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The Editors' Note: Music – Anthropology – Life

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Jason Antrosio and Sallie Han

Open Anthropology

The Editors’ Note: Music – Anthropology – Life

Volume 5 Number 2

June 2017


Jason Antrosio, Department of Anthropology, Hartwick College

Sallie Han, Department of Anthropology, SUNY Oneonta


The study of music is one of anthropology’s most daunting challenges. Across cultures and time, music intertwines with human life and meaning. Yet that meaning inheres in the music, in its specific embodied performance. Even with the advent of recording devices, it is impossible to capture the context of music, and exceedingly difficult to translate. Compounded with anthropology’s customary reliance on verbal explanations and need to produce a written account, the difficulties of transmitting music as human feeling seem insurmountable.

Yet it is perhaps those very difficulties and challenges which lead to such fascinating efforts in the articles collected for this issue of Open Anthropology. The issue brings together a wide diversity of themes and authors. Many of the authors are also music practitioners. Many spend as much or more time outside the academy, and often outside of anthropology departments. The breadth of the offerings in the collection of American Anthropological Association journals is a testimony to an inherently multidisciplinary and vibrant field.

The first two pieces in this collection are a dialogue between what has become a classic approach and a later critique. Participatory Discrepancies and the Power of Music by Charles Keil appeared three decades ago in Cultural Anthropology (1987). Keil’s article built on his even earlier work from 1966, Motion and Feeling through Music in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. This ongoing project has been an inspiration for anthropologists, ethnomusicologists, and a wide circle of participants. Keil begins his article provocatively: “The power of music is in its participatory discrepancies, and these are basically of two kinds: processual and textural. Music, to be personally involving and socially valuable, must be ‘out of time’ and ‘out of tune’” (275). For Keil, the historical particularity of Western music had “managed to squeeze the mysteries of musical participation to the furthest corners of our awareness” (275); Keil found refuge in “euphoric feelings of ‘polka happiness’ or ‘blues mellowness’” (276). He moreover detailed a provocative ethnographic research agenda on these participatory discrepancies, and then concluded: “As usual, there’s nothing bold or new for us academics to do; we just have to get down to the recording studio or dance floor and ask people about what has been happening” (282).

Kyra Gaunt’s article Got Rhythm?: Difficult Encounters in Theory and Practice and Other Participatory Discrepancies in Music was part of a special 2002 Interlocutor Panel for City & Society (see Table of  Contents). Gaunt outlines Keil’s provocative theory and inspirational new questions, while noting that the theory “does not problematize the cultural politics of difference that arise from frequent references to African American and African ways of musicking” (119). Gaunt points out that the theorizing of participatory discrepancy “written almost exclusively by white men” draws on African and African American traditions with a consistent “absence of references to the written work of black intellectuals” (120):

I am constantly struck by how seldom participating in "the most feelingful" musics in US academic situations leads students to question the appropriation of black musics in U.S. popular culture. Black musics often are used in the service of "healing" the ills of Western culture, or the separatism of black difference, but rarely is participation in these musics sought after to embrace black difference or to allow blacks themselves to freely express that difference in predominately white settings. It is used primarily to gloss over and rid "structures of race and culture, class and caste, gender and sexuality, environment and history" from our participatory consciousness in favor of learning about "the music," rather than the people with whom we create musical meaning. (121)

Relating both ethnographic and personal experience with music and dance, Gaunt challenges participatory discrepancy theory: “Reinscribing the binaries of race and class while not even challenging the gender politics of most musical participation dominated by men is not enough” (125). Crucially, Gaunt specifies that she is not questioning the intent of white theorists (130). It is rather to ask some difficult questions:

How do we avoid re-inscribing patterns of power that privilege whites and men; patterns that continue to separate the mind from the body, the music from the peoples who initially bring it into public (rather than popular) consciousness. Having rhythm or being able to groove is not enough for African Americans, and I would argue, it is not enough for others. (132)

“The Collective Circle”: Latino Immigrant Musicians and Politics in Charlotte, North Carolina by Samuel Byrd in American Ethnologist (2014) continues with some of these difficult and political questions. “Latino immigrant musicians find themselves mixing culture and politics, often being driven by fellow musicians, audience members, state institutions and policies, and professional obligations to define themselves and their music in relation to the politics of immigration” (246). Byrd’s study is in Charlotte, North Carolina, where immigration has increased dramatically since 2000. The Latino musicians, however, exhibit a “cautious skepticism toward public activism” and a “politics of ambivalence” (247). Byrd engages five central themes:

(1) how love songs, or “relationship songs,” reveal musicians’ personal politics implicitly through commentary on gender and class relations; (2) the effect of everyday policing on immigrant communities and musicians’ responses to immigration enforcement policies; (3) the politics of a musical life (or what it means to labor as a Latino musician), including the training and professional ethics that accompany music making; (4) the emergence of musicians as “grassroots intellectuals”; and (5) the importance of the “collective circle” as a performance style and intellectual endeavor in everyday music making. (248)

The final points are of particular interest in the context of the first two articles of this issue. That is, Byrd describes how “certain musicians and other participants in Charlotte’s Latin music scene (particularly journalists) took on the role of ‘grassroots intellectual’ by theorizing about the greater meaning of the music and discussing how music making leads to a sense of solidarity among fans of particular Latin genres” (253). Finally, the “Collective Circle” of the article derives from an album title; a style of a circle of dancers, “an expression of unity for the working-class rockeros who move within the circle” (255); and how music circulates ideas. In conclusion, “The collective circle, and similar participatory audience behaviors key to other Latin genres, such as salsa dancing, are practices of music making that help constitute a sense of agency and link audiences and musicians inextricably together. These practices are symbols and actions of unity in the face of everyday conditions that threaten any sense of solidarity and belonging” (258).

Colleen Heine’s article Scene and Unscene: Revealing the Value of the Local Music Scene in Savannah, Georgia in the 2012 EPIC: Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference also takes up a local music scene but with very different questions. Heine asks “What if the value of a local music scene could be made clear from an economic and cultural perspective? What is the value of a local music scene in establishing an identity of place? How can a city facilitate the conditions for a local music scene to exist and thrive?” (200). Heine’s work is drawn partly from ethnography and ethnomusicology, but also from being an active musician and music educator in the local scene. The music scene in Savannah has been criticized for a lack of vibrancy, and Heine wants to know if “a coalescence of organizations and efforts reveal an emergent scene with the potential to create a dramatic shift” (203). Heine combines participant-observation and ethnographic interviews while also bringing in Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas of social and cultural capital. Ethnography becomes advocacy for action:

This study looks at the music scene in the city not only as an organization within the context of the city, but also as an essential part of that particular city. This project demonstrates how an ethnographic approach helped to shed light on the powers and issues at play and build understanding of the day-to-day lived experiences of people and place. This understanding provides the framework for place-based action and becomes a catalyst to create sustainable, lasting change, even amidst a field of complexity. (214)

While our initial selections treat music issues located mostly in the United States, William Beeman in Visual Anthropology Review (1988) provides classic anthropological comparative analysis. In The Use of Music in Popular Film: East and West, Beeman explains that

differences between India and the Western nations in the use of music in popular film are quite marked, just as the overall structure of popular film in the two traditions exhibit marked differences. Although these differences can be explained partially by the particular historical development of the separate film industries, they also relate directly to the semiotic function of music in the two cultural traditions. (8)

For film music in the Western tradition, the music and the film are “separate and separable” (8). Beeman traces how during the silent film era the music was deployed as a “placebo for the audience” (9), a characteristic that carried over into the first films of the sound era. In contrast, for Indian film “music plays a role equal to other cinematic elements. From the first sound feature film Alam Ara, down to the present, music, song and dance have always been inseparable elements of the Indian film” (10). Beeman portrays vocal expression in India as part of a continuum, without a sharp break between speech and song. “For Indian spectators the psychological distance between speech and song is considerably narrower than for Western spectators. The artificial ‘break’ which is felt in the West when an actor bursts into song is thus less apparent to the Indian viewer” (11). Beeman sums up the distinction in the conclusion:

In the end, however, perhaps the simplest way of epitomizing the differences that have developed in the utilization of music in India and the West is the simple observation that in the West there really is no such thing as ‘film music’ as a distinct category of music. In India, of course, ‘film music’ is readily recognizable as such. Popular songs are always identified (even on radio announcements) with the films in which they occurred. The songs appear to have no identity independent of the films, and it may well be that the appreciation of a song has a lot to do with the viewer's recall of the context in which it was sung on the screen. (13)

Beeman’s contrasts are quite intriguing, although it would be interesting today to revisit the sharpness of those distinctions!

Amanda Weidman’s article in Anthropology and Humanism (2012) takes us into more recent work in India and from film music into the embodiment of learning music. The Ethnographer as Apprentice: Embodying Sociomusical Knowledge in South India is an analysis of a “long apprenticeship learning South Indian classical music” (214). Weidman focuses on “the body-sensorial processes by which musical knowledge is acquired” (215). In this rethinking of musicians’ bodies, Weidman explores “music as a means for producing subjects who are implicated in hierarchies of gender and class” (215). To accomplish this task, Weidman discusses three helpful perspectives: “apprenticeship and its engagement of the senses as a model for ethnography; music as physical education rather than as performance or cultural product; and Bourdieuian sociology, with its emphasis on how social distinction and hierarchy are internalized and shown on the body in everyday practice” (216). On the first perspective, Weidman interestingly demonstrates how apprenticeship accomplishes participant-observation differently than the verbal explanation and written recording which are often seen as the standard for ethnographic encounter. While there was a particularly strong “absence of verbal explanation” (221) in much of her training, the lessons of apprenticeship are surely applicable to all ethnographic endeavors. Weidman believes ethnomusicologists and anthropologists studying music can provide a “critique of the visualist and linguistic orientation of the participant-observation model of ethnography” (230). Additionally, “close ethnographic attention to those aspects learned through apprenticeship can offer a relatively underexplored perspective on music as practice, rather than as a cultural product to be analyzed for its aesthetic principles or mined for its meaning and its ‘social constructedness’” (230).

Our next two selections also push us beyond the traditional ethnographic encounter. In Ethos (2013) “My Heart Opens and My Spirit Flies”: Musical Exemplars of Psychological Flexibility in Health and Healing is part of a “broader research program in medical ethnomusicology, an innovative field of integrative research and applied practice concerned with music, medicine, health, healing, and culture” (174). Benjamin Koen is a key figure in the field. Koen’s account of origins begins with a 1999 dissertation by Devon Hinton:

His study of the Isan people of Northern Thailand showed not only how symbol and metaphor are key components of ritual healing, but also how psychological flexibility is central to a process of embodiment and mimesis where Isan healing music mirrors and represents deeply valued aspects of the natural environment and laden words of the healer, all of which prime a state of psychological, physical, and emotional flexibility. (174-75)

Koen’s own research program is in “the understudied and sorely vexed region of Tajik Badakhshan” (175), and he delivers a unique ethnographic account of the area. Koen specifically investigates maddoh, “a special term imbued with mystical, religious, historical, and didactic meaning. Literally meaning ‘praise,’ maddoh generally refers to a genre of sung, panegyric poetry found throughout history in Persian-, Arabic-, and Turkic-speaking cultures” (177).  Koen argues that in this region “maddoh and its multiple related cultural symbols are potential primers of psychological flexibility” (194). Ultimately

the potential for music to effect health changes, either through the dynamic indicated by psychological flexibility, or perhaps framed by other concepts or practices, is not limited to one genre of music or one culture. Indeed, diverse musical forms and practices can promote flexibility to engender a state from which health changes or healing can arise. . . . The process of internalizing musical meaning is not limited to the body, but also includes other factors of one’s being—hence, I have preferred embeingment over embodiment to highlight the depth and scope at which music can activate flexibility networks. (194)

Jörg Fachner’s work in the Anthropology of Consciousness (2006) furthers the examination of music and flexibility, with the addition of mind-altering drugs. An Ethno-Methodological Approach to Cannabis and Music Perception, with EEG Brain Mapping in a Naturalistic Setting combines qualitative research and quantitative methods. Fachner first reviews that while mixing music and drugs is sometimes thought of as specific to the 1960s, the combination of music, dance, and mind-altering drugs is ancient and widespread (79-80). Although there is evidence that “cannabis seems to enhance auditory perception” (82), Fachner wants to know if such reports will manifest in an EEG brain imager (83). The research comes with a number of caveats as well as a small sample. Nevertheless, Fachner finds “significant (p < 0.025) changes in temporal and occipital areas and increasing alpha-signal strength in the parietal association cortex seem to represent a neural correlate of altered music perception and hyperfocusing on the musical timespace” (94). For Fachner, this is not just of interest to musicians: “Improved acoustic perception is also helpful for people with hearing impairments, and above all for those with significant impairments in higher frequencies. They might profit from cannabis and with specific auditory training might compensate for deficits in weakened acoustic hair cells with learned patterns of acoustic memory” (94).

Composing Sound Identity in Taiko Drumming in the Anthropology & Education Quarterly (2012) takes up the issue of learning. Kimberly Powell reviews the “proliferation of research regarding the social and cultural aspects of how people learn” (101) but notes that “sound is a unique form of knowing and apprehending” (102) with particular challenges for our understanding. Powell uses “the term sound, rather than music, to broaden the concept of music as one that is organically part of a larger sound world (incl. street sound, ambient noises, language, and the sounds of everyday life), emphasizing the ways in which social relations are embedded in sonic relations” (102). The ethnographic focus is taiko drumming and Asian American identities. Taiko drumming originates in Japan, but has become a movement in North America and “an international Asian diaspora based on an identifiable sound” (105). Powell specifically studied San Jose Taiko, conducting ethnographic research from 2000-2001. Powell finds significant episodes of hybridity (111) and improvisation (113), but these borrowings and improvisations also define the borders of what is Asian American:

Musical experimentation is critical for a group whose philosophy is based on sound as an identifying, Asian American marker. As an art form, taiko seeks to sustain an Asian American identity as it is produced through sound, as well as both disrupt and transform these aesthetic practices through self-conscious attention to hybridization. SJT’s preoccupation with the question, what makes taiko taiko, showed a willingness to contest, create, and recreate the identifiable borders of taiko music, and, by extension, the borders of a recognizable Asian American experience and identity. (115)

Shuhei Hosokawa in a Journal of Latin American Anthropology book review (2005) extends the examination of an Asian diaspora. Hosakawa reviews The Chrysanthemum and the Song: Music, Memory, and Identity in the South American Japanese Diaspora by Dale Olsen, “a quarter-century long investigation concerning the music and dance of Japanese immigrant groups in Peru, Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina and Bolivia” (239). The book title is of course a play on Ruth Benedict’s anthropological classic The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, which became widely read and well known in Japan. It is ironic yet fitting that a book title about Japanese national identity is repurposed for the discussion of a Japanese diaspora. Hosokawa interprets the chrysanthemum as a metaphor of Japanese national loyalty. In addition, Hosakawa sees this as a potential critique of Olsen’s work: “The different behavior of audience members who either stood up or stayed seated upon hearing Olsen play the Japanese national anthem is an interesting episode in itself, and one that should have been treated in terms of different ‘nationalisms’ within the immigrant community” (241).

Diasporic movements and identities are also a theme for Nomad Souls across Time and Space: West African Musicians as Ethnographers in the Journal of the Society for the Anthropology of Europe (2005). Katherine Donahue is “interested in what African musicians in France and North America are saying about life in Europe and North America. The musicians who leave Africa and send home their reports of life here are, I think, ethnographers in sound” (2). While the African musicians found some “synergy and energy” in the world of popular music, friendly venues were becoming increasingly more difficult to find (5). “Music with a social conscience wells up from the social relationships between Africans and French authorities. African musicians in Paris do sing about the difficulties of living there, particularly for those without jobs or the proper identification papers” (6). Donahue also portrays how music can be a call to action. The musicians’ commentary on social life is broad:

From histories of lineages, some of which have left Africa for France, discourses on the exploits of the great and small, ritual re-enactments of symbolically important events, analysis of those rituals, discussion of current political events, analyses of political leaders and their uses and abuses of power, the plight of un- and underemployed people, attitudes toward education and elders, and problems of love and generational conflict, all are enfolded in the memory through sound. (10)

Borderland Pop: Arab Jewish Musicians and the Politics of Performance can in some ways be seen as continuing the theme of hybridity, diaspora, and interchange within a conflicted zone, “an Arab Jewish borderland in the field of popular music that has emerged in the space between Israeli Jewish culture and the diverse Arab and Muslim cultures that lie in close proximity” (206). However, hybridity hardly dissolves national and cultural boundaries. “This multiplicity has led to the paradoxical nature of the borderland, in which the frequent crossing of musical borders not only fails to breach national boundaries but also serves to sustain them” (206). Galit Saada-Ophir (1971-2008) was a young scholar with enormous potential; this article in Cultural Anthropology (2006) is one of her last publications before her tragic and untimely death. Saada-Ophir summons an impressive critique of previous treatments of borderlands, while delivering a detailed ethnographic and historical analysis of the music and region. Saada-Ophir traces how a marginalized area and population can result “in the creation of a Yemenite borderland elite” whose consolidation in turn “facilitated the marginalization of the musical styles of other Arab Jewish ethnic groups” (215). Some of these styles nevertheless gain limited success, such as Turkish and Moroccan styles; other styles such as the unique musical style of Libyan Jews “has remained largely invisible” (217). And so, while a number of authors in this collection emphasize music’s liberatory and flexible aspects, Saada-Ophir’s conclusion echoes elements of Kyra Gaunt’s critique above:

These contradictory outcomes establish the borderland as a field that allows movements across musical borders within the Middle East but in a way that does not challenge the ideological, national, and military practices defining national borders. It has not yet actualized its potential to become a creative presence in the Middle East that could challenge state policies by presenting a space in which Arabs and Jews do not exist in endless conflict. The marginal location of Arab Jews may fortify their efforts as creators of an alternative musical field, but at the same time it prevents them from challenging the very terms of the Israeli-Arab Palestinian divide. (225)

Music's Role in Language Revitalization—Some Questions from Recent Literature is a book review article by David Samuels which appeared in the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology (2015). Samuels reviews three books: Paja Faudree's Singing for the Dead: The Politics of Indigenous Revival in Mexico; Catherine Grant's Music Endangerment: How Language Maintenance Can Help; and Amanda Minks, Voices of Play: Miskitu Children’s Speech and Song on the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua. Samuels essay provides an historical overview, going back to Roman Jakobson’s 1932 essay on “Musicology and Linguistics” through more recent scholarship in which “language and music cease being analogous systems for expressing ‘meaning’ and become instead overlapping forms of discourse resources” (346). However, this leads to some thorny questions regarding speech, song, and music in global marketplaces (347). Moreover, while music is often considered a “kind of language,” this has always been a vague comparison, and “the movement for language and cultural revitalization has not necessarily proposed solutions to the inconsistencies in these analogies” (347). Samuels examines the three books on the themes of embodiment (348-50), socialization (350-51), shift (351-52) and stories (352-53). In conclusion, Samuels finds that the works can be read as a set to sketch “an intersecting and overlapping array of possible conversations about language, music, tradition, revitalization, modernity, and subjectivity” (353).

Interestingly, Eitan Wilf’s work on jazz parallels the theme of tradition and revitalization. Rituals of Creativity: Tradition, Modernity, and the “Acoustic Unconscious” in a U.S. Collegiate Jazz Music Program in American Anthropologist (2012) focuses on how “jazz educators use advanced sound technologies to reestablish immersive interaction with the sounds of past jazz masters against the backdrop of the disappearance of performance venues for jazz” (32). Wilf’s concern is also with the relationship between imitation and creativity, or tradition and modernity, an issue Wilf traces through Emmanuel Kant, Franz Boas, and Victor Turner (32-33). While most anthropologists who challenge the binary opposition of tradition and modernity do so by examining what is considered tradition, Wilf considers “this question from the side of a cultural context that has come to epitomize the ethos of Western modernistic creativity: namely, jazz music” (33). Wilf’s ethnographic site is a collegiate jazz program. Ironically, jazz music was excluded from higher education through most of the 20th century, but colleges are now a refuge as jazz venues rapidly disappear (34). “When some of the older teachers recalled to their students the vibrant jazz scenes of their youth and contrasted them with the difficulties faced by jazz musicians today, they frequently referenced the ample opportunities to gain firsthand performance experience that were available to them, as opposed to those that are offered to today’s students” (35). In this context, the jazz masters are not only praised for their musical abilities, but as a reference to a by-gone era of musical appreciation and apprenticeship. Moreover, jazz students learn and recreate classic improvisational solos. While this approach may initially appear strange, Wilf argues that it is a way of inhabiting the music and thus helping the students make it their own. “Once we overcome our initial modern discomfort, it also becomes easier to note the continuity with many creative practices, jazz included. . . . Replication, repetition, and quotation have been part of the cultural logic of jazz music from its very beginning” (40).

Wilf also calls for further anthropological research into the role of new technologies and digital reproduction. The 2017 article Parody after Identity: Digital Music and the Politics of Uncertainty in West Africa in American Ethnologist helps answer that call. Jesse Weaver Shipley concentrates on the Ghanaian hip-hop duo FOKN Bois and their 2011 controversial hit “Thank God We’re Not a Nigerians” (249). The song “mocks the national rivalry between Ghana and Nigeria. . . . [It] reflects Ghanaians’ admiration for and anxiety about Nigerian moral and material extravagance” (249). Whereas Katherine Donahue’s article on African musicians in Europe spoke of Pan-African unity, there can also be intense rivalries and nationalism. In this context, “the FOKN Bois use the unexpected shock and vulgarity of direct, insulting language to parody not only the Ghanaian-Nigerian rivalry but also, more generally, public discourse around nationalist identity by highlighting the absurdity of its positions” (255). But the song also works because there is uncertainty about whether the artists are joking, especially as the song gets digitally remixed, recirculated, and repurposed. Shipley poses pointed questions about the politics of parody:

Academics and journalists often write about irreverent politicians, artists, and genres that they find compelling, taking their subjects as romanticized proxies that highlight collective struggle. But what are the effects of making an earnest argument for a politics of mockery, incoherence, and contradiction when its intents and outcomes are by definition unclear? Parodies are not neat or controllable. They can be reactionary while claiming to be radical, or they can validate ideas they claim to abhor by bringing them into discourse. Scholarly work on parody must take account of how and why humor eludes coherent, singular interpretation. As ethnographers seek new ways to engage political power, we can learn from how parodies reveal the contradictions of coherence, opening up critical discourse while questioning the authority of a rational public sphere. (260-261)

Music, like humor, eludes coherent, singular interpretation. Like life. We hope this exploration of the challenges for studying music inspires your anthropological and musical appreciation. The anthropology of music is anthropology for life.



Additional Resources. The PDF version of this Editors' Note can be located here. Check out the Music and Sound Interest Group of the AAA. Studying music highlights American anthropology as a four field discipline, outlined by the American Anthropological Association statement on What is Anthropology. However, when it comes to the material culture of music as recovered by archaeology, the reconstruction of musical lifeways is especially challenging. See The Acoustic and Auditory Contexts of Human Behavior by Elizabeth C. Blake and Ian Cross in Current Anthropology (2015) for a valuable treatment of archaeological issues and useful references. The articles in this issue of Open Anthropology were included in a longer bibliographic treatment for a blog-post titled Music of Anthropology: Ethnomusicology in a New Key


Acknowledgements. Thanks in this issue to Leah Capparelli and Mike O'Riordan at Wiley-Blackwell who provided encouragement and coordinated the opening of the articles. Chelsea Horton’s wonderful assistance at AAA is vital to keeping Open Anthropology on track!

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