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First Person: ethnomusicologist Shumaila Hemani on global musical traditions and Concert for Afghanistan | reviews, news & interviews

First Person: ethnomusicologist Shumaila Hemani on global musical traditions and Concert for Afghanistan

First Person: ethnomusicologist Shumaila Hemani on global musical traditions and Concert for Afghanistan

No boundaries between east and west, north and south, in tonight's live music-making

Shumaila Hemani: 'the help that Afghans require in this moment of crisis is also the result of the recent neglect that they have experienced'

In early 2020, the year that soon saw  COVID-19 lockdown, I served on the music faculty for Semester at Sea, Spring 2020 voyage, where I taught self-designed courses on global music cultures as well as a course called Soundscapes.

This course discussed how western art music influenced the musical cultures of the non-European world, particularly the ports that we visited as part of the SAS voyage.

The study of ethnomusicology focuses on music in its cultural context. Typically, an ethnomusicological approach departs from and resists scholarly approaches in studying western art music traditions that have in the past overly focused on composers’ intentions and playing music with the score. Ethnomusicologists bring forward the study of oral traditions and folk, art, and new music traditions of the world through cultural immersion and fieldwork. Ethnomusicology stands as a minority discipline within the Music Departments and serves to de-centralise approaches to western art music found in disciplines such as music composition, performance, music theory, and musicology.

Knowledge of western art music or lack thereof, however, continues to make one a “fit” or “unfit” member of the elite graduate student or faculty within music departments.  In 2010, I became one of the first students from Pakistan to enter Harvard University’s prestigious Ph.D. programme in music, but given that I was unable to grasp two books of advanced music theory assigned by the proctor within the summer break of my first year, I was asked to leave, on the basis that Harvard cannot offer “remedial courses” in Western art music. Even after completing my doctorate in music from the University of Alberta in 2019, as an early-career scholar and prospective tenure-track faculty, my research continues to get rejected for publication because it does not speak the language of western art music.

Yet, despite its colonial role historically, when one sees how the subject of my thesis is being put to use to advocate for people in crisis, perhaps it indicates a way forward for western art music practitioners to absolve their historical burden of hegemonizing musical cultures. Afghan refugee familyFollowing the recent surge in conflict and instability in Afghanistan, impacting the lives of the country’s entire population, world-renowned musicians and humanitarian charity the International Rescue Committee (IRC) is organizing a concert for Afghanistan tonight (Friday 22 October) at 19.30 BST, at St James’s Church in Piccadilly, London. It will also be live-streamed globally via concertforafghanistan.com.

During my course lectures for Soundscapes, my students studied The Cambridge Companion to World Music edited by Professor Philip Bohlman and discussed how western art music became institutionalized in parts of East Asia and other ports on our voyage. The military bands have been one of the agents of disseminating western musical instruments and repertoire in many parts of the non-European world. Students left my courses understanding power differentials across north and south by learning about global musical traditions and histories. They question simplified categories such as “east” and “west” and the dangers of viewing a particular culture through a single narrative towards appreciating history as a situated narrative told from the lens of multiple actors. They had the tools to approach the complexity of cultural change as well as a critical lens to recognize the agency and creative choices of people of the south.

Since this concert presents musicians of the north advocating for Afghan musicians in the south who have been impacted by the Taliban ban on music, it is significant to remember that Afghans have the agency to transform their future, and that the help that they require in this moment of crisis is also the result of neglect that they have experienced after the sudden fall of Kabul. Here the work of the International Rescue Committee is important as it responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping to restore health, safety, education, economic wellbeing, and power to people devastated by conflict and disaster.

The programme for the concert for Afghanistan will include Debbie Wiseman’s To Help, an anthem specially arranged for this concert; Bach’s Concerto for Oboe and Violin in D Minor, Marcello’s Oboe Concerto in D mminor, and two works by Mozart: the First Flute Concerto and the Symphony No. 40. The soloists are Nicholas Daniel, Alina Ibragimova, and Wissam Boustany (pictured below). Wissam BoustanyEven though we do not see any Afghan musicians participating in this event, the donations from this concert will support IRC’s trauma-sensitive gender-based counselling service for women and girls in Afghanistan and pave the way for Afghans to take back their power that has been hijacked by the Taliban. Introducing the de-colonizing paradigm in the crisis intervention work is significant, and we will hear the voices of IBPOC artists and scholars, including Dr. Ahmad Sarmast, the Director of the National Institute of Music, who will be one of the speakers alongside David Miliband. Director Enrico Alvares’ touching words strengthen the significant humanitarian cause of this concert:

All performers and helpers are giving their services free of charge…Everyone in this concert – whether performer, helper, listener physically present in the venue or virtually present via streaming – is part of an event based entirely on love for one’s fellow humans. You will hear that in every note, I guarantee it.

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