Monday, August 4, 2008

Overview from the Professor

Why Boston Hybrid Musics?

David G. Hebert

This section introduces the theoretical background of our class project Boston Hybrid Musics.

Course Description

  • MU 827: Special Topics in Musicology: Hybridity and Transculturation (Spring, 2008)

This graduate seminar at Boston University examines how new musical fusions arise from cross-cultural contact. Sociological and aesthetic perspectives are used to explore the changing artistry and identity of musicians in Asia and the southern hemisphere, as well as how the music industry, governmental, and educational institutions respond to globalization and the emergence of new musical practices. The course has interdisciplinary interest, and advanced students from anthropology, sociology, and Asian studies may participate along with students from musicology and music education.

  • Textbooks:

(1) Timothy Taylor, Beyond Exoticism: Western Music and the World. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.

(2) Martin Clayton, Trevor Herbert, and Richard Middleton, eds., The Cultural Study of Music: A Critical Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2003.

(3) Yayoi Uno Everett and Frederick Lau, eds., Locating East Asia in Western Art Music. Wesleyan University Press, 2004.

(4) Frances R. Aparicio and Candida F. Jaquez, eds., Musical Migrations: Transnationalism and Cultural Identity in Latin/o America, Vol. I. Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

Community Music Activity in Boston

The purpose of the final projects for this Boston University graduate seminar was to document examples of community music activity in the Boston area, with particular attention to hybrid music genres. Much of the inspiration for this project came from a little-known book called Community of Music, the outcome of a seminar taught by ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl about 15 years ago (Livingston, et al., 1993). Community of Music consists of brief reports from graduate students on various examples of community music activity from the vicinity of the university in which Nettl taught. Another important source of inspiration was Patricia Shehan Campbell’s qualitative research methods seminar, taught biennially at the University of Washington, in which her students are required to write “micro-ethnographies” of music teaching and learning.

The study of community music in postmodern industrial societies is of increasing interest to scholars in a diversity of fields that include ethnomusicology, sociology of music, and music education.[1] Community Music, whether recognized as a distinct academic field or merely an interdisciplinary subject area, inherently bridges the gap between theory and practice in musical studies. We are hopeful that others might enjoy and take inspiration from our efforts, perhaps even implementing similar projects in other urban areas in the coming years. It would also be interesting to see the development of a more robust survey in Boston (through a year-long seminar) based partly upon the model developed here, or to see the results of a similar project conducted after a decade or more has passed, providing some sense of how the Bostonian music scene is changing.

Hybrid Musics in Musicology

Margaret Kartomi observed the following regarding the traditional musicological view of hybrid music genres:

Although the exact reasons for the disapproval of musics of mixed Western and non-Western descent were not normally explained, the vocabulary used by writers to describe them has generally implied that they lacked authenticity or were degenerate and oversentimental, having been influenced only by the ‘lowest’ forms of Western music (Kartomi, 1981, p.227).

With this point in mind, our seminar began with discussion of cultural traditions: how they emerge and become institutionalized. Later, we considered the role of creative artists in proposing new innovations that subvert established traditions, and we also interrogated the very notion of “hybrid”. We found that hybrid music genres are particularly notable in terms of musical creativity and innovation, yet they have tended until recently to receive little attention from musicologists. We found that the field of ethnomusicology, however, provides many relevant insights. According to Kay Shelemay (2001), “music historians would do well to draw upon ethnomusicologists’ experience in studying complex urban musical traditions, transnational musical movements, and the manner in which music and musicians actively construct their own social, political, and economic worlds” (p.24). Indeed, we found that an inquiry based on the ethnomusicological practice of empathetic interaction with living musicians - in addition to interpretation of their creative work - is a particularly effective way of examining the topic of hybrid music genres in urban settings.

We also actively sought lessons learned from recent studies of related topics. One key theme that emerged was that of music technology, which is appropriate considering that we decided at the beginning of the class to post our writings on an internet website for free public access. On this topic, Leslie Gay (1998) observed that “Ethnomusicology has mostly ignored cultural practices tied to technological adaptations or simply rejected newly adapted technologies as threats to canonized older ones” (p.92). Recognizing this concern, the class made a point of discussing music technology in some detail, including effects of the recent worldwide digital revolution in the recording and distribution of both audio and visual recordings. It certainly helped that some of the students were experienced as professional musicians and sound engineers, and most were professional educators, for whom such issues are already of daily concern.

Another important issue was how to address the role of individual musicians as active agents within the newly emerging traditions (or social structure) of hybrid music genres. Tina Ramnarine has recently suggested that the political context and aesthetic choices of individual musicians requires greater attention in studies of musical hybridity:

Diasporic music-making should not be understood as merely the result of population movements, the settlements of diasporic groups and cultural contact in the multicultural society. Rather, diasporic music-making can be understood in the ordinariness of creative production, as musicians working as individual agents in their everyday environments, making musical choices that suit them and their audiences. In moving beyond simple understandings of hybridity as musical cultures in contact that result in ‘new’ musical expressions we move towards politically articulated readings of social relations and creative processes (Ramnarine, 2007, p.7).

Therefore, the students were encouraged to consider aesthetic and sociological aspects of the cases they examined, both of which are theoretical areas of great interest to the instructor.[2] Ruth Stone (2008) has acknowledged that theoretical discussions are “typically brief and cursory in most ethnomusicological accounts,” but this seminar aimed to bring theory to the fore of all discussions regarding musical hybridity. We also benefited from the teaching of two excellent guest lecturers: (1) musical theatre composer Nancy Rosenberg and (2) Yale University ethnomusicologist Sarah Weiss,[3] a specialist in musical hybridity. While much of the course entailed explicit critique of theories, in writing up their articles the students aimed to use language that is as approachable and “reader friendly” as possible, appropriate for an open-access internet website.

A Broad Sampling of Hybrid Genres

The graduate students chose to individually examine a fascinating cross-section of topics associated with hybrid music genres in Boston, including the following:

  • Indo-Jazz Music
  • Ethio-Jazz Music
  • Malian-American Dance Music
  • Chinese-American Dulcimer Ensemble
  • Afro-American Gospel Ensemble
  • American Afrobeat
  • An Arab-American Composer

About the Individual Studies

David Adams, in his “Examining Malian Musicians and their Performances in Boston” introduces readers to the Malian music scene in Boston, as well as the approach to hybridity associated with its various musicians. An accomplished saxophonist, David played with some of the Malian musicians in order to develop stronger rapport with them.

Katherine Baltrush focuses on one particularly successful musician in her “Arab-America in Boston: Profile and Music of Composer Kareem Roustom”. Her interviewee is quite successful as a film composer, and clearly combines elements of both Arabic and European music traditions in his work.

Megan Felts examines the Afro-American gospel voice ensemble at a renowned local music school in her “Gospel Singing in a Bostonian Music College”. She describes both the history and rehearsal techniques associated with this influential ensemble.

Sheerin Hosseini’s “In Search of Meaning: Indo-Jazz Music in Boston” provides a glimpse into the exciting world of Indo-jazz. She compares characteristic traits of traditional Indian music with jazz, and examines how these elements were combined in the development of this unique fusion genre.

Jane Leggiero’s “Afrobeat for the 21st Century: The Superpowers” describes the work of an instrumental dance ensemble that is inspired by African popular music. She examines what performance of instrumental music based on African forms means to people who are not African.

Yi Liu’s “A Qualitative Study of a Chinese Dulcimer Ensemble in Boston” examines the work of a specific teacher and his students in Boston’s Chinatown. Yi combines biographical, observational, and analytical approaches in her writing, giving an interesting perspective on musical practices among Boston’s Chinese-Americans.

Finally, Erica Yennior provides a detailed analysis of the Ethio-Jazz scene in her “A Mingling of Musical Hybrids: Ethio-Jazz and Boston’s Either/Orchestra”. The musical examples discussed in Yennior’s work are especially interesting, and she demonstrates how Ethio-Jazz developed and gained a strong footing in the musical landscape of Boston.

Disclaimer: It is important to recall that these writings are student projects completed for a class, and should not be regarded as formal research. Nevertheless, much was learned in the process, and we hope these articles will be informative and useful for readers interested in Boston’s diverse music scene, as of mid-2008.

Click HERE for Introduction: the Project and its Authors.

Click HERE for the Table of Contents.


[1] Due to burgeoning interest in this subject area, Master degree programs in Community Music have been launched at some universities in the United Kingdom, and the field is also being further defined by a new publication entitled International Journal of Community Music.

[2] Much of my own research has been on related topics, such as the teaching of graduate courses in music aesthetics and sociology of music (Hebert, 2008a), the transmission of hybrid genres in Japan (2008b), and in Polynesia among both Maori and Tongan musicians (Hebert, 2008c, Hebert, 2008d), as well as the emergence and integration of fully developed hybrid genres – such as rock and jazz – into American schools (Hebert, in press; Hebert & Campbell, 2000).

[3] As part of the class, we discussed an insightful article on musical hybridity that Weiss has since published in the journal Ethnomusicology (Weiss, 2008).


Gay, L. C. (1998). Acting up, talking tech: New York rock musicians and their metaphors of technology. Ethnomusicology, 42(1), 81-97.

Hebert, D. G. (in press). Jazz and rock music. In W. M. Anderson & P. S. Campbell (Eds.), Multicultural Perspectives in Music Education (third edition). Lanham, MD: Rowman-Littlefield Publishers.

Hebert, D. G. (2008a). Reflections on teaching the aesthetics and sociology of music online. International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music, 39(1), 93-103.

Hebert, D. G. (2008b). Alchemy of brass: Spirituality and wind music in Japan. In E. M. Richards & K. Tanosaki (Eds.), Music of Japan Today. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Hebert, D. G. (2008c). Music transculturation and identity in a Maori brass band tradition. In R. Camus & B. Habla, (Eds.), Alta Musica, 26 (pp. 173-200). Tutzing: Schneider.

Hebert, D. G. (2008d). Music transmission in an Auckland Tongan community youth band. International Journal of Community Music, 1(2), 169-188. []. [Click on "View PDF with links" for free access.]

Hebert, D. G. & Campbell, P. S., (2000). Rock music in American schools: Positions and practices since the 1960s. International Journal of Music Education, 36(1), 14-22.

Kartomi, M. J. (1981). The processes and results of musical culture contact: A discussion of terminology and concepts. Ethnomusicology, 25(2), 227-249.

Livingston, T. E. et al. (1993). Community of Music: An Ethnographic Seminar in Champaign-Urbana. Champaign, IL: Elephant and Cat.

Ramnarine, T. K. (2007). Musical performance in the diaspora: Introduction. Ethnomusicology Forum, 16(1), 1-17.

Shelemay, K. K. (2001). Toward an ethnomusicology of the early music movement: Thoughts on bridging disciplines and musical worlds. Ethnomusicology, 45(1), 1-29.

Stone, R. M. (2008). Theory for Ethnomusicology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Weiss, S. (2008). Permeable boundaries: Hybridity, music, and the reception of Robert Wilson’s I La Galigo. Ethnomusicology, 52(2), 203-238.

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