Musical Perspectives on September 11th

Introduction, Sakata, Jairazbhoy, Racy

Responses to Roundtable

Discussion Board


  1. Audience member: In discussing the role of art and politics in times of war, one of the issues that we deal with is the fine line between art and music being a kind of place for solace and contemplation—that Professor Racy so nicely described in his talk—and art and music as a kind of vehicle that—I think a lot of times inadvertently—brings out nationalistic feelings regardless of which country it’s coming from. I find it interesting to see both these sides in the images that Professor Racy was showing. Would you talk about them a little bit more?

  2. Racy: Music can serve so many purposes. The power of music is that it’s very abstract, and the abstraction of music lends itself to so many messages. Music becomes a double-edged sword, or weapon, that can stir emotions in different directions. But I think that there is an element in music that transcends the rhetoric and discourse that we indulge in here. That [transcendent] element shows a side of us that is very human, specifically when music brings out certain emotions. It’s very important to try to understand how people behave on that level; and how they use music to create a vision of themselves that’s very human. I think that vision gets lost in times of crisis, when you see people grieving or mourning. Music plays a very important role in this. It’s like seeing people suffer or experience pain. So we can actually understand music from this humanizing point of view.

    ivory carving of Middle Eastern musicians

  3. Audience member: There is something that Lorraine Sakata brought up that I’d like each of you to address. We know that we are in a time of the condensation of symbols, so from our point of view—as people that study aesthetic expression—we work to understand the complexity and the multiple meanings that symbols have. We see, through what the media portrays and the various rhetorical positions that government officials are taking, that these symbols can become compressed and simplified into binary oppositions of “for or against.” The issue that Professor Sakata brought up of the photograph for the 40th anniversary of the Ethnomusicology Archives brings up many questions dealing with this simplification of the meanings of symbols—such as the turbans that the musicians were wearing in that photo. As teachers, researchers, and students, what kinds of positions do you think we can take to counteract when the manifold meanings of these symbols are being co-opted in a particular ways?

  4. Sakata: We need to convey information so that people understand that a turban alone does not necessarily signify a terrorist, a Muslim, or a Middle Easterner. For example, you’ve heard in the news about the attacks on Sikhs simply because they wear turbans. At the same time, the timing for choosing the photo [for the Archive’s 40th anniversary] was so close to September 11th that we really didn’t want to press the issue. We didn’t have a forum or venue to really explain the picture, so we opted not to use it. We used another picture in its place: a picture of Peruvian children dancing, photographed by one of the ethnomusicology students. We did ask ourselves whether we were doing the right thing by pulling the photo of the turbaned musicians simply because we expected negative feedback for the wrong reasons, but in the interest of being sensitive to the heightened feelings and fears of the moment, we decided to choose another time and place (such as this forum) to address the issue of symbols.

  5. Jairazbhoy: As teachers, we’re put in a difficult spot because, obviously, what we want to do is to teach people to be broad-minded, and to not have a narrow hatred for things that they are unfamiliar with, nor to make negative stereotypes. To encounter this…we go through a lot of fear. I do anyway. I would like to express myself to those people, but I’m scared. And I think that many of us are scared: we want to change society so that it’s broad-minded and looks at things in a rationalistic light. But do we want to be the ones to do it? That’s the question. Now, if I were thirty years younger, I might have considered it, but right now…[audience laughs].

    ivory carving of Middle Eastern musicians

  6. Audience member: I think, Professor Racy, that you show very compellingly the role that music has in this time of crisis with your video examples. But, I’m wondering what is our role—those of us who are in the field of music and write about music—in the way these symbols are functioning in what’s going on right now?

  7. Racy: I’m sure that some of us might have opinions about what to do with this material. Actually, I was interested in how symbols are used when I recorded these examples. That ties in with the question about the different meanings of symbols, not only in how symbols have certain intrinsic power, but the way we work with them and make them more effective. We put in them great power, an added dimension that we can read them contextually.

  8. I was most fascinated by the footage of Buckingham Palace. Here we have a very well-known and powerful symbol, but look who’s playing…those guys with red hats, the British people who colonized us. The queen asked them to play the American anthem before the British anthem. The brass sound reminded me so much of London. So, look at the complexity of emotions that this musical manipulation brought about—and I don’t mean “manipulation” in a bad sense at all, but in an artistic sense. It brought tears, and at the end, applause. The reason I included the other video clip of raising the American flag to full-staff was to show that the same anthem was played, but what a difference in the mood or affect that event evoked. Both are legitimate, both are needed. But you have the same piece of music, the national anthem, played the first time with a certain carthatic effect and the second time with a sense of going back to business.

  9. In all this I sense the human element in us wherever music goes to the depth of our soul—so often [music] gives back to us different images of ourselves, including the need for togetherness and of how fragile we are as human beings. I talked to friends who said, “you know life is a combination of good things and bad things, and you never understand it fully, but something like music keeps us going.” That goes to the heart of my talk. I’m exploring the idea that music is here one time doing one thing, and another time doing something else. And I don’t know if we have an answer to how that works. As educators and teachers, we try to understand how music can humanize our visions at times like these. I think that when people see other people feeling and singing, it communicates something other than just a political message.

  10. Sakata: I’d just like to add another story about how music is photo of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khanbeing used, not exactly as a symbol, but as a form of musical offering for universal understanding. This is a story that I heard from a friend who was just in London and happened to be watching a television show on Vienna. In this excerpt they showed the Vienna Boys’ Choir—but what were they singing? They were singing a song that was made famous by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan [pictured right] known as “Allah Hoo, Allah Hoo.” I thought that this was a way for the Vienna Boys’ Choir to reach out to say that this is good music, which represents Islam.

    ivory carving of Middle Eastern musicians

  11. Audience member: I just wanted to share story. I had been staying in a small town in New Jersey and I got a ride to the train station on September 12th. The gentleman who was giving me a ride to the station was a man in his sixties. We stopped at a full-service gas station, and the gas station had a lot of workers that were Arab and they were playing Arab music in the background. The gentleman that I was with got very, very upset and very angry. He yelled at the workers; he went and got the manager and yelled at the manager; he went and got the owner and yelled at the owner—all for paying Arab music on a day like that. He said that if they were going to play any music at all, that they should be playing Frank Sinatra singing “New York, New York.” I found this all very sad and surprising. Earlier that same morning I had seen the same gentleman display a huge American flag on his front lawn. For someone whom I never knew that music mattered to at all, the Arab music became this huge thing for him to hate, and hearing it made him really angry and upset with the whole culture that produced this music.

    ivory carving of Middle Eastern musicians

  12. Audience member: We have heard from Professor Racy about the humanizing potential of music; we’ve also heard from Professor Jairazbhoy and Lorraine Sakata how Muslim fundamentalists damn music, de-humanize women, and they also sort of approved of the events of September 11th, which assumes a de-humanizing of the victims on the part of those that committed this crime. There seems to be some obvious trends of de-humanization within Muslim fundamentalism: what is the source of that? Is it the Qur'an, as they claim? Or is it something else?

  13. Racy: Many scholars of religion agree that the beliefs of religions can be interpreted in many different ways. We only have to think back to the time of the Crusades—the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries—where people waged a war in the name of religion. Religions have everything in them. If you take things out of context, you can easily abuse them and violate the beliefs that counter these abuses. So I think instead of looking at any religion as an absolutely predictive force, many people examine religion for how it’s understood by people and how people use it. People use religion in many different ways—they also abuse it in many different ways.

  14. Sakata: I just think that you have to be careful about using “fundamentalists” when you probably just mean the Taliban, which is a certain strain of Muslim fundamentalists who have their own interpretation of the Qur'an. I don’t believe that all “fundamentalists” dehumanize women.

  15. Jairazbhoy: The answer to your question is both “yes” and “no.” There is some evidence in the Qur'an, especially in the saying of the Prophet, which suggests that you can use the evidence from one thing or the other. For instance, there is a reference to the fact that the Prophet Mohammed used to listen to wedding songs: therefore, you can say that music is okay. But they say that’s an exception since they don’t allow instruments, and so forth. You can take this contradictory evidence—if you take it out of context, as Professor Racy has said—and take one little bit and believe in it. So the question that you really want to ask is, Why do some people isolate from the Quern the things that they do? Why do they take all these negative things and put them forward? Why don’t they emphasize the other aspects from the Quern that speak about the brotherhood of man? My father was a writer who wrote about the Prophet Mohammed. My father was very extreme: in his eyes everything was fine. In the eyes of a fundamentalist virtually everything is bad. And I do use the word “fundamentalist” because there are some extreme ways of interpreting religion. As Lorraine has said, there are different types of fundamentalists, and there are fundamentalists in every religion. They are provocative: they talk about changing other people; they don’t apply their thoughts to themselves, otherwise they’d be fine. But fundamentalists believe that everyone should be doing as they are doing; that’s where the problem comes from. I don’t mind them believing whatever they want, but insisting that all women should wear purdah all the time…If they believe that, then good. But to force other people to do it….

    ivory carving of Middle Eastern musicians

  16. Audience member: We’ve heard a lot in the media recently about the potential threat to civil liberties, particularly the potential narrowing of the expression of political dissent during this period of time when we’re expected to close ranks behind the government. I find that it’s interesting that music also comes under this threat of censorship. For example, there’s been a rumor going around the internet of a company that provides music going to radio stations that decided to put a unilateral ban on very specific types and pieces of music. For instance, it was reported that they said that you couldn’t play John Lennon’s “Imagine”; or you couldn’t play Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”; and you couldn’t play anything by the group Rage Against the Machine. This rumor [has since been disproved as only a new urban legend, but this story] shows people’s fear of censorship, even where music is concerned. Music scholars are in the position where we try to help people understand the way in which music can open up the possible range of civic discussion. What can we do to prevent very powerful forces in society from closing down on this discourse?

  17. Audience member: May I address this? I think that it’s very important to think about what Professor Racy pointed out earlier, that it’s very important to be very conscious of musical symbols and what they mean, and to try to work in a way that creates an environment where people can be free to interpret music in different of Vedran Smailovic playing the cello With music we have such a powerful tool that creates a wonderful space for people to be in. Music can be used in the most beautiful ways since it’s invisible. I personally think of that cello player in Sarajevo who demonstrated that music is really the most powerful way to show the spirit.

  18. Audience member: I am from Sarajevo, and I know the guy that plays the cello. His name is Vedran Smailovic. [pictured right] He played on the street where, during the heavy bombardments, many people were killed. For us, he was a hero. But for the Serbs he was an idiot. His playing music at that critical period simultaneously had completely different meanings. I think that this problem of the many meanings of music very complex, not only in how we relate to music, but also to how music is affecting the people who are fighting against us. How can we overcome this breach, and what may we do to overpass this gap between these different musics? I think that this is the biggest problem: how not to hurt people through music; how to deal with those people who have opposing aesthetic and political views towards music.

    Introduction, Sakata, Jairazbhoy, Racy

    Responses to Roundtable

    Discussion Board

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