Anja Brunner

Contesting (Musical) Boundaries: Women Musicians from Syria in Austria and Germany

The civil war in Syria, now in its tenth year, has so far forced over five million people into migration. Around 800,000 people have fled to Germany and Austria, among them many musicians. Their presence has been visible in the media during the past few years, with a multitude of musical performances and projects by and with Syrian migrants taking place. The scope of the musical genres presented has ranged from European classical music to pop/rock musics and to Arab-Syrian musical traditions. All these activities demonstrate the musicians’ immediate drive and motivation to continue and/or restart their musical activities in their new (temporary) place of residence, to present their musical art, and to work as musicians. COVID 19 might have put a temporary halt to live performances, but musical activities continue nevertheless. And the musicians are still confronted with different borders and boundaries with regard to continuing a live worth living and being able to make the music they want to. This not only applies to limits imposed on them by society, but also includes their own and others’ musical expectations, standards, and categorisiations – such as the historically most pervasive division between "orient" and "occident."

In this panel input, I use preliminary findings from my ongoing research on women musicians from Syria in Austria and Germany to discuss how living in exile after forced migration informs their current musical life and performances. I particularly reflect on their strategies to contest, overthrow, accept or go beyond boundaries and borders in music and life. On this basis, I discuss what kind of (musical) strategies, research questions and research formats have become relevant in the changing conditions during the pandemic, for example in terms of communication, physical distancing, and online formats due to COVID 19 measures, and the potential therein for musical research with musicians who have experienced forced migration.


Anja Brunner is an ethnomusicologist at the Music and Minorities Research Center at the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna. She leads the research project "Women Musicians from Syria: Performance, Networks, Belonging/s after Migration" funded by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF). Anja Brunner gained a doctorate in musicology from the University of Vienna (Austria) with a dissertation on bikutsi, Cameroonian popular music. She has worked as a university lecturer and researcher at the University of Vienna (Austria, 2010–2015) and the University of Bern (Switzerland, 2016–2018). Her research and publications focus on issues of music and migration, questions of music and (postcolonial) politics, questions of intersectionality in music research, and African popular music.