Representing African Music

Critical Inquiry 18 (2):245-266 (1992)

Among the fields of music study, ethnomusicology has wrestled most self-consciously with matters of representation. Since its inception in the late nineteenth century as vergleischende Musikwissenschaft [comparative musicology] and throughout its turbulent history, ethnomusicology has been centrally and vitally concerned with at least three basic issues and their numerous ramifications. First is the problem of locating disciplinary boundaries: is ethnomusicology a subfield of musicology, does it belong under anthropology or ethnology, or is it an autonomous discipline?1 Second is the problem of translation: what factors influence the attempt to translate the reality of other musical cultures into audio and visual recordings, verbal accounts, and transcriptions in musical notation? Is there a viable “theory of translatability”?2 Third is a network of political and ideological matters: what sorts of ethical issues constrain the practical effort to understand another culture? What is the relation between empire and ethnomusicological representation? Can we—that is, is it a good thing to—study any music without taking note of the social, economic, political, and technological circumstances of its producers? 1. A concise introduction to the field of ethnomusicology, its history, personalities, and method may be found in Barbara Krader, “Ethnomusicology,” in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie, 20 vols. , 6:275-82. The most comprehensive recent discussion of key issues in ethnomusicological research is Bruno Nettl, The Study of Ethnomusicology: Twenty-nine Issues and Concepts .2. See Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object , p. 43. Kofi Agawu teaches at Cornell University and is the author of Playing with Signs: A Semiotic Interpretation of Classic Music
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DOI 10.1086/448631
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