Historical Ethnomusicology SIG

I have recently been elected chair of the Historical Ethnomusicology special interest group of the Society for Ethnomusicology (2009-2011). “Histo-Ethno” is a small but vibrant international community (known as a SIG, for special interest group) consisting primarily of young scholars who study music in all parts of the world. It appears that we currently have around 45 members, although only about one-third that number managed to come to the most recent meeting in Mexico City. I would like to thank the previous chair Dr. Sandra Graham (University of California) for her nomination and encouragement, and secretary Dr. Ann Lucas for her kind support and helpful collaboration.

Historical Ethnomusicology may at first sound like an excessively specialized field of study, yet recently enormous reference works have appeared in related fields that would appear to be much more specialized, such as medical ethnomusicology. Actually, historical studies have been a major part of the field of ethnomusicology for a very long time, yet in recent years both the distinctiveness and significance of historical inquiry are beginning to receive greater attention than ever before. According to Bruno Nettl, “The number of ethnomusicologists doing work of an explicitly historical sort has increased to the degree that the term ‘historical ethnomusicology’ has begun to appear in programs of conferences and in publications” (Bruno Nettl, University of Illinois, 2005, p.274). However, Nettl has cautioned that not all historical studies of non-western music are necessarily ethnomusicological, and that “historical studies, to qualify as proper ethnomusicology, should relate somehow to the central tenets of ethnomusicological definition – relationship to other cultural domains and a view of music as a world of musics” (Nettl, 2005, p.273). These are wise suggestions that require careful consideration.

Kay Shelemay has also made some very important points regarding historical ethnomusicology. While she acknowledged that "most ethnomusicological studies today take history into account when discussing the ethnographic present", she also asserted that "ethnomusicologists can contribute more to the understanding of history than the record indicates" (Shelemay, 1980, p.234).

Recently, another outstanding scholar has at least briefly entertained the notion that the subdiscipline of historical ethnomusicology may be unnecessary: “The claim might now be sustained that all ethnomusicology is historical, just more so or less so as particular research interests and available data allow. One implication of this point of view is that it may be unhelpful to sustain a named subdiscipline called historical ethnomusicology” (Jonathan Stock, in The New (Ethno)musicologies, ed. Henry Stobart, Scarecrow Press, 2008, p.198). Therefore, one of the important challenges across the next two years for the Historical Ethnomusicology special interest group of the Society for Ethnomusicology will be to clarify this subfield’s contributions and delineate its distinctive theoretical concepts and methodological approaches relative to the rest of ethnomusicology. Among our proposed projects is development of an annotated bibliography and definition of the field and its key theoretical issues, as well as a virtual conference on current issues in historical ethnomusicology. I look forward to seeing what we can accomplish over the next two years.

For those interested in learning more about this field, I recommend the following books:

  • Nettl, B., The Study of Ethomusicology: Thirty-one Issues and Concepts. Urbana: University of Illinois, 2005.
  • Stobart, H. (Ed.), The New (Ethno)musicologies. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2008.
  • Kurkela, V. & Vakeva, L. (Eds.), De-Canonizing Music History. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009.
  • Blum, S., Bohlman, P. V., & Neuman, D. M. (Eds.), Ethnomusicology and Modern Music History. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

Also, please see Kay Shelemay's article:
  • Shelemay, K. K. (1980). "Historical ethnomusicology": Reconstructing Falasha liturgical history. Ethnomusicology, 24(2).

[I took the above photos at the 2009 Society for Ethnomusicology conference in Mexico City.]

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