Critical Themes in World Music
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Critical Themes in World Music

A Reader for Excursions in World Music, Eighth Edition

Timothy Rommen, Timothy Rommen

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eBook - ePub

Critical Themes in World Music

A Reader for Excursions in World Music, Eighth Edition

Timothy Rommen, Timothy Rommen

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About This Book

Critical Themes in World Music is a reader of nine short essays by the authors of the successful Excursions in World Music, Eighth Edition, edited by Timothy Rommen and Bruno Nettl. The essays introduce key and contemporary themes in ethnomusicology—gender and sexuality, coloniality and race, technology and media, sound and space, and more—creating a counterpoint to the area studies approach of the textbook, a longstanding model for thinking about the musics of the world. Instructors can use this flexible resource as a primary or secondary path through the materials, on its own, or in concert with Excursions in World Music, allowing for a more complete understanding that highlights the many continuities and connections that exist between musical communities, regardless of region. Critical Themes in World Music presents a critically-minded, thematic study of ethnomusicology, one that serves to counterbalance, complicate, and ultimately complement the companion textbook.

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Music is powerful: it can provide the soundtrack for protest (“We Shall Overcome,” Black Lives Matter); it drives or accompanies rituals of all sorts (religious services, healing ceremonies, coronations); it can be mobilized for propaganda (Chinese “Songs for the Masses”); it can trigger memories of places, emotions, tastes, and smells (“Auld Lang Syne,” that slow-dance tune from Prom); it helps us produce solidarities (college team fight songs, indie concerts); it affects our mood (makes our workout more intense, helps us relax at the beach); it is used as a marketing tool (advertising jingles, elevator music); and it drives us to move (whether in the club, at a concert, or in our own living rooms). Music accompanies us through life (“Happy Birthday,” weddings, children’s songs), animating much of what we do and contributing to our sense of self (playlists, fandom). It is, in fact, so ubiquitous that we could be forgiven if we sometimes take its power for granted in our everyday lives.
But what if we really pay attention to music? What if we listen carefully for what we can hear, discover, and come to understand through sound? One of the aims of the discipline of ethnomusicology is to engage deeply with sound and music in order to come to a better understanding of what it means to be human, what it means to live in community, and what it means to make social and political meaning through sound. As a discipline rooted in the humanities but drawing methodologically from the social sciences (and anthropology, in particular), ethnomusicology has a lot to offer to those who are interested in these big ideas and in how they can help us “hear” power, or subjectivity, or memory, among many other possibilities.

Area Studies?

This short reader, designed to accompany your textbook, Excursions in World Music, aims to introduce you to some of the critical themes that occupy ethnomusicology in the contemporary moment. In so doing, it creates a counterpoint with a rather longstanding model for thinking about the musics of the world within the discipline of ethnomusicology itself. Let me explain: your textbook, Excursions in World Music, is organized according to a logic that was very prevalent throughout the US academy in the mid- to late-twentieth century—that is to say, it is organized around the idea of area studies. Although thinking about music in Maritime Southeast Asia or the Middle East is, without doubt, one productive way to present some of the musics of the world, it goes without saying that there are also significant drawbacks to such an organizational structure. For starters, it can inadvertently suggest a homogeneity within regions that is not ever as stable or complete as it may seem. A regional approach also makes it harder to highlight the many continuities and connections that exist between musical communities that happen to live in different “regions.” Charting musical migrations or the sounds of shared waterways is just harder to accomplish within an area studies model.
The important thing to understand about area studies is that it grew out of US cold war policy, which dictated that understanding the languages, histories, and cultural practices of those regions not yet aligned with the US or the Soviet Union would be key to the continued spread of democracy (and with it the expansion of US interests and influence). The connection to ethnomusicology (and, by extension, to your textbook) is that significant resources were poured into universities for the purpose of establishing Area Studies Centers—a turn of events that had dramatic effects on what it was possible to study and how such study was structured. Studying cultural areas, thus, became something that anthropologists and ethnomusicologists did, and it also became something that they trained their students to do. Structuring courses and textbooks around regions was a fairly straightforward application of this approach within curricula, and Excursions in World Music is a good example of this model.
I mention this historical context here because ethnomusicologists, like scholars in many other disciplines, must be clear-eyed about the lasting impact of what has been called the colonial matrix of power (Quijano 2000). What I mean here is that the academy itself bears within its own structures of thought and institutional practices the intellectual biases and economic benefits of the long colonial project (and area studies is but one concrete example of this project). What counts as knowledge? Who gets to decide what is valued and what is not? What is taught and what is not? Who decides where resources are spent?
This reader offers an opportunity to reflect on how answers to these questions can offer a foundation for drawing the best from the past while guarding against any uncritical assumption that current scholarship is somehow “superior.” For example, this reader is organized along a more contemporary approach revolving around theme, not region, but this approach, too, has drawbacks. Privileging themes instead of regions can, for example, inadvertently draw equivalencies across rather incommensurate musical practices and communities. It can also pay insufficient attention to those musical practices that complicate or only partially connect with a particular theme but are, nevertheless, crucial to arriving at a balanced understanding.
There are good reasons, then, to preserve a critically informed area studies or regional model of presentation and to pair it with an equally critically-minded thematic one. These approaches counterbalance and complicate one another and it is in this spirit that you should engage with this reader. As you read the chapters in your textbook, you’ll notice that many authors have chosen to take a thematic approach to their regional coverage, doing a bit of this kind of work even within each chapter. Each chapter in the reader inverts this presentation of materials and ideas, introducing a crucial theme that is then illustrated with reference to three or four musical examples drawn from several different chapters in Excursions in World Music. In so doing, the goal is to connect both modes of presentation and thus highlight their strengths.

World Music?

Before thinking a bit more specifically about the aims of this reader and the chapters themselves, I’d like to briefly explore one more history—the history of World Music, a concept that appears in the titles of both your textbook and this reader. In fact, you can think of this as the first “critical theme” to which this reader is dedicated. World Music is a convenient catch-all term for musics that fall outside of the North Atlantic (primarily Anglophone) popular music industry. As such, it can offer a way of grouping together many of the musics of the world. It is also an industry term that has spawned recording labels, festivals, and tours, mostly owned, organized, and operated by North Atlantic (read White) interests. And yet, it is also a term that, since the 1980s, when it started to be used, has been both exceedingly opaque and incredibly confining/constricting/delimiting for those artists who find themselves characterized as “world musicians.”
Opaque because it makes no distinction between art musics, traditional practices, and popular musics. Leaving aside, for the moment, the difficulty of arriving at any satisfactory definition of these categories in the first place, it is clear that Hindustani music, joiks, and soca are better thought of as distinct practices rather than grouped together as examples of “World Music.” A category this capacious ultimately loses all coherence and explanatory power. Confining/constricting/ delimiting because, once categorized and marketed as “world musicians,” artists are separated from the North Atlantic music industry, and this despite the fact that many of these musicians are deeply invested in genres that could easily count as more intimately connected to the North Atlantic music industry than they are to “World Music.” For instance, how do we think about Hip Hop in Ghana or Senegal? R&B or Indie music in India? World Music is, in these cases, revealed as a market category that confines artists in ways that their practice obviously and consistently transcends.
World Music is also yet another example of the colonial matrix of power in the contemporary moment. As articulated by cultural brokers, intellectuals, and the industry, what counts as art music is, in fact, Western Classical music, and not Hindustani music or Javanese Gamelan, or the many other art musics the world over. Those practices are conveniently relegated to the category of World Music. What counts as popular music, moreover, is sung mostly in English and produced in and disseminated from the North Atlantic. This means that “popular musics” such as Dangdut, or Cumbia, or Soukous, are relegated to the same category—World Music. The same principle holds for traditional musics of the “West” versus those from the rest of the world. And this deeply flawed and colonially-informed logic isn’t just an industry issue. It is translated directly into the academy by means of courses like “Introduction to World Music” or through courses that focus on popular music, or art music, but take for granted that the terrain upon which such courses are built incorporates only the North Atlantic.
The continuing coloniality of World Music has been clear to many within the industry and the academy for many years. As just one example of this, David Byrne (of Talking Heads fame), wrote a stinging article for the New York Times, entitled “I Hate World Music” (Oct 3, 1999), in which he bluntly assessed the issues I’ve been outlining here. He wrote:
So, we would all do well to approach an album, a course, a textbook, or a reader (like this one), that proposes to deal with World Music with a healthy dose of skepticism. And yet, the term World Music also offers us an opportunity to think about how, even as we acknowledge the challenges and difficulties of the term, we can confront the state of the industry and the academy and then begin to unpack what we can learn about the musics of the world when we step outside of this category. In other words, holding World Music in a critical light offers a starting point for undoing its legacies and logics. So, I’d like to suggest that continuing to address ourselves to a concept like World Music allows us to problematize its assumptions, to hold it in tension with the many other ways we might categorize the musics of the world, and to reveal something of the ongoing specters of coloniality that continue to structure our experiences and even our curricular options.

Critical Themes

Let’s now turn our attention to thinking about the aims of this companion reader. Perhaps we should start with a few questions. Why study music at all? What can we learn from listening to and thinking about the musics of the world that we couldn’t learn better through attending to other subjects? How does music afford us access to ways of thinking and being not easily addressed in other ways? In order to answer these questions, I’ll touch briefly on four broad categories within which thinking through sound and music can provide particular insight.

Music and Encounter

Ethnomusicology is a discipline that relies methodologically on fieldwork and ethnography. As such, one of the distinguishing features of this discipline is the privileged place accorded to encounters of all sorts. These encounters often take place between ourselves and the musicians, producers, listeners, and other interlocutors we work with in the field, but they can also involve our experiences with new ideas about music or new perspectives on history, to name but two of many possibilities. As we engage with our interlocutors, then, our encounters can include a wide range of experiences, including confronting difference, or discovering histories of deep connection. Our encounters can help us work toward understanding patterns of musical life that revolve around diaspora, or migration, or exile. Encounters also offer us a foundation from which to wrestle with the obvious legacies of coloniality in the communities we work among and a starting point for our attempts to come to terms with histories of violence and trauma. Our encounters with technology also shape our relationship to sound and music, both in terms of how we listen, and also in thinking about media flows and the mechanics of sound production, recording, and distribution.
One of the things that the authors of all the chapters in this reader share is a deep commitment to thinking with individuals and their communities. And, as you can imagine, encounters with our fellow world citizens are bound up in very important considerations around power relationships, the politics of representation, and questions of reciprocity. All of these concerns around how best to approach our encounters in the field and our responsibilities and obligations after we return “home,” moreover, are part of the next category we need to consider—ethics.

Music and Ethics

Ethnomusicologists face a set of ethical issues in the course of our work. Each and every time we venture to explore a new project, revisit old friends and interlocutors, or decide to publish our findings in journals or as films, we need to consider the ethics of our actions. So let’s think just briefly about the three areas I mentioned above. You are likely familiar with power relationships in your own experience. Some of them are fairly commonplace: when you were in middle school you likely tried to respect your teachers, because they might have given you a detention if you didn’t; or maybe you were someone’s supervisor at the job you worked at in high school, in which case you may have had a bit of power over their work schedule or raises? You’ve also likely encountered situations in which gender dynamics revealed underlying power differentials? Think here of certain forms of male privilege and entitlement (mansplaining, for instance). In all of these cases, there is the potential for those with more power in a given relationship to abuse that in some way.
In the case of ethnomusicologists, these power relationships are somewhat more complex. We are often in unfamiliar places, beholden to our interlocutors for guidance and kindnesses as we figure out how to get around and get used to things. And yet, we are also often only temporary residents in these places (a semester or two, thanks to a grant), have the ability to return to our university campuses or research centers, benefit from a certain freedom of mobility and access afforded to us by our affiliations (both national and institutional), and have other forms of power to which our local interlocutors may not have access. Cultivating an awareness of how we are relating in these situations, and developing a vigilance about the explicit and implicit power relationships at play in any given context are thus crucial to our ability to foster equitable and ethical relationships in the course of our fieldwork.
As a rule, ethnomusicologists tend to be strong advocates for the people, musics, and cultures they study—people, musics, and cultures which have often experienced long histories of exclusion or marginalization within North Atlantic academia. And yet, we also tend to be members of university communities, and we are often researching and writing for a living (that is, we are producing dissertations, and then articles, films, and books from the encounters we have in the “field”) and must therefore negotiate additional ethical questions in the process of translating our encounters with our interlocutors into texts largely consumed by the scholarly community. These questions and concerns we can group under the rubric of the politics of representation. Who speaks? Who has the power to dictate the narrative or storylines? Who gets to decide what gets left out? There are many ways of addressing these concerns, such as: co-authoring sections of or whole documents with our interlocutors; circulating drafts of our work and then engaging with our interlocutors’ responses to it; or, creating multiple “products/texts” and making them more accessible to the communities we work with through online repositories, photo essays, films, or oral history projects. All of these strategies for addressing the politics of representation fall under the category of reciprocity. That is, what can we do to give even as we receive in these encounters?

Music and/as Performance

And this brings me to the third category that broadly defines the work of ethnomusicologists. We are, as a group, alive to the possibilities of performance—and this...

Table of contents

Citation styles for Critical Themes in World Music
APA 6 Citation
[author missing]. (2020). Critical Themes in World Music (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2020)
Chicago Citation
[author missing]. (2020) 2020. Critical Themes in World Music. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
[author missing] (2020) Critical Themes in World Music. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
[author missing]. Critical Themes in World Music. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2020. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.