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Towards a supplementary approach to the study of African Music within modernity
Martin Scherzinger, Columbia University

1. Introduction

2. African music, comparative musicology and ethnomusicology

3. Ethnomusicology and the context of context

4. A supplementary approach to African music



1. Introduction

What do we do when we want to investigate music that falls outside the Euro-american tradition? Or what do we want when we do investigate music from this Euro-american Elsewhere? I want to advance an angle that is consciously awkward; a strategically essentialist framework for listening; a descriptive language that is in obvious friction with the elusive reality under scrutiny. In short, I want to advance the analysis of music ostensibly outside Euro-america from a formal perspective that is felicitously inside that imagined enclosure.(1)

But why a Western model for, say, an African music? To answer this, I must first outline some of the concerns that structure ethnomusicological discourse, and attempt to show that the ethnomusicological 'sensitivity to the African point of view,' or more generally its 'context sensitivity,' may be dabbling, quite unconsciously, in an implicit academic imperialism.

By way of introduction, consider this simple speculation:let us say that Music Theory and Analysis, a fully fledged academic practice in its own right today, is a manufactured discipline which, by virtue of its centralized position and institutional support, has some of the power to determine the limits of musical value. On this view, music analysis is one device whereby favoured repertories of listening are constructed and transmitted. Hence, there is an interplay between the canon of music and the manner in which it is spoken about. Now consider the idea that African music today tends to be approached within academic discourse from an anthropological perspective, even while Western music is regarded as immanently aesthetic. If these ideas are plausible then, by applying Western models of analysis to other musics, and by deriving results as formally compelling as those for Western works, one may be shedding a critical light on the arbitrary nature of the musical works that are inserted into the canon, and secondly, demanding recognition for music that is (so-called) culturally (so-called) different within this discourse. Strategically analysing African music in terms of Western interpretative criteria from the music-theoretical discourse must, therefore, not be read as the uncovering of a 'truth' (or a 'falsity') about the music, but rather as an attempt, without mastery, to create an additional cultural space, through reclassification, for African music within modernity.

2. African music, comparative musicology and ethnomusicology

What do I mean when I say that African music is approached from an anthropological perspective? A history of definitions of the field of ethnomusicology provides some clues. Initially a study of certain kinds of music, namely 'non-Western', 'exotic', or 'orally transmitted' music, the discipline then gave way to a processual definition of its aims, focusing on the way in which music is to be studied. These changing intellectual traditions reflected a change in the name of the discipline from 'Comparative Musicology' to 'Ethnomusicology' in the 1950s. Many pre-1950 definitions of comparative musicology stress the non-European focus of study.(2) But by 1961 the term 'Comparative Musicology' had been abandoned except as a historical reference, although it periodically reappeared as applying to a portion of the broader field of Ethnomusicology. The anti-comparative stance was motivated by the idea that musical meanings may differ from one culture to another and that comparison of these diverse meanings may become a comparison of unlike things. John Blacking, in 1966, expressed this point of view: "...we may be comparing incomparable phenomena... if we accept the view that patterns of music sound in any culture are the product of concepts and behaviours peculiar to that culture, we cannot compare them with similar patterns in another culture unless we know that the latter are derived from similar concepts and behavior." (Quoted in Merriam, 1977, 193-4) Mantle Hood understood the deployment of comparison to be premature and dangerous: "It seems a bit foolish in retrospection that the pioneers of our field became engrossed in the comparison of different musics before any real understanding of the musics being compared had been achieved." (1963, 233)

The new definitions of Ethnomusicology were constructed in terms of a sharp rupture with the past, emphasizing process over form, the orientation of the student over any rigid boundaries of discourse, the context of music over music sound alone and the cultural totality over component parts of culture. Ethnomusicology now became "...the study of music in culture...," (Merriam: 1960, 109) "...the study of music as a universal aspect of human behavior...," (Nketia: 1962, 1) "...an approach...not only in terms of itself but also in terms of its cultural context...," (Hood: 1969, 298) or "...the study of music as culture...." (Merriam: 1977, 204) Although, in these views, different musics were regarded as aesthetic constructs with their own principles and conventions, they were located in specific social contexts - contexts that grounded their very existence. These studies thus focused on the production of the musical arts, which was activated by particular people at particular times in accordance with particular conventions. The circumstances, the constraints and the embedded interests served by musical practices were additionally investigated. Now, when I refer to the approach to African music informed by an 'anthropological perspective,' I have this later context-sensitive study of music in mind.

3. Ethnomusicology and the context of context

Here are some of the questions that arise in our study of African music today: Why is the 'social context' free of essences and never figured as itself an essentializing gesture? Does the mere invocation of context ensure a separation from discursive strategies that, in turn, may be implicated in the knowledge venture of imperialism? How do we fix this contextual enclosure? Linguistically? Music-stylistically? Ethnically? Geographically? Politically? And whose borders are these? I suggest that engagement with the contextual is as much a convention as that with, say, the formal properties of something. And, if it is true that context reveals to us what matters about cultural items and conventions, then the context of that context should reveal to us what matters about the convention called context. But usually this meta-context has the capacity to create a lack of interest in itself. With this in mind, there is more to be said about the new Ethnomusicology. I will mention only one persistent controversy that was taken up by Kofi Agawu in his recent article "Representing African Music": namely, the inside/outside controversy.

The 'us/them' dichotomy, seemingly overturned in the later Ethnomusicology, disconcertingly resurfaced under the titles 'insider/outsider,' 'anthropologist/informant,' '-etic/-emic,' and so on, in these same accounts. Agawu shows how this distinction is constructed with the aim of acknowledging the differences between what Nazir Jairazbhoy calls "...those who seekknowledge about other musical traditions and those that impart the knowledge." (1989, 628) But what is at stake in this acknowledgment; in thus insisting that certain things cannot be understood by anyone but Africans? Agawu argues that generalizing a collective 'us' (disembodied, disinterested, ageless, classless, ungendered, free of sexuality, ethnicity and of any 'extraordinary' cultural assumptions) is as problematic as generalizing a collective 'them'. Beyond this, he points out how a 'them/us' opposition becomes particularly problematic when the work of certain African scholars is assessed.

For instance, in his review of Kwabena Nketia's book The Music of Africa, Alan Jones writes "...the book does not sound like Africa as anyone who has lived there knows it." (1975, 397) John Blacking too finds Nketia's work "rather short on information about African concepts of organization." (1975-6, 155) By failing sufficiently to engage a distant reality - an epistemological difference - Nketia is criticized for Westernizing/ normalizing the African scene. But normalizing what? The exotic/ impenetrable Africa? In these reviews, to be truly African necessarily implies another epistemology, necessarily separated from its Western counterpart. This opposition is implicit in Ethnomusicology today and in some ways remains the very condition of possibility for the discipline. And I do not think that this is merely an error of fact. What is going on when we want to "...see Africans thinking [only] African thoughts"? (Agawu 1992, 261) For one, it evokes an implicit desire to wish away two centuries of colonization and decolonization as if cultural products could be figured apart from this intervention; but, more importantly, it evokes the desire to exclude the African from a broader global debate. The African is capable of only one discursive style and any departure from this style is marked as reductively Western or even ethnocentric. I want to draw attention to the fact that this (in)capacity to speak in Western tongues transmutes too easily into an (im)permission to speak in them. In this theoretical context, the rigorous invocation of an African context sustains the idea that the investigator becomes a more disinterested or estranged mouthpiece and bypasses the problem of such containment. By underscoring the seemingly constitutive role played by the native, our narratives conceal the degree to which our own language carries its own culture and that this culture in nearly all cases assumes dominance over that which it claims to depict, display or even change.

This is not an argument against 'difference' per se in the representation of African music, but rather to problematize the assumption that any true indigenous perspective must strictly reaffirm the beliefs of that indigenous social formation. Why can the native do nothing but display his/her own peculiarities? In such a discourse, options for debate are potentially foreclosed, the African's participation is contained in the name of a censorious benevolence. In the case of Western art music an interesting anomaly arises. Whoever insists that an analysis of, say, Wagner's "Tristan chord" (subject to such an abundance of, frequently contradictory, interpretations) must resemble the beliefs of the social formation in which it is/was composed/ performed/ heard? Certain musics seem to be exempt from such an insistence, and this alone should give us pause.

4. A supplementary approach to African music

I am therefore calling for a very different kind of engagement with music that falls outside of the purported Western tradition than that encouraged by our current methodological orientations. This call is not a substitute for, but rather a supplement to, our current approaches.

I am calling for an engagement that is troubled by the way anthropological description is potentially implicated in the project of cultural containment, and insists on Africa's unmarked entry into modernity. Thus such an engagement will take the non-Western music under investigation as seriously as anyone takes the highest art in the West. Paradoxically, this involves just the kind of close listening and analysis that is receiving so much criticism today. If, as the argument goes, such formalism is an ideological trick designed to support a specific repertoire of music and to construct and uphold a purported continuity in a certain Western tradition, then why, in the wake of this exposure, do we choose to turn away from formal analysis instead of deploying it to strategically reconstellate culture? Why do we merely demystify without re-enchanting? Do we shun analysis in order to remain free of ideology in our methods? If not, what do we think we gain? Why has the response to the ideological charge of formalism in our discipline been to infuse our study of the Western canon with anthropological methods without the reciprocal infusion of formalism and close analysis in our study of any other music? Why is only Western culture given the benefit of a new critical method? Why do we forget that the confidence of such self-critique gives life to the tradition, does not (on its own) change the subject, but rather inaugurates a still deeper involvement with the West as subject? What are we achieving when we refuse to listen closely to music of whatever origin? Who does the self-critical distancing from formalism serve?

So, to conclude this paper, I must begin again. I advance, once more, the tactical task of adopting formal analytic methods for African music. I realize that these are precisely the methods that suspend a focus on the so-called social and historical context of the music and are, in this sense, dangerous. But I hope it is now clear that this kind of embrace of formalism is thoroughly informed by that context, understood not as an account of other people's customs and beliefs, but as a variety of living traditions already located within modernity. This strategy, far from appropriating African music by merely channelling it into a Western methodology, can render more adequately (than the reportorial anthropological document can) the fictional features of its own making, without giving up the possibility of an intimate understanding of the music's delicacy. I do not see why an analysis that does not tire of even the minutest musical details is necessarily understood as an appropriation in the image of Western music; instead of as a way of becoming very deeply acquainted with precisely what is unique and characteristic about African music.

In a discursive terrain that is riddled with orientalist assumptions and categories, it is time to risk deliberate methodological perversions, to grope in the dark for approaches that are apparently infelicitous, inappropriate, improper, inadequate to the task at hand. After all, knowing the appropriate methods and tools necessarily depends on a prior idealization of the very world view we claim to get to know through those methods. How do we know this beforehand? Arbitrarily, after all, and thus we substitute a cause for an effect without noticing. It is the methods that immediately make sense to us, those that we deem suitable without preparation, that I am trying, against all odds, to actively forget. Instead, I negotiate inappropriate and inadequate terms, the better to resist my common sense, the better to be adequate to the task at hand.


Agawu, Kofi 1992 "Representing African Music" in Critical Inquiry 18 (Winter 1992)

Blacking, John 1973 How musical is man? Seattle: University of Washington Press

____ 1975 Review of 'The Music of Africa', by Kwabena Nketia. African Music 5 (1975-76)

Haydon, Glen 1941 Introduction to Musicology. New York: Prentice Hall

Hood, Mantle 1963 "Music the unknown" in F. Harrison, M. Hood and C. Palisca. Musicology. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall

____ 1969 "Ethnomusicology." In Willi Apel (Ed.) Harvard Dictionary of Music. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Second Edition.

Jairazbhoy, Nazir Ali 1989 Review of 'The Study of Ethnomusicology: Twenty-nine Issues and Concepts', by Bruno Nettl. Journal of the American Musicological Society 42 (Fall 1989)

Jones, Alan 1975 Review of 'The Music of Africa', by Nketia. African Music (1975-1976)

Lachmann, Robert 1935 "Musiksysteme und Musikauffassung". Zeitschrift für Vergleichende Musikwissenschaft 3:1-23

Merriam, Alan 1960 "Ethnomusicology: discussion and definition of the field." Ethnomusicology 4:107-14

____ 1977 "Definitions of 'Comparative Musicology' and 'Ethnomusicology': An Historical-Theoretical Perspective." Ethnomusicology, May 1977: 189-204.

Nketia, Kwabena 1962 "The problem of meaning in African Music." Ethnomusicology 6: 1-7



1. At the July 1997 conference, these ideas were illustrated with reference to a piece of music for Shona mbira, 'Nyamaropa'. This version of the paper concentrates on the theoretical issues raised in that presentation. [back]

2. See for instance Lachmann 1935, 1; Haydon 1941, 218. [back]

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