People join hands and dance through the room together, threading their way between tables and chairs. At the head of this human chain, a white handkerchief waves to the rhythm in a raised hand. This scene marked the final moments of the two-day symposium “Music & Racism”, which took place in the mdw’s Fanny Hensel-Hall as part of the lecture series Transculturality_mdw in May 2023. Dinner together in the mdw Banquet Hall was followed by Seba Kayan’s musical performance Carpet Concert. The genre of oriental techno, of which Kayan is a leading exponent, shapes its sound out of “occidental” and “oriental” elements in an effort to question and disrupt existing conceptualisations while also bringing forth new, hybrid (sonic) identities that deconstruct Western-influenced stereotypes. Joining Seba Kayan for a first-ever musical collaboration was EsRAP, consisting of the siblings Enes and Esra Özmen, whose art unites the genres of rap and Arabesque.

Since 2019, the interdisciplinary lecture series Transculturality_mdw has been held every two years as a block-scheduled international symposium. In the wake of 2021’s event “Contesting Border Regimes”, which featured interdisciplinary observations on borders and border policies, this year’s theme was music and dance practices in the context of racism and racialisation. The significance of music and dance along with questions as to their potential in efforts to dissolve existing power structures and create positive alliances featured as the central theme of artistic and scholarly contributions conceived with an eye to colonial history, migration, and violent forms of othering. An at times self-critical focus here was on forms of racist exclusion in institutional educational spaces.

Across two days, five lectures, a film screening, a panel discussion, and a musical double-performance, a multitude of topics were covered. Carol Silverman, in her lecture “Intersectionality and Balkan Romani Activism: Musicians Respond to Xenophobia”, spoke about instances of racist exclusion and activist musical practices of Roma in the Balkan region. Rebecca Snedekers provided insights concerning the 2018 living room concert series “L’Union Creole”, sharing documentary material on New Orleans artists who came together to make music and who pass on their history in an oral tradition.

Likewise at home in New Orleans is the tradition of the “Baby Dolls”, who practice the subversive appropriation of carnivalesque expressive forms in the Mardi Gras Day (Fat Tuesday) street festivities there. Kim Vaz-Deville spoke about this specific practice of masquerade by African-American women and explained the significance of its improvised choreographies and creative costumes in her contribution “‘Coming Out the Door’: Baby Dolls and Triumphal Entry on Mardi Gras Day”. In her talk “I Thought It Was Normal to Be the Only One: On Becoming Aware of Racism”, Diljeet Kaur Bhachu addressed the underrepresentation of British-Asian students at institutions of higher music education in Great Britain and reflected upon the role of music in a critical look at racist and colonial power structures. The related topic of “Music and Colonial Modernity” was discussed in the opening lecture by Sinthujan Varatharajah, who analysed Todd Fields’ controversially discussed film Tàr (2022) through a postcolonial lens. Thereafter, the participants reconvened at the Future Art Lab for a screening of the film Aşk, Mark ve Ölüm (Love, Deutschmarks and Death) (2022). With gaudy images, a stylistically effective rhythm, and emphatic acoustic underscoring, director Cem Kaya’s documentary reconstructs the story of Germany’s 1961 recruitment agreement with Turkey and relates in a touching and tragicomic manner how guest workers’ arrival in Germany also witnessed the arrival of their music.

It was under the deliberately provocative heading of “Diversity WTF. Forms of Exclusion in Music and Art Universities” that musicians of colour gathered together onstage for a panel discussion moderated by Marko Kölbl, head of the Department of Folk Music Research and Ethnomusicology, in order to address the issue of racist exclusion at institutions of higher education. With the audience’s involvement, Diljeet Kaur Bhachu, Shanti Suki Osman, Seba Kayan, and Esra Özmen grappled with how change must/can/should look in order that barriers and limitations be broken down. The status of the university, validation according to exclusively Western academic parameters, and non-university spaces of knowledge production were addressed and discussed from various critical perspectives. Here, essential aspects such as classism and elitism as well as questions concerning responsibility, socio-politically engaged pedagogy, anti-discriminatory teaching, and epistemic authority all received attention.

Further information:

All lectures as well as the panel discussion were filmed and can be accessed at the mdwMediathek. Information on this event as well as on past formats can be found at the web presence of the Department of Folk Music Research and Ethnomusicology.

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