A Post-Election View From DC Ethnomusicology

I’m at the Library of Congress, deep within the serpentine recesses of the mighty James Madison Building. The occasion? “Sounds: Public Second Ethnomusicology (SEM) in the 21st Century,” a daylong Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM) pre-conference at the American Folklife Center. The event consists of a series of talks and conversations around people doing ethnomusicology outside of the traditional professorial route. Think public sector folklorists, non-profits arts directors, musical instrument curators, museologists, performers, archivists—even medical doctors and cemetery directors—reflecting on their experiences both inside, outside, and next to the discipline.

For those of you not familiar with ethnomusicology, it can be defined as the study of musics in cultures (or the study of cultures in musics), more or less. It’s grounded in an egalitarian understanding of all peoples, one that embraces and works to promote diversity, be it sonic, expressive, cultural, ritualistic, symbolic, functional, and etc.

The ethnomusicologists here are unflagging in their commitment to these values. Today, however, there is a somber sense of foreboding among the group. Being in DC on the day after the election, and in a field where difference is lauded, we cannot avoid being reminded of what transpired. As SEM President Anne Rasmussen noted, the SEM conference will be opened tomorrow by a female Quranic reciter, exactly the kind of folk who have been targeted in the recent campaign. What’s more, many of the people here today are employed either directly, or indirectly (grants), by the federal govt. In short, our work appears to be at odds with a zeitgeist bent on erecting walls and closing agencies.

However, nihilism is never the answer. Isn’t it time to re-double our efforts to do our work, to promote/interpret/preserve/provide access to everybody’s music? Isn’t it time to reach out to those who are celebrating today? What are the roots of their musics? What values are communicated through their sounds? And how different are they really from our own?


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