EOL 3: Mediterranean musicians in America (Signell)

Tales we tell

selection | immersion | recording

Are the tales we tell as ethnomusicologists believable? A reader's healthy skepticism always lies in wait for the author. An ethnomusicologist can anticipate this skepticism by thorough and frank disclosure.

Evolutionist Stephan Jay Gould thinks that "any scholar's views should be read in the context of cultural and personal beliefs." Gould regards "self-scrutiny and disclosure as the greatest of intellectual virtues" (Gould 1997). If "An anthropology of music demands an anthropology of ethnomusicology itself," Seeger 1993) and we have entered a period of "reflexive music history" (Neuman 1993), self-scrutiny and disclosure can be powerful tools for understanding the stories ethnomusicologists tell.

The more an ethnomusicologist discloses cultural biases, personal beliefs, partisan connections, times, places, language competency, recording techniques, the role of serendipity, etc., the less the reader becomes distracted by wondering, extrapolating, or guessing about these vital influences. Ethnomusicology has so few rules, the reader needs as many clues as possible to interpret its products.


Mark Slobin opens a door on his personal history of a Jewish-American upbringing (Slobin 1993).

For his Kaluli compact disc, Steven Feld sets a model for recording documentation with a detailed list of recording equipment, microphone placement, post-production processing--and most importantly--his reason for each choice and his overall purpose (Feld 1990, Feld 1991a, Feld 1991b, Signell 1995).

Stephen Slawek makes a convincing case for full disclosure of personal allegiances, a model for authors and editors (Slawek 1993).

Disclosure in Web documents

Józef Pacholczyk has pointed out that a Web publication, with less space constrictions than a print document, offers the reader supporting documentation limited only by the author's willingness to provide it. The author can provide lengthy transcriptions, analyses, and multimedia examples in a Web document (Pacholczyk 1996), and full disclosure. In this issue of EOL, Tullia Magrini provides a complete transcript of a life history interview with a Greek musician, so the reader can compare the unedited interview with her interpretations (Magrini).

Mediterranean music

Two sets of recordings of Mediterranean musicians lend themselves to self-scrutiny and disclosure. In one set, I recorded Mediterranean musicans in the United States--Turks, Greeks, Albanians, and South Slavs (from former Yugoslavia)--most of whom had immigrated as adults. This set poses questions of selection of musicians and recording techniques.

The second set of recordings are also of Mediterranean musicians in the U.S., but are commercial 78 rpm foreign language music recordings made in the first half of the twentieth century. The second set poses less questions of recording techique, but still requires reasons why each recording was selected from among hundreds if not thousands of other recordings in the same language.

I can apply a disclosure checklist to the two sets of Mediterranean musician recordings that I chose. The reader can no doubt think of other parameters to add to the list. I've consolidated all the disclosures here, organized by problem but the same information can be found integrated into each treatment of regional music, e.g., "Albanian."

  • music/musician selection (why this musician, this genre, this region?)

  • author's immersion (A visitor or a participant? Living, language, or performance experience?)


The ultimate anthropology of ethnomusicology is rigorous self-study by the author. Revealing one's own biases, limitations, beliefs, cultural outlooks, and other influences frankly and openly benefits author and reader.

The disclosures I've outlined here omit other useful background information, such as documentation (Post, et al. 1994) and social context (Seeger 1987), in favor of disclosure of the author's internal dialog.

If the reader finds any of my disclosures for this article incomplete, vague, irrelevant, deceptive, or boastful rather than helpful, I welcome public or private responses. Recognizing weaknesses in other authors is the first step to strengthening those aspects of our own writing.

To the extent that an author is honest, clear, thorough, helpful, and humble, the writer and the reader will benefit. Paradoxically, full disclosure makes a more convincing tale than one which deliberately or inadvertantly conceals. Ultimately, the tales we tell must stand or fall on whether they convince or not.

Tales | Signell ToC | EOL 3