International Council for Traditions of Music and Dance

A Non-Governmental Organization in Formal Consultative Relations with UNESCO

Archive: Report - Meeting Venice 2004

Anthropology of Music in Mediterranean Cultures
6th Meeting of the Study Group on Anthropology of Music in Mediterranean Cultures
10th - 12th June 2004, Venice, Italy 

The 6th meeting of the Study Group on Anthropology of Music in Mediterranean Cultures took place in Venice, Italy, 10th - 12th June 2004, in the inspiring and elegant surroundings provided by our hosts at the Fondazione Ugo e Olga Levi. The meeting took as its theme “Music in Mediterranean Islands,” with the aim of promoting comparison and encouraging reflection on the influence of insularity on musical choices. The programme included thirteen extensive presentations, all richly illustrated with audio examples, video footage, and other materials. A number of the papers highlighted the islands’ chequered histories and the resulting legacy of different layers of cultural influences. Several also referred to the seasonal variation that now marks the islands, many of which lead a double life as bustling, throbbing tourist meccas in the summer months and tranquil backwaters for the rest of the year when local rituals are still very much alive.

The meeting began with a series of overviews of musical traditions in the islands of the Western Mediterranean basin. Judith Cohen (York University, Toronto) and Esperança Bonet Roig (Ibiza) presented joint reports on the Balearic Islands (Mallorca and Menorca) and Pitiuses Islands (Ibiza and Formentera), with reference to Alan Lomax’s pioneering fieldwork of 1952, to more recent studies, and to plans for future projects. Our attention was drawn to the surprisingly different traditions that have developed in each of these settings, due to differences in both history (the Catalan conquest of the 13th century having not reached the Pitiuses) and social organisation (the preference for isolated households in the Pitiuses, rather than village communities, being particularly determinant). Caroline Bithell (University of Wales, Bangor) offered a survey of the different types of musical expression found in the Corsican tradition, including an overview of recent developments and the way in which these were often linked to the changing political climate and related ideologies. Noting that Corsica is also a linguistic and cultural island in relation to its present-day mother-state, France. She went on to examine the way in which selected indigenous styles, together with local conceptions and discourses of musical characteristics, have come to play a vital part in latter-day identity construction. Ignazio Macchiarella (University of Cagliari) described the richness and vitality of the living traditions of Sardinia, again drawing attention to the ways in which indigenous styles have been adapted to new social and economic conditions and have entered into new contexts associated with a more modern lifestyle, in the process attracting both new practitioners and new audiences. He also commented on the way in which music has been harnessed to the cause of establishing Sardinia’s specificity with respect to the Italian mainland. Giuliana Fugazzotto (University of Bologna) presented her own film focusing on the traditions of Sicily, which included particularly interesting footage of Holy Week rituals in a number of different parts of the island, enacted mainly by the lay brotherhoods, and also valuable historical material relating to devotional songs sung at the harvest. Again, attention was drawn to the vitality and variety of traditional practices still surviving as part of the living tradition. 

Turning to the Eastern Mediterranean, Panikos Giorgourdes (Cyprus Music Network) offered an overview of research on the music of Cyprus, commenting on the challenges faced by present day scholars attempting to survey the whole island, before going on to examine in detail the foni tradition. He also presented the impressive website of the Ethnomusicology Research Programme, which offers the possibility of downloading audio examples, scores and song texts. Tullia Magrini (University of Bologna) examined different aspects of musical life in Crete, covering the main genres of vocal music, dances that had their origins in the fight against the Turks, and the role of the lyra in the construction of Cretan identity. She then went on to consider recent transformations, highlighting features through which past and present musical performances are nonetheless consciously connected – for example, via the retention of an atmosphere of conviviality, collective participation, and transmission to the younger generation. Josko Caleta (Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Research, Zagabria) embarked on a musical journey around the Dalmatian Islands, offering an insight into the rich variety of traditional genres still to be found while also illustrating the ways in which traditional practices have been updated in recent times to reflect more contemporary concerns.

Further presentations took the form of a more detailed exploration of a particular repertoire or issue. Pavlos Kavouras (University of Athens) offered an ethnography of dialogical singing on the islands of Lesbos and Karpathos, describing a “performance” in which “ordinary realities are transformed into extraordinary expression”. Again, attention was drawn to the differences between the two islands. Kavouras then went on to develop the notion of a dialogical ethnography, suggesting that the social practice of dialogical singing in the Mediterranean constitutes an ideal paradigm for theoretical reflection within ethnography itself. Gail Holst-Warhaft (Cornell University, New York) presented an analysis of the career of Mariza Koch, of the island of Santini, and her revival and promotion, in the 1970s, of “nisiotika” or “island songs” (associated with the Aegean islands), in collaboration with rock and folk musicians. The paper went on to consider, via a detailed analysis of selected songs, the centrality of the sea to island experience and the part played by the sea in the song repertoire. Roberto Starec (University of Trieste) spoke about his research into surviving examples of Italian traditions in the Quarnero islands of the Adriatic (whose populations are now largely Croatian). Franco Fabbri (University of Torino) focused on the tiny island of Tilos (in the Dodecanese), offering an insight into the different musical styles (mainly from other Greek islands) that can be heard there during the summer months, often in association with a surprising number of religious festivals, and commenting on the ways in which the summer population relates to the musical experiences offered. Susana Weich-Shahak (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) explored the Judeo-Spanish repertoire of the island of Rhodes via an analysis of its three main genres, romances, cantigas and Sephardic coplas. She also noted that this community, in addition to occupying a geographical island, faced an additional triple insularity – linguistic, historical and musical. Ruth Davis (University of Cambridge), in her study of the songs of the Jews of the island of Djerba, set out to untangle the often complex stories behind a selection of songs recorded by Robert Lachmann in 1929, in the process revealing the ways in which their musical characteristics and performance histories in fact reflect specific connections with Jewish and Muslim communities of mainland Tunisia and the wider Middle East. 

In the course of the presentations and the ensuing discussions that continued over leisurely meals and nocturnal strolls around the city, a number of similarities and correspondences inevitably emerged. Particularly striking was the preponderance of traditions of improvised song duels and the central place accorded to the voice in general. Likewise, the high degree of localisation - with respect to both repertoire and style – within areas which themselves were already relatively circumscribed. Yet at the same time we were struck by the wide variety, both with respect to indigenous genres and styles, and also with respect to the different individual responses to social, economic and political change. 

The final discussion, chaired by Mark Slobin (Wesleyan University) and Joaquina Labajo Valdés (Universidad Autónomia de Madrid) was particularly fruitful and offered much food for further thought. A number of vivid images and intriguing paradoxes were thrown up: frontiers in the sea; the apparent displacement of islands, on maps, in relation to the nations to which they currently “belong”; the supposed limitations of insularity belied by the multiple networks existing between islands and mainland, between islands and diaspora; the tendency to idealise island life; insularity as a choice; islands as multiple realities; the island as paradise or hell. Mark Slobin evoked the metaphor of performance islands, referring to the way in which music creates islands of sensibility, of emotion, of affect and memory, in a way that is perhaps more exaggerated in the case of geographical islands. 

In the end of the meeting Joaquina Labajo Valdés was elected unanimously by all participants Vice President of the Study Group.

In conclusion, the meeting offered a valuable and much appreciated forum for exchange and comparison, in the process revealing the unsuspected richness of highly specific traditions still alive and well behind the facade of the island as tourist destination. I for one went away feeling that we had all learnt much and that we had established a solid base on which to build further. (Meanwhile, extended versions of some of the presentations will appear in future issues of the online journal, Music and Anthropology On behalf of all the participants I would like to congratulate Prof. Tullia Magrini for her organisation of such an inspiring gathering, and to thank most sincerely Prof. Giulio Cattin and the Fondazione Levi for their generous and gracious hospitality.
Caroline Bithell