What's in a Name? New Questions Regarding Ethnomusicology of the Political

By Jon Bullock (University of Chicago)

*This article also appears in SEM Student News 14.2, Fall/Winter 2018.

This autumn marks twenty-five years since the publication of ethnomusicologist Philip Bohlman’s (1993) “Musicology As a Political Act,” an essay in which he asserted that musicology had entered a period of political crisis owing to its insistence on its own apolitical status (419). Today, even Bohlman’s opening anecdote of sitting in a bar watching MTV betrays the age of the article—after all, the MTV of 1993 is long gone, with reality television shows having replaced much of the music video programming that dominated the station’s air time throughout most of the 90s and early 2000s. But for better or for worse, Bohlman’s description of a musicology that deliberately avoided the political implications of its own discourse also now feels quaint. Even Georgina Born’s 2010 addition to Bohlman’s theories, in which she urged (ethno)musicologists to reconsider what music is and what counts as music to be studied (208–9), now seems to be common practice as ethnomusicologists increasingly take into account popular musics and discourses drawn from black, queer, and indigenous studies, among other fields. And if the field itself has changed since 1993, so has the world around us. Today, not being political seems as much a political act as any.

So what truth remains within Born’s and Bohlman’s observations about musicology and politics, and what more is still to be done? In the remainder of this article, I consider an aspect of political musicology that seems increasingly salient as ethnomusicologists grapple with the political nature of musical practice and representation. Formulated as a question, the problem is as follows: How might ethnomusicologists begin examining the very categories that ensure a work’s reception or representation as political? In other words, what does the very act of describing musical practice as political obscure or take for granted? There can be no doubt that descriptions of the role of politics in ethnomusicological work as well as descriptions of such work on these terms are on the rise. For example, at the SEM Annual Meeting in 2005 (the earliest meeting for which a program is available on the SEM website), three panels and fourteen papers included the words politics or political in their titles. At this year’s meeting, the total was up to nine panels, eighteen papers, and one roundtable. From 2005–2009, the average number of total presentations per year described in this way was twenty-two. From 2010–2014, the average climbed to twenty-five, and for 2015–2018, the current average stands at thirty-one.

While I acknowledge the fact that there are multiple ways of engaging with the political in ethnomusicological work, my focus here is related to the ways in which naming the political affects our representations of agency and musical practice. One of the trends characterizing the naming of the political in SEM presentation titles since 2005 (at least for nine out of the last fourteen years) involves the use of the phrase “the politics of . . .” in a majority of the presentations designated as political, with the next word in the title ranging from key topics such as representation, race, or gender, to specific issues such as amateurism, voguing, or parenting. While my intent is not necessarily to be critical of these types of framing (indeed, I used the phrase “the politics of representation” in my own SEM paper title in 2017), it is worth attending to the very act of framing as a way of highlighting the complexities of musical practice with political implications (of course, this is not to suggest that the scholars who framed their work in this way did not fruitfully engage with politics within their presentations). As James Currie asserts in his 2009 article “Music after All,” systems designed to increase the general visibility of particular issues such as politics “mediate as well as circulate” (160).1

An example of a case in which the designation of musical practice as political might be understood as problematic may be found in Jim Sykes’ (2013) “Culture as Freedom: Musical ‘Liberation’ in Batticaloa, Sri Lanka.” Although Sykes does not specifically discuss the use of the words politics or political, his main question regarding the methods of representation employed throughout the essay is as follows: “how might we represent my actions and those of my consultants—actions aimed at constructing personal and/or regional liberations from ethnonationalism—without situating them in the languages of communal difference and nation they are intended to avoid?” (486). For Sykes, the challenge of representing musical practice within a “non-state space” (488) plagued by decades of civil war required careful attention to the use of particular forms of language and expression associated with certain political histories and factions. This challenge was compounded by the fact that local groups of musicians have purposely utilized alternative languages and (music) histories in an attempt to distance themselves from ethnonationalist parties and discourse. As Sykes reveals throughout the article, these alternative histories themselves are formed at least in part in response to “a[n] historically developed, institutionally appropriated, linguistic force” (510) that continues to insist upon particular associations between music and identity, associations which in this case fail to illuminate the conscious choices of the musicians themselves.

Social anthropologist Marlene Schäfers’ (2015) “Being Sick of Politics: The Production of Dengbêjî as Kurdish Cultural Heritage in Contemporary Turkey” provides another example of a case in which a researcher was forced to question the role of political designation in representation. In the article, Schäfers describes her interactions with a female Kurdish bard who repeatedly voiced concerns such as “I want to do art, not politics!” (1). Although the specific history of Kurdish cultural production and its interaction with Turkish politics has been described by Alev Kuruoğlu and Wendelmoet Hamelink (2017) and Koray Degirmenci (2012),2 Schäfers’ (2015) specific insights in this case involve questions of how to understand various aspects of cultural heritage either as inherently political or as “entirely autonomous from politics . . . as the essence of an authentic, primordial identity that stands logically and temporally prior to politics” (13). As Schäfers argues, even the seemingly simple act of naming a musical practice as political or apolitical involves much larger questions that hinge on varying conceptualizations of individuals, societies, and state mechanisms of power. These conceptualizations, of course, often have vast repercussions in the lives of individuals who are otherwise excluded from particular realms of political protest or protection.

As one final example of the importance of these and other similar questions, and as a way of returning to Bohlman’s arguments regarding the future of musicology, I would briefly like to call attention to anthropologist Saba Mahmood’s (2003) essay “Ethical Formation and Politics of Individual Autonomy in Contemporary Egypt.” As is clear from the title of essay, Mahmood did not shy away from identifying the political nature of the problems under consideration in her research. Nevertheless, she asserted that within the women’s mosque movement in Egypt, common conceptions regarding bodily practices such as prayer (salat) or donning the veil had often been excluded from the possibility of having political implications, based on the “normative liberal conception of politics, one separate from the domain of ethics and moral conduct,” which is itself “a reflection of how the field of ethics and moral conduct has been shaped in the modern period” (844–45). In the case of the women’s mosque movement in Egypt, political movements and practices of ethical self-formation had therefore only been considered as distinct, with little or no relation to one another, owing not least to the construction of “the political” as a category in Western thought. Although Mahmood’s intervention requires the expansion of the realm of the political in this particular case, it also illustrates the fact that a mere willingness to embrace the political nature of a specific practice or set of practices is still not enough, as it can often obscure the very construction of politics in the West in the modern period without recourse to additional understandings of subjectivity and the state.

Along similar lines, Bohlman discussed the musicological hegemony of Islam’s “music” in his 1993 article. He asserted that in an act as simple as describing sonic practices like Qur’anic recitation (qirāʿah) as music, those influenced by traditional Western musicology had “controlled and disciplined the ‘music,’” transforming it into “an aesthetic object for . . . aural surveillance,” all the while missing the meaning and spiritual intensity of recitation within Islamic thought (429). Of course, ethnomusicology has come a long way in twenty-five years; but should we desire our field to remain relevant in future decades of what seems now to be increasing political instability, it is not enough to simply identify the potential political impact of our own work, or even to designate musical practice as political. Instead, the future of political ethnomusicologies must be one in which ethnomusicologists continue to question the very foundations on which these and other designations become meaningful, attending to the ways in which representation not only frames the debate but also contains the potential to illuminate or exclude other ways of understanding.


1. In this case, Currie was specifically discussing the visibility of gay men on television.

2. I would also like to acknowledge the work of ethnomusicology PhD student Fethi Karakeçili (2018), who recently gave a presentation at the first International Kurdish Studies Symposium on the Turkish re-naming of Kurdish traditional dances; I borrow the phrase “What’s in a Name?” from Fethi’s presentation. He, of course, borrowed it from Shakespeare.


Bohlman, Philip V. 1993. “Musicology as a Political Act.” The Journal of Musicology 11 (4): 411–36.

Born, Georgina. 2010. “For a Relational Musicology: Music and Interdisciplinary, Beyond the Practical Turn: The 2007 Dent Medal Address.” Journal of the Royal Musical Association 135 (2): 205–43.

Currie, James. 2009. “Music after All.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 62 (1): 145–203.

Degirmenci, Koray. 2012. “On the Pursuit of a Nation: The Construction of Folk and Folk Music in the Founding Decades of the Turkish Republic.” International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music 37 (1): 47–65.

Karakeçili, Fethi. 2018. “‘What’s in a Name?’: The Problems of Classification of Kurdish Dance and Songs in Contemporary Turkey.” Paper presented at the first International Kurdish Studies Symposium, Toronto, ON, October 12–14.

Kuruoğlu, Alev, and Wendelmoet Hamelink. 2017. “Sounds of Resistance: Performing the Political in the Kurdish Music Scene.” In The Politics of Culture in Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus: Performing the Left since the Sixties, edited by Leonidas Karakatsanis and Nikolaos Papadogiannis, 103–21. New York: Routledge.

Mahmood, Saba. 2003. “Ethical Formation and Politics of Individual Autonomy in Contemporary Egypt.” Islam: The Public and Private Spheres, special issue, Social Research 70 (3): 837–66.

Schäfers, Marlene. 2015. “Being Sick of Politics: The Production of Dengbêjî as Kurdish Cultural Heritage in Contemporary Turkey.” European Journal of Turkish Studies 20. Accessed October 23, 2018. http://ejts.revues.org/5200.

Sykes, Jim. 2013. “Culture as Freedom: Musical ‘Liberation’ in Batticaloa, Sri Lanka.” Ethnomusicology 57 (3): 485–517.

Popular posts from this blog

FINAL Call for Submissions - 15.1 "Music & Affect"

The Politics of Personalism

Volume 15, Number 1: Music and Movement