Ethnomusicology and world music

Writing assignment for Ethnomusicology: History and Theory with David Samuels

People like me listen to world music to hope for and imagine a world without imperialism. I’ve sampled Central African pygmy music in my own work, and while I do a better job of attributing my sources than Deep Forest does, I’m motivated by the same impulse.

Timothy Brennan attributes the popularity of African diasporic music among white people to our unconscious desire to resist imperial capitalism. The same is true of world music.

More than just expanding tastes, world music characterizes a longing in metropolitan centers of Europe and North America for what is not Europe or North America… It represents a flight from the Euro-self at the very moment of that self’s suffocating hegemony, as though people were driven away by the image stalking them in the mirror (Brennan 2001, 46).

But world music is itself a form of imperialism. The term “world” music would more accurately describe Michael Jackson or Beethoven. What we really mean is music that is hyper-specific to particular regions. Feld (2000) observes that “world” music is really third world music, the same music that was formerly known by terms like primitive, exotic, tribal, ethnic, folk, traditional, and international. When the music academy separates “musicology” from “ethnomusicology” they effectively separate white music from non-white music.

Feld’s article is about the Solomon Islands singer sampled by Deep Forest on their hit “Sweet Lullaby.” I went to listen to “Sweet Lullaby” on YouTube. The first comment gives context on the sample:

This song is originated from Solomon Islands in the South Pacific. The chant was stolen in the late 40s. Tract recorded without the consent of the woman. The woman was from Fataleka, one of the village known as Namofata located at the interior of Fataleka in Malaita Province. The woman who sang this chat, her name was Olifikwaso.

A long discussion about authenticity follows. The most recent comment says, “Oh shut the fuck up and enjoy the song.” My ideals align with the first comment but my actions are closer to the last one.

World music is

about exploration, about the power and privilege to contact and know, to take away and use. That these blends and mixings are celebrated as liberatory and inspiring, that they unquestionably bring pleasure and stimulation to many, retells a story of the affinities of moderns and primitives… And like other sites of discovery, this one provokes the same anxious question: Is World music a form of artistic humiliation, the price primitives pay for attracting the attention of moderns, for gaining entry into their world of representation (Feld 2000, 166)?

Nick Gold describes the albums he produces as being like “eavesdropping on something private” (quoted in Whitmore 2016, 341).

Modernity is the result of traumatic upheaval: political, social, economic, spiritual. upheaval. Industrial capitalism dispossessed European peasants as much as it did people in the colonies. Indigeneity is the opposite side of modernism’s coin. The words “traditional” and “authentic” are political terms (Samuels, 2017).

The imperialists imagined themselves to be bringing civilization to the primitive people of the world, but in so doing they got exposed to global musical experiences that showed the limits of the Western art tradition. I was certainly drawn to world music because I find classical music boring. Like most Americans, I like music with cross-rhythms, varying timbres and wildly diverse acoustic ambiances. We call that music rock, or hip-hop, or EDM, or reggae, or any of the other popular musics descended from the African diaspora.

Westerners engage in cultural tourism to fill the hole left by our lost sense of community. When Whitmore’s subjects talk about “World Music Dad”, they literally describe me, though I go in more for Hawaiian shirts than Bermuda shorts.

Associating this exotic, non-Western intimacy and connection with truth and the real, audiences search for immersive yet foreign experiences that allow them to connect with other peoples, spaces, and values without ever losing sight of the exit (Whitmore 2016, 335).

Meanwhile, stifling though I might find it, I sit secure in the culture of American whiteness. (Not totally secure, there’s the whole Jewish thing.)

The passion with which native intellectuals defend the existence of their national culture may be a source of amazement; but those who condemn this exaggerated passion are strangely apt to forget that their own psyche and their own selves are conveniently sheltered behind a French or German culture which has given full proof of its existence and which is uncontested (Fanon 1961, 147-148).

Meanwhile, we tend to forget that indigenous people are capable of self-awareness in their creativity, and they can’t help but be conscious of the broader context of their music. Fanon points out that native intellectuals tend to pick up the techniques and language of the colonials, practicing exoticism on their own culture. The cartoonish exaggeration of gangsta rap is a reaction against the demonization of gangsta rap. Who could blame the rappers for being angry?

The coverage of hip-hop in the United States, I would argue, belongs in a study of postcoloniality because it replays in many ways those reports by colonial officials in the nineteenth century on the primitive customs of unruly natives. The U.S. mainstream media’s grasp of the genre known as “rap” is as distant from the source and often as hostile as much of the imperial travel narratives from earlier centuries – viewing events within their own country with the confusion and distaste usually reserved for reporting on antique lands (Brennan 2001, 51-52).

Ethnomusicology has its flaws, its hidden agenda, its problematic politics. But at least it has its heart in the right place. Regular musicology imagines itself to be non-ideological but, as a tool of empire, is intrinsically conservative and in favor of hierarchy. Radano and Olaniyan (2013) point out the strong correlation between tonal theories and conservative ideologies. Even a casual glance at Heinrich Schenker’s writing will confirm the truth of that. See also Roger Scruton and all my friends over at Slipped Disc.

Tonality brought into audible form a naturalized, iconic civility, which, in turn, rendered that which sounded different as many calamities of noise in need of discipline, muting, silence. The command to silence grew from an effort to contain the din—the noise of the “Negro,” “Chinaman,” and “lazy native”—commonly portrayed in European travelogues over four centuries, together with those interior, domestic forms of irrationality and difference within emerging empires: the hysteria of women; the clatter of the rabble (Radano & Olaniyan 2013, 8).

Ethnomusicology still shows its roots in classical music scholarship. Philip Tagg calls its chosen areas of study “the academic safari canon.”

The imperial conditions of European art music study and practice—repertoire as focus of analysis; value and significance determined by complexities of form—also established the character of how ethnomusicology would play out as an academic discipline (Radano & Olaniyan 2013, 11).

Like World Music Dad, ethnomusicology prefers artistic abstractions to the messy politics on the ground. The Buena Vista Social Club has nothing to say about Castro. Graceland has nothing to say about Apartheid. Credit to M.I.A. for attempting to redress some of this. How can we inside the empire listen critically when the empire made it possible for us to listen in the first place?


Timothy Brennan (2001) World Music Does Not Exist. Discourse 23(1):44-62.

Steven Feld (2000) A Sweet Lullaby for World Music. Public Culture 12(1): 145-171.

David Samuels (in press) “The Oldest Songs They Remember: Frances Densmore, Mountain Chief, and Ethnomusicology’s Ideologies of Modernity.” In Indigenous Modernities (Victoria Lindsay Devine & Dylan Robinson, editors).

Charles Taylor (1995) Two Theories of Modernity. Hastings Center Report 25(2): 24-33.

Aleysia Whitmore (2016) The Art of Representing the Other: Industry Personnel in the World Music Industry. Ethnomusicology 60(2): 329-355.

Frantz Fanon (1986[1961]) On National Culture: Mutual Foundations for National Culture and Liberation Struggles. In The Wretched of the Earth (Constance Farrington, translator). New York: Grove, pp 145-170.

Ronald Radano & Tejumola Olaniyan (2013) Introduction: Hearing Empire–Imperial Listening. In Audible Empire: Music, Global Politics, Critique. Durham: Duke University Press, pp 1-24.

One thought on “Ethnomusicology and world music

  1. This is a decent description of ethnomusicology in the 60s/70s but a really inaccurate portrayal of the field today. And judging by your Deep Forest example, I’m guessing that you’ve recently taken some kind of ethnomusicology overview intro class, but it’s not something you’ve spent a lot of time with.

    It’s really surprising to see someone say “ethnomusicology prefers artistic abstractions to the messy politics on the ground.” because if anything you usually hear the opposite complaint from right-leaning scholars, and if you read what ethnomusicologists have been writing for the past several decades or go to a conference and hear younger scholars presenting, you’d see the field is almost entirely devoted to issues of politics. In my entire time in grad school we didn’t listen to music in class once, at major programs that’s generally the case unless the course is designed for undergrad non-majors. There’s almost no one being taken seriously (if anyone?) who is just writing about music in the abstract, and for the past decade there’s been more scholarship on subcultures based around American pop music than anything else.

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