Sounding Decolonial Futures: Decentering Ethnomusicology's Colonialist Legacies

Introduction to this project

Three crucial events mark the beginnings of ethnomusicology in the United States... All of them related to the study of American Indian tribal music (rather than exotic art musics which interested earlier scholars), and necessarily involved both field work and an anthropological approach to the work. They were Thomas Alva Edison's invention of the phonograph in 1877, which made field recordings of actual sound possible; Theodore Baker's 1881 thesis on Seneca Indian music resulting from his own field work; and the first field recordings of North American Indian music, made by Jesse Walter Fewkes in 1890. (Mervyn McLean, 2006. Pioneers of Ethnomusicology. p. 52). 

This project is the product of an upper-level ethnomusicology class dedicated to exploring ethnomusicology’s colonialist legacies and moving beyond them, engaging in what many today might call “decolonizing” the field, though later, following the lead of Tuck and Yang (2012), we propose a more measured and cautious approach to this term. The class came about for several reasons, including the social justice orientation of Oberlin’s students demanding a better future. But it was also mobilized by receiving a series of piano arrangements for what were called “Primitive Indian Tunes.”

When I, Jennifer Fraser, Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology, received these items from a community member in 2017 or so, I tried to make sense of these arrangements as social artifacts. Why and how did they come into being? Why were there piano arrangements of Indigenous materials? What was their social history? Who made these transcriptions, and why? What experiences led them to do so? Who used them, and for what purpose? And just how did they come to be in my hands, donated because they “might be useful to the ethnomusicology program?” Through whose hands have they passed over the years, from the original one that scripted them? We can't answer all these questions with certainty, but we can sketch out plausible answers to a number of them, postulating a social history for the life these transcriptions.

Just how these artifacts came to be was a mystery I wanted to solve. I became even more intrigued as I uncovered Oberlin connections to them and, therefore, complicity in colonialist engagements with Indigenous practices. You can read about that more in the next post. At the very least, these piano arrangements helped reshape the ways I now teach the history of ethnomusicology, from my introductory courses to this course that helps not just imagine, but engage in, the implementation of ways that we might envision and sound decolonial futures. 

In this website, we tell some of this story and present entries on colonialist legacies and strategies to move us towards sounding decolonial futures. We tell the stories of some of the individuals connected to the social history of these transcriptions, along with stories of others doing remarkably similar work in the collection of ethnological material of Indigenous practices in the late 19th and early 20th century. Like all ethnographic work, our site represents a partial and selective telling. The first entries came out of class taught in Fall 2019. Then we only briefly began the work of laying out some strategies and approaches that people might engage to move towards decentering the colonialist legacies. More this has been added with the class in Spring 2022. This project, like most Digital Humanities initiatives, is iterative, an ever evolving project. 

It is our hope that this site might be useful to students, faculty and colleagues alike as they join us on the journey to move towards sounding decolonial futures.

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