In cultural context, ethnomusicologists explore of the human experience of music making

Steven M. Friedson
University of North Texas ethnomusicologist Steven M. Friedson has immersed himself in the cultures of the Tumbuka people of Malawi and the Ewe-speaking peoples of Ghana for his research on music and its role in African healing practices.
Eileen M. Hayes
University of North Texas ethnomusicologist Eileen M. Hayes explores race, politics, popular culture, African-American music and gender theories in the context of women-only music festivals in the United States.
Thursday, December 14, 2006

To the uninitiated, the scholarly field known as ethnomusicology might seem a narrow one. Yet, as two ethnomusicologists in the University of North Texas' College of Music prove, quite the opposite is true.

Because ethnomusicologists study music and music-making within specific cultural contexts, they collectively pursue an almost unimaginably broad range of interests and areas of research.

"I define ethnomusicology as the study of music and culture, or another way to define it would be musical anthropology," says Eileen M. Hayes, assistant professor of ethnomusicology at UNT. She adds the research is important because "people's ideas about activities in and around music can inform us quite a bit about the human experience."

Although its nature can vary widely, an essential aspect of research for most ethnomusicologists is fieldwork - direct involvement with a culture and its music.

Hayes' current fieldwork involves an exploration of race, politics, popular culture, African- American music and gender theories in the context of women's (women-only) music festivals in the United States, a lesbian and feminist phenomenon of the last 30 years.

Her latest research has taken her to women's music festivals throughout the country, where she conducts interviews with performers, organizers and audiences with a particular focus on black women's experiences. She is writing a book that delves into music, activism and radical feminism from a previously unexplored perspective.

In contrast, her colleague Steven M. Friedson, professor and coordinator of ethnomusicology at UNT, has done extensive, ground-breaking fieldwork in Africa as part of his research on music and its role in African healing practices, which he describes as medico-religious systems.

He has immersed himself in the cultures of the Tumbuka people of Malawi in southeastern Africa and more recently the Ewe-speaking peoples of Ghana in western Africa. He wrote a widely successful book on his work in Malawi and has just finished a second on his research in Ghana.

Dancing, singing and drumming are not mere entertainment in the cultures Friedson studies, but an integral part of community healing systems. Understanding this, he explains, demands participation.

"You're not just standing back trying to observe, but you engage in the culture," he says, adding that his experience is not the same as that of the people who are part of the culture. What he experiences through participation is something he describes as "meeting in an in-between space":

"It's an interpretive stance. You can't totally take yourself out of it. You have to experience it firsthand. It's not that I'm going to become an Ewe, but there is a fusion of horizons; they get fused together in the ethnography (the descriptive work that comes from direct experience in the field)."

Friedson finished his forthcoming book, "Northern Gods in a Southern Land," based on his research in Ghana, with support from an American Philosophical Society Fellowship. His earlier book, "Dancing Prophets: Musical Experience in Tumbuka Healing," based on his Fulbright-supported research in Malawi, has been used widely at universities since its publication 10 years ago.

In examining music and trance, or altered states of consciousness, and their use in traditional African healing and religious ceremonies, Friedson emphasizes that he is not taking a Western medical viewpoint. He takes a different approach that he believes gets more to the heart of what happens in the ceremonies.

"Neurological research on rhythms and brain waves tells us some things about what's going on, but it doesn't understand the phenomenon of what's going on," he says. "I take a phenomenological approach to my research. I take people seriously about what they say they are doing. I'm looking at music, trance and medico-religious practices as the people within the culture understand them."

For example, "in Malawi, healers go into trances to diagnose patients," he says.

"In West Africa with the Ewe, healers don't go into trances, but the members of the shrines (religious orders) become possessed by deities, and they're the ones who tell people what to do to heal," he says.

Hayes co-edited a forthcoming book titled "Black Women and Music: More Than the Blues," supported by a Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship for Diversity. The chapter she contributed on women's music festivals highlights research included in the book she is now writing.

"Black Women and Music" consists of 11 essays on different aspects of African American women's musical experiences, including their work as performers and composers, and their contributions to Western classical music, hip-hop, the blues, lesbian music cultures, black musical theater, gospel music, avant-garde jazz and other genres.

"The most important thing about the book is that rather than a series of biographies, the contributors situate black women's engagement in music within the relevant social and cultural contexts across time periods," Hayes says. "Not only is this the first edited volume to address the musical experiences of African American women across genres, but it's the first volume on that topic that draws together such a diverse range of scholars."

Contributors came from a wide variety of disciplines, including ethnomusicology, music theory, musical theater, music history and women's studies.

The women's music festivals Hayes studies stem from radical feminism, she notes. Since most people are familiar only with mainstream feminism, an examination of this topic reveals cultural dynamics that have never received much attention before.

"Although the women's music movement was permeated early on by utopian ideals, it is important and interesting to note that, in the process, numerous disjunctures - along the lines of race, age and sexual orientation - within feminist communities were revealed and addressed," she says. "Women's music festivals became important sites for feminist activists to work out many of these issues."

For example, she says that early on, when feminists were changing pronouns in lyrics from "he" to "she," black women at the festivals fought to maintain references to "he" in African American spirituals and hymns out of respect for that cultural tradition.

"It's not that they were against feminism, but there was another agenda that needed to be brought to the table," Hayes says.

Likewise, Friedson regards his research as one of many ways to open minds to a larger perspective of how music is used in the world.

"I think what I value in my research is that it can help people understand that musical experience can be something much different from the way we think of it in the West," he says. "My work also includes philosophical arguments about what it's like to be in the world. We have a lot to learn about the range and value of experience, and we can open up those kinds of understandings to other people."

UNT News Service Phone Number: (940) 565-2108