Is Complex Music Socially Significant? Doing Ethnomusicology in South Asia

By Qureshi, Regula Burckhardt | Canadian University Music Review, January 1, 1995 | Go to article overview

Is Complex Music Socially Significant? Doing Ethnomusicology in South Asia


Qureshi, Regula Burckhardt, Canadian University Music Review


This paper has a dual purpose: to highlight significant social content within the complex musical traditions of South Asian elite culture and to relate this explicitly ethnomusicological project to the context of "mainstream" Western rnusicology.1 In a world of communicative interpenetration and acknowledged pluralism-and of increasing Western domination-the conversation of those who think about music has been quite naturally assuming global dimensions, if only in the acknowledgement implied by the addition of the term "Western" to the titles of some music textbooks.2 To the increasingly cosmopolitan reality of musical scholarship and of music itself, elhnomusicology3 brings a commitment to culture-specific music studies which offer an explicitly cross-cultural foundation for a truly comparative musicology.4

Music and Area Study

Although situated within the academic domain of music, ethnomusicology also engages with the entirely different disciplinal frame of area studies. Such involvement, however, tends to be individual rather than institutional, and joint conversations across the two academic constituencies of music and area studies have been sporadic at most. Obvious reasons are the geographic and cultural differences between the rather solitary field of musicology on one side and the highly interdisciplinary agglomerates of area studies on the other. In addition, there is a peculiarly Western notion of music as deeply interior and outside the grasp of mere intellect. Placed within both worlds, ethnomusicologists are in a position to interpret these geographic and cultural differences more broadly as challenges, starting with an exploration of each other's premises, including those of elhnomusicology itself.

South Asian Area Studies are comprehensively conceived around the concept of culture, in the "humanities sense" of cultural heritage as well as the "social science sense" of lifeways. They include in their scope both elite and folk orientations, categories reinforced in South Asia by the Redfieldian concepts of Great and Little Tradition.5 More recently, a critical examination of the scholarship is introducing post-Orientalist issues to the entire field. Among cultural idioms and materials, languages and literature take a central place; music, however, tends to be marginalized, mainly as an adjunct to visually accessible arts or to social and religious themes. Because of a deep-seated Western notion that music is a domain accessible only to specialists, South Asianists-like most anthropologists-have yet to be persuaded that music is profoundly significant within the life of human communities.6

Musicology, the "home" discipline for nearly all ethnomusicologists, has been in the process of expanding and refining its unitary Western historical focus, moving toward what one might call "historical relativism," consciously acknowledging the cultural integrity of historical periods as observed from the vantage point of the historian. Newcomb, Powers, and Treiller exemplify this trend in their historical work.7 More explicitly, Jeffery calls for an ethnomusicologically guided historical musicology, while Tomlinson lays the theoretical groundwork for a conception of cultural context or "archaeology" of music history.8 At the same time, there is among some musicologists an understandable reluctance to face the disquieting prospect of substituting cultural relativity for received Western humanistic premises of preeminence for the Western arts.

Ethnomusicology and Social Relevance

Ethnomusicologists have lived with canon-less uncertainty since thediscipline' s inception; their search for an expanded research paradigm for music9 has centered on the explicitly social-contextual perspective of anthropology with its systematic application of a holistic frame of reference. 10 This calls for examining a society's music making in relation to all societal domains, including subsistence and economy, social organisation, and ideology and belief system. …

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