed.  Achieving a state of habitual relaxation constitutes a rearrangement of the habitus’, as this experience can be taken into other areas of one’s life (p209).

We had some questions around whether this shift does indeed constitute a moment of potential rupture in the habitus, with concomitant generative capabilities, or whether it is just a moment of a new, more energetic reproduction of the habitus.  If there is indeed a transformation, what kinds of newness take place?  And do we have any control over this transformation?  Certain disciplines such as learning a musical practice, or engaging in still and silent listening, can facilitate new experiences, or the kind of shift that Lindsay describes, but what then does this shifting enable?  My own critique was that before learning a new practice from a different culture, it is necessary to possess a habitus wherein the learning of new skills from other cultures is something that is possible and imaginable for you – something which as Skeggs (2003) notes, can be read as an attribute of a middle class self, drawing on a history of appropriating the culture of others.

Despite one very avid defender of the concept of habitus in the group, as well as various newly-minted Bourdieusians, I was not convinced by this idea of the habitus shift through bodily practice, even though I found it hugely exciting to think about as a possibility.  This is partly because it encourages (and draws on) an even looser conceptualisation of the habitus which is already a somewhat blurry concept.  But despite this, what Lindsay describes is interesting in its own right in relation to embodied practice and affective transmission (see Blackman:2012).  Lindsay describes the ‘disappearance of the body in drumming’ (p202) ‘in reaching out to grasp a rhythm not of its own making […] my body had become invisible to me […] It surpassed itself, becoming for a moment ‘co-extensive with the world’ (Sartre: 1956, 420)’ (p201).  We were all fascinated by this account of the ‘disappearing body’ and its implications for ideas of craftsmanship as well as music pedagogies.  There emerged through this ‘disappearing body’ a different mode of sociality which was in itself generative, regardless of whether it might allow lasting transformation of ‘structuring structures’.  And is it really true that if you persist at drumming, ‘the body’s awkward parts will soon disappear’?  I live in hope.

The article ends with a call for ethnographers to learn the basic skills ‘required to engage in new patterns of living’ such as how to use ‘the hoe, the drum, the hatchet, the water jar’ (p211).  This is one place where ethnomusicologists have the upper hand, as learning the musical practice of our research sites is one of the key unifying elements of the discipline.   But as was noted in our discussion, how to write about this practice – particularly how to describe the experience of ‘flow’ or the ‘disappearing body’ – is something we all grapple with, and this article provided a fascinating example of capturing embodied musical experience in prose.


Blackman, L., 2012. Immaterial bodies: affect, embodiment, mediation, Theory, culture & society. SAGE, London.

Lindsay, S. (1996) ‘Hand Drumming: An Essay in Practical Knowledge’ in M. Jackson (ed.) Things as They Are: New Directions in Phenomenological Anthropology (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press); 196-212

Skeggs, B., 2003. Class, self, culture, 1st ed. Routledge.


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The social impact of the arts: what do discourses of transformation do?

For our August discussion group, we read excerpts from Eleanora Belfiore and Oliver Bennett’s 2010 book The Social Impact of the Arts: an intellectual history (introduction, chapter four on Personal Wellbeing, conclusion).  This was quite a different type of reading to our usual ethnomusicological fare, chosen by Jonathan to link into current discussions of what is somewhat vaguely termed ‘cultural value’.

The introduction, which we ended up focusing on in our discussion, sets out the problem of finding a language beyond economic value in which to discuss the role of the arts in society: the question of intrinsic or instrumental value.  Unfortunately for our purposes as ethnomusicologists, the book limits itself to discussing drama, literature and theatre, but as the broader debate around cultural value encompasses music, we felt justified in extending the ideas discussed to music as well.  Belfiore and Bennett identify two narratives related to cultural value: a narrative of transformation in which arts ‘change lives or define identity’ (p4), and a narrative of ‘beleaguerment’ or crisis which suggests that ‘the arts are undervalued and in serious danger of collapse’.  They suggest that examining the intellectual history of ideas of value in the arts can help make sense of current debates.  Continue reading

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Contextualising music, generalising music and a music philosophy conference

Going to a conference outside one’s own discipline is always a strange experience. Interdisciplinary conferences, then, would seem necessarily to be quite unsettling for all concerned. The different sets of delegates bring contrasting disciplinary baggage and have different but deeply held opinions about what makes a valid research question and the proper ways of addressing such a question. So I’m sure I wasn’t alone in experiencing a sense of discomfort during much of the recent interdisciplinary Music and Philosophy conference, organised by the Music and Philosophy Study Group of the Royal Musical Association at King’s College London from 19th to 20th July 2013 (details here: Continue reading


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This morning I woke up with aching muscles and a smug sense of satisfaction. The reason? I went to a Zumba class yesterday. It was an hour-long workout (it felt shorter), to loud, energetic music and it was great. A lot of the songs we exercised to were pumped up versions of salsa classics (Celia Cruz’s Quimbara made an early appearance). I loved this. I’m a keen amateur salsa dancer, but haven’t been able to dance since last November due to an unrelated injury; it was wonderful to be able to perform some of the moves I have missed to music that I adore.

My experience of the class seemed an obvious demonstration of the power of music, both to make me work harder and to make me smile. When I had observed a portion of the previous day’s class from relative safety on the other side of the soundproof door, the sweaty bodies moving not-quite-in-time looked ridiculous. But from the inside, with the bass pumping, I was carried away, and it felt as though we were all moving in harmony. (Although I haven’t thought it through properly yet, this would seem to resonate with the “distributed subjectivity” that Anahid Kassabian theorises in her brilliant latest book Ubiquitous Listening (2013).)

It is possible to formulate critiques of this experience on at least three levels:

1. Zumba (Or rather, “Zumba®”.) According to the website, this is “The World’s Leading Branded Fitness Program”. It asks participants to “Ditch the workout – join the party!” and describes itself as “a global lifestyle brand that fuses fitness, entertainment and culture into an exhilarating dance-fitness sensation!” The website continues, “Zumba® exercise classes are ‘fitness-parties’ that blend upbeat world rhythms with easy-to-follow choreography, for a total-body workout that feels like a celebration.”  In this context, “branded” is an understatement. There is, for example, a whole section of the website detailing their “Trademark Usage Guide”, with instructions such as the following:


With the letter “Z” not capitalized—For example, zumba or zumba fitness.
Misspelled — For example, “Zoomba” is not allowed.
As a verb — For example, “once you zumba, you’ll be hooked” is not allowed.
As a noun — For example, “zumba is my favorite exercise” is not allowed.
As part of a trade name — For instance, “The California Zumba Center” is not allowed.
As a generic term — For example, as a name for a fitness program “My gym offers Zumba” is not allowed.
To advertise programs or products not affiliated with Zumba Fitness, LLC.

Zumba is the latest stage in a long-standing process of romanticisation, appropriation and commodification of the idea of Cuba and Latin culture more broadly in the UK and America. It rode in on the back of the salsa craze and the viral popularity of the Buena Vista Social Club (both already heavily packaged and commodified) and represents a further step away from the culture it claims to represent. As in salsa dance classes, participants are encouraged to shake their hips and to identify with crude stereotypes of sexy Latinas. This is schizophonic mimesis on crack (Feld 1996).

2. Zumba and Virgin. I encountered the tightly-controlled corporate hegemony of Zumba in the context of a Virginactive gym; it was embedded within the multi-pronged Virgin Group corporate machine, which, as we know, touches everything from airplanes to credit cards. Zumba and Virginactive are a good fit: Zumba’s party ethos perfectly matches the “Virgin Vision” in which “Fun is fundamental” and according to which we are encouraged to “Live happily ever active” ( Although I have indeed enjoyed using the gym (including the Zumba class) enormously, I am troubled by the very explicit way in which it is attempting to sell me beauty and happiness.

Virgin gyms are strange places, where your average aqua aerobics class is renamed simply “Aqua” and spinning goes by “V-Cycle”. (Seriously, whatever next? A complimentary V-towel? Overpriced bottles of V-water? After Apple led the way by claiming the prefix “i”, it isn’t hard to imagine the approaching dystopia, in which all objects are prefixed by the one-letter brand symbol of the corporation that we buy them from.) And they’re expensive. (Even if, as I did, you negotiate the advertised membership fee down.) In my borough, the cost of membership alone makes the gym inaccessible to most; amongst other things, this produces all sorts of barely visible, uncomfortable distinctions in terms of social class (and race) between gym users and gym employees.

3. Gyms, neoliberal bodies and a bulimic society. Gyms in general are a problematic phenomenon, anyway.

In an enlightening discussion of how neoliberal capitalism is played out on our bodies, Julie Guthman writes of a “culture of bulimia, where on the one hand consuming in encouraged and on the other deservingness is performed by being thin no matter how that is accomplished” (2009: 187). She draws on writing by Susan Bordo (2003 [1993]: 201):

Bulimia embodies the unstable double bind of consumer capitalism, while anorexia and obesity embody an attempted resolution of that bind. Anorexia could thus be seen as an extreme development of the capacity for self-denial and repression of desire (the work ethic in absolute control); obesity, as an extreme capacity to capitulate to desire (consumerism in control). Both are rooted in the same consumer-culture construction of desire as overwhelming and overtaking the self.

Gym-going, then, is the perfect example of bulimic culture; it allows for the consumption of self-control. When we succumb to the desire to buy gym memberships, we are paying exorbitant membership fees in order to purchase thin bodies, happiness and, paradoxically, the illusion of being rational subjects in control of our desires.


Returning to my experience of yesterday’s class, which was overwhelmingly positive, I am left with all sorts of unanswered questions. What am I to make of the happiness I felt during the class? Is there any way of redeeming this positive experience? More broadly, what should I do with music that I enjoy, but that simultaneously I find highly problematic? I suspect these questions will not easily go away.


Bordo, Susan. 2003[1993]. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. University of California Press.

Feld, Steven. 1996. “Pygmy POP. A Genealogy of Schizophonic Mimesis.” Yearbook for Traditional Music 28: 1. doi:10.2307/767805.

Guthman, Julie. 2009. “Neoliberalism and the Constitution of Contemporary Bodies.” In The Fat Studies Reader, edited by Esther Rothblum and Sondra Solovay. New York and London: New York University Press.

Kassabian, Anahid. 2013. Ubiquitous Listening: Affect, Attention, and Distributed Subjectivity. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press.


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Feld’s back in the field

How do we write ethnomusicology and what counts as scholarly work in our field? Feld’s 2012 book, Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra, (of which we read the introduction and first chapter) sent us chasing these questions in our discussions of the introduction and first chapter at the May EDG (ethnomusicology discussion group) meeting. I’ll attempt to recapture some of the flavour of our discussion in this blog post, which I hope will be the first of a series which will follow on from our monthly discussions which take place at the Institute of Education bar.


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Conference Review: Middle East and Central Asia Music Forum, 6 December 2012

The Middle East and Central Asia Music Forum is usually held twice a year and organised by the Institute of Musical Research (School of Advanced Study) at the University of London. This time the day conference was supported by the British Forum for Ethnomusicology and the Centre for Music Studies at City University, and organised by Laudan Nooshin from City. All but one of the speakers were UK-based scholars, presenting papers on subjects which ranged from medieval Arabic music texts to political activism and popular music. The standard of the presentations was excellent, and the conference also included a film screening and a musical performance.

The opening paper was given by Simone Tarsitani from Durham University and focused on the performance and poetry of Islamic panegyrics in Ethiopia. Tarsitani’s paper was largely descriptive, which was perhaps appropriate since the subject matter was (for most people I suspect) fairly unfamiliar. He outlined the musical, poetic and social features of Islamic praise songs in Ethiopia (based on recent fieldwork), relating these to political developments in the last century and the current demographic situation. Tarsitani showed that while Harar has been a centre of Islamic learning and culture for several centuries, the Harari praise-song tradition has also been adopted – and adapted – by the Oromo people of the outlying rural areas. His video documentation of both Harari and Oromo panegyrics gave a glimpse of the complexity of a multi-ethnic African state through its local musical traditions, and demonstrated how these traditions are shaped by (but can also transcend) conflicting currents of Islamic practice and national politics.

Next, Miranda L.P. Crowdus of City University spoke on collaborative performance amongst Palestinian and Israeli musicians through a sophisticated reading of the music of System Ali, an ‘underground’ rap group based in Jaffa (Tel Aviv). System Ali mix languages (Hebrew, Arabic, English, Russian) and musical styles (Hip Hop, Klezmer, Rock, Reggae) in an electrifying celebration and critique of the complexities of life in Jaffa. I appreciated Crowdus’s eschewal of either/or interpretations in favour of ‘both’ – the music of System Ali embodies ‘both political disparity and co-existence’ – and the music itself is powerful and a lot of fun; System Ali’s parody of Israeli nationalist folk songs is clever and poignant. However, the paper focused on the group’s own discourses and music at the expense of a more balanced (and perhaps more revealing) analysis of contextual factors such as listener responses and backgrounds, or commercialisation and self-promotion. It may be inevitable that we are partisan about the music we study, but the high stakes involved in politically dissident music often mean that it is not subject to the same sort of critique which is levelled at the narratives it opposes.

There was less danger of political sensibilities being aroused by Owen Wright’s paper on music theory in Mamluk Cairo, which dealt with an abstruse but important 14th century musical treatise by Ibn Kurr. Wright’s translation and analysis of Ibn Kurr’s work is soon to be published by Ashgate, and this presentation outlined the salient issues in his research to date – namely, that the notion of a historic pan-Islamic musical system is seriously undermined by Ibn Kurr’s rather different conception of mode and rhythm. The idea that there was a common musical tradition existing in various Islamic centres in the late Middle Ages is one that was originally advocated by Wright himself, and reflects the ideals of medieval Systematist music theory in the Middle East, which inherently tends towards unity rather than diversity. Wright’s recent research therefore contributes to a more complex historiographic model, and demonstrates the usefulness of studying seemingly marginal or challenging historical sources.

Following Wright’s paper, Nina ter Laan from Radboud University in the Netherlands discussed the interplay of music, religion and politics in Morocco during the Arab Spring. Her paper documented the role of music in an Islamic political group (Jama’a al-‘Adl wal-Ihsane) in relation to the secular ideals of the February 20th movement, and charted the group’s shift from songs about Islamic virtue and faith to politically-charged protest music. Her detailed analysis utilised the concept of the ‘street as stage’ to explore the changing contexts and social aims of musical performance and the opportunities for public expression afforded to marginalised groups by the political upheavals of the Moroccan Spring.

Stephen Wilford (City University) also spoke about the political dimensions of musical performance in North Africa, focusing on the lives of two prominent Algerian musicians, Cheb Hasni and Lounès Matoub. Both singers were assassinated during Algeria’s long civil war (which ended only in 2002), and Wilford’s research and original footage testified to the awe-inspiring power of their music for thousands of Algerian people. The significance of Raï music for disenfranchised young Algerians and its subversive engagement with social issues is demonstrated by Cheb Hasni’s hits El Visa and Beraka (The Shack), where he sings, charmingly, ‘I made love to her in a dirty old shack because I was drunk’. Lounès Matoub was a Berber speaker who openly defied the Algerian authorities by refusing to speak Arabic, and his assassination – according to Wilford – is still a locus for conspiracy theories and suspicions stemming from the civil war.

The following part of the programme was a screening of John Baily’s latest ethnographic film, Return of the Nightingales (32 mins), which depicts a music school for disadvantaged children in Kabul. The Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM) was established by the Afghan musicologist Ahmad Sarmast in 2010, and although the school has a strong bias towards Western classical music, the film also showed children performing Afghan and Hindustani art music. In the discussion that followed, several people expressed their discomfort with the ‘cultural imperialist’ emphasis on teaching Western orchestral instruments, and agreed that the children appeared more comfortable and natural when performing on the rubab, sitar or tabla. Baily, whose lifelong devotion to Afghan music and culture is well known, characteristically refused to pass judgement on the school’s educational principles, but pointed out that there were historic precedents for teaching Western music in Afghanistan. However, the school’s ideology and methods, in their implicit belief in the ‘civilising’ power of Western art music, certainly bear comparison with similar projects in Israel/Palestine, which are strongly critiqued in a recent article and forthcoming book by Rachel Beckles Willson.[1]

The final paper of the day was given by the musician and ethnomusicologist Sara Manasseh, who spoke on ‘Shbahoth – Songs of Praise in the Babylonian Jewish Tradition: From Baghdad to Bombay and London’. Manasseh’s work as both a scholar and performer is based on the heritage of Iraqi Jewish songs which were passed on to her by her family and which constitute a rich and unique musical tradition. Her paper was a fascinating historical account of the repertoire, encompassing its original performance context and musical and poetic structures (which draw on Arabic and Iraqi as well as Hebrew traditions), interweaved with the story of her family’s migratory journey from Iraq to India and early recordings of Jewish song. A book and CD with the same title as Manasseh’s paper was recently published in the SOAS Musicology Series. Following her paper, Manasseh performed with her group, Rivers of Babylon, but unfortunately I couldn’t stay for the end of the conference. Nonetheless, Manasseh’s presentation was a fitting way to finish the day’s discussions, highlighting as it did the breadth and depth of cultural, linguistic and political complexity involved in the study of music in the Middle East.

[1] ‘Music Teachers as Missionaries: Understanding Europe’s Recent Dispatches to Ramallah’, in Ethnomusicology Forum, vol. 20, no. 3 (2012), p. 301; Orientalism and Musical Mission: Palestine and the West (Cambridge, 2013).

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Conference Review: Third Symposium of the ICTM Study Group for Music of the Turkic Speaking World, 1-2 December 2012

The Third Symposium of the ICTM Study Group for Music of the Turkic Speaking World (Popular Culture in Turkic Asia and Afghanistan: Performance and Belief) was held at Cambridge University’s Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies from 1-2 December 2012 and featured 17 speakers from 12 different countries, as well as impromptu performances, a concert, film screenings, and some remarkably good kebab. The speakers and attendees were from various disciplines and academic backgrounds, which made for a lively and congenial atmosphere on the one hand, and, more regrettably, to a number of misunderstandings and ideological clashes on the other.

The opening address, ‘Western Music as World Music’ was given by Nicholas Cook, who might be better known (amongst ethnomusicology students) as a sort of musicological Lord Voldemort, nefariously undermining the schemes of ethnomusicologists to place music in its proper cultural context by employing abstruse analytical weapons to insist on its autonomy. But all that has changed. Cook’s contribution to The New (Ethno)musicologies (ed. Henry Stobart, Lanham, Md., 2008), ‘We are all (Ethno)musicologists Now’, makes clear that distinctions between the various sub-disciplines of music studies are looking increasingly outdated, as theoretical frameworks, methodology and research subjects are shared and debated across a more integrated field. Cook’s paper was extremely wide-ranging, taking as a starting point the globalisation of Western music (broadly defined) as part of a larger geopolitical process in the 20th century. Cook raised some interesting points – the term ‘World Music’, rather than a marketing label for music from places other than Western Europe or the US, might, on the contrary, more accurately be used to describe the world-wide dominance of Western music. Another valuable observation was that the ‘heartland’ of the Western classical tradition is now, in fact, located in East Asia – the appropriation (or assimilation, or what you will) by China and Japan of the classical canon, along with its educational system, aesthetic values, performance conventions etc., marks a historical watershed in the tradition and reflects the shifting balance of power and culture in a global context. It was refreshing to see such an acknowledgement of the social and political realities which impinge on Western classical music in the 21st century, and one hopes for more research in this area (this links in nicely with Anna’s review of Musicians from a Different Shore by Mari Yoshihara).

Of course, Cook’s/Voldemort’s observations were not without their problems – firstly, and most obviously, ‘Western Music as World Music’ smacks uneasily of a value-free, universalist view of what is actually a highly value-laden and particular musical tradition. Secondly, while Cook’s discussion encompassed a huge range of phenomena in world music – colonialism, orientalism, Westernisation, modernisation, commodification, preservation, canonisation, and so on – this necessarily sacrificed a more nuanced understanding of the hugely complex, varied and locally-conditioned dynamics involved in these processes.

The eight further papers which made up the first day of the conference were given by scholars and musicians from Hungary, Azerbaijan, the USA, the Netherlands, Turkey, Kazakhstan and Iran/the UK. Topics included: musical practices in Bektashi and Alevi ceremonies in Turkey, religious imagery in popular Turkish music, state-sponsored music initiatives and organology in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, the function of music amongst Turkic peoples (Tatar and Khakas) of the Russian Federation, and Iranian/Central Asian inspirations in contemporary orchestral composition. The overall impression given by such a plethora of countries, subjects, and intellectual approaches was, not surprisingly, a rather complex one. This was compounded by varied levels of competence in the English language amongst the participants – many speakers had difficulty understanding and responding to questions, and follow-up discussions were consequently limited and problematic. Moreover, a number of participants were concerned to advance a theory of ‘degeneration’ of their traditional or national culture, and to promote certain musical genres above others – an approach which often bordered on the propagandistic. Despite the ecumenical, pan-Turkic intentions of the conference organisers and many of the attendees, there were inevitable clashes when it came to discussions about the origin of particular genres of music or instruments. Thus, Megan Rancier’s well-structured and balanced paper about the mythic, acoustic and historical layers of meaning embodied by the Kazakh qyl-qobyz (horsehair fiddle) degenerated into competing claims of national ownership rather than scholarly debate. While it is laudable and indeed necessary to involve scholars from as wide a range of countries and institutions as possible in such debates, these encounters illustrated the difficulties inherent in bringing together individuals from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds and with very different agendas.

The programme for Saturday evening (following the aforementioned kebab) was a concert in the beautiful chapel of Jesus College, featuring speakers and musicians from the conference (Özlem Doğuş Varlı and Ersen Varlı from Turkey and Aigul Yelshibayeva from Kazakhstan) as well as performers from Kazakhstan (Elmira Janabergenova and Bazarali Muptekeev), Afghanistan (Haroon Yousofi and group) and Azerbaijan (Ghadim Sharq and group). Some fantastically energetic and sensitive musical performances were given, which showed some of the incredible diversity of traditions and genres which exist throughout Turkic Asia and Afghanistan. The second part of the concert was a ‘Cross-Cultural Workshop’, directed by the composer Peter Wiegold from Brunel University. This involved all of the musicians who had participated in the earlier performances improvising together, while Wiegold ‘directed’ them by cueing solos, giving some sort of dynamic shape to the improvisations, and playing bluesy ostinati on a Korg keyboard. Remarkably, it turned out that what was ‘cross-cultural’ in Wiegold’s conception was not a modal or rhythmic structure which might be common (or at least relatable) to the various Central Asian music traditions represented, but in fact funky jazz riffs. As so often in such endeavours, rather than a genuine engagement with different musical traditions, the musical and aesthetic framework of Western music was simply taken for granted as a starting point. To be fair, some of the musicians seemed to be having a lot of fun, and I did miss Wiegold’s discussion of his methods the following morning (he was the keynote speaker for the second day of the conference); but as a musical and cultural experience the workshop/concert was unbalanced and dissatisfying.

The second day of the conference proceeded in much the same manner – one or two very good papers, some beautiful music, and rather a lot of ideology and dubious scholarship. However, I particularly enjoyed Tom Solomon’s presentation on Azeri rap music, which analysed poetic and rhythmic techniques to discuss its relation to, and divergence from, traditional oral poetry. Also very informative was Giovanni De Zorzi’s ethnography of Sufi zikr practices to cure alcoholism amongst teenagers in Kazakhstan, which provoked a stimulating discussion about re-Islamisation in Central Asia, the negative aspects of ‘healing’ practices and charismatic Sufism, and the role of music and sound in such highly charged environments. Angelika Jung gave a paper on a recently published version of the Bukharan Shashmaqam, which she transcribed from the performances of Ari Babakhanov, a senior Uzbek musician currently living in Germany. Jung’s argument that there should be several different versions of the Shashmaqam (rather than only the state-sanctioned, official edition) was well made, but there was a lack of critical distance in her use of terms such as ‘authentic’, ‘natural’ etc., as well as in her efforts to read numeric Sufi symbolism into the organisational structures of the music. Ivanka Vlaeva’s visually rich (but conceptually vague) paper discussed musical imagery, tourism and film in Istanbul’s urban music scene, and Aziza Sadikova presented her composition ‘Untitled’, for amplified violincello and tape, which features extended techniques juxtaposed with a recording of the Islamic call to prayer. Unfortunately, the paper mostly consisted of a description of what extended techniques actually are (to a room full of music scholars!), and a rather immodest discussion of the work’s (apparently) phenomenal success in Uzbekistan.

The ideological tensions and communication difficulties experienced throughout the conference came to a head during Fikri Soysal’s paper on popular music and ‘Islam civilisation [sic]’ in Turkey, in which he argued that the introduction of Western musical values had alienated the ‘people’ and led to the devaluing of ‘real’ Turkish music. Soysal’s cause was not helped by his barely adequate language skills (his opening slide was titled something like ‘What was popular music means?’, while the closing slide featured the delightfully phonetic ‘Tank you for listening’), and the scheduling of his paper towards the end of the conference, by which time listeners had already been subjected to a two-day barrage of nationalist musicology. His thesis was subsequently demolished by Tom Solomon, who pointed out that European genres such as light song (kanto) and operetta were well-integrated into Ottoman musical life long before the birth of the Turkish Republic, while Giovanni De Zorzi strongly objected to the anachronistic use of the word ‘Turkish’ (arguing that it is a product of 20th century ethno-nationalism) to describe Ottoman music. Not surprisingly, Soysal struggled to respond to these accusations, and his public humiliation, although somehow satisfying, was also deeply uncomfortable.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay for the closing session, which was a screening of films by John Baily (this was also shown at the Middle East and Central Asia Music Forum – see my review on this blog) and Keith Howard and Misha Maltsev (Siberia at the Centre of the World: Music, Dance and Ritual in Sakha-Yakutia), followed by a final discussion. I was also sorry to miss the closing dinner at Pembroke College (where I suspect there may have been more kebab). The conference organiser, Razia Sultanova, must certainly be commended for creating an international forum for debate about music in Turkic Asia and Afghanistan, where some valuable research was shared and discussed. However, the difficulties described above illustrate that, while British and American scholars question the validity of ‘national’ cultures and musical traditions, in the countries in which many ethnomusicologists carry out research, scholarship continues to be shaped by the political and ideological legacy of the 20th century. This raises some important questions about conference etiquette, scholarly standards, and cultural relativism: Should a scholar who is motivated by nationalist ideology be given a public platform to promote their views? Should we applaud politely, or should they be challenged even when the debate is clearly unequal in terms of language and academic training? To what degree are we unconsciously promoting our own ideology in our research and presentation methods? What does it mean for a debate to be ‘international’ when the terms for the debate are set according to Anglophone academic ideals? Answers on postcards, please. Or, if you prefer, via the blog.


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