An Ethnomusicologist at Large

by Geoffrey Clarfield (October 2012)

A mere sixty years ago there were few ethnomusicologists in the world. You could probably fit most of them into one lecture hall although they hailed from a number of different countries. Now they number in the thousands.

Today almost every college and university in North America and Europe worth its salt has an ethnomusicology program. Some of these programs concentrate solely on the music outside of the “classical tradition” (the art music of Europeanized elites from 1000 AD to the present.) Others mix the teaching of the Western Classical tradition with an understanding of the “high” or classical musical traditions of the orient (India, the Near East, China and Indonesia) while others include the folk and popular music of all nations, that is the music of rural farmers, pastoralists, hunters and gatherers, village, town and city dwellers, both past and present.

Other programs that make a claim to ethnomusicology argue that in order to understand a foreign culture’s music you must learn how to play and sing it, well enough to please listeners in the culture whose music you have adopted. The late great Mantle Hood was the primary exponent of this school. He was a master of the Javanese Gamelan. He also composed the sound track for the Hollywood adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel, Lord Jim.

Among the many ethnomusicologists who have been my teachers the purest example of this kind of musician was the late Jon Higgins, who after three years residence in Tamilnadu, southern India, was widely recognized as a master singer of the southern classical Carnatic musical style. I well remember being astounded by a recording he played at the end of his third year course, A Survey of Indian Classical Music. We listened with awe to a 33 rpm of classical Indian singing that he had recorded in Madras and that was no better or worse than any of the other Indian performers that we had studied for the last few months.

In the early days of ethnomusicology just before and after WWII, part of the discipline included the assumption that the traditional music of the West and the world’s people, was disappearing and that it was the duty and obligation of ethnomusicologists to record as much of this “disappearing world” as possible, for its own sake and for the sake of future generations. One of the key exponents of this approach was the late ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax whose biographer has called him “The Man Who Recorded the World.” In addition to his many thousands of field recordings, Lomax was so concerned about disappearing traditional music that he managed to collect other collector’s collections, especially from the Soviet Union and Soviet dominated Eastern Europe. These collections of collections are now stored in the Alan Lomax Archive at the Library of Congress and unlike his own field recordings, they have yet to be digitized.

For those of us who were around at the start of the field in the fifties and sixties we now read that most ethnomusicologists believe that music is always changing, that therefore there is no traditional music and therefore we should not worry about recording “disappearing worlds” for they were never there in the first place. To quote Gertrude Stein, according to contemporary ethnomusicologists there is “no there there.” 

Although ethnomusicologists have their own society (The Society for Ethnomusicology), their own key academic journal (Ethnomusicology) as well as many other general and specialized academic journals that touch on the discipline, there is no accepted definition of the subject. Every few years the doyen of ethnomusicologists, Professor Bruno Nettl, publishes a book or article where he tries to define the discipline. Each time he stops short of a conclusive definition and leaves the reader hanging, after discussing the history of the field, what most or many ethnomusicologists do and how they and he feel about it. Of a good many articles that try and define the field, the most interesting one that I have recently come upon was titled “Disciplining Ethnomusicology.” I would have to work hard to summarize and explain it in layman’s terms, but it can be done.

Worse still, since I was an undergraduate in the field more than forty years ago ethnomusicologists do not agree on a definition of music. And so we have a field that not only has fuzzy boundaries but no consensus as to its focus of study. Yet this does not stop a string of interesting Honor’s theses, MA and Ph.D. theses from being published each year.

Having been a participant and watcher of the field on and off for a number of decades, I have noticed a simple and profound theme that permeates all aspects of ethnomusicology and that brings it back to its European intellectual origins, for the field is really the daughter of a group of erudite scholars, largely from Germany who invented the field of comparative musicology, or as they so poetically once called it “Vergleichende Musikwissenschaft” and whose North American students after WWII rechristened Ethnomusicology.

Despite the almost infinite diversity of approach and research one can make sense of much ethnomusicology by asking the fundamental question, “What is being described, how is it described and what is the comparative element that is either explicit or implicit in these descriptions?” In this way when one reads through self-defined ethnomusicological literature one always has a philosophically leading question that can produce numerous insights or, further questions.

The latest variation on this theme is a group of scholars who argue that music is no longer a distinctive aspect of only human behavior but part of our mammalian inheritance. Thus has been born the field or sub field of Bio Musicology which can ask questions like, “Did Neanderthals Sing?” and which can ponder the relationship between chimpanzee call systems and the polyphony of Central African forest peoples. No doubt some ethnomusicologists will continue to deny all or any relationships between “humanly ordered sound” (one definition of music) with anything to be found among non-human mammals. In short, comparative musicology is widening the field to include whales and gorillas.

Today, if you want to become an ethnomusicologist you study music and anthropology, you get a first degree in the field and then either proceed to a PhD or through an MA with or without thesis. At some point you either conduct a library project or spend time “in the field” which can be a remote Pacific Island or your local dance club. You record music that is played or heard, you ask people about it, and then try and make sense of it from one of the many competing social scientific/anthropological or ethnomusicological theories, most of which are theoretically derivative from the social sciences, making ethnomusicological theory in essence an intellectual “client” of anthropology, sociology, psychology and ecology. Ethnomusicologists do not like to admit that, but it is obvious when you read through the literature. It is a derivative social science, in theory and practice.

If you are a Marxist you will see class and oppression everywhere (see for instance the implicit Marxism in the wonderful article from a group of Princeton University economists called Rockanomics which shows a pop music industry in America where the “winner takes all”). Or, if you are a follower of Franz Boas you will show how humans create endless variations on themes. You will probably do the same if you are a follower of Clifford Geertz. If you are an ethnomethodologist you will examine how members of cultures classify and behave musically in the hope of eliciting a cultural/musical code that acts like a recipe book, whereby you can predict average musical behavior in an unfamiliar social situation. On the other hand you can become bi musical, becoming a participant in a musical culture that you were not raised in, mastering it so that the “locals” accept you as one of them, and from there on in you try to figure out the structure of the music and its social and cultural context.

Or, you can adopt a post modern approach and despair of “essentializing” any and all musical traditions, arguing voluminously that we can really understand nothing about the other, other than our own notions of the other, which post modernists must, by their sheer attachment to writing and their massive production of texts believe must have some lasting value for others, other than themselves that is. Or you can become a moralist and try and prove that nasty pop music lyrics cause nasty behavior, as some psychologists of music have argued.

Eventually with a PhD or an MA in hand one teaches music or anthropology at the college and university level, publishes more papers, and continues research in a theoretical area or specialty, for e.g. the tune families of English and Irish folk songs, the structure of Arabic Maqam, Indian raga or Jazz. Or, one can also become an absolute expert on a genre or an area like Sub Saharan Africa, or the musically rich city of New Orleans, which can occupy hundreds of scholars for as long as that city provides us with its disproportionate contribution to American musical life. Or, you can work at an archive and master the entire output of a region or series of performers who are somehow related by collector, genre or historical period. You can also ignore the actual sound of music and concentrate on its cultural or social context or, on how people think and feel about it. Or you can combine both approaches as recommended by the late Allan Merriam in his classic book The Anthropology of Music. The field is wide, the material is fascinating and the more you know, the more you can compare. 

This is the career path of most ethnomusicologists but it has not been mine. I have gone in and out of this model at various points in my life, all the while keeping up with some of the main books in the field and most of the theoretical arguments as I am deeply familiar and interested in social theory. I still look at music comparatively and in fact I cannot but do so, as my musical experience has been wide and rewarding, but it has been different. And so this article comprises the observations of an “ethnomusicologist at large” who has taken and continues to take an unconventional approach to the field, moving back and forth from theory to practice, as a musician, a scholar, an activist and more recently as an ethnomusicologically informed journalist writing from “the outside in” as my interests and opportunities have now allowed me to do. This short retrospective may serve as an example for others, but it may also serve as a cautionary tale for those entering this most confusing but rich and fascinating discipline.

Where to begin? One of the advantages of the new forms of anthropological and ethnomusicological writing during the last two decades is the legitimate, partially, but not entirely post modern concern that we all start somewhere. If you heard your first Mozart on the car radio in central Illinois it must have been a tad different than hearing it for the first time in a Viennese opera house. At the end of the day we all have our unique listening perspective for as the German philosophers argue, we are “thrown into life.” We do not choose our parents, where we are born or the early and formative years of our lives.

As Emile Durkheim, one of the founders of modern social anthropology, most elegantly pointed out over one hundred years ago, we are social animals imprinted by social facts that are external, generalized and constraining. Music is one of them. The simple musical example of this is what happens when a child sings out of a tune in a choir. It is only the most politically correct choirmaster who will allow and encourage uniqueness there. No, the child must learn the externalized, traditional and accepted way of forming the rhythm and melody. Otherwise, he or she cannot stay in the choir. So let me start with my own “thrown” musical landscape and from there I will describe my adventures in ethnomusicology. By doing so I hope that I am not preaching to the chorus.

I was born in Toronto, Ontario Canada in a happy post war middle class family with two older siblings and was raised in a house in the suburbs of my city where my parents still reside. The soundscape of my upbringing during the fifties and sixties consisted of the popular and classical music on the radio (and radio jingles), a growing record collection played on the family record player, the music of television (just think of Bonanza) and Hollywood films (there were none others in the fifties and early sixties) the music classes of my primary, middle and high school years (which included the Indonesian Gamelan like Orf system), the Ashkenazic chants of the Conservative Synagogue liturgy, occasional concerts and the music presented to me at the Royal Conservatory of Toronto (and the National Opera) from the age of 5-13 where I was a student of classical singing.

Had it not been for the Wizard of Oz I would have never got to the Conservatory and having got there, it made my soundscape different from the kids I was growing up with. The story is simple. At the age of five a kid comes home from day camp. He sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to his mom. She thinks the kid may have talent. She brings him to her older female cousin who is studying voice classically at the Royal Conservatory of Toronto. Her teacher says the kid has talent. He starts learning how to sing before he can read or write.

The Conservatory was a bit like one of Goffman’s total institutions. It had a series of grades linked to a series of repertoires largely drawn from Victorian and Edwardian parlour music and more serious pieces by Bizet, Puccini, Schubert and Mozart. I did all eight grades and grade two theory, nine exams over eight years. It included periodic recitals open to the public and periodic participation in the Kiwanis Festival, a charity that sponsored singing competitions. I won a variety of prizes and found myself with a Silver Medal for the highest mark in the Grade Five Royal Conservatory exam. In those days we were often reminded that Robert Goulet who appeared as a singer on Ed Sullivan was a Conservatory graduate.

Within a few short years of my induction to the Conservatory everything in my life changed and it was all about music. I was accepted into the Children’s Chorus of the Canadian National Opera. I learnt the discipline of singing and performing on stage in front of thousands of people. I got an agent. I became familiar with Bizet, Mozart and other operas by these composers as we appeared on stage. I learnt to socialize with people my parent’s age, to take orders and show discipline. I discovered I loved show business. I started doing radio jingles, experienced recording studios, appeared before the camera on TV and learnt to do a stage musical five times a night for a few months a year. I discovered also that I was a born mimic and entertained family and friends with different voices and personas (my favorite is still Kermit the Frog).

It all culminated in an audition for a little known Broadway play that was moving from London England to New York called Oliver. I auditioned and got the part of one of the street urchins under the command of the pickpocket the Artful Dodger and Feigin the chief thief and pickpocket. Had I understood at the time that Feigin was Charles Dickens mean antisemitic caricature of an Eastern European Jewish immigrant to Victorian London (usually running away from Czarist pogroms) I would have turned it down. Either way the antisemitism was more or less sanitized out of this version. And, my parents nixed my going to New York. As they explained it to me, three years on Broadway, away from family and community, being taught by tutors and performing five nights a week was not the way to go. I cried for two days but got over it. It delayed my return to Manhattan by only 43 years where I now work and live, commuting to Toronto, as was originally planned.

If you read the historiography of Fernand Braudel and the French school of historiography called “Annales” these scholars argue that the history of societies is a series of streams that move at different speeds, one on top of the other, looking like line budget items on a spread sheet that spread across the centuries. At the deeper levels are the streams of phenomena and behavior that change little over time; the natural word, the seasons, the tides and the olive tree line that divides Protestant from Catholic/Mediterranean Europe, trade routes etc. Well, the kinds of music in a single person or a family or community can also be thought of in a similar way.

Five hundred years ago Anglo American settlers brought the British ballad tradition to the new world. It was the secular music of choice for most of the English, Scottish and Irish people who moved to the new world and by the 1950s (again through the efforts of men like Alan Lomax and his protégé Pete Seeger) reached a mass post war audience, through radio, television and that quintessential North American phenomena, summer camp.

At my summer camps from age five to fifteen I was exposed to this repertoire in its various forms, The Ship Titanic, They Call the Wind Mariah, The Cruel War, House Carpenter. Two waves of related musics, one in the fifties and one in the sixties accompanied it. The first one was paralleled by a more southern, rural piano based Afro American musical style, 50s style rock and roll (Rockabilly) and the second a more guitar based rock and roll mixed with blues, Rhythm and Blues, gospel and soul (sixties rock and roll).  By nineteen sixty eight the rock and roll, folk and folk rock revival was well under way and I had just entered puberty. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and a host of others overtook my musical imagination. They included Muddy Waters, one of Alan Lomax’s discoveries.

I threw myself into the teenage world of electric blues, rock and folk rock, basement bands, going to every kind of concert there was, seeing the greats of rock and roll, folk and folk rock and without knowing it absorbing much of the Anglo and Afro American tradition. I was lucky to have a range of American Roots Music teachers, mostly draft dodgers avoiding the Viet Nam war. I found an indigenous Anglo Canadian songwriter to accompany and we wrangled a set at the Riverboat in Yorkville where Dylan, Baez and the rest of the new folkies regularly performed. The owner wanted me to back up a visiting singer songwriter, Tim Hardin. I lied and said I was sixteen. I was actually fifteen, underage and did not show up for the gig.

The insistence by my parents of studying classical guitar while I learnt the blues was to open me to the world of Flamenco and the Latin American tradition. By my late teens I was familiar with the four traditions of North American music – the Anglo American, Afro American, Hispanic American and the imported European classical tradition. All of them were becoming a little too familiar to me so not surprisingly I started going to the Toronto public library whose world music LP collection was growing by the week. I started to listen earnestly to field and popular recordings of the music of the Arab, African and Asian worlds. At the same time Sam the Record Man insured that we got access to LPs from all over the Middle East, the Balkans, Asia, African and Latin America. I was a regular buyer of LPs there.

In Grade 12, I gave a lecture on Sub Saharan African music and went to koto, sitar and Chinese classical concerts. At the first Armenian pavilion at Toronto’s now defunct annual multicultural music festival (Caravan) I heard and saw my first live oud player – an Armenian playing Turkish belly dance music and who played his oud with an eagle’s feather. I began flowing in this world of music but I had yet to formally enter and understand, the world of ethnomusicology.

I entered the music program at York University with the firm intention of studying ethnomusicology and world music and, learning to perform effectively in a non-western tradition. I had finally arrived in the world of ethnomusicology.

In my first years I knew that I wanted to understand music comparatively and so I soon took my intro music courses, world music survey, history of Western art music, south Indian drumming, sitar, anthropology, sociology, history and fine art and the many other things that music majors study in a fine arts department. I discovered the writings of Curt Sachs, Bruno Nettl, Herzog, Kunst and Hornbostel, and eventually took classes where we discussed the articles in the present and past issues of the journal, Ethnomusicology.

During that period I conducted both a library project and a field project. The library project explored the permissibility of music according to Islamic law. Somehow I had an intuition that this was to become an explosive issue in the future and it is now the central conflict effecting music in the contemporary Islamic world. I have recently written about this for the National Post and the American Thinker during the last few years as, not surprisingly, it has not become a major issue for ethnomusicologists, something that in and of itself remains to be explained.

The second project was a series of visits, interviews and recordings made among Spanish speaking Jewish immigrants from Northern Morocco who had reconstituted their communal life here in Toronto. I published the results of my findings in the Canadian Folk Music Journal with the blessing of Edith Fowke, the great doyen of Canadian folklore. I have just recently facilitated the repatriation of these recordings to the Synagogue and the family who was featured on them, as they had requested them from me just a few months ago. This is what Alan Lomax calls “cultural feedback.”

At the “bimusical level” I fell in with a group of Kalderash gypsies, one of who taught me the oud, while a Turkish Muslim friend of theirs taught me the baglama. With folklorist and Balkan specialist Leigh Cline I was inducted into the Kismet Orchestra and began to learn the repertoire of urban based Middle Eastern musicians in North America. It is a combination of Egyptian film music, Israeli folk dances, Armenian songs, Thracian Gypsy music, Greek rembetiko and Turkish belly dance cabaret. Only recently have I realized that this diverse repertoire has its roots in the immigrant music brought by the multicultural immigrants from the Ottoman Empire just after the turn of the century and up to the stock market crash of 29 when New York was a great center for the recording, dissemination and performance of such immigrant musics.

We played festivals, nightclubs, restaurants and every gig that was offered among the Eastern Mediterranean immigrant communities of Toronto who had unconsciously reconstituted the urban bistro culture that existed in New York before and after WWII. We were given lots of food and ouzo and did a fair amount of playing music for belly dancers. I suspect that many of the belly dancers were their own kind of feminist, as I had some idea that the form of the music may have remained the same, but the motivations of the performers were changing.

Hanging out with the Gypsies was fun, but every now and then their scene got a little too wild and lascivious for my middle class upbringing. I avoided most of the drugs and I also learnt to avoid late night card games where loaded guns were put on the table. I also remember one Gypsy bouzouki player getting very drunk with me on ouzo and almost tearfully telling me that Gypsies do on occasion steal and that is why the Nazis sent them to the death camps. I pointed out that the punishment did not fit the crime. I am not sure he believed me.

The big Middle Eastern music scene was happening in New York at that time and although I did not visit the clubs there I did have one long distance conversation with Oud master Chick Ghaniman from whom I bought a fancy plastic oud pick. I also bought and listened to all the albums that came out of this scene especially the albums of John Berberian, a kind of Armenian oud wizard. And I listened to Spero Speros: who he was and where he is I would very much like to know!

Throughout the early seventies there was still a hint of the sixties in the air and so I found myself playing back up guitar for the singing Chassidic Hippy Rabbi, Shlomo Carlebach. He was larger than life and I enjoyed every minute playing for him. And he made me reexamine and take some interest in the musical history of my ancestors, my maternal grandfather having been a Klezmer.

I had a great job teaching guitar throughout and after the time I finished my BA. Between excessive and extensive reading, record buying and club going I continued playing with the Kismet Orchestra. At the same time I took private lessons with the Egyptian immigrant Kanun player George Sawa who explained to me the Maqam system. I am not a master of the maqam, but according to some I have acquitted myself admirably on a few occasions. But playing with Gypsies at Greek, Turkish and Macedonian and Arab clubs was not enough. I wanted a three-dimensional field experience so off to Morocco I went.

I self financed my trip to Morocco in 1976. I brought my oud and rented a room in a house in the old city of Marrakech from the American composer Richard Horowitz. I carried a tape recorder and still camera, practiced my French and got the basics of Moroccan Arabic, not quite conversational, but enough to get around. I met a number of musicians and did a fair amount of jamming as fusion was in the air but no one was calling it that. I spent many afternoons playing with Brahim el Belkani the now famous Gnawi instrumentalists and singer.

I was a regular visitor to the Jmal Fna, took a fair amount of photos there and made recordings in a number of venues. I had also read Westermarck and realized that much was invisible in Moroccan culture as they were and are obsessed with the Jinn or spirits. I visited a Muslim saints shrine day (Moussem) of Setti Fatma at the entrance to the Atlas Mountains and hiked in the high Tessaout with a French alpinist club. I will soon put the tapes and pictures on my web site.

I also saw the Marrakech folklore festival, which ran for two days and missed an opportunity to meet Ringo Star. At the time I asked myself, what do I have to offer him and what could I ask him for? The answer was nothing. I had read enough Paul Bowles to know that an expatriate in Morocco could easily disappear or get entangled in the enormous interpersonal conflict that is the constant of Moroccan life. And so, after a few months I realized either I stay the year or come home. I chose home.

The next two years were spent reading, watching films at avant-garde film houses, playing music and teaching guitar. In Morocco I had spent time with the last Jews of Fez and I ironically realized that my love of Middle Eastern music was similar to the music that I had heard in Synagogue growing up. Indeed the origins are the same and the systems are related. I only fully realized this when an Egyptian Jewish friend of mine, Aaron Skitri, who had moved to Toronto, a fine oud player who made his living teaching classical guitar and Baroque lute, was sitting in his apartment one day listening to Cantor Moshe Koussevitzky with the same joy and interest as he would have for a suite of classical Arabic songs. This two-year period was a rehearsal for what was to come.

I realized that Morocco was a modernizing, agricultural society, with a North African saint based Islamic worship system and although fascinating in and of itself, I wanted something more challenging. So my wife and I moved to a tiny village in the Negev desert of Israel with our newborn son and I would hitch out into the Western Sinai to start to understand the music of the Bedouin. It is now a center of terrorism and Al Qaeda activity. When I was there it was experiencing a rare quiet interregnum in its turbulent history since the giving of the ten commandmants. I spent a year doing fieldwork among the Bedouin there and once again had to use some of the more theoretical writings of Alan Lomax to make sense of the nature of musical and social change among these people. I presented the article based on my fieldwork at the Canadian Ethnology Conference in Montreal in 1984 and intend to put the whole thing on my web site along with the music, which I intend to digitize.

By that time it was impossible to avoid graduate school so I did my MA in Social Anthropology at the University of Toronto. I then started a doctoral program at McGill in Montreal. After two and a half years of courses in anthropology and ethnomusicology, a French exam, a proposal and money from a grant we were off to Kenya.

I spent 24 months among the Rendille, a group of Cushitic camel herding people at the desert borders of southern Ethiopia, recording their music, learning the basics of their language and culture and trying to figure out how they thought and felt about music and in particular a central repertoire called ginaan. I wrote up most of my doctorate but just before finishing put it aside, after having given a number of lectures in Nairobi on Rendille music. I also managed to get Rendille warriors into a multitrack recording studio in Nairobi to record ginaan and whose tapes I still have and will put online.

I had come to Kenya just after the famous 1984 East African drought and was appalled at the poverty around me. I made the transition to development anthropology and spent the next two decades working in that field. I still kept up with the literature in ethnomusicology and anthropology but my focus was on poverty alleviation. I worked for numerous NGOs, the UN, The Rockefeller Foundation and a variety of bilateral donors. I did manage to spend two years in Turkana district training young “para ethnographers” and helping them record traditional music. Those tapes are hopefully still to be found in the archives of the National Museums of Kenya.

Not surprisingly I spent my spare time in East Africa singing and playing rock guitar, covering American and British rock and pop hits with groups of Americans, Canadians and Brits and some Westernized Kenyans, performing musical hits from the early fifties to the late eighties in clubs in and around Nairobi. The expatriate music performance scene is a hilarious world in and of itself and deserves its own write up. It is one massive piece of émigré nostalgia and has yet to find its ethnographer.

During a four-year period running a development project in a remote part of Tanzania my supervisor encouraged me to produce a film that showed the poverty and dignity of the ethnic groups we worked with. The result of this was the Facing Mount Hanang, which is a kind of ethnomusicological tour among the people around the mountain and where they express their concerns in Swahili. The sound engineers on this project eventually invited me to sit in on a recording session with Congolese refugee musicians in Dar es Salaam. The CD that emerged from this was positively reviewed in the Village Voice and the New York Times and I wrote up the experience a few years later. Those musicians became personal friends and their leader, Ndala Kasheba, became a regular dinner guest and house visitor before he passed away.

Returning to Canada at the age of 51 I became the Executive Director of a poverty alleviation NGO in Toronto that also worked in Africa. At the time I began to write for a variety of newspapers and magazines as an “anthropologist at large.” Whenever I could, I chose ethnomusicological topics for I noticed that professional anthropologists and ethnomusicologists had developed a jargon loaded professional language, that even when they had something important to say, could rarely be understood by anyone outside the discipline, although there are a few fine exceptions like Brian Fagan and Steven Mithen. It is a shame, for among the verbiage there is still some excellent work going on. As a newly created journalist I felt that there was a pressing need to bring ethnomusicology and anthropology to the intelligent reader.

I also published a more formal article in a Library Journal in 2006 called, “Whither Ethnomusicology” where I pointed out some of the weaknesses of the field and suggested a paradigm for it to become more empirical. I doubt it gained much attention.

Musically reunited with a life long friend and colleague Judith Cohen, a musicologist and musician who is world famous for her research on and recreation of Sephardic song, I have once again taken up my oud once again accompanied her at various venues in Canada and the States. Judith introduced me to Anna Lomax Wood, the Director of the Association for Cultural Equity at the Alan Lomax Archive in New York. As I got to know Anna and her colleagues I pointed out that although the content of the archive was music, the moral vision of the archive that had been collected and founded by her father Alan Lomax, was to give the marginalized and downtrodden an opportunity to tell their side of the story of their lives, for despite the massive theoretical disagreements among ethnomusicologists there is a consensus that art reflects life. If life is experienced as a serious of injustices, then that social reality will  inevitably be reflected in genres like the blues and bluegrass.

There was another reason that Anna and I got along. Both of us were supporters of Alan’s Cantometric project. I had explained and defended it in graduate school (and received criticism for doing so and, I intend to put the essay on my web site for I feel that the argument still stands) I had also used Lomax’s work to make sense of my Bedouin work.

As someone who had gained long term experience of the dynamics of NGOs (non governmental organizations) when I met Anna and her colleagues I offered to develop a participatory strategic plan for the Association for Cultural Equity with her staff and stakeholders. We completed that plan by the beginning of 2009. In 2010 I was invited to join ACE where I have worked for the last three years.

My work at ACE is to understand all and every aspect of the Alan Lomax Archive, to describe and explain it to whoever contacts us and to survey and canvas donors at the private, municipal, state and federal level. For our various projects I then put together teams and together we develop the proposals that allow us to compete for these funding sources, manage and implement the projects when we win them and continue to contribute to the implementation of the three pillars of our strategic plan; the exploration and sharing of Alan ’s intellectual and artistic legacy and its moral mandate (cultural equity), the repatriation of the collections to the communities from where they were recorded and, to pursue his Cantometric and other quantitative studies of the world’s expressive culture through the revival of his Global Jukebox software program. Inspired by Alan’s ethnomusicologically informed journalistic style I have spent my spare time interviewing American musicians in New York City and publishing their stories in the Brooklyn Rail. My goal is to allow them to authentically share their stories so we can understand what it is that drives them and makes them the musicians that they are today.

Over the last few decades I have given papers at formal academic seminars, published in formal journals, made films as well as written for newspapers and magazines about music and culture. I continue to pursue the elusive goal of being a “bicultural” musician as an oud and baglama player in certain Near Eastern styles. But I also “go native” and write and perform songs within the Afro and Anglo American traditions that Alan Lomax and others like him discovered and uncovered and that that seem to express the magic of the new world and, which in my opinion are the ”indigenous musics” of the people born on this continent.

In the understanding that the Internet is the great equalizer of the 21st century I am now designing a web site where my published and unpublished work will soon be available to anyone who is interested, for as an engaged anthropologist and ethnomusicologist I like to imagine that I am, still, “at large.”

Geoffrey Clarfield is an anthropologist at large.


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