Tuned in to vibes of the global tribes

March 8, 2002

Ethnomusicologists are looking to the future as much as to the past in exploring diverse musical traditions, says Michael Church.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man: the fact that we know so much about the music the Taliban tried to snuff out is largely due to John Baily, who, with his wife, Veronica Doubleday, made an epic series of recordings in Herat 25 years ago. Later this year they will return to Afghanistan, laden with cassettes of these recordings - mosque chants, lullabies and love songs - whose "repatriation" may help Afghanistan's indigenous musical culture rise from its ashes. This is no mere metaphor because the Taliban gave orders that any instruments found should be burnt.

Baily, moreover, has just had the satisfaction of seeing Goldsmiths College, University of London, where he is a lecturer, open Britain's first Afghan Music Unit. But he does not teach much Afghan music at Goldsmiths: his primary job is to inculcate the history and theory of ethnomusicology and to train students in field research.

He is one of a select band in Britain's university music departments. There are just 20 full-time ethnomusicologists in British academe. Jonathan Stock, who teaches ethnomusicology at the University of Sheffield, says this is just 4 per cent of the UK's musical faculty. "We're regarded as peripheral, as is the music we deal with." When you consider that that means 95 per cent of the music in the world, this is a provocative thought - as is a comparison with the US, where 40 per cent of music faculty are ethnomusicologists.

And if you thought the boom in world music meant a shot in the arm for ethnomusicology, you would be only half right. For every world-music CD with informative liner notes - a sine qua non , if the exercise is to mean anything beyond easy listening - there are a dozen whose notes are vestigial or non-existent. And not all of Britain's ethnomusicologists are over the moon about Radio 3's new World Music Awards. Baily's view is caustic. "Those awards are an extension of world capitalism. They're about fostering elites. The jury aren't even bothering to identify the elites that exist. They're busily creating their own."

As Baily points out, such thinking is profoundly inimical to the approach in which he was schooled under John Blacking, an inspirational anthropologist whose department at Queen's University, Belfast, was a magnet for aspiring young ethnomusicologists in the 1970s and 1980s. On the other hand, nobody could deny one benefit of increased media attention, which is that students are queuing up to study the subject.

But what is it? The word ethnomusicology was coined in the 1950s, but the activity goes way back. Its first practitioners were missionaries, explorers and colonial civil servants; French Jesuits reported on music in China, and Swiss theologians on music in Brazil; Captain Cook's voyages in the Pacific led him to make copious notes on the islanders' music and dance.

The birth of ethnomusicology as a scholarly discipline came with Carl Stumpf's study of a group of Bella Coona Indians from British Columbia in 1886. Stumpf went on, with the aid of the Edison phonograph, to pursue his grail of a musical map of the world. The Berlin Phonogramm-Archiv, for which his recordings provided the core, grew from its inception in 1900 into a magnificent library. While German scholars went to the ends of the earth, their Central European colleagues such as Bartok and Kodaly, preferred to study their own traditions.

From the beginning, the discipline was concerned not only with how music sounded but why it sounded as it did: anthropology was always the key, with its basic tools of documentation, interpretation and analysis. And as anthropological thinking has fluctuated, so has the use of those tools in ethnomusicology. It mirrors anthropology's debates over the role of power and politics, race and gender; the anthropologists' concern with the role of the "participant observer" in fieldwork is being fruitfully explored by ethnomusicologists. Cognitive science is coming into the equation: ethnomusicology is no longer one discipline but a cluster. And if it started out on the back of colonialism and trade, it now has different motors, of which cheap global travel is only one. There is nothing new in the idea of a cultural diaspora, but 20th-century migrations and persecutions have led to a whole series of new diasporas. Baily's didactic focus is increasingly on the use of film as a fieldwork tool and on performance itself. "Many of the insights I've arrived at - notably to do with the interaction between the instrument and the human body - have come through my own performance on the Afghan dutar," he says. And at the music department of London's School of Oriental and African Studies there is a comparable stress on performance, with a variety of ensembles - some Asian, some African - in which students can play. Those doing a masters degree can get part of their fees offset against the cost of private lessons in instruments such as the Japanese koto, or the horse-hair fiddle known as the kobuz.

Soas is British ethnomusicology's powerhouse. Its resident Africanist is Lucy Duran, doyenne of Radio 3's World Routes , and its best-known Chinese specialist is Stephen Jones, whose Folk Music of China is a definitive guide. Alex Knapp is the world's top authority on Jewish music, and Richard Widdess, who heads the department, is an authority on early Indian ragas. Soas's Japan expert, David Hughes, may be American but that has not prevented him becoming a celebrity in Japan as a multitalented performer on a range of traditional instruments. With teachers of this calibre - all producing a steady stream of academic papers - it is no wonder student numbers are growing fast.

Many come from overseas, some already armed with their own instrumental expertise; others are keen to acquire a knowledge of their heritage. Many are - or become in the course of their studies - "bi-musical", that is, proficient in western and eastern (or African) styles. They do field research first in Britain and then overseas. There are not yet enough jobs in Britain to absorb them as academic ethnomusicologists, but many take up academic posts abroad.

Suzel Reily at Queen's gives a long list of spheres into which her graduates have gone: music education may be the most common, but museum work and the media also loom large. With globalisation threatening to kill indigenous musics in every continent, ethnomusicology's capacity to cherish and preserve has never been more precious. But as Reily points out, humans'

capacity to combine sounds in new ways is inexhaustible. "As long as there are people making music," she says, "ethnomusicologists will have a job to do." In British universities, however, ethnomusicology's relationship to "musicology" is still uncertain.

Hughes points out that for many years Soas defiantly had no piano on campus: "When people asked why, I would reply by asking why their department had no shakuhachi. What's so important about a piano?" His colleague Rachel Harris looks forward to a glorious future "where we are all simply musicologists". On the other hand, Reily, who is researching the music of popular Catholicism in Brazil, seems relatively content to think of herself as an anthropologist. "I have never thought of myself as a musicologist," she says. There is a feeling, however, that with musical analysis moving beyond an obsession with scores, classical musics that are never written down may at last gain more respect. Meanwhile, the hot issues bubble on: challenges from Africa and Asia to the still-prevalent western assumption that a global, monolithic view of music is possible, and continuing debate about the troublesome prefix "ethno". Why is Djelimady Tounkare's music ethnic, but Mozart's not? Discuss.

John Baily will be one of the performers at the London Concert for Afghanistan, to be held at the Royal Albert Hall on March 14, 7.30pm.

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