The Music, Language, and Culture Workshop

October 23, 2015
by ameeran

October 29: Lynn Hooker

Join us on 10/29 at 4:30pm in Rm. 205, Goodspeed Hall. Lynn Hooker, Associate Professor of Hungarian Studies at Indiana University, will introduce her paper (download paper here using listserv-circulated password). Laura Turner, Graduate Student in Ethnomusicology at the University of Chicago, will serve as discussant.


“Hungarian Gypsy Musicians as Laborers in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries”

With a few exceptions, the common understanding of Hungary’s Gypsy music tends to emphasize its “traditional” aspects, highlighting its “pastness” (Appadurai, Korom, and Mills 1991: 21). This understanding resonates with a genre heavily weighted with nostalgia, which Budapest journalist Imre Déri defined in 1912 around “the old patriarchal relationship between the Gypsies and the gentlemen-merry-makers” that he already saw as receding into the past (Sárosi 2012: 104). Two important problems arise from this approach: it obscures the role of actual musicians in the music they play, dismissing them as mere “tradition bearers” (Bohlman 1988: 71-72); and it ignores the ways that “the problem of pastness itself changes as the modes of cultural reproduction change” over the course of the twentieth century–“as traditions become mass-produced, as cultural artifacts become commodified, as intimate performances become available to large audiences” (Appadurai, Korom, and Mills 1991: 22). According to some Hungarian tradition-based narratives, these changes constitute decline, yet despite the many dramatic social and economic changes of the period, Gypsy music thrived in the twentieth century until its collapse in the aftermath of the change of regime.

This presentation examines Hungarian Gypsy music through a different lens: instead of tradition, it revolves around the issue of musicians’ labor. Documents and personal interviews with musicians reveal some of the tensions over how their performance was commodified, whether in the intimate “traditional” setting of a restaurant or private event or in the new contexts of the stage, recording, or broadcast. It also touches on some of the performance ramifications of new institutional frameworks and audience expectations in the twentieth century, from the rise of radio and film through the transformations wrought by state socialism to the decline of the industry since 1989.

October 17, 2015
by Joe

MONDAY October 19: Zoe Sherinian (Film Screening)

Our next workshop meeting will be a special session: a documentary film screening with Zoe Sherinian (Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology, University of Oklahoma). Please note that this session will be held on Monday October 19 at 1:30pm in Rm. 103, Foster Hall: 1130 E 59th St., Chicago IL, 60637.


Professor Sherinian will be screening her ethnomusicological documentary, This is a Music!: Reclaiming an Untouchable Drum



Zoe Sherinian is Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology at the University of Oklahoma. She has published the book, Tamil Folk Music as Dalit Liberation Theology (Indian Univ. Press 2014) as well as articles on the indigenization of Christianity in Ethnomusicology(2007), The World of Music (2005), and Women and Music (2005) and activist ethnomusicology in the Oxford Handbook of Applied Ethnomusicology (2015). Sherinian has produced and directed two documentary films This is A Music: Reclaiming an Untouchable Drum (2011), on the changing status of Dalit (outcaste) drummers in India, and a second one Sakthi Vibrations (2015) on the use of Tamil folk arts to develop self-esteem in young Dalit women at the Sakthi Folk Cultural Centre (2015). She is presently writing a book entitled Drumming Our Liberation: The Spiritual, Cultural, and Sonic Power of the Parai Drum.  She is also an active musician who performs and conducts trainings in the parai drum and plays the mrdangam and jazz drumset.



This ethnomusicological documentary is about the psychological and economic transformation of a group of untouchable (outcaste) parai frame drummers from a village near Paramagudi, Tamil Nadu, South India. The internal shift in the self-perception that these drummers undergo includes three interwoven threads of musical identity: the identity of the drum, of the music they play, and of the status of the drummers.


Through the lens of rarely filmed folk performances and the experience of an American female ethnomusicologist who comes to study with the group Kurinji Malar, we see a group of nine drummers trying to eke out a living while negotiating ongoing caste discrimination in their village. The Hindu caste system constructs parai drummers and their drum as polluted because they play for funerals. As they have professionalized, however, they have reconstructed their performance as “music” and their identity as “worldly.” The film also explores the economic options of these musicians as laborers. Two of the best drummers are tempted to at least limit their “drumset” performances to auspicious festival occasions because they are able to make enough money and gain social status as construction workers. Other members who work as field laborers or shepherd goats are completely dependant on drumming to supplement their income.


The narrative of this film focuses on the cultural debate among these drummers over whether they should reclaim the term parai (associated by many with the drummer’s “degraded” caste name Paraiyar) or they should continue to use the English term “drumset,” which carries middleclass status. When the drummers get an opportunity to go to the large cosmopolitan city of Chennai to participate in the Chennai Sangamam folk festival, they experience very different treatment at the hands of both the festival organizers and the multi-caste, multi-class urban audience. On their way to the festival they are shocked to find the extensive use of the term “parai attam or parai dance” in all of the festival advertisement. One of the drummers asks, “Why do they still associate us with the ‘Paraiyan’ caste? Why won’t they let us walk freely in society?” When we interview them soon after they arrive and then at the end of their week in Chennai, we see, however, that their overwhelmingly positive reception has greatly shifted their self-perception and value of village based folk artists. Further, they decide to (re)embrace of the term “parai.” It becomes clear that experiencing this appreciation helps the Kurinji Malar drummers reinforce a sense of pride in their drumming as valued music where as previously it was easy for them to internalize these practices as degraded. The question then becomes, can they sustain these changes back in the village?


This film shows that the consideration to change how parai drummers identify their art reflects the process of changing self-identity through musical performance possible for those still considered by many as “untouchables.” However, this case ultimately shows that complete change in presentation of self in the village context is difficult because of the economic dependence of outcaste drummers on the village middle castes who continue to practice castism. Woven throughout the film are dynamic and rare examples of village folk dances like karagattam, kummi and oiylattam, oppari funeral lament, and drumming as well as the voices of the drummers and local activists, who tell the story of the process of working for the economic and social liberation of the oppressed Dalits of India through developing the folk arts.

October 15, 2015
by Joe

October 15: Philip Bohlman and Travis Jackson

This week we are most excited to welcome Philip V. Bohlman (Mary Werkman Distinguished Service Professor of Music and the Humanities in the College, University of Chicago) and Travis A. Jackson (Associate Professor of Music and the Humanities, University of Chicago). Rather than presenting works in progress, this session will be a step back, examining the workshop process itself and discussing topics including:
  • making use of workshops as a scholar
  • developing academic projects
  • ethical issues within ethnographic music research
  • and, of course, any topics that arise during our question-and-answer period
The session will take place Thursday October 15 at 4:30 pm in Goodspeed 205
As always, there will be snacks, drinks, and stimulating conversation.

October 7, 2015
by Joe

October 8: Fieldwork Panel

Dear EthNoise! enthusiasts,

You are invited to join us for the first EthNoise! workshop meeting of the year: Thursday October 8 at 4:30 pm in Goodspeed 205. We’re excited to welcome Will Buckingham, Mili Leitner, Laura Turner, and Maria Welch, all current University of Chicago grad students who will be presenting reflections on their recent fieldwork. Our discussion will range from the specific research experiences of these four students to broader issues related to scholarly fieldwork. Apropos to EthNoise’s workshop spirit, we will discuss the relationship between field research, writing, and the development of academic research projects.