Hello dear readers, this is Liza. Today I’m introducing the first entry in a new series called Responding, a space where ethnomusicology graduate students react to papers or panels they attended at Society for Ethnomusicology annual conferences. I love the energy and excitement generated at SEM conferences, and I imagined this series as a way to continue the rich, generative conversations we have over a few short days throughout the rest of the year. Here is our first contribution, by Heather Strohschein.
I can’t believe six months have already passed since SEM 2016. I’ve been going to SEM conferences since . . . oh jeez . . . it’s been over ten years . . . (trying not to think about how old I am). I haven’t made it to every single conference since my very first in 2005, but every time I go, I’m reenergized by the plethora of ideas, the multitudinous approaches to research, and the multisyllabic words I need to look up at the end of the day.
This year, Liza suggested writing about a specific paper or papers that really stood out. This is a great way to keep the ideas and inspiration of SEM fresh in our minds as well as keeping a conversation going regarding these ideas. I saw and heard some fantastic papers this year, but the one that got me thinking the most was presented by Trevor Reed from Columbia University on the first day of the conference. His paper was titled “On the Generativity of Letting Culture Die.” No colon! I was immediately intrigued.
Trevor began his paper by explaining that his uncle, a prominent and knowledgeable elder of a certain Native American tribe (I am so sorry, I didn’t write down which one!), is suffering from a terminal illness and has decided to let the knowledge of specific rituals and performances die with him. Trevor went on to assert that sometimes songs are meant to be forgotten and that, in certain instances, the living need to let the dead go. His paper suggested that there is a right to be forgotten and asked whether indigenous peoples have the right to let aspects of their cultures die when other members of the community, as well as outsiders, want to save them.
I connected some of these ideas to another paper I heard on Saturday. This was “Asdzáán Halnè’e: Singing Female Pastors in Navajo Neo-Pentacostalism” presented by Kimberly Marshall of the University of Oklahoma. Here, Kimberly worked with various female Navaho pastors who equated traditional Navajo practices and songs with the devil. They encourage their parishioners to reject these cultural traditions—in a sense, to let them die. Kimberly’s paper brought up an excellent question: What do we do, in terms of advocacy, when we don’t agree with our interlocutors?
Both Trevor and Kimberly were trying to take neutral stances in their approaches to these questions in their research, even when they didn’t have very neutral personal feelings. In the beginning of ethnomusicology, scholars worked fiendishly—and sometimes not very organizedly—to document and save “dying” traditions. That kind of preservationist mentality is criticized today as we try to take a more supportive and activist role. Many other papers at this year’s SEM, as well as the SEM Student Newsletter’s latest volume, addressed issues of advocacy, the role of the ethnomusicologist, and decolonizing the discipline. In this sense, we—as outsiders—shouldn’t necessarily rush to “save” a (figuratively or literally) dying culture, but at the same time, what do we do? Particularly if other members of that culture don’t agree with one individual’s decision to let knowledge die with them? Where does advocacy lie in that situation?
Kimberly noted an “out” her professors gave her by saying “Just quote the people.” Quoting people is a lot of what we do as ethnomusicologists, but as so many have said and experienced, it’s often not possible to sit with knowledge on the sidelines; to just say, “This is what they told me,” and to be content with that. So many ethnomusicologists have been called to action, advocacy, and activism. I think both Trevor’s and Kimberly’s papers get at the heart of a struggle that ethnomusicologists need to be aware of and come to terms with.
I’ve thought deeply about what stance I would take if faced with these specific problems. Letting knowledge disappear from the world is much different from honoring an interlocutor who asks that you don’t write something they just shared with you. That knowledge still exists and the person may change their mind about sharing it one day. On the other hand, as Spider Robinson’s quirkily titled short story, “Melancholy Elephants,” (http://www.spiderrobinson.com/melancholyelephants.html) suggests, sometimes—perhaps most times—there is benefit, growth, and creativity in forgetting because it allows us to discover things anew. This is not forgetting in the sense that dooms us to repeat bad things but in the sense that we might make more good things.
I can honestly say I’m very torn on the issue, and I would really like to hear what you think. Please leave us a comment or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.