- Turning the SongMusic, Power, and the Aesthetics of Collaboration
“Sing me a song.” The request startled me, coming as it did in my first conversation with Aliki Lambrou, a singer and folklore researcher on the Greek island of Skyros. I had called her on my cell phone from the neighboring island of Evia, where I stayed with relatives while preparing to move to Skyros to begin dissertation research on gender and vocal music on the island. Eager to move my project along, I explained it to Aliki and asked for her assistance and direction. She responded by asking me to sing. I sang the first thing that came into my head, a piece from the Greek smyrneiko repertory that I had performed with the University of Illinois Balkan Music Ensemble.1 Aliki complimented my singing and then asked, “Have you ever been in love? Because that’s very important if you want to understand this music.” I responded that indeed I had been in love and also knew heartbreak. In turn, she sang a powerfully moving Skyrian song to me. Most Skyrian songs, as islanders later told me, sing of love, particularly love that has not been or cannot be fulfilled. That sense of passion and longing reached through the crackling cell phone connection, past the growths on Aliki’s vocal cords that roughened her voice, and brought me to tears.
On a cold, rainy day in February 2008 I was returning from my first religious festival (paniyiri) on Skyros, piled into a small car with five other women to bump over the muddy country roads back to Hora, the island’s capital. Among my fellow passengers was an old woman whom my friend Anna described as an excellent singer. The others sitting next to her in the back seat asked her to sing for us. She replied, “If I sing you a song, will you turn it?” The other women responded noncommittally. After beginning a song that sounded beautiful even though her voice was raspy, the singer stopped, saying, “I can’t. My throat is closed.”
These stories capture several facets of the relationship between collaboration and aesthetics that I address in this article. Anthropological research on music and sound entails close attention to aesthetics, not [End Page 130] only in the musical sense but also in the social sense (Cavanaugh 2009).
Such a notion of musical and social aesthetics holds important implications for those of us interested in bringing together collaborative anthropology and research on music and sound. Scholars of collaborative anthropology demonstrate a strong concern for the power relations that inhere in the ethnographic encounter and strive to allow the voices of their collaborators to emerge in the finished, written product as much as in the process of research (Lassiter 1998, 2005; Papa and Lassiter 2003). More than that, they seek the kind of collaboration where research consultants set the agenda for research as much as voice their opinions about the findings; that is, they envision collaboration as “a space for the coproduction of theory” (Rappaport 2008: 2). Thus collaboration not only represents a methodological and theoretical intervention in ethnographic practice but also constitutes a form of political activism and engagement.
Located at the interface of anthropology and ethnomusicology, scholars of music and sound speak particularly well to the aesthetic side of collaboration, which in turn carries implications for understanding power. Aesthetics figure significantly in music and other forms of expressive culture; moreover, because music is a social act (Feld 1982; Coplan 1991; Kisliuk 2008; Small 1998), musical aesthetics also entail social aesthetics (Cavanaugh 2009) and likewise an accompanying set of ethical concerns related to power.2 Ethnomusicologists in recent decades have begun to express similar concerns for vocality and power in collaborative relationships with their interlocutors in the field, often in the related (though by no means identical) forms of public, applied, or dialogical research (Feld 1987; Seeger 2008; Titon 1992, 2008). While in the past little attention may have been paid to collaboration in setting a research agenda or in the final written manuscript, many ethnomusicologists also recognize that the same kind of performative collaboration that undergirds their research in the...