An Experimental Project to Turn Ethnomusicology Upside Down. Or Put it on Its Feet?

Within the musicology of the so-called “West”, it is ethnomusicologists who remain the ones responsible for any music labelled “non-European” or “traditional” (often portrayed as “non-art”) and quite generally for any type of “othered” or “foreign” music. Ethnomusicologists also write and speak mostly about musics of people who live in globally underprivileged regions or who have been pushed into marginalised positions within society. This is rooted in the history of a global, colonial, and white hegemony in which the male and European music production of the middle and upper class was established as the highest possible art form. Although ethnomusicologists position themselves against this hierarchy in their research, it remains the rule that a privileged “Us” produces knowledge about a “Them,” about “othered” people and their music.

The new research project “Reverse Ethnomusicology: Migrant Musicians as Researchers” sets out to challenge this state of affairs in a creative way. It is being carried out at the Music and Minorities Research Center in cooperation with the Phonogrammarchiv of the Austrian Academy of Sciences and the mdw’s Department of Folk Music Research and Ethnomusicology. The impetus for this project was the observation-based hypothesis that migrant musicians, during the process of settling in, act similarly to how ethnographers do: in order to orient themselves within their new surroundings, these musicians must learn to understand local music-related practices, institutions, networks, audiences, and performance contexts. Rather than positioning musicians who migrated to Austria as native informants about their own musical practices, the researchers of the project are working toward centring the musicians’ perspectives as observers and interpreters of the musical practices, institutions, and networks that they encounter in Austria. In this, ethnomusicology is symbolically turned upside down: it is not “Austrian academics” studying “migrant music”, here, but rather “migrant musicians” studying musical practices in Austria. This project is hence situated within “engaged ethnomusicology”, a field that takes on issues of social justice, questions hierarchies within music research, and calls for structural change.

In April 2023, the project entered its initial phase, which consisted in a search for musicians who would be interested in participating in the project as “musician*researchers”. Musicians who had arrived between 2015 and 2020 were sought out in order to guarantee a certain degree of acclimatisation combined with still-fresh perspectives on experiences, observations, emotions, and learnings. The project team conducted interviews with these Austria-based musicians that revealed diverse insights into the observations and encounters of musicians arriving in a new country. The interviewees came from various countries including the United States, Nigeria, Syria, Greece, Moldova, Mexico, and Chile. They had been through differing migratory experiences–with some having arrived as refugees, others as students, and others for career-related reasons. Some had chosen Austria deliberately, while others had arrived due to a series of coincidences. Based on these interviews, six musicians were then invited to take active part in the project by spending twelve months as musician*researchers.

As of this article’s writing, the project is in its second phase: having attended a kick-off workshop, the six musician*researchers are now beginning with their own ethnographic research on subjects of their choice pertaining to music in Austria. They aim to record interesting events, conduct interviews, better understand difficult questions, in short: to deepen their knowledge about their chosen musical practice. To facilitate this work, the members of the project team are organising regular workshops and smaller group meetings with the intent of accompanying the musician*researchers in their research but also learning from their questions, perspectives, and approaches. The aim of this project is twofold: first, the activities of these musician*researchers will generate new insights into musical practices in Austria from a perspective that has previously been ignored. Second, the project expands collaborative ethnomusicological approaches and citizen science into the idea of a citizen music ethnography. A further central intent of the project is for the participating musician*researchers to themselves take away from this project something that will be useful to them beyond the supposed prestige of academic collaboration.

This project is funded by the 1,000 Ideas Programme of the Austrian Science Fund (FWF), an initiative that targets “high-risk, high-gain” research and enables researchers to deliberately and creatively move beyond common, already-tested approaches.

Further information on this research project.

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