One of the topics I presented for discussion in the ABET workshop was fieldwork and musical sustainability. The turn to applied ethnomusicology and advocacy for music communities grew out of the “new fieldwork” that began in the 1960s. The new fieldworkers did not think of themselves as scientific investigators only. Gradually, through repeated visits and residencies in those communities they became partners and formed friendships with those whom the old fieldworkers had regarded chiefly as informants.
In the first half of the 20th century, most ethnomusicologists (then called comparative musicologists), anthropologists and folklorists thought that modernization would inevitably doom the variety of musical expression on the planet, and the best a scholar could do was survey, collect, and preserve it in archives where it could be examined, classified, analyzed, and compared in order to shed light on origins, transmission, and the functions of music in human society. The new fieldworkers began to realize that musical expression was dynamic and more resilient than that, and that in some communities it could instead be successfully encouraged within its cultural setting—that is, it might be conserved and renewed. Later, as the conservation discourse turned to sustainability, the new fieldworkers engaged in partnerships and participatory action research within those musical communities. The goal was musical and cultural resilience in the face of—indeed, while undergoing—outward modernization.
In the workshop, Tony Seeger suggested we also discuss a third model, the ethnomusicologist doing fieldwork in his or her native musical community; and so we did. One questioner asked what were the advantages and disadvantages of doing fieldwork in one’s own musical community. This is a perennial question, with a perennial answer: the outsider brings a fresh perspective and is apt to notice things that the insider takes for granted, while the insider has better access and cultural knowledge (some of which an outsider will never quite get right). I said that the moment insiders take on the role of researchers, people in their musical community perceive them differently. They may become more guarded; they may also become more open. Besides, there are degrees of “inside” within a musical community, based on age, knowledge, ability, social and musical capital, and so forth. Although insider/outsider may be useful as a starting point, the dichotomy does not hold, and as a result fieldworkers researching music in their own communities must nonetheless negotiate their subject positions depending on the situation, the people they’re working with, the music and the knowledge associated with it, and other things.
Academically-trained ethnomusicologists doing field research in their own musical communities inevitably take on the role, stance, and identity of researchers who have been educated in the culutral ways of the universities. They may be contrasted with the indigenous scholar, one who—even though he or she may have undergone academic training elsewhere—is perceived primarily as a member of that musical community, belonging to this family, that lineage, etc. Inevitably, the community scholar was born, raised, and will continue to live in that community, whereas the ethnomusicologist (native to the community or not) often is resident elsewhere, teaching at a university or working in a cultural organization outside the native community. Again, this dichotomy isn’t always useful, but when ethnomusicologists form partnerships with community scholars to encourage cultural and musical sustainability, the combination is more effective than either working alone.
Many (but not all) of the Brazilian academics at the ABET conference had formed partnerships with community members and scholars in indigenous communities in the rural areas, and among the urban working-class communities. In the latter, internationally-known Brazilian ethnomusicologist Samuel Araujo has applied the liberation insights of the Brazilian radical educator Paolo Freire, who wrote that education was inevitably a political act and that State educational institutions served to perpetuate inequality and oppression. Among the former, the work of ethnomusicologist Angela Luehning caught my attention. The paper she presented at the meeting was entitled “Sustainability, Musical Heritage and Public Policy,” and was based experientially in a variety of Brazilian neighborhood soundscapes. As it was being presented, and as Ralph Waddey was translating the gist of it to me, I realized that I wanted a copy of the paper to read and study. Prof. Luehning was kind enough to send one to me (in Portuguese, of course) and I put it through Google’s translation program, for a first approximation. Busy since my return, I look forward to reading it next week. Clearly these academics, and their students, were committed to the new fieldwork.
Although we did not discuss this in the workshop, a few of the other Brazilian ethnomusicologists had come to the conference with indigenous community members, some of whom were community scholars. I saw a very interesting presentation of ethnographic video documentaries resulting from partnerships among Brazilian ethnomusicologists and community scholars. One was a joint presentation by ethnomusicologist Marilia Stein and her field partner, Vherá Poty. In the film, Mr. Poty spoke at length about conserving his indigenous culture’s musical and ritual traditions. He is a charismatic young man, a traditionalist in his community much in the same way that Wayne Newell has been among the Passamaquoddy. Indeed, I’ve presented at conferences with Wayne. At the ABET presentation, Mr. Poty chose to sit among the audience rather than on the platform with the other presenters. When he was asked to come to the front with the others, he joked that he was an old man and needed to sit in the back! He came away from the conference refreshed, Professor Stein told me, and with a new interest--in ethnomusicology.
The video documentary that most arrested my attention was shot and edited by a young indigenous film maker whose name I am still trying to find out. It was a vérite video of a group from his village performing an all-night musical ritual in which two lines (men and women) formed half circles and danced in a circle, the women encircling the men. The video began with a few shots of people walking in the village to establish the location, but then for what must have been fifteen minutes the video concentrated relentlessly on this ritual, in which the half circles continued to dance and sing around each other, first in an enclosed structure, and then later (near dawn) outside. The force of the repeated music and dance drew me into the experience and, like some (but not all) of the others who were watching, I was receptive and grateful for it.
After the films were shown, a professor who taught ethnographic documentary filmmaking critiqued the films. He found fault with some of the very things I thought were innovative, particularly in the video showing the all-night music and dance ritual. He questioned whether it was necessary to show the singing and dancing continuously for so long. The indigenous filmmaker began his response by apologizing for his “small voice.” But, he said, “it is the only voice I have.” He went on to say that in fact the singing and dancing went on like that for nearly ten hours and he had showed only a small portion of it. It was what it was. A few of the ethnomusicologists in the audience commented that by concentrating continuously on it, he had conveyed the intensity of the experience. Others felt that it could have been shorter, and contextualized as documentaries often are—by narration and explanation. I was moved to ask who the audience was for this video, and to suggest that it would be unwise to impose a Western filmmaking grammar on indigenous viewpoints. In this case, the indigenous vision produced something innovative and valuable that foregrounded experiential aspects of the ritual. I mentioned Sol Tax’s experiment in giving super-8mm cameras to Navajo back in the early 1970s, with the resulting films showing long shots of sacred spaces where not much appeared to move in the visual frame. I concluded that films like these are the results of fieldwork that is committed to advocacy and applied ethnomusicology beyond mere scientific investigation, and was good to see it at the ABET conference.
Although we did not discuss it in the workshop, it’s worth mentioning that the new fieldwork, applied ethnomusicology and advocacy has not been embraced by the entire ethnomusicological profession. Some are uneasy with the advocacy role, fearing that interference does more harm than good, and that one should not, as an ethnomusicologist, meddle in the “natural” processes of musical change.
On the contrary, these processes are no more “natural” in music than, say, forests. Modernization is no more a natural process than clear-cutting forests. There are other reasons not to do applied ethnomusicology, of course; one can contribute as an ethnomusicologist in other ways. But to write histories of ethnomusicology and neglect or belittle applied work and to maintain that ethnomusicologists ought not to take political stands, that they ought not to advocate on behalf of the musical cultures to which they have made commitments of all sorts—time, intellect, emotion, career, and so forth—seems, to me at least, to require some thought and examination. Just as applied workers should be—and are—reflexive concerning motivation, so should the historian be. Perhaps I will pursue this in a later entry, but at this point I will continue with the other ABET workshop topics that I mentioned in my previous entry: the four principles (diversity, interdependence, limits to growth, and stewardship); heritage tourism and the creative economy contra sustainability; and the difficulties of sustaining unofficial music through official cultural policy.
Additional note as of June 22, 2013: A reader has kindly supplied the name of the indigenous film maker--Marilton Maxikali--and the name of his film, Putoxop's Songs: The Parrot-Men. Further information on the indigenous group and location is in the comment attached to this post. Thank you, Jorgette Lago!
Jeff Todd Titon, “Music, the Public Interest, and the Practice of Ethnomusicology,” Ethnomusicology, Vol. 36, no. 3, 1992. Special issue on music and the public interest, pp. 315-322. See also my essay “Knowing Fieldwork,” in Gregory Barz and Timothy Cooley, ed., Shadows in the Field, 2nd ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 2008, pp. 25-41. Of course, this is not to say that some of the "old" fieldworkers did not practice the new fieldwork; notably there were some, like the anthropologist A. L. Kroeber, who did.
 Both kinds of fieldwork aid sustainability, of course; archives of scholarly data are useful to communities wanting to know about the music of their past. Wayne Newell, for example, found that the J. Walter Fewkes recordings of Passamaquoddy songs made more than 130 years ago opened a window on his indigenous group’s music-making that had been shut. Advocacy, applied ethnomusicology, and the new fieldwork offer ongoing opportunities for partnerships in sustainability efforts, ultimately social and political.