I was asked to write this blog post by my funding body for their monthly newsletter, which is why the tone might be a little different and slightly more academic than what I usually post here.
At the end of November, I took myself down to London to attend the Middle East and Central Asia Music Forum hosted at Birkbeck College. One of my supervisors, Caroline Bithell, had told me about it earlier on in the semester but what with it being just a few months into the extremely hectic first semester of PhD life, and what with me having nothing to present, and what with my inability to afford the train tickets, I’d written it off and put it on the hallowed “Maybe After Fieldwork” list. When I found out that the NWSSDTP would be able to cover the costs of my attendance, however, my excuses dissolved and I began looking forward to it.
A brief note to explain why this social anthropologist would want to attend a musicology conference: my work concerns how Kazakh people living in western Mongolia express and develop their relationship to the landscape of that region through horse culture, tourism and – crucially for us – song. I’m still very much getting to grips with what forms music and music culture take in Central Asia and the Muslim world more generally, and attending this conference was a brilliant opportunity to learn more.
I love conferences. This was only my third time attending one, but I know that I feel much more at ease in a room full of impassioned, like-minded researchers working on untangling the same mysteries and sharing a joint sense of wonder than I do in a library. No hate to libraries – they’re full of wonderfully interesting books. But the fact is that those books were written by wonderfully interesting people, and I just prefer learning about ideas from people rather than paper. Perhaps anomalously for a PhD student, I’m not the world’s biggest reader. I’m slow and sometimes my eyes get hot or tired. I’ve been known to fall asleep and drool on many a monograph and besides, I can never really get comfortable holding a book or a tablet for hours on end. If there’s someone in front of me, talking animatedly and pointing at a screen with colourful pictures on it, that’s a different story.
The people in front of me and the other attendees of the Forum were a diverse crowd: musicians, composers, musicologists, ethnomusicologists, anthropologists, historians and even computer scientists graced the agenda, which can be explored in full here. I will dwell longer on two speakers in particular.
The first talk that was particularly relevant to my own project was Vicky Tadros’s presentation on “Emirati Interactions with Nature Through Listening to Mehad Hamad” in which she told us about dune bashing and the collective memory of the sea as explored through music in the UAE (Tadros is a doctoral researcher in the Department of Music at SOAS). This might be ignorant, but I had never thought about the fact that the Emirati, being a desert-dwelling people with little opportunity to establish an agricultural industry, were hugely reliant on fishing for most of their history. This collective memory of fishing and being seafaring folk is nowadays realised in sentimental ballads with high production values and slick music videos.
But, perhaps at odds with that bucolic imagined past, these songs punch their way out of fat speakers loaded onto the backs of trucks in the middle of the desert, providing the soundtrack for high-octane dune bashing events where young Emiratis risk life, limb and automobile to tear through mountains and valleys of sand. Tadros asked us to consider how this new listening practice brings together the desert and the sea in the UAE in the 21st century, and invited us to see not a rupture between past and present, but a continuity in the ongoing interaction between Emirati people and the natural world around them.
My project will also necessitate a critical engagement with the past, both in terms of how it is imagined by the people themselves, and by the scholars who are students of those people. In my case, I am keen to avoid casting Mongolian Kazakhs and their music as frozen relics of an imagined pre-Soviet, pre-Russian, supposedly homogeneous Kazakh culture. In their case, as in the case Tadros describes, the music addresses both an affinity for the natural landscapes that make up the place that is their home and the memory of togetherness and belonging in that place. What Tadros’s talk made me realise is that if I am to take the music I’m researching seriously, I must also pay attention to the listening practices associated with it, and I’m grateful to have come to that realisation before rather than during or even after fieldwork.
The second presentation which I want to highlight here was given by Megan Rancier, an ethnomusicologist at Bowling Green State University with expertise in the various musics of Kazakhstan. I invite the reader to remember that my project concerns the music of Kazakhs in Mongolia, so you can imagine how excited I was to hear what Rancier had to tell us… and she delivered. It was a dynamic talk and one which, to my delight, featured several excerpts from Q-Pop music videos. For the uninitiated, Q-Pop is Kazakhstan’s answer to K-Pop and J-Pop. The “Q” comes from the state’s new, Latin spelling of its name: Qazaqstan. In her talk, entitled ““She doesn’t twerk, she dances the kamazhai”: discourses on gender and modernity in Kazakh popular music”, Rancier walked us through her take on how women are being depicted in contemporary music, and of who it is calling those aesthetic and editorial shots.
First we watched a clip of the hip-hop duo Raim & Artur’s track, “Сәукеле [Saukele]”. The title refers to the traditional Kazakh bridal headdress worn by the women in the video. In the track itself, the men praise the modesty of a Kazakh woman who does not twerk but instead dances the traditional Kazakh kamazhai dance, who knows how to cook for her husband, shines with beauty and does not walk behind nor in front of the man, but beside him.
In contrast to this stands the music video for “Baǵynbaimyn” (“I won’t obey”) by girl band JUZIM, in which six performers sing about their frustration with rules and expectations of perfection while seamlessly executing an assertive, playful choreography in brightly coloured, closely-fitted outfits. Rancier explained that the singers co-wrote the lyrics of this song, which include lines like “I’m not the angel you thought I was / For me your love is like a lump in my throat”.
It would be easy to read this as a simple dichotomy of prescribed vs permissive images of femininity, but Rancier encouraged us to direct our attention to the context in which these media are being produced and disseminated, and the role which the state plays in hose processes. As she wrote in the abstract for this talk,
One way that the Kazakhstani government has sought to engage Kazakh youth in the project of promoting Kazakh national identity and sovereignty is through Q-Pop … At the same time, the songs and music videos produced by Q-Pop artists also reveal larger discourses about which cultural values should be understood as distinctively and genuinely Kazakh … the musical and visual language of Q-Pop can offer a multi-layered view of how Kazakh women are thought to represent the nation, and how representations of Kazakh women highlight the beliefs and anxieties that define discourses of nationalism and Kazakh national identity.
I stayed in touch with Megan Rancier after this talk, and am grateful to the warm way in which she’s informally welcomed me into the community of scholars working on Kazakh music by taking seriously my own nascent thoughts and ideas, and following up with me about reading suggestions and other ideas. As a PhD student who’s still wet behind the ears and grappling with some impostor syndrome, I’d been dragging my feet on reaching out to the academics I admire and whose advice I would most benefit from, and meeting Megan has helped combat that anxiety. And that pesky impostor syndrome is also probably why I’d even discounted attending this conference before finding out there was financial support for it. “Ah, I won’t have anything to say,” I thought. Well, a conference is a pretty good place not to say anything and instead just to watch, listen and learn.
I am grateful to the ESRC and NWSSDTP that I was able to attend an event that both deepened my knowledge and curiosity about the specific niche I’m looking to work in and opened my eyes to a handful of the wide range of topics currently being explored by ethnomusicologists of all academic backgrounds. And I’m looking forward to more conferences in 2020!