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 They have been archived and may be viewed at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.

1 comment:

  1. An insightful blog on Kwanzaa.Best wishes for your future posts. Asante sana.