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Sharing Music as Work: A Dialogue on Transcultural Collaborations

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.

This video presents a dialogue between a researcher and a musician from Finland, both of whom have studied Senegalese music and collaborated with several Senegalese musicians over the years. For both musicians and researchers, sharing music is not only the object or result of their work, but also a means to build relationships and mutual understanding with their collaborators.

The dialogue was filmed in Dakar, Senegal, in June 2021 for the purpose of a joint presentation at the Finnish Conference of Cultural Studies (Kulttuurintutkimuksen päivät) at the University of Eastern Finland in Joensuu in December 2021, because we knew that Marjo would not be able to attend the conference. The presentation was part of a session with the theme “The Joy of Music”, organized by the World Wide Women project team that we are both part of. The aim of the filmed conversation was to reflect on our experiences of working in Senegal and to see what kinds of similarities and differences there might be in these experiences of a researcher or a musician when our backgrounds are in other respects relatively similar.

We met for the first time in Senegal in 2006, when Elina was doing fieldwork for her doctoral dissertation and Marjo came to Dakar with a Finnish folk music group that performed at a local festival. Later, we both have also been married to Senegalese men and are both now raising Finnish-Senegalese children as single mothers. In the filmed discussion, that lasted almost an hour, we talked much more broadly about what it has been like living and working in Senegal as white Finnish women. The edited video focuses on our experiences of working in the male-dominated field of music in Senegal and, in particular, our collaborations with Senegalese musicians.

While we on the video often refer to Senegal or the Senegalese, it is not our intention to generalize but we speak only about our individual circumstances and our experiences with people that we have been contact with in Senegal, mostly in Dakar. We are also aware that our Senegalese collaborators’ perspectives to the same situations are likely to be very different from ours. For example, as Finns we have the privilege of easily traveling to most countries in the world even if we have no detailed plans for what we will do there, whereas our Senegalese collaborators do not have the same freedom of traveling to Europe simply to be inspired by different musical styles or to look for potential collaborators – they might not be granted a visa even if they already have work contracts there. A similar case is the accessibility of education that comes up in our conversation. These types of global inequalities inevitably have an influence on transcultural collaborations such as the ones we are discussing and there is not much we can do to counter them, although we might be able to help our Senegalese collaborators sometimes with visa applications and other practicalities.

Although the theme of the conference was “joy” and we were of course aware that we were producing contents for a presentation in a session titled “The Joy of Music”, the word “joy” was not used in this discussion. Instead, the words we ended up using to describe our sentiments related to Senegalese music or successful musical collaborations were “fascination” or “excitement”, or there was simply a keen interest to learn more about something we did not know well before. Yet perhaps “fascination” implies some kind of joy.

Possibly a more interesting perspective that came up in this discussion, was how much we talked about music as something that connects us with other people, even people we might not know that well. It seems that finding such a connection to others sparks some kind of joy, although that was not articulated specifically with word “joy” in our conversation. For example, there is a moment in the video when Elina mentions that it is the music itself that draws her to Senegal. Similarly, Marjo says in the end of the video that if it was not for the music, she would probably not come back to Senegal. But judging by the other things we talk about, maybe it is not (only) the “music itself” or at least the music cannot be separated from its social dimensions, as numerous ethnomusicologists and music sociologists have repeatedly argued over the years.

We both also state at certain parts of the conversation, which are not included in the edited video, that there have been times when we could not listen to certain kinds of Senegalese music at all. While music has brought us joy, the same music has also generated completely different kinds of feelings due to our life experiences. In hindsight, the title "Sharing Music as Work" (formulated well before the filmed conversation) already pointed to the observation that emerges in our discussion: the joy that music may generate is likely to be largely based on the connections that music helps us build with other people, and all the things we learn about ourselves and others in the process of sharing music.