Sustainable Music


Sunday, December 25, 2011

Sustainable Futures

        As noted in the previous entry, at the 2011 SEM conference I was at last able to meet and speak with the music educator Huib Schippers, the founder and director of the remarkable Australian-based international project entitled "Sustainable Futures for Music Cultures." This ambitious project happens to rest partly on concepts that were introduced more than 25 years ago in the first chapter of my book, Worlds of Music (1984; and in four more editions since): the concept of the music culture (brought to the chapter by Mark Slobin), and an idea which as far as I know I was the first to conceive, namely that a music culture functions as an ecological system, or ecosytem. Sustainable Futures "acknowledges that there are serious challenges to many music cultures that are the result of recent changes in 'musical ecosystems.' Based also on a commonly-voiced analogy from cultural conservation work, that certain music cultures constitute endangered resources, it 'seeks to counteract the loss of music cultures by identifying the key factors in musical sustainability, and making this knowledge available to communities across the world. In this way it aims to empower communities to forge musical futures on their own terms'" (

    The project acknowledges continuity with earlier attempts at musical and cultural conservation, and "aims to identify ways to promote cultural diversity and ensure vibrant musical futures in line with those called for by organizations like UNESCO" (Ibid.) Such aims have, of course, been under discussion in this blog since I began it in 2008; but in the US they go back at least to the 1970s which saw the creation of three major federal agencies devoted to cultural conservation: the office of folklife studies at the Smithsonian Institution, with its festival of American folklife; the National Endowment for the Arts, with its folk arts division, and the American Folklife Center, at the Library of Congress. Where the Sustainable Futures project appears to differ from the earlier conservation efforts, though, is in methodology. Rather than direct action in the form of either support to artists, or funneling funds into projects meant to help communities maintain musical traditions; rather than supporting heritage spaces such as festivals where those musical traditions are presented for communities and tourists alike, and rather than forging direct partnerships between ethnomusicologists and other culture workers with communities to work toward mutual goals of a sustainable future for music, this project is a study meant to produce a cultural resource for communities who wish to take command of their own musical futures. It is devoted, first, to studying a select number of music cultures with a focus on aspects thought crucial for sustainability; and second, to establishing a template or set of suggestions, based on that study, that would be shared with communities seeking a sustainable future for their music.

    Another of the distinguishing aspects of the Sustainable Futures for Music Cultures project is its systematic approach to problem-solving. Schippers has designed the study so that the music cultures are being examined in five overlapping areas: musical content and structure; learning and transmission of music; social and cultural contexts of musical traditions; the infrastructure including those "spaces" where music is made, real and virtual, as well as various laws and regulations that affect music within the culture; and finally, the audiences, media and markets, for "most musicians and musical styles depend on communities, audiences and/or markets for their survival." Each of the music cultures under examination constitutes a case study, and of course they will differ in regards to the way they populate each of the five areas; nonetheless, this systematic approach is meant to yield information and a template that will be broadly applicable. The outcome is meant to be both an on-line space and a book or manual. Using the website, communities wishing to take action would be able to do a self-assessment to see where they fall in terms of those five areas, and then learn strategies for musical survival in specific circumstances that relate to their own. The book or manual would guide culture workers and help inform partnerships between them and community members seeking sustainable futures for their music cultures.

    This summary just scratches the surface of the project, which has been running since 2009 and will conclude in 2013. It is generously funded by the Australian government, but the case studies examine music cultures not just in Australia, but all over the world (none, however, in the US, perhaps because the US is not a signatory to the UNESCO treaty on safeguarding intangible cultural heritage) and they involve partnerships with researchers, consultants, universities and organizations in several different nations.

    In conceiving the project, Huib Schippers sought guidance from ethnomusicologists Tony Seeger,  one of the prime movers of the UNESCO initiatives; Deborah Wong, then president of the Society for Ethnomusicology; and a number of others active in the International Council on Traditional Music, which is the strongest organization of its kind outside of the US. He learned about my work and in the summer of 2009 he contacted me, saying that he was going to be at the 2009 SEM conference and would like to discuss the project with me. Unfortunately, our meeting had to wait until last month, because I had accepted an invitation to lecture in Beijing on music and sustainability at around the same time as the 2009 SEM conference, so I could not attend it. But he sent me information about the project, and then when we did meet we had an opportunity to discuss it.

   Huib Schippers and I confirmed that we had many thoughts in common, and that for me it has been exciting to see some of them implemented in such an ambitious way. He asked me if I would like to serve on their advisory board, and I said I would be glad to do so--albeit that the project had already been underway for 2 years--and then, after I returned from the conference, we continued our conversation by email. He invited me to come to Australia at some point next fall to spend a week or so consulting on the project, and in principle I accepted, although we must still work out a mutually convenient time. I told him that I was already contextualizing it within my own knowledge of related initiatives (in the US) in musical and cultural conservation and their history, unable to help myself in making comparisons. I reiterated that after spending a few decades doing applied ethnomusicology I was now at the stage where I wished to draw back and attempt to theorize it; as he knew, my thinking had since 2005 been focused on music and sustainability. I said that I was apt to be critical of certain aspects of the Sustainable Futures project, and was that what he wanted? He affirmed that he did, and that constructive criticism was always welcome. To me this is a promising development; and I look forward to contributing in whatever way I can, while undoubtedly learning a great deal to put to use in working out a theory of music and sustainability, within the field of applied ethnomusicology.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Music and Sustainability in Philadelphia at the SEM Conference

    The annual Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM) conference was held last November 15-19 in Philadelphia, with implications for music and sustainability. Three aspects of that conference were very encouraging. I will comment on two of them here, and save the third for the next entry.

    First, SEM devoted a plenary session to an applied ethnomusicology project. The SEM president, Gage Averill, moderated a panel devoted to a recent anthology of writing on HIV/AIDS education through music in Africa, a project begun several years ago by my dissertation advisee, Gregory Barz, who has been teaching at Vanderbilt for some years and who discovered that the most effective way to get the word out in Uganda about how to prevent HIV/AIDS was not through leaflets, government media, clinics, or public forums but through music--specifically, song texts that educated people about the disease and how to guard against it. Observing that women already were spreading the word on a small scale about HIV/AIDS by making up lyrics about it, as song lyrics traditionally carry news and gossip, Barz more formally initiated a program to encourage HIV/AIDS education through song in Uganda, and the idea caught on throughout the continent, to the point where it has now become public policy. Barz coined a term to describe his work, "medical ethnomusicology," and with a single stroke named a new subfield within applied ethnomusicology. But more important than nomenclature by far is the good work that he and his colleagues have been able to accomplish. The anthology, just published by Oxford University Press, is edited by Barz and Judah Cohen, and titled The Culture of Aids in Africa: Hope and Healing through Music and the Arts.

    Second, as co-chair of SEM's Applied Ethnomusicology Section, I'd invited and convened a roundtable presentation, "Sustaining Folk Arts in Philadelphia," to be facilitated by Debora Kodish, director for 24 years of the Philadelphia Folklore Project (PFP). SEM chose the plenary session and our roundtable as two of only a dozen sessions that they videotaped and streamed live during the conference. They have been archived and may be viewed at

    The Philadelphia Folklore Project is a grass-roots metropolitan non-profit organization who, in their own words, are "committed to paying attention to the experiences and traditions of 'ordinary' people. Our focus is to build critical folk cultural knowledge, sustain vital and diverse living cultural heritage in communities in our region, and create equitable processes and practices for nurturing local grassroots arts and humanities" ( The PFP works with community scholars and directors of various cultural groups in the Philadelphia area, implementing a very pragmatic cultural policy guided not so much by principles of cultural conservation as by a dynamic vision of future possibilities. Debora brought three of those directors to the roundtable, and in answer to her questions they explained how the communities went about creating major ongoing musical, dance, and theatrical projects in the African American and Asian American communities.

    Borrowing here from Debora's language describing it, in the roundtable we explored the possibilities of engaged practice (applied ethnomusicology and public interest folklore), with a focus on how partnerships between community organizations and publicly-engaged scholars can reshape roles, issues, theories, and practices. The three directors of grassroots groups in Philadelphia, encouraged over the years by the PFP's enlightened cultural policy, shared examples of how they have used traditional arts as part of advocacy and outreach/organizing strategies to sustain vital communities in the face of draconian development strategies and challenging social issues, and how folklore and ethnomusicology theory and practices have supported these efforts. Lois Fernandez discussed the work of ODUNDE, a ground-breaking African American festival. Ellen Somekawa discussed the work of Asian Americans United, an activist organization that created the 15-year-old Mid-Autumn Festival and Chinatown's Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School. Dorothy Wilkie discussed the Kulu Mele African Dance and Drum Ensemble, Philadelphia's longest-enduring African dance and music ensemble.

   The PFP is one of the most, if not the most, successful community organizations of its kind. One interesting reason for its success is that instead of attempting to impose folkloric purity and academic standards of authenticity on the ethnic groups whose initiatives it encourages, it recognizes that to have any real life, the expressive forms of culture must arise from within the groups themselves, even when these forms appear to be inventing new traditions rather than continuing and reviving old ones. The idea of folkloric authenticity has its own peculiar history within Euro-American culture, and it is simply not congruent with the creative dynamics of tradition, the way (to take one of the clearest examples) African diaspora peoples have for hundreds of years drawn on the old in constructing new expressive cultural forms. This point was something that the National Endowment for the Arts, Folk Arts Division had a hard time understanding, back in the 1980s, when deciding not to fund grant proposals for support of celebrations like Kwanzaa, an invented tradition. (Kwanzaa was created and named by Maulana Karenga in 1966 as a holiday to bring African American communities together and celebrate a communitarian African heritage.) The ODUNDE festival, while not wholly invented, also falls into the category of those intentional celebrations to which a revivalist stigma attaches. Yet its intentionality combines with grass-roots cultural knowledge to give it the kind of vitality that bespeaks continuity within African diaspora community expression, and PFP's decision to embrace it, rather than discourage it in favor of something more past-oriented, reveals PFP's understanding of how authenticity works within African diaspora cultures.

   Oorganizations such as the PFP stand as examples of interventions on behalf of cultural sustainability that have taken place in the US during the past 40 years, some more successful and some less so. A more global perspective would be useful, and to some extent the UNESCO initiatives on behalf of safeguarding intangible cultural heritage are meant to fill that void. But another project, one which came to my attention in 2009, the Sustainable Futures for Music project, directed by Huib Schippers at Griffith University, in Australia, falls squarely into that global category. He was hoping to meet me at the 2009 SEM conference, and discuss his project with me then and there; but as I was in Beijing at the time, lecturing on music and sustainability at the Central Conservatory of Music, I didn't go to the conference and so didn't get a chance to meet with him. He sent me some information about the project, and in the meantime I was hearing about it from other scholars who understood that we had interests in common; and so we resolved to get together at the next SEM conference that he would attend. That was last month, and it is the third aspect of the conference that I want to bring up. I will do so in the next entry.