Ethnomusicology and colonialism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Fri Jan 12 14:26:27 MST 2001

[This review reminds me of what Ward Churchill said in much simpler terms
at a NYC meeting a couple of years ago. He said that when white academics
talk about Indians, it is always in terms of "ethno-this" or "ethno-that".
How come Beethoven or Bach are not studied in classes on "ethnomusicology"?]

H-NET BOOK REVIEW Published by H-SAfrica at (December, 2000)

Veit Erlmann. _Music, Modernity and the Global Imagination: South Africa
and the West_. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. 312 pp.
Illustrations, notes, index. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-19-0-19-512367-0.

Reviewed for H-SAfrica by Gary Baines <G.Baines at>, Department of
History, Rhodes University

This study serves to illustrates the proposition that globalisation is not
simply a one-way process, but that Africa and the West are engaged in a
'long conversation'; a dialogue which has lasted for more than a century.
This interaction has shaped a 'global imagination' which is determined by
way of the articulation of interests, languages, styles and images; an
epistemological symbiosis between (South) African and Western modernities.
According to Erlmann (p. 4) the term 'global imagination' denotes the means
by which people shift the contexts of their knowledge and endow phenomena
with significance beyond their immediate realm of personal experience.
Musical forms of the global imagination allow cultural mediation. Erlmann
elaborates as follows:

"Unlike any other aspect of mass culture, music organizes social
interaction in ways that that are no longer determined by the primacy of
locally situated practice and collectively maintained memory. The new role
of music in global culture is based on the fact that music no longer
signifies something outside of itself, a reality, the truth. Instead, music
becomes a medium that mediates, as it were, mediation. In other words,
music in global culture, by dint of a number of significant shifts in
production, circulation and consumption of musical sounds, functions as an
interactive social context, a conduit for other forms of interaction, other
socially mediated forms of appropriation of the world (p. 6)."

For Erlmann, then, music is akin to a universal language because it is not
bound by time-space relationships, and this is a distinguishing feature of

Erlmann dates the beginning of the global age and the onset of modernity to
the 1890s. This periodisation provides a rather arbitrary framework for the
structure of the book which is somewhat problematical. The first part deals
with two tours made by black South African choirs to England and the USA in
the early 1890s. The narratives of the events form the substance of the
first five chapters and provide some connections between the chapters and
hence some coherence. However, the thread between the first and the second
part of the book is rather more tenuous despite a bridging chapter which
argues for continuities between the late colonial and postcolonial worlds.
And the subject matter of the second part is also rather more diverse. It
purports to focus on a series of engagements by the _isicathamiya_ (Zulu a
capella) group Ladysmith Black Mambazo (LBM) and the international music
industry. But certain sections make no reference to LBM whatsoever.
Although connections are made throughout the individual chapters, they read
like a collection of discrete articles. Erlmann would like to believe that
this set of examples is 'fairly representative' and enables him 'to address
a series of broader theoretical issues related to the study of culture in
the postcolonial world' (p.10). Whilst the selection of representative
examples could be construed as a form of reification, they are generally
instructive. Indeed, the book is suffused with interesting insights and
Erlmann makes useful interventions in various musicological/anthropological
debates such as the nature of appropriation in cross-cultural borrowing,
and whether the notion of authenticity is a useful one in furthering
understanding of the issues involved.

Erlmann's theoretical approach is eclectic. Discourse analysis is employed
by Erlmann in the examination of (auto)biographical writings, travel
writings, the notation and content of hymns, spirituals and other musical
texts. He subjects these texts to 'deconstruction', in order to analyse the
manner of, and the conditions affecting, their construction from prevailing
discourses. This is augmented by semiology - the study of signs and symbols
- in the analysis of sound and video recordings, as well as musical
performances. For instance, Erlmann's analysis of the performance of LBM
for Paul Simon's _Graceland_ album, Tug Yourgrau's play _The Song of Zulu_,
and Michael Jackson's video _Thriller_ all, in their different ways, show
how meaning of these texts is conveyed through musical codes. But Erlmann
is equally concerned with the consideration of the musical context, with
social process, class, gender, ethnic divisions, historical changes that
make meaning possible. Thus he moves beyond the conventional musicologist's
privileging of the text and its formal properties and breaches the
theoretical divide between structuralism and post-structuralism.

What are we to make of Erlmann's claim that 'musicology could have only
emerged in relation to colonial encounters' (p. 8)? That it is only over
against the Other that Western society can define itself and its cultural
forms? If musicology is a mode of knowledge about (primarily) western
musical forms, does it necessarily define itself in contradistinction to
the study of the musical practices of pre-modern societies? And, if so,
what are the implications for ethnomusicology? Can the musical texts of
literate societies only be understood in relation to those with oral
traditions? Will the study of musical styles in their cultural (read
traditional) context become obsolete? The main area of study in
ethnomusicology has been music in the oral tradition, usually in
non-western settings or of indigenous people in relation to western
societies. The methodology of ethnography and participant observation which
has involved considerable fieldwork and the making of field recordings was
pioneered by figures like Alan Lomax in the USA and Hugh Tracey in
Sub-Saharan Africa. Does this mean that work of this nature is virtually
redundant in the postcolonial world? Certainly, pristine societies have all
but vanished from the face of the earth and all musical production and
distribution operates within the circuits of the capitalistic economy as
there are no longer communities unaffected by global interdependence.

_Music, Modernity and the Global Imagination_ is in many respects a
profound book which repays careful (re)reading. However, the language tends
to weigh it down for it is at times a dense, sometimes obtuse and
occasionally jargon-ridden, work. It is an academic text and definitely not
for the casual reader who might be interested in South African or 'world
music'. Thus its readership is likely to be rather limited.

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Louis Proyect
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