What is a Question?
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What is a Question?

The question that pointed me to my current book project wasn’t one I asked, but rather one that was asked of me. Sitting in the break room at the National Aboriginal and Islanders Skills Development Association, or NAISDA—the somewhat obscurely named Indigenous dance college then housed in the south pilings of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia—I was getting to know Uncle Percy Jackonia, a dancer of Torres Strait Islander background who grew up in North Queensland, and who was instrumental in choreographing the Indigenous performances in the opening ceremonies of the Sydney Olympic games. We were sharing stories from our professional lives. He was telling me the story of how he came to be a teacher of dance and Indigenous culture; I was telling him about the courses I taught at the University of Illinois. When I explained that my interests were broader than music and that I had a courtesy appointment in African American studies, he stopped me to ask: “So, what do you think about Marcus Garvey?”

This could have gone a number of ways, I guess, but I’ll admit it surprised me. I hadn’t thought much about Marcus Garvey in relation to Australia at the time. Stalling for time, I made the classic reversal move, asking, “Um, what do you think about Marcus Garvey?” We talked for a while and I came away with a growing picture of the importance of black internationalism as an influence on the struggle for Indigenous rights in Australia. In the decade since then I’ve dug into archives and bugged people for their thoughts, and listened to a lot of rock, reggae, blues, rap, and soul made by Aboriginal Australians and Melanesians, as well as by African diasporic people who found themselves in the Southwestern Pacific. In the process I’ve developed a strong sense of the history of black encounters in the region, and the reasons music is central to it.

If there’s a larger point here, it has to do with disciplinarity. Some years ago a colleague told me the difference between music history and ethnomusicology was that music historians are humanists, and thus interested in questions that get at specifics (specific works, composers, etc.), and that ethnomusicologists are social scientists, and therefore interested in questions that get at generalities (broad cultural aesthetics, structures of musical circulation and differentiation in the world, etc.). I think he was wrong, but maybe not altogether so. Two aspects of this research process—this process of figuring out what makes an interesting question for me as a music scholar, and where those questions come from—define me as an ethnomusicologist, even as I pursue a historical [End Page 43] project, going back into the late nineteenth century. First, my questions often come from my interlocutors in an ethnographic exchange. It’s not that I don’t go in with my own questions, but that the dialogic nature of the research inevitably shifts, recasts, or replaces them. And second, but no less importantly, my questions often stem from socially embedded networks of knowledge, rather than from direct engagement with musical works. I routinely get there, and formalist analysis is always part of my method for answering questions, but it is not often a starting point. In the most general terms, questions are intersubjective. I may think of a question as “my question,” but it inevitably points to the ways I am enmeshed in communities. Some of these, of course, are scholarly communities. I ask questions I think other scholars will want answers to—indeed, often I ask questions other scholars’ work has posed. My ethnographic training broadens this, however, attuning me to—and prompting me to invest in—questions posed by the artists with whom I work.

Gabriel Solis

GABRIEL SOLIS is a Professor of Musicology, Chair of Musicology, and Affiliate in African American Studies and Anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of Monk‘s Music: Thelonius Monk and Jazz History in the Making (2007) and Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall (2013); he also co-editor with Bruno Nettl...