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Friday, July 15, 2011

"What's your music?"

I write this while I am attending a big conference. Several hundreds (!) of ethnomusicologists from all over the world are meeting in Newfoundland, Canada, these days, to present their research to each other, to meet and have fun.
I like ethnomusicologists. I am one myself, but that is not the reason. The reason is that most of them are passionately in love with music. That many of them are not passionately in love with their own  music, but with someone else’s music which has become theirs after some time, makes them even more adorable.
The usual question to ask among ethnomusicologists when you meet someone new (and I meet new people constantly, these days) is, after the ”what’s your name”- and “where ya from”-questions, one of the two Big Questions to be asked: either “What’s your music” or “What’s your area”? (I sometimes try the alternative “What’s your topic” – see below for reasons – but that does not work half as well.)
So what’s my music or my area, people ask me for breakfast, lunch and supper. There were times I could answer that question (“with head high”, as the Dutch say). First it was Moroccan music, or better: the music of Moroccan migrants in the Netherlands. Then it was Frisian music. Morocco. Friesland. Clear answers for an ethnomusicologist.
After some time those answers left me. In a way I could maybe still pertain that I am “in” Friesland, judging by the enthusiasm with which I occasionally tell about music/language/identity over there. But I have not done anything with it for many years now. I have been working on multicultural music education, but that’s not a Music, nor a Country. It is a Topic, though. And I could present myself as an “applied ethnomusicologist”, something that is quite fashionable these days in the world of ethnomusicology, and has become connected with “advocacy” and “dialogic research”. (Sorry for the words. I will write about all that in a later blog, I promise.)
But multicultural music education is also kind of disconnecting from me, although it will probably remain, like Friesland, with me in a way for a long time. I find the only way I can answer the question about “my” music or “my” area nowadays is in the negative. No particular music. No area, apart from my own backyard. So I say I’m into “ethnomusicology-at-home”, which is a term most people understand but hardly appreciate.
And I understand that. I know what it is to be gripped by an unknown music. It happened to me many many times. Irish fiddling, North-African classical music, Moroccan Berber songs, the sound of the kora, the Chinese q’in, and very strongly the Bolivian saya. You hear it, and it fits like a glove. I understand why people devote a life getting into a music.
But gradually for me the importance of the music has, for me, given way to the importance of the musical occasion. Yes, I am still gripped by certain musics. But more important is that I am gripped by situations. Looking back I think this process of situationalizing my musical appreciation (attending conferences is bad for your English) started at least when I was about 18 or 19. Trying to find out what made the Zangeres zonder Naam so special for many people was not because I loved her music per se, but because I loved her concert I attended – the way she and the audience related was to me very special (and maybe in a way connected to the folk fiddling sessions I attended since I was 15; the genealogy goes back and back and back, once you come to think of it).
So now I don’t have a music, or an area. Basically, I am interested in what people do with music. Any kind of people doing any thing with any music.
Hardly a topic, even.

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