Review: The Mediterranean in Music: Critical Perspectives, Common Concerns, Cultural Differences

This review originally appeared in Popular Music 27:1 (2008): 163-65.

The Mediterranean in Music: Critical Perspectives, Common Concerns, Cultural Differences. Edited by David Cooper and Kevin Dawe. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2005. 247 pp. ISBN 0-8108-5407-4.

This collection of papers comes recommended by its series editor Martin Stokes as bringing a ‘critical edge’ and diverse methodology to the study of music in the Mediterranean (p. viii). Its eleven chapters mainly include contributions to a University of Leeds conference in 2001. They deal geographically with Greece, Crete, Turkey, Albania, Corsica, Italy, Spain, Morocco, Algeria and Palestine (not to mention Ireland). Their authors represent a variety of disciplines: mainly ethnomusicologists and anthropologists, with one practising conductor. The book’s five parts (Nation and History, Broadcasting and New Media, Men and Women, ‘Mediterranean Music’ and The Travelling Mediterranean) give some idea of the approaches involved. Themes of defining, hybridising, nationalising, problematising and packaging the Mediterranean unite the sections.

Various concepts of the Mediterranean are introduced by different authors, yet their consensus emerges around the Mediterranean of the anthropologist Michael Herzfeld rather than older, more essentialist accounts. Herzfeld observes, as quoted by Goffredo Plastino, that it is less important to ask what the Mediterranean is than to ask why people ‘find it useful to emphasise their identity as ‘‘Mediterranean’’’. This perspective would seem to inform the majority of the chapters, at least those which seriously engage with the book’s aim to provide ‘critical perspectives, common concerns, [and] cultural differences’ rather than limiting themselves to one particular country under study.

Most of the ‘Mediterraneans’ evoked by the musicians and scholars discussed in this volume associate the character of the region with hybridity. This has not always been to the musicians’ or scholars’ taste: the chapter on music policy on the 1930s Palestine Broadcasting Service relates how its editor aimed to include all indigenous groups but resist hybridisation between west and east. In Daphne Tragaki’s chapter on Greek rebetiko, the potential Turkish connotations of the bouzouki (the famous Greek stringed instrument), with its similarities to other instruments from the Turkish sphere of influence, are seen to have been similarly contentious. However, both papers appear to find their chief discursive opposition between Europe/‘the west’ and ‘the Orient’, rather than symbolic poles of what was and was not considered to be ‘Mediterranean’.

A more overt Mediterranean focus is to be found in John Morgan O’Connell’s chapter on Turkish musicology during the nationalising Atatürk era (1920s and 1930s). O’Connell shows how musicologists supported the idea of ‘a central Asian definition of Turkish identity’ (p. 3) by arguing that European Mediterranean musics had an Asian, Turkic origin. Caroline Bithell’s chapter on music in Corsica is also especially useful for understanding how transnational symbols such as the Mediterranean can be harnessed to the elaboration of national identity. In Corsican nationalism, certain musical characteristics (such as harmony/polyphony, syllabic/melismatic or tonality/modality) are coded as either western European or Mediterranean, and correspond to the music of mainland France or Corsica, respectively.

The promise of ‘critical perspectives’ on the Mediterranean goes so far that several authors are reflexive to the point of unease about whether the Mediterranean is a suitable field of analysis at all. Tragaki is concerned that rebetiko should not be stereotyped as Mediterranean to such an extent that this ‘musical Mediterraneanism’ (p. 49) might obscure awareness of other local, national and international factors which have influenced it, including its redefinition through the ‘world music’ framework. Bithell is self-conscious as to how academics’ theorising about the nature of the Mediterranean may feed back into the practices of the musicians who deliberately set out to make ‘Mediterranean’ music. For whom they set out to make it is another matter. Although Plastino’s subjects, the Sicilian band Dounia, consciously seek a ‘sense of dislocation’ in their music (p. 180), there remains a hint of concern that they belong ‘at least partly to a sphere of music that is fine for tourists and travel agencies but whose very presence threatens to compromise the survival of the local musics of the Mediterranean’ (pp. 182–3). Nonetheless, Bithell’s Corsicans for one seem to have done well out of the sphere of ‘tourists and travel agencies’. Specifically, the example of Bulgarian polyphonic singing and its international marketing has encouraged Corsican groups to take a similar direction, and the island now hosts annual Rencontres Polyphoniques.

The collection’s main drawback is the uneven degree of contextualisation among its chapters. Debates on hybridity or definition seem to pass some papers by: Eno Koço’s chapter on Albanian urban lyric song only even mentions the Mediterranean once. More frustratingly, some of the most intriguing papers are tantalisingly short. This is most unfortunate for the two chapters on Algerian raï byTony Langlois and Gabriele Marranci. Langlois describes the traditional demarcation of North-African society into male and female space (with correspondingly divided music), then proposes that the electronic media have ‘deregulated’ access to music and opened up new spaces for its consumption (p. 105). Marranci is interested in the use generations of Algerian immigrants to France (beurs) have made of raï and the implications of diasporic beur-raï for raï production in the homeland – but his nine pages resemble an outline more than a fully fledged chapter.

Nonetheless, The Mediterreanean in Music would be a worthwhile addition to libraries concerned with popular music or the individual regions it covers. The back cover’s promise of relevance to ‘the general reader and travelers in the Mediterranean region’ is rather more optimistic. Yet, should said readers wish to reflect on the fluidity of national/regional culture, they could do worse than consult the chapters of Tragaki, Bithell or Plastino. South-east European studies has frequently concerned itself over the last fifteen years with ideas of ‘symbolic geography’ (Milica Bakic-Hayden and Robert Hayden) or ‘imagining the Balkans’ (Maria Todorova). Cooper and Dawe’s collection, at its best, points to the importance of music as a resource for ‘imagining the Mediterranean’.


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