26 min read

Musicianship and Music Scholarship in Dialogue

Musicianship and Music Scholarship in Dialogue
Kuvaaja: Antti Nordin
Ying-Hsien Chen. Siboné Oroza Elina Seye. Marjo Smolander

Ying-Hsien Chen is an ethnomusicologist. Her doctoral dissertation (2023) dealt with the Finnish kantele in Japan.

Siboné Oroza is a tango singer and musicologist. Her ongoing research focuses on Quechua women's music and fashion entrepreneurship in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

Elina Seye, PhD, is a researcher affiliated with the University of Helsinki. She is the leader of the project World Wide Women – Female Musicians Crossing Borders and Building Futures and the chairperson of the Finnish Society for Ethnomusicology. ORCID 0000-0002-1299-1644

Marjo Smolander explores the world through her artistic practice as a musician. She has delved into transcultural music collaborations. She has a master's degree in music from the Sibelius Academy.

(kirjoittajaesittelyt aakkosjärjestyksessä)

The authors of this article are all involved in the project World Wide Women – Female Musicians Crossing Borders and Building Futures. In the WWW project the focus is – as the title of the project states – on female musicians who cross borders, any types of cultural or social borders, such as playing an instrument foreign to their own cultural environment or breaking free from the roles assigned to them by the communities they live in. The reason for crossing borders is in most cases the hope to build a better future for oneself or one’s family and community. In some cases, the better future may be simply a dream or vision that is imagined in musical creations, but even such imagined futures can be a source of strength for the musicians themselves and their listeners.

This article is based on a panel discussion that took place at the Symposium for Music Scholars in Finland in Jyväskylä on May 6th 2022. In the panel discussion, we wanted to share with others some of the themes we had been discussing in WWW team meetings. Although everyone in the project team works on their own (sub)projects, what unites us and many of the people that we collaborate with, is that we are women and work with music, either as musicians or as researchers. Most of us also share the experience of being mothers, which affects our work as musicians and/or researchers in many different ways. Since the WWW project combines art and research, music and ethnomusicology, to be more precise, we are engaging in dialogues between musicians and music scholars already within the project team in addition to the dialogues with our collaborators. Here, we focus on the dialogues relevant to our work that have involved crossing cultural, social and/or musical borders, and the relevance of music-making in these dialogues.

Many kinds of dialogues - a view from ethnomusicology

Elina Seye [ES]: Collaboration and dialogues between researcher(s) and musicians are central to ethnomusicology. As ethnomusicologists we are interested in what people do, how they make music, how they listen to music, but also what people think about music, what kinds of meanings they attach to the music that they like or make, and so on (e.g., Titon 2008: 29). In ethnomusicology, we always consider the people “making or experiencing music” (ibid.) in one way or another, and mostly this means that we need to talk with our research collaborators. Sometimes we may also be involved in music-making ourselves, resulting possibly in an inner dialogue that takes place between the roles of practitioner and theorist-writer, musician and researcher. Whatever the case, we are always faced with the question how we can put the knowledge that we have gained about people’s musical practices into words.

Michelle Kisliuk (1997) has written about the various dialogues that an ethnomusicologist is involved in when doing research in an article titled “(Un)doing Fieldwork: Sharing Songs, Sharing Lives”. She reflects on the experiences gained through fieldwork, which in her case included, among other things, singing and dancing together. She continues with a discussion of how we can mediate the experiences we have gained in the “field” to others, how we can put them into words in a way that does justice to the people we have been working, as well as our own experiences of the music, events and people we are trying to represent. Kisliuk (1997: 41) states that as ethnomusicologists, we are always involved in at least three kinds of dialogues or conversations (the word Kisliuk uses). The first one is between the researcher and the people among whom she works, between the practitioners of the music that is studied and the ethnomusicologist who wants to understand both the musical practices and the views of the practitioners. The second dialogue is the researcher’s “conversation” with the research materials, the documents produced in the situations that she has observed and about the ideas people have presented during the first kind of dialogues. The third kind of dialogue is the representation of  the topic of research in a written form, where the researcher puts together her understanding gained through the previous two dialogues to engage in a dialogue with assumed readers.

When talking about the people a researcher works with, the social networks of the “field” (see Kisliuk 1997: 32), there are always power relations that have to be taken into consideration, and they are often very complex (Kisliuk 1997: 44 n17; also Grau 1999). For example, I have been doing research on local music and dance in Senegal since 2000, and because I have not grown up there, the only way I have been able to gain understanding about the things I have been interested in, has been by building contacts with local experts who have taught me. So, the dialogues in my case must have additionally included negotiations about my position as a white Finnish woman who tries to understand Senegalese music and dance in order to write about it.

However, there is also a fourth dialogue going on between the research and previous research, or other researchers, past and present, because we build on previous research and situate ourselves and our research in relation to other researchers and their work. This is parallel to what music sociologists have stated about composers and musicians: they constantly refer to previous music, because you cannot create music without knowing and relating to already existing musical styles – and the social structures associated with them (e.g., Born 2012; Frith 1996: 109–110).

The point of this lengthy introduction is to show that there are many similarities in the working processes of musicians and researchers, especially ethnomusicologists who work closely with musicians and sometimes play the same music themselves. Both musicians and ethnomusicologists need to engage in dialogues with other people to gain knowledge about music, whether to play or to study it, both use materials such as recordings to refine their knowledge, and both aim at creating something new while still constantly referring to the work of past and present colleagues.

Building connections through music

ES: I see fieldwork as a learning process, which for me has included learning to dance and play the music that I have been studying. It has really helped my research to learn these practical skills, especially because when learning to dance or to play music you also learn how people communicate about music and dance, what are the words that they use for certain things. Through music and dance lessons, I learned the terminology that local people would use, because they are of course not the same words that I’ve learned here in Finland when studying music theory. So, I had to learn to talk about music in a way that is understood by my collaborators.

There’s also, in the particular tradition that I’ve been studying, the sabar, a way to communicate through dance and music, because it’s a tradition that includes improvisation. For example, as a dancer you are free to dance what you want within certain limits, and if you do it well enough, you are able to communicate with the drummers while you dance. But to do that you have to know the “language” of the music and dance in question, how it works, how you can communicate with it – and this is also essential knowledge for me as a researcher.

Ying-Hsien Chen [YHC]: I am a kantele player, which is how I built my image while conducting my research in the Japanese kantele community. Before the pandemic, a small number of Japanese people (approx. 200) regularly played the kantele, a Finnish folk instrument, which can be seen as a phenomenon that results from Japanese enthusiasm for Finnish culture. My image in the field was not entirely a researcher asking questions and leaving; instead, being a kantele player was something many people knew about me first. I took my fifteen-string kantele with me while doing research in Finland and Japan, where I took courses and performed on stage with my research participants. These advanced my access to the community because working as a performer-researcher constantly aroused much interest from research participants. In the field, I self-identified as a person from Taiwan proceeding a doctoral study surrounding the kantele at the University of Helsinki. My Asian appearance made me look very much like my research participants. In addition, as a female researcher, my gender allowed me to work with these primarily women enthusiasts. Participatory ethnographic methods facilitated my understanding of why a small group of Japanese people are passionate about playing the kantele, and what this foreign instrument means to them.

Finnish folk music course in Taidekeskus Antares in Sippola in 2016. Ying-Hsien Chen took part in the course with her research participants from Tokyo and Sapporo. Video by Kouvolan Sanomat newspaper.

Marjo Smolander [MS]:  My background is in folk music. My main instrument is the Finnish traditional instrument kantele and I sing too. I have got a creative approach to music making during my music studies. Making music is a way to be in this world to me. For me, making music is a way to communicate with people; to share feelings, share moments, understand the worldview of the other person. I feel that words aren’t enough to describe this world, words are often missing something. I’ve noticed that through musical collaboration, making music together, it is possible to understand the life and the world of others better than just by talking. Through music making the understanding becomes deeper, and when it is combined to discussions, the result will be even better. I think that through music people reveal something personal and intimate about themselves.

My solo album, which was released in 2021, was dealing with those connections built through music. The album consists of different kinds of musical dialogues with artists from Finland, Senegal, Mali, and the Gambia. The idea behind the album was that music is not just music, but it talks and it nurtures. I have also had other meaningful collaborations, like the project called Sunuy Xale where we create music, books, animation for children in Wolof language. But in this discussion I’m concentrating on the duo Eve Crazy & Mar Yo.

Siboné Oroza [SO]: Musicianship has totally shaped my research, not only because I speak of musicians, but because the most important information, from the terms used to describe music to the most important ideas, came from the musicians, the singers and dancers, who participated in my study. And I cherish that a lot. For example, everybody talked about alegría, joy… the artists described it as their reason for making music or in terms of a professional skill, meaning the ability to create a festive atmosphere, or as a form of spiritual stage empowerment conceptualized as feminism. But I couldn’t get very far just by asking, the artists were busy doing their thing… so I brought into the dialogue previous research and found that alegría means many things in Andean music. I learned that musical performance is linked with the life of the community, alegría is summoned up in agricultural feasts music to ensure the continuity of life and culture, to ensure crop growth, also because that’s where young people meet, and hopefully bring children into this world, into the community (e.g., Stobart 2006). Then there is the Indigenous joy of occupying the colonial cities during religious-folkloric parades, and there’s women’s joy in making their voices heard through songs (e.g., Barragán 2009; Davis 1998; Martínez 2008). So, alegría is a concept that I got as a gift from the musicians that shaped my work, and I theorized its meaning in the music of the cholita groups in constant conversation with the work of other researchers.

My own musicianship has shaped my work, as well. In my interviews with the artists, I asked the same questions that interest me as a singer. Apart from musicianship, a feminist sensitivity and being the daughter of political activists who had been exiled from Bolivia 50 years earlier shaped my position as a researcher. I had this idea that Indigenous women are oppressed in multiple ways. However, the artists explicitly said to me, “when you write about us, don’t write about us as submissive or oppressed persons. Write about what we do to overcome oppressions.” That is, for me, the greatest gift of ethnographic work: we may learn how people who often navigate in oppressive situations and social structures, resist them to construct better futures for themselves, their families and communities.

What I have enjoyed in the WWW project, is that we have the chance to work with creative artists, which is really a great gift, you know, because when we have artists in our group, there’s the constant idea that there is movement, and even if we try to freeze a moment in our writing, we are reminded that something unexpected will happen the next moment in the music we are studying or performing.

Collaborations and relationships

ES: We have already mentioned reasons why collaboration is important for our work, but how would you describe the collaborations with the people you have been working with?

YHC: Collaboration is crucial for researchers conducting fieldwork in Japan, which extends probably to different kinds of activities (from doing business to having performances). Kantele enthusiasts tend to listen to their peers’ opinions about me before agreeing to be interviewed. They want to know who I am, my background, intention, and particularly my reputation. This is understandable and is not limited to Japan but rather common in many cultures. However, I observed this to be particularly strong there due to groupism – seniors (not necessarily age, but in terms of experiences in a group/community) and their opinions and views dominate those of the rest. The essential ingredient for successful collaboration is, based on my experiences, respect for local culture. It is important not to jump to conclusions too fast when seeing a phenomenon different from one’s own culture.

My collaboration is a learning process more like an organic development. I had met many enthusiasts already at camps in Finland, and later I contacted them for advice for conducting fieldwork in Japan. My entry to the field is more related to the acceptance given by research participants rather than an entirely personal decision, which also “exclude[s] other possibilities” (Hardacre 2003: 73). They helped with my accommodation and built networks for me for doing interviews. The possibilities I gained to observe events is largely because of their recognition of me as a kantele friend who happened to be a researcher.

ES: Yes, I think that’s probably the same in many cases, for most researchers, that people want to know who you are. Actually, Kisliuk (1997: 27) also writes that “we get to know other people by making ourselves known to them, and through them to know ourselves again” [original emphasis]. This of course is true when doing ethnographic research just as it is in everyday life: if you want to get to know people, you have to let them get to know you, too. Such a principle of reciprocity goes much further than that if we want to work in an ethical way, but we will probably come back to that theme later.

MS:  The duo Eve Crazy & Mar Yo, was founded in January 2021. My previous collaborations in Senegal and Mali had been mainly with male musicians. I think that many times the reason behind this (working mostly with male musicians) has been very practical. For example, in Mali among Tuareg people, many female musicians stop playing when they get married.

Going back to my collaborations in Senegal: When I went there as a white woman who wanted to learn music, I experienced myself as an ungendered person, because my role as an instrument playing musician is the role of a man there. But I look like a woman, so I’m also a woman, I’m associated with the role of woman at the same time. So, I’ve noticed that in Senegal my role has been controversial. Before forming the duo Eve Crazy & Mar Yo, I had decided that from now on I want to collaborate with women. The reason was that with the men I had started to feel as an outsider, a weirdo. I felt that I’m not fitting in there. In Senegal, women and men have specific roles in the society, and as a white woman, I don’t fit either role. When I was working with men, I felt that I was very far from their reality. I’m a single parent of two children, and I came to rehearsals and gigs with children, and it wasn’t really fitting the men’s reality and their way of living. They were playing at night and I could not go with them, because I had my children. With Senegalese women I felt that they took me into their group. With them I had things to share like talking about children and husbands. But with men, I could not find many things to talk about. My reality seemed to be so separate from that of men.

I contacted Eve through an association called Genji Hip Hop. It’s a female association for artists who work in hip hop. There are photographers, dancers, rappers and some feminist activists, too. But they are not all feminists and activists, it’s important to know. I contacted this association because I had heard some of their rappers. Those rappers had strong themes in their lyrics, and I was really impressed. They were talking about issues which I had understood to be kind of taboos in Senegal, taboos of women’s lives. It was a kind of sign to me. Their music resonated with me and I wanted to make this kind of music, too.

Before all this I had had one watershed experience a couple of years earlier in Senegal. Then I was working with one man. I had a song where I was saying that men and women are equal, and this man said to me “you cannot say this, because it’s not true, women and men are not equal”. After that, I felt really bad and confused. In those lyrics I just tried to say that all people are equal. I felt oppressed. Then, I decided that I will find women to work with. Then I found Eve, and since the beginning we have had a lot to talk about. We just decided that “let's start to do something together” and we did the song Jigeén ñi (‘Women’ in Wolof):

Eve Crazy & Mar Yo: Jigéen ñi

Before working with Eve, I knew nothing about rap, and she knew nothing about Finnish kantele or traditional music, but I think we succeeded well in making music together, found a way to communicate musically. I must admit that it was not obvious. In 2021, I got a grant for us and we were very excited about that. Our goal was to make songs about hard subjects, taboos, that women face in Senegal. We had a lot of discussions about the themes of the songs. Eve and I, we have grown up in different countries and many times our worldviews didn’t fit. We needed to make many compromises. In 2021, when I was in Senegal, there were demonstrations against homosexuals. I was very frustrated about that, so I proposed to Eve that let’s do one song about that topic. But she said: “No, we can’t. They will put us in prison if we do so because to support homosexuals is considered illegal”. So, through making music together you learn much more than just music. I think it's a very special way of learning about other people and their worldviews.

In my view, our duo with Eve is based on friendship. We try to find subjects that we can both talk about, agree about. In November 2021, we released Trilogy, a compilation of three songs:

Eve Crazy & Mar Yo: Trilogy

In Trilogy, we are dealing with some difficult themes. But we both are singing in our mother tongue, so we don’t really know exactly what the other one is singing. After one radio interview in Senegal, Eve said that she felt a bit ashamed about her lyrics on one song because she was saying bad things about men in that song. The man who interviewed her asked why she was doing that. So, we put ourselves into hard situations with our lyrics.

Navigating social norms and expectations

ES: You have already mentioned some challenges or problems you have encountered, maybe we can continue with that theme: What kind of problems, conflicts or misunderstandings have you come across in your collaborations? Has there been something that you have learned from the encounters with people who did not become collaborators?

SO: The example of Marjo and Eve Crazy is an example of how well things can go. I think in my case… when I went back five years after becoming acquainted with the artists who collaborated with me, they said to me that they had carefully evaluated my trustworthiness and if they wanted to spend their time and effort with me… nobody had said that at the time. Seven groups collaborated with me. I called many more on the contact telephone numbers that run in the music videos of the cholita groups on YouTube. If a male voice answered and we agreed to meet someplace, usually no-one showed up. Most of the people who answered were women, members of the cholita group, often the lead singer or her mother. And the women managed everything in the group, revenues and expenses, decided on the repertoires, hired backing bands, owned the instruments which they handed over only for gigs to make sure that the band would show up. And, they had many kinds of policies to control alcohol consumption in the group, performers had to pay a fine if they were drunk at work, and so on.

So, from all the seven groups that I started to work with, with many of their members we became friends. But I can’t say anything else than that there was good chemistry between us. Some artists were very young, and I worked a lot with their mothers who were my age, as well. But I think it was important that we had something to give in return for the interviews and their time. I say we, because my partner Antti Nordin was there with me, and from the beginning, we offered to the artists a copy of the interviews and performances that Antti and I had recorded. The artists appreciated this form of reciprocity because our cameras were better than the ones available in Bolivia at the time, with a clearer image. An ethnomusicologist colleague, Henry Stobart, had the idea of asking the artists if they would be interested in making music videos with our equipment. That’s what we did, and we worked many hours making music videos, and I learned hugely during those hours, from how the artists wanted to be represented and the locations they chose, to group dynamics and business ideas. The artists had a strong sense of autonomy. They highly valued the opportunity to control the final product from the script to choosing scenes for the videos and editing the material together with Antti. The artists who collaborated with me were also entrepreneurs, and they were able to use the music videos for the benefit of their music business.

Here are two examples of the music videos we helped to produce:

Las Florecitas de Mizque 2012, Granaditay

Las Traicioneras del Amor 2012, Pasito Tun Tun

MS: This question about profiting is many times there: who profits, and what, and what profiting means? It’s hard to discuss with people sometimes, because there have been situations where people are waiting for something more than a salary. Paying a salary is very normal and it should always be done as a matter of course. But to profit in some other way, like get gigs in Europe. It’s very hard for me, because it’s unrealistic that I could be capable of doing that as an individual person.

YHC: I was pretty ignorant of groupism in Japan in the beginning when applying the ethnographic methods. Even though I had mentioned earlier that I received immense assistance from kantele players I had met in Finland, not everyone accepted me. I was rejected by certain people who assumed my intent was to study other groups than theirs. Upon the preliminary fieldwork, one person approached and told me that a single group does not represent others and said that I should come to other groups and meet those who play other styles and are not so active on Facebook (the person saw my many “likes” on the social media posts of other members from another group). That confused me. I started to pay attention to people from different groups wanting to represent themselves as “serious” players and became aware of these small events. I understood that as a manifestation of group boundaries. I decided to take no part in the under-the-table competition and not to not exchange intergroup information to avoid possible tensions. I concentrated on what people wanted to talk about and addressed that the goal is to listen to their view of the kantele. Over the years, I also thought about how reciprocity can be realised when working as a performer-researcher in this project.

ES: In Senegal, there are similar things, but even if there is a conflict, people don’t really talk about it. Locals generally know who likes whom, who are friends and who are not, because they have social connections and know the personal histories of people, but for somebody who comes from the outside, it takes a lot of time to figure out. Everybody is super friendly to each other usually, also on Facebook, even if they might not actually like some person. Especially between dancers, there are a lot of ideas, for example, about who is dancing according to the tradition, and who is doing whatever, who is appreciated as a dancer and who is not. Still, in public, it’s always like “oh, a wonderful show, so great!”

Also, what may happen is that if you’re connected to somebody or you are working with a certain person or group, some others might reject or avoid you. I’ve tried to navigate this by trying to take lessons and build contacts with different artists. I have been lucky to have had teachers who were appreciated by many people and who knew the tradition well, so that they had a certain kind of respect or even authority among Senegalese artists. This helped me a lot with my research. But it’s sometimes hard to control these things, who do you become identified with, if you are considered to be in this or that person’s “gang”, you might be excluded from certain things because of it. It’s partly a question of “chemistry”, who you click with, but on the other hand, as a researcher, you need to be careful about not being too partial towards certain people.

SO: It’s a constant danger. About Facebook, when I came back home and put one group on my wall, I would immediately have to put the others, too. The groups were very competitive, and I was often asked which group I preferred. As a researcher I didn’t have a favourite group, but competition between the groups led to some quite uncomfortable situations.

ES: But it seems they actually say this, and confront you, because in Senegal that wouldn’t happen, people there tend to avoid confrontations. You might feel that something is not quite right, or you might hear that somebody has said something about you behind your back.

SO: In those moments, I asked if there was something that I should know, because I could feel that something was not right. On a couple of occasions, I was accused of favoring a rival group. When we were editing the documentary film, we looked carefully through the scenes with the artists, and one artist said to me that I should cut out the scenes in which she directly criticizes other groups and politicians if I wanted to avoid a very big fight between her and the others. So, some things that are said are better not published, because as researchers we should do no harm.

ES: Or you have to say it in a way that isn’t very direct, less personalized, maybe.

MS: As a musician I consider artists in a very similar way than if I worked with artists in Finland, “ok, we are colleagues, and we work like this. You work like that as a musician, and I work like this, so we have to make a compromise.” So, I have tried to put it in such a way that we are on the same level as musicians, everything should be equal that way.

Inside, outside and somewhere in-between

Lasse Lehtonen (question from the audience): When you are researching music as foreigners, does that help your position?

ES: I think, you are forgiven certain things, like if you don’t behave in ways that a local person would be expected to behave or cannot communicate with all the subtleties of the local style of speaking. In Senegal, the connections you have are everything, so I think, if I had not been so lucky to have certain contacts, who are high up in the hierarchy among Senegalese dancers, such as my long-time dance teacher and collaborator Pape Moussa Sonko. He recently became the artistic director of the National Ballet, so he has such a strong position of authority that no-one would dare to criticize him, at least not openly. Even before, he was very highly respected, partly because he is kind of a modest person but at the same time very skilled as a dancer and choreographer. So, having such connections helps a lot.

Congratulating Pape Moussa Sonko on social media for his appointment as the artistic director of the National Ballet in March 2021. Picture taken in the backyard of the home venue of the National Ballet, Theatre National Daniel Sorano.

I haven’t been working so much with music in Senegal lately, so my contacts with musicians are not as strong. From what I hear and read from colleagues, if you are learning with one family of percussionists, you are practically shut out from the rest of them, because there’s rivalry between the different families of musicians. It’s not that they would not talk to you at all, or be mean to you, but if you’re connected with one family, then you cannot work much with another family, it will be hard to even get an interview.

It’s really a lot about relationships there. So on one hand, you are allowed certain things because you’re a foreigner, you’re kind of an outsider. But on the other hand, you cannot really stay neutral in your relationships with people, because to navigate all kinds of situations, and to do your work, you need people who will help and support you. Otherwise you will be lost somehow and probably left out of everything that might be interesting. So, it’s very complicated: as a researcher you don’t want to pick sides but you also need collaborators and then you may be regarded as being part of their “inner circle”, which may close some other doors for you.

SO: I think that I have not thought enough about that, my insider/outsider position. Partly, I am an insider, because I have a Bolivian father whose mother grew up speaking Quechua. In many other ways I am an outsider, a newcomer into the Quechua-Aymara dance music scene. And, of course, I had this tall Scandinavian man with me at the dancehalls, which made a big difference. Male members of the audience wanted to share drinks with Antti and welcomed the idea that someone from a distant country was interested in the music that they enjoyed. They seemed to accept me as his companion and I was mostly left to record the events and take field notes. The artists who knew me considered me a singer colleague, but also found it curious that as a Bolivian who came from a different class background and did not grow up with Quechua culture, I wanted to learn about their music. I had lived in Bolivia as a child but returned as a teenager to Finland, where I had been born to a Finnish mother, living in the relatively egalitarian Finnish society of the 1970s and unlearning the micro gestures and languages that make up racialized class structures in Bolivia in everyday social interactions. Exhibiting such gestures and languages would have closed the doors for me to the world of the cholita groups, as my Quechua teacher said to me.

YHC: Obviously I’m an outsider in this project dealing with Finnish kantele in Japan. I have to consider Finnish and Japanese culture because I am a foreign researcher. This outsider position was very strong in 2016, when I participated in a kantele course in Sippola, Kouvola, where cultural experiences like sauna were arranged during the five-day course. After the Japanese participants, the Finnish organisers (two musicians) and I finished one sauna, we went outside and sat on a bench for a break. I sat between them. The two Finnish musicians sat on my left side, drinking beer silently, and all these Japanese were chatting excitedly and sharing snacks. I remained silent because I didn’t speak the language. At that moment, I felt extremely distant from both the Finnish and the Japanese kantele players.

However, as more fieldwork was conducted and my writing was done, I started to approach an “insider” position, partly because I could comprehend more aspects after six years of living in Finland than those enthusiasts who play the kantele but had never been to the country. When they talk about the fascination and positive images of Finland, I feel that they may have to consider larger social contexts to understand more holistically why Finland became today’s Finland. Similarly, on some occasions, I worked, to some extent, as an insider to Japanese culture. Japan is a familiar country to Taiwanese people mainly due to its colonial history on the island (1895–1945), and Taiwanese’s interests in Japan and Japanese culture still remain today. My background helps me explain to Western audiences why these women (especially those middle-aged, like my mother) feel they contribute to the family rather than an “oppressed” image in flawed accounts in gender study centering on Japanese women. In retrospect, my position changed significantly from a total outsider to a place in-between over the years developing my research.

MS: This space, between some spaces, can also make connections, I’ve noticed. I have one friend from West Africa who has been living in a Nordic country for twenty years. He is a musician and we have been playing together a little bit, and been talking about that, this space between West Africa and Nordic countries. This combination of understanding social norms in both West Africa and Nordic countries gives us a common space, kind of. We can change our glasses to see situations, to hear music, to understand people in this space.

ES: This kind of being in-between places and cultures, even identities, is quite familiar to me, too. But although I have been feeling increasingly at home also in Senegal, especially in Dakar, after having spent shorter and longer periods of time there since 2000, I have assumed that most locals see me simply as one of the many foreign dance enthusiasts that visit the country regularly. So I was a bit surprised in 2021, when I was leaving Dakar, after spending almost a year there, that some of my dancer-collaborators were almost shocked that I would be going back to Finland. A few of them actually said something like: “But you live here! When are you coming back?” and “How come you don’t know when you’re coming back to Senegal? It’s your home!” This was a very unexpected reaction from my point of view, because I knew from the beginning how long I would stay, and I thought I had told them, too. In Senegal, it’s also really part of the culture to say things like “you’re always welcome here, make yourself at home” to visitors. But after I encountered a similar reaction from more than one person – and one of them even reminded me about this conversation when I came back to Dakar for a short visit almost a year later – I could not simply interpret it as the local social norm of hospitality but it seemed that they genuinely saw me as a part of their social circles and thereby as someone whose home must be in Senegal.

These kinds of thoughts of being at the same time an insider and outsider or something in-between are certainly not new to ethnomusicologists (e.g., Herndon 1993) and probably each researcher working across cultural, social, and other boundaries goes through similar reflections. I’m wondering if researchers are maybe a bit too concerned with – often essentializing – ideas about who counts as an insider and an outsider, as if in today’s world most people would not have contacts with people from different kinds of backgrounds and social circles (see also, Seeger 2019: 19). And through these contacts new friendships, alliances and communities, as well as professional collaborations, of course, are constantly being formed.


To pull together some themes that came up in our discussion, it is obvious that dialogues, discussing things with others, are fundamental to both musical collaborations and ethnomusicology. And such dialogues require “being there” with the people concerned, meeting them, spending time with them, getting to know each other, exchanging ideas, and so on. This presence and sharing also seems to be a necessary foundation for building respectful and reciprocal relationships with collaborators, and helps us remember our responsibility in representing our collaborators in a way that has relevance for them. Considering music simply as “material” that we as musicians or researchers work with can easily lead to ethically questionable results, such as cultural (mis)appropriation (see also, Artforum 2017) or exoticizing representations. But if we understand that music is never simply certain kinds of sounds but always filled with meaning from the viewpoint of the people who have created and continue to produce these sounds (see also, Seeger 2019: 20), we inevitably realize that we have to know the people and engage in dialogues with them if we want to write about the music they make or to learn to play it ourselves.

References cited

Artforum. 2017. “Cultural Appropriation: A Roundtable.” Artforum 55(10), Summer 2017. URL: https://www.artforum.com/print/201706/cultural-appropriation-a-roundtable-68677 (read 15 May 2023).

Barragán, Rossana. 2009. “La fiesta del poder, el poder de la fiesta.” Gran Poder: La Morenada. Ed. by Rossana Barragán & Cleverth Cárdenas. La Paz: Instituto de Estudios Bolivianos.

Born, Georgina. 2012. “Music and the Social.” The Cultural Study of Music: A Critical Introduction. Second Edition. Ed. by Martin Clayton, Trevor Herbert & Richard Middleton. New York & London: Routledge, 261–274.

Davis, Angela Y. 1998. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. New York: Pantheon Books.

Frith, Simon. 1996. Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Grau, Andrée. 1999. “Fieldwork, Politics and Power.” Dance in the Field. Theory, Methods and Issues in Dance Ethnography. Ed. by Theresa J. Buckland. Houndmills & London: Macmillan Press, 163–174.

Hardacre, Helen. 2003. “Fieldwork with Japanese Religious Groups.” Doing Fieldwork in Japan. Ed. by Bestor, Theodore C., Patricia G. Steinhoff & Victoria Lyon Bestor. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 71–88.

Herndon, Marcia. 1993. “Insiders, Outsiders: Knowing Our Limits, Limiting Our Knowing.” The World of Music 35(1): 63–80.

Kisliuk, Michelle. 1997. “(Un)Doing Fieldwork: Sharing Songs, Sharing Lives.” Shadows in the Field. New Perspectives for Fieldwork in Ethnomusicology. Ed. by Gregory F. Barz and Timothy J. Cooley. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 23–44.

Martínez, Rosalía. 2008. “Canto y feminidad entre los Jalq’a y los Tarabuco (Bolivia).” Revista argentina de musicología 9: 19–40.

Seeger, Anthony. 2019. “Why Does Ethnomusicology Matter? The Socio-Political Relevance of Ethnomusicology in the 21st Century.” Ethnomusicology Matters. Influencing Social and Political Realities. Ed. by Ursula Hemetek, Marko Kölbl & Hande Sağlam. Wien: Böhlau Verlag, 15–32.

Stobart, Henry. 2006. Music and the Poetics of Production in the Bolivian Andes. Aldershot: Ashgate.         

Titon, Jeff Todd. 2008. ”Knowing Fieldwork.” Shadows in the Field. New Perspectives for Fieldwork in Ethnomusicology. Second Edition. Ed. by Gregory F. Barz & Timothy J. Cooley. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 25–41.