This tag was created by Gabriela Linares.  The last update was by Jennifer Fraser.

Sounding Decolonial Futures: Decentering Ethnomusicology's Colonialist Legacies

What is ethnomusicology?

Ethnomusicology’s meaning is the study of people’s musical practices. In fact, the Greek root of the word, “ethnos”, means people. Ethnomusicology, named as a field by Jaap Kunst in 1950, was born out of many other disciplines and practices such as ethnology, anthropology, sociology, and musicology. Its historical predecessor, comparative musicology, was interested in tracing cultural “development” through music. It is important to emphasize ethnomusicology’s colonial roots, since pioneers, known in terms of their time as ethnologists, not ethnomusicologists, such as Alice Cunningham Fletcher (1838-1923) and Frances Theresa Densmore (1867-1957) exotified the field. This was due to the imbalance of power dynamics, as well as the field methodologies with which  they approached their research, which are problematic from today’s standpoint. The invention of the phonograph enabled these early collectors to record and subsequently disseminate these musics for scholarly purposes, such as research and analysis. These pioneers were interested in “saving” Indigenous cultures by recording and archiving their songs in large institutions such as the Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress, and other academic and governmental institutions. This practice is often called “salvage ethnography.”

This early ethnological work took place alongside another field that was concurrently emerging: comparative musicology. Its main objective was to analyze “world music” or indigenous musical practices in comparison to classical European music. Transcriptions, labeling of recorded materials, and the exotification of the “unknown” were all embedded in such practices. 

As I previously mentioned, the development of technology and the innovations of the time, such as the phonograph and the gramophone, mobilized early ethnographers. These technologies allowed them to record sounds and music during their field work. One may wonder what the word “field” means in reference to this context. The “field” is a specific space (such as: country, community, institutions, and the internet) where ethnomusicologists conduct their research. Contemporary ethnomusicologists have all sorts of tasks. They are able to work with the current musical scenes in different places around the world, archive music that should be preserved, and work with people who might not have the exposure and attention that they deserve musically. Note taking, recording, engaging, observing, and the gathering of oral histories are some of the tools that enable ethnomusicologists to contextualize their research, which are often presented in the form of published ethnographies. 

Contemporary ethnomusicologists are now pushing the boundaries of this field of study and focusing on collaboration, decentering knowledge, and the application of this knowledge to promote social justice and community engagement. Music is a way of portraying identity, expressing personal feelings and emotions but it can also be a form of political expression and activism. Rather than focusing on research and knowledge, contemporary ethnomusicologists are moving towards innovative ways of collaborating with different communities with the end goal of promoting social justice. This approach blurs the lines between the “subjects” and the “researcher,” allowing the ethnomusicologists and the communities with whom they work to work together towards a common goal. Such collaborations may include the repatriation of materials, various forms of community music, decentering colonial concepts and public information that may be far from the truth, and creating new ways for communities to expose their music in conservatories and around the world, and celebrate their cultural heritage. All of these efforts and collaborations may build towards what one may call a decolonial future.


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