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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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