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Protests against Human Zoo i Houston: Africans on display together with chimpanzees?

Five years ago people from all over the world protested against the “African Village” in the zoo in Augsburg, Germany. Now, a new campaign is being planned against “The African Forest“, a $50 million project in the Houston Zoo, where “African culture” is on display together with chimpanzees and giraffes.

The 6.5-acre exhibit is designed “to give patrons the illusion they are strolling through an open landscape populated with chimpanzees, giraffes and other equatorial animals". “Through presentations and artifacts, human cultures of the equatorial forests will be included in the exhibit” , landscape architect Jim Brighton told the Houston Chronicle. “Houses fashioned from tree leaves — a form of temporary housing — will be constructed for children’s activities.".

“This is indeed like the African village in Augsburg - except this is a project that costs tens of millions of dollars and will be permanent - and some of the same anthropologists who protested that human zoo are onboard to protest this one such as Nina Glick Schiller and Data Dea", explains Shannon Joyce Prince, Dartmouth Lombard Fellow and citizen of Houston, in an email to me.

The Zoo is according to Prince “only showing aspects of Africa that fit Western stereotypes of cultural anachronism and primitivism. It “falls neatly into the contemptible tradition of its human zoo predecessors, replicating a non-white village, a place where non-white humans live, in a zoo among the habitats where animals live".

“The African Forest is about exhibiting and teaching inaccurate Western conceptions of African indigenous cultures in a place designed to exhibit and teach about animals. The African Forest is also about making and keeping African indigenous peoples conservation refugees. The African Forest and the practices it promotes are neither about respecting Africans nor protecting animals. They’re about claiming authority over African land, wildlife, and human lives", Shannon Joyce Prince writes in a paper.

In the Zoo’s view, Africans are in conflict with wildlife, she writes. Therefore, African Forest plans to promote ecotourism as a way to “help” Africans and African wildlife. But the consequences of such conservation activities are often devasting specifically for central Africans and pygmies. For in Africa it’s common for conservationists to create refuges to conserve wildlife by simply kicking Africans out. The Zoo is funded by corporations like Exxon, Chevron, Shell that have are involved in this business:

Basically, among the corporations that fund the Houston Zoo are some of the most human and wildlife rights abusing corporations in existence. These same businesses try to clean up their images by creating wildlife refuges – but they create those refuges by forcing indigenous people off their land. Then the Zoo, which receives funding from those corporations, claims that the indigenous people who are getting kicked off their land are the ones who harm wildlife and promotes conservation and conservation refuges.

>> Shannon Joyce Prince: Human Zoos, Conservation Refugees, and the Houston Zoo’s The African Forest (pdf, short versjon)

>> Human Zoos, Conservation Refugees, and the Houston Zoo’s The African Forest (long version)

Shannon Joyce Prince sent a letter to the Houston Zoo several weeks ago which has not received a response.

She asks for “opposing The African Forest, human zoos, and the creation/perpetuation of the conservation refugee crisis in one or more of the following ways":

1. Tell the Houston Zoo you are against The African Forest human zoo and the creation of conservation refugees as well as the continuation of the conservation refugee crisis by contacting the Houston Zoo here: http://houstonzoo.com/contact/. Tell the Houston Zoo that you will boycott zoos that host human zoos and/or make/keep Africans conservation refugees. Please mention your affiliations. Be sure to send a copy of your message to nohumanzoo (AT) yahoo.com so that we have a record of your letter in case the Zoo doesn‚t respond and to prevent the Zoo from deciding to claim that no one is protesting.

2. Send your name and affiliation to nohumanzoo (AT) yahoo.com if you want to be put on a petition stating, „We, the undersigned, do not support The African Forest human zoo, the creation of conservation refugees, or the continuation of the conservation refugee crisis.”

3. Raise awareness about The African Forest through your blog and encourage others to write the Zoo and sign the petition.

Please be aware that, naturally, the letter you send or your signature on the petition may be made public.

“The racialization processes facilitated by the Augsburg zoo and other zoos are not benign because they can lay the ground work for discrimination, barriers to social mobility, persecution, and repression", anthropologists Nina Glick Schiller, Data Dea and Markus Höhne wrote in their report African African Culture and the Zoo in the 21st Century: The “African Village” in the Augsburg Zoo and Its Wider Implications (pdf)

Such “ethnological exhibitions” or “Völkerschauen” have a long history, linked to colonialism. For more than half a century - from the beginning of the 1870s to the end of the 1930s - the exposition of so-called exotic peoples in zoological gardens** and international expositions attracted a huge public.

UPDATE: Interesting debate and round-up at ZooChat: Cultural Zoo Exhibits = Racist? » Houston Zoo


African village in the Zoo: Protest against racist exhibition

In Detroit and London: More African Villages in the Zoo

Thesis: Conservation for Whom? Telling Good Lies in the Development of Central Kalahari

In Norwegian TV: Indian tribe paid to go naked to appear more primitive

Is this anthropology? African pygmies observe Britains in TV-show

Geldof’s Live8 and Western myths about Africa


  01:53:35, by admin   . Categories: culture traditions, Pacific Oceania, books, art

Polynesian Tattoos and Public Anthropology

Public anthropology does exist. There are lots of anthropologists who write for the wider public and not only for other anthronerds. Here’s another example: The Polynesian Tattoo Today by Tricia Allen, doctoral candidate in anthropology at the university of Hawai’i.

In an interview with Honolulu’s Star Bulletin, she explains:

“The first book did well; it is now in its third printing. Its primary readership was those with a specific interest in Hawai’i and history. The new book will reach a larger audience, as it is far more general – covering all of Polynesia – and is primarily photographs. Anyone can enjoy looking at beautiful photos of artful bodies!”

The book was not launched in a traditional academic way with a seminar. The publishers hosted a “Tattoo Contest". Tricia Allen and several Polynesian tattoo artists were “on hand to autograph books – or your arm".

Allen is by the way not only anthropologist but tattoo artist herself and has tattooed over 8000 members of the Polynesian community. She completed her Master’s thesis at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa in 1992 on the early practice of tattooing in the Marquesas Islands. For her doctoral thesis, she is researching the revival of the arts in the Pacific. “In the last few years a pan-Polynesian style has gotten incredibly popular", she says.

>> read the whole story in the Star Bulletin

Her new book is already mentioned in several blogs and forums like Twistedprints, Honolulu Magazine, and Tattoosday.

“Many tattoos featured in the book are a mixture of styles… Hawaiian, Maori, Samoan. Polynesian tattoos are increasing in popularity and many traditional designs have been revived", writes M.L. Sanico i his review in the Hawaii Book Blog:

What I especially liked about the book is seeing the diversity of people who have these tattoos, and who are tattoo artists themselves. Each photo has a short caption with the person or tattooists name, where they’re from and a little bit about the tattoo or what it means to them.

In an earlier interview, Tricia Allen tells us more about the revival of Polynesian tattoos:

There is a revival of all of the ancient arts: tattooing, tapa making, weaving, carving, dance, chanting and firewalking. There is a whole resurgence of Polynesian culture, and tattooing is just a part of that. In my mind it is one of the most significant parts of the revival because it’s such a permanent statement: “I’m Polynesian.” And to some degree in many cases it is a political statement, or a statement of allegiance to the traditional culture.

Also check her own website with more tattoo infos and pictures.

The recent example of public anthropology was my blog post Anthropologist uncovers how global elites undermine democracy and one of the most read posts ever.


Nancy Scheper-Hughes: Public anthropology through collaboration with journalists

Marianne Gullestad and How to be a public intellectual

Why anthropology fails to arouse interest among the public - Engaging Anthropology (2)

What anthropologists and artists have in common

Manga instead of scientific paper: How art enriches anthropology


Popular Anthropology Magazine = fail

The first issue of the Popular Anthropology Magazine is out. It was meant to bridge the gap between academia and the public and between anthropologists and continents. Cool, we needed that. But the result is - in my opinion - disappointing. For it was made with outdated paper journals as ideal. The editors were thinking paper, not web. They do provide a downloadable version on their website but the flash animated paper-look-like version is a pain to navigate and read (the automatic scrolling is very irritating).

I finally tried to download the whole journal. It took ages and Firefox was about to crash. When the file finally was saved, it turned out to be 151 MB heavy. The pdf consisted of image files! Which means it is partly hard to read and you cannot copy and paste its content, and the links are not clickable. Fail! Can’t anthropologists do better? The articles deserve better. The table of contents looks promising, especially the sections on social science around the world.

>> take a look


Anthronow - new magazine will make anthropology accessible to lay readers

New e-zine: American Ethnography

Imponderabilia - new international anthropology student journal

Open Access Anthropology Journals


Why anthropologists should study news media

Bad News. Photo: Stitch, flickr

The time is right for more anthropologists to engage with news media - with their creation, reception and content, writes S Elizabeth Bird in the recent issue of Anthropology News that was published today.

Anthropological engagement with media was long rare and discouraged - and in some quarters still is, Bird criticizes. The main focus has in her view been on topics like the role of television in family life, or the maintenance of diaspora connections through digital media but not on news production or reception.

This neglect is according to her important because “news is the one popular genre that claims to describe reality for the public". Most of what people know about the world is mediated in one way or another:

Throughout the world, people argue, fight and die for stories in which they believe. So it is important to dissect and interpret them: the use of language, the choice of words, the images, the entire frame of the news coverage.

She suggests following research questions:

  • Which stories are being told and which are not?
  • Whose stories are being told, whose are not, and why?
  • How do journalistic routines and values vary across cultural contexts, and how does that produce different kinds of news?
  • How does the choice of images take the story in one direction or another?
  • How does the story then become part of the common-sense reality in specific cultural contexts?

High profile issues like war, she continues, illustrate these questions dramatically:

We all know, for instance, that the story of the Iraq war is deeply contested. If we have a lot of time, we can scour the Internet, sift through multiple accounts, and reach a conclusion. Most people have neither the time nor the resources to do that; they have little choice but to attend to the stories that predominate.

If we understand better how journalism works, she concludes, not only will we better understand our mediated global cultures, but we will also become more adept at working with journalists to tell anthropology’s stories more effectively.

>> download the whole article: Anthropological Engagement with News Media: Why Now?

I have to admit I’m a bit surprised about her analysis. Is the study of news really so much neglected? But that’s maybe because I tend to read more anthropology blogs than journals? It’s in blogs this kind of media anthropology is happening?

There are six more articles on anthropology and journalism online, among others Reviewing Books in Popular Media Anthropologists as Authors and Critics by Barbara J King.

“Merging book reviewing with journalism", she writes, “opens up a space in which we may fling our fierce book-engagement out into the wider world, and see what comes back to us:

When reviewing, the single greatest joy for me is the oppor- tunity to showcase our colleagues’ brilliance. I look for books that bring alive people’s patterns of meaning-making as they flourish and struggle in their daily lives, books that make us see with new eyes behaviors familiar and strange to our own society or at times even to our own species.

There have been many debates on the similarities of anthropology and journalism in the blogosphere, both here on antropologi.info and on Savage Minds (see Why is there no Anthropology Journalism? and Anthropology Journalism HOWTO)

In Divergent Temporalities. On the Division of Labor between Journalism and Anthropology, Dominic Boyer shares some interesting observations about the borders between anthropology and journalism that seem to overlap more and more.

The contemporary market and labor conditions pressure anthropologists to adopt faster modes of research and writing than ever before:

Even doctoral candidates report feeling enormous pressure to publish their research findings well in advance of receiving their PhDs. Not unlike the desk journalists of old, we find ourselves increasingly concerned with “getting the story” (Peterson in Anthropological Quarterly 74[4]), that is, with chasing the next publication opportunity to keep up with market expectations and the demands of institutional audit cultures.

>> overview over all articles in Anthropology News April 2010

The best source on media anthropology might be the website http://media-anthropology.net with mailing list and a long list of working papers and the blog media/anthropology by John Postill

A good example of an anthropology of news can be found in the february issue of Anthropology Today (free access!!). In Heart of darkness reinvented? A tale of ex-soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sindre Bangstad and Bjørn Enge Bertelsen analyze Norwegian media’s representation of Congo.


Why anthropologists should become journalists

Nancy Scheper-Hughes: Public anthropology through collaboration with journalists

The end of one-way communication - Anthropologists help news providers and advertisers

In Norwegian TV: Indian tribe paid to go naked to appear more primitive

John Postill on media anthropology and internet activism in Malaysia

Introduction to “Media Worlds": Media an important field for anthropology


  04:15:00, by admin   . Categories: globalisation, books, Northern America, anthropology (general)

Anthropologist uncovers how global elites undermine democracy

Janine Wedel has done something that far too few anthropolologists do: She studied powerful people. Those who rule the world.

In her book “Shadow Elite“, she shows how a new system of power and influence has taken hold globally, one that undermines democracy, government, and the free market.

Why went America to war against Iraq? More and more “government work” is performed by “shadow elites": consulting firms, companies, nongovernmental organizations, think tanks etc, rather small circles of powerful people (she calls them “flexians") who use their interlocking relationships to control public policy without public input. “Flexians” work often for private interests, academia and government at the same time.

The flexians form “Flex nets". They cannot be reduced to lobbyists or interest groups. They are according to a review in the Financial Times defined by four features:

1) personalizing bureaucracy, or using personal connections and loyalties to realize goals;
2) privatizing information while branding conviction, or branding the information available only to insiders in this game;
3) juggling roles and representations, or changing spots frequently, wearing the pelt of military leader one day, analyst the next, and concerned citizen the next;
4) relaxing rules at the interstices of official and private institutions, or adjusting accountability and rules that apply to one or more of their pelts from the safety of a seemingly non-aligned position.

One of those flexians is the retired US general Barry McCaffrey, who has been simultaneously a commentator for the media, a consultant to the defence industry and professor. According to a 2008 exposé in the New York Times, he was one of several former military men who helped to shape public opinion on the Iraq war, while simultaneously having undisclosed ties to the Pentagon.

Wedel’s book has received quite a lot of media attention since it was released earlier this year. It was book of the month at Huffington Post (where she has started writing a weekly column) and was also reviewed in mainstream media. She was interviewed both by BBC, Russia Today, MSNBC and Al Jazeera.

It would be interesting to know how she studied the “shadow elites". Has she been on fieldwork? I haven’t read all her texts. But in her newest article in Huffington Post, she explains how she came to understand the game: through her experience studying the mechanisms of power and influence in post-Cold War eastern Europe for about 30 years:

(E)xamining eastern Europe up close–through its transformations away from communism over the last quarter century–has been excellent preparation for making sense of how a small group of power brokers helped engineer the invasion of Iraq, and more broadly, how a new system of power and influence has taken hold globally, one that, as I write in my book Shadow Elite, undermines democracy, government, and the free market.

In communist Poland, the necessity of getting around the state-controlled system created a society whose lifeblood–just beneath the surface–was vital information, circulated only among friends and trusted colleagues, information that was not publicly available. Under-the-radar dealings that often played on the margins of legality - this was the norm, not the exception.
I began to recognize a familiar (to me) architecture of power and influence. I started to follow the networks and overlapping connections in government, foundations, think tanks, and business of a tiny set of neoconservatives - just a dozen or so players I call the “Neocon core".
The playbook of the Neocon core seemed to come straight from that of the top players of transitional eastern Europe. In both cases, players who already knew each other set up a host of organizations–organizations that seemed more like an extended family franchise than think tank, populated by the same set of individuals. (…) And despite a new administration in Washington, not to mention the damage done to their credibility since the Iraq invasion, the Neocon core lives on, because networks like it are self-propelling, multipurpose, and enduring.

And she adds that as a social anthropologist, her “focus is not on whether the U.S. should have invaded Iraq, but rather how that decision was made, who made it, and what mechanisms of power and influence were used to make it".


And in Anthropology News february 2010 (pdf) she explains why we need an “ethnographic focus” on power:

I have concluded that an ethnographic focus is indispensable to sorting out power and influence amid transforming federal governance in the United States, not only under change-of-system conditions such as those found in transitional eastern Europe.

The ethnographic sensibility that enabled scholars of communist and post-communist societies to deal with the complexity, ambiguity and messiness of political and policy processes is ideally suited to examine the interactions between public policy and private interests and the mixing of state, nongovernmental, and business forms that are increasingly preva- lent in the United States and around the world.

By focusing on players and their networks as drivers of governing and policy decisions, these ethnographers have laid the groundwork for badly needed critiques of social science categories such as “state” versus “private,” “top-down versus bottom-up,” and “centralized” versus “decentralized.” They have provided a basis for reexamining conventional models that guide so much thinking about politics, policy and power, and yet obfuscate, rather than illuminate, the real system of power and influence.

Her work is a good example of public anthropology. Her website is really impressive. There you find a great amount of her publications, both newspaper articles and papers (even back to pre-internet and pre-computer times), a collection of book reviews, TV and radio interviews, interviews related to Shadow elites etc

It is popular to lament about the lack of public anthropology, but anthropologists have been highly visible in matters regarding global financial and power issues, see earlier posts Anthropologist Explores Wall Street Culture, Financial crisis: Anthropologists lead mass demonstration against G20 summit and Used anthropology to predict the financial crisis.

Studies on elites are still not as common as studies on marginalized people, though. This is not only true for anthropology. I have to think of a series of great programs at BBC Thinking aloud about white collar crime - a rather neglected topic among sociologists and criminologists as well.


Beware: No Pecha Kucha allowed without consent from Tokyo

My post Pecha Kucha - the future of presenting papers? received much attention and inspired others to arrange such sessions where papers are not read but presented through 20 images displayed for 20 seconds each. But I’m no longer sure if I would recommend Pecha Kucha after having received this email a few days ago:

To Lorenz Khazaleh,

This is Jean from PechaKucha HQ here in Tokyo. It has come to our attention that you recently organized a PechaKucha event without our consent.


The PechaKucha name, logo, and format are all trademarked concepts, and as we clearly indicate on our site, we ask that anyone who is interested in running a PK event get in touch, as we have a review and agreement process that we go through.


We do support one-off events as well, but again, they are all officially sanction.


We hope to hear back from you very shortly to prevent this from happening again.

Jean Snow

PechaKucha Night
founded by Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham in Tokyo


I first couldn’t believe what I read. A review and agreement process? Trademarking an idea? Is there a dubious commercial corporation behind Pecha Kucha? (And apart from that - I did not arrange a PK session, but only interviewed two participants.)

As I learnt on their website, you will need to go through a lot of bureaucracy, especially if you intend to arrange Pecha Kucha Nights. You’ll have to meet a lot of requirements and be prepared for providing lots of details about yourself and your team.

Timothy from Bluish Barn tried to start a Pecha Kucha Night and quotes an email from Klein Dytham architecture:

As we are now inundated with similar requests from across the world, we would love to know more about you!!! - your design background, design connections, events experience, ideas about venues, designers you would approach to present their work etc….Once we receive [your background/plans] we can review everything and get back in touch! KDa own the Registered Trademark for Pecha Kucha Night, 20 x 20 in the UK, Europe and US and if we decide to proceed we can provide you with the logos, templates and formats and our standard handshake agreement in order for you to get started!

As the Pecha Kuchs trademark owners explain on their website, they “sometimes say yes and sometimes say no - so be prepared for both answers". And normally it takes them “a month or so” to grant PKN “handshake” agreements.

Nevertheless, the Pecha Kucha format is great. So the best thing might be to call it something different, like speed presentations or so, a term that Greg Downey introduced last year at Neuroanthropology.net, create your own logos etc Good luck!

See also Greg Downey’s brilliant round-up Thoughts on Conference Organizing

UPDATE First reaction on this post: Marc Oehlert: Pech* Kuch* (evidently Japanese for “full of yourself"). He analyses and comments the Pecha Kucha website more thouroughly than I did and has already received lots of comments! Great post!


The end of one-way communication - Anthropologists help news providers and advertisers

For the second time, Associated Press has engaged anthropologists in order to improve its services. The first research project, conducted by Context-Based Research Group, revealed that people - contrary to what AP believed - wanted more breadth and depth instead of short blasts of news. The new study shows that news consumers want a two-way conversation instead of one-way bombardment:

It is not just that people feel overloaded. As consumers, they long for a better way to communicate with information providers – news companies and advertisers alike. They want that communication to be two-way, transparent and honest. They seek a new relationship that is built on trust, not simply on the value of the content or advertising itself.

“You have to socialize the space before you can monetize it,” Robbie Blinkoff, principal anthropologist for Context, concluded. “The solution is not just to create more engaging content, but to create better environments for engaging with content.”

In the report, Blinkoff used Victor Turner’s concept “Communitas” - something that APs Vice President Jim Kennedy Vice President called “an interesting bit of cultural theory":

He called Communitas a time of egalitarian information sharing which can be harnessed to rebuild trust between information providers and consumers. He likened Communitas to the social networking phenomenon online, where consumers feel comfortable engaging with information among their friends and peer groups. (…) With Communitas, there is no such thing as one-way communication. There are only two-way conversations that inspire loyalty and trust, and those are key ingredients with the power to cut through the clutter of the Internet.

Both studies are based on ethnographic research methods. The researchers tracked and analyzed the behavior of individuals in their work and home environments.

AP seems to be fascinated by anthropological methods. “One of the keys to understanding how to address the situation", AP writes, “has been the extraordinary insight enabled by the Context methodology":

Context does ethnographic research, meaning it studies small groups of people up close to get at the root of their behavior. That “Deep Structure,” as Context calls it, opens up a view of how companies can respond to cultural changes that aren’t so obvious on the surface.

>> press release

>> download the research report “A New Model for Communication: Studying the Deep Structure of Advertising and News Consumption”

I found one more report on Context’s website called Grounding the American Dream: An Ethnographic and Quantitative Study on the Future of Consumerism in a Changing Economy where they “portray a society and culture going through a “rite of passage” and moving into an era where we measure the quality of our lives in social terms before economic ones".


How to get more young readers? Associated Press turns to anthropologists

The Internet Gift Culture

“Prosumers": Consumer Anthropologist Uncovers Proof of New Species of Consumer

Exploring the honor culture of social media

Ethnographic study: Social network sites are “virtual campfires”

Digital Anthropology Report: Attitudes to technology = basis of future class divides

Popular IT-anthropologists: Observe families until they go to bed


  01:41:10, by admin   . Categories: Asia, books, music, interdisciplinary

Hindi Film Songs and the Barriers between Ethnomusicology and Anthropology

There are only few studies on popular music in South Asia. Tereza Kuldova (Tereza Kuldova) reviews for us the book Hindi Film Songs and the Cinema by ethnomusicologist Anna Morcom. Her review shows - among other things - the differences and barriers between anthropology and ethnomusicology.


Review: Hindi Film Songs and the Cinema by Anna Morcom, 2007, Ashgate, ISBN 978-0-7546-5198-7

Tereza Kuldova, Research Fellow, Museum of Cultural History, Department of Ethnography University of Oslo

Popular music in South Asia equals film music, however, even though its popularity is immense, it has been a very little studied phenomenon. This is even more startling when we realize that film songs “have become the music of public spaces in India, being heard from open windows in peoples’ homes, on buses and in bazaars. They are sung and danced to by millions of people in a range of formal and informal contexts, and have been appropriated in many folk genres” (p. 5) and they are thus literally omnipresent. This book thus must get credit for the choice of its subject matter, in the first place.

This book deals with the relationship between Hindi film songs and Hindi films and analyzes them in their cinematic, narrative and visual contexts. The ongoing agenda of the book seems to be to persuade us that the Hindi film song cannot be separated from the Hindi film, which is however a rather obvious fact to any viewer of Hindi film. The only thing I have to say to this is – there is a reason why it is called a film song and ergo, how could the song ever be truly independent or separated from its film context?

Another concern of the book is the definition of the Hindi film song genre as an independent style. Anyone following the Hindi cinema knows that Hindi film songs are extremely creative and varied, drawing on great diversity of inspiration and adjusting it to the particular needs of concrete scenes, and it thus might not be that easy to define them in terms of any style. Moreover, I wonder, do we really have to categorize these songs in terms of any style? What do we gain by that? Well, the answer may be that we gain statements such as follows:

“Amongst an array of inconsistent or over-general stylistic parameters, the only true constant in Hindi film songs is their ‘inclusion in a Hindi film’” (p. 70).

That was not a very surprising fact, was it? The intense argumentation for the analysis of Hindi film songs in relation to the cinematic context, however commonsense, obvious and at times felt as redundant and repetitive is certainly not so obvious within musicology. Because as Morcom argues ”the cinematic perspective of Hindi film songs has been ignored, with musicological studies largely viewing them as separate entities from their parent films” (p.7). So possibly Morcom might get credit for introducing a notion that is rather and straightforward to any consumer of Hindi film songs to the musicological studies.

The conclusion of the books are thus following:

“Far from being an independent tradition of popular songs, this book has found film songs to be profoundly integrated with Hindi films on many levels. Film songs are conceived as part of a particular film, and the musical style of each song is tailored to the parent film and the song scene.

In commercial terms, although film songs have become a big business since the late 1980s, their profitability is only exploitable in association with the Hindi cinema. Even after their release, the consumption of film songs is largely tied up with the Hindi cinema generally, and to some extent, with the parent film in particular.

However, songs are distinct from their cinematic roles and contexts in certain ways, although the degree of this independence varies with each song. As well as tailoring a song musically to a situation, its ability to sound good as a separate entity, its ‘audio value’, is also considered during its production. At the level of reception, audiences are able to appropriate songs and adapt them to new situations, which in some cases may result in the relationship with the parent film and cinema culture in general becoming obscure, or even disappearing entirely. Hindi films have a narrative style and structure that is designed for songs, and similarly, film songs are able to fit around cinematic scenes (p. 239).”

Now that we have begun paradoxically with the conclusion, let us get through the book chapter for chapter.

In the first chapter (available online here), we are presented with the argument for the study of the Hindi film songs through a multimedia model of analysis, which takes into account the context of the film songs in their parent films, their narrative and visuals as well as their production process. However, there is no attempt to frame this whole analysis in the context of Indian society or its changing historical realities (even though the book discusses the different periods in the evolution of the Indian cinema).

We also get to know that the work draws extensively on fieldwork in India, from 1998-2000 and read that the “fieldwork was ethnographically based” and “aimed to study film music through observing, fitting in with and joining in with its own people and culture” (p. 20). However, when we proceed to the second chapter which is concerned with the production of the Hindi film songs, and which is supposed to draw almost exclusively on fieldwork, what is presented to us are mostly excessive and in terms of content repetitive selections from interview transcripts with producers, music directors, lyricists and others. We do not get to know much about the ethnographic reality as such and any ‘ethnographic’ description in the true sense of the word is missing, except for the practical aspects of the production process, in which the roles of the director, producer, music director, lyricist and others are assessed.

The point of the chapter is again to show that lyrics and music is closely related to what is happening in the film and that it is used to express various emotional states, actions or drama in the scenes.

Let us move on to the third chapter which tries to answer the question of “why are film songs so difficult to categorize in terms of style?” (p. 134). This is clearly a question in musicology, it does not make much sense to the anthropologist writing this review.

The conclusion of this chapter is again not very surprising:

“Film songs seen in one way seem very formulaic and standardized, but seen in another way, they are very eccentric and unpredictable. Film song is required to have a regular enough style and enough musical autonomy to work as popular music, to make sense without the film, and even to advertise film, but at the same time to be specific and idiosyncratic enough to fit around a particular given situation. (…) Film songs need to be seen as multi-media, musico-dramatic entities as well as popular songs in order to make sense of both individual songs and the development of the genre as a whole” (p. 135-6).

For me this last statement equals saying: Hindi film songs need to be seen as what they are.

In the fourth chapter, Morcom addresses the question of the relation between Western music and Hindi films and the role of narrative in Hindi film music style. Supposedly the most striking feature of Hindi film music, as I perceive it (being interested in it intensely in relation to my research and being also its keen consumer), is its eclecticism, namely its ability to borrow and combine different styles and traditions in just one song, and that is what makes it so much fun – and also what makes it possibly so confusing for a musicologist, trying to make sense of it. Morcom poses such questions as “how is this Hollywood music able to communicate apparently successfully to the Indian audience? European and American culture has little to do with Indian music” (p.147) or how is it possible that “various types of non-indigenous music may be conveying narrative meaning to indigenous audiences” (p.157).

She considers “the amount of overlap in musical meaning in Hindi and Hollywood films surprising. Ethnomusicology tends to emphasize the aspects of music that are culture specific” (p. 156). Well, maybe ethnomusicology should consider the option that cultures do not exist in isolation and Morcom should consider India’s colonial history, not to mention its history of thousands of years of cultural contact and exchanges. When what is considered a traditional Muslim floral decorative motif (which can be seen for example on the walls of the Taj) comes originally from the European herbaria, I tend not to really wonder why the ‘indigenous’ population can identify with Western musical elements in Hindi film songs.

However, Morcom hits on something interesting when she says that “the direct relationship of many musical signs with feeling, experience and somatic states may be one reason why music has greater potential for mutual understanding than language, whose signs are more highly mediated” (p.157). Sadly, she does not really elaborate on this any further. She concludes saying that:

“(M)any of the ‘Hollywood’ techniques most commonly found in Hindi films conveniently constitute an antithesis of rāg and classical melody, and also of film and folk melody, which are associated to a greater or lesser degree with the sacred, love, romance and celebration. They can therefore be used as powerful means to express distortion, destruction and disturbance of these qualities in a range of dramatic situations (p.178).”

However, they can also be used to express many other different things.

In the fifth chapter, Morcom explores the commercial life of Hindi film songs, in relation to Hindi film, in the context of buying, selling, and marketing. She investigates the technologies of distribution, marketing and profitability of film songs from the first few years of sound film to 2000. This chapter is based on fieldwork; however, that again stands for interviews with people in the industry. The chapter discusses the influence of gramophone, radio, cassettes, dvd, vhs, vcd etc. on the commercial potential of Hindi songs.

Again Morcom struggles with the distinction between marketing Hindi film songs and Hindi films, and we can again and again read sentences such as:

“The marketing of film songs and films are ultimately difficult to distinguish. Trailers using the film songs and visuals from the films are produced by the music company to promote the music, and the music, as it gains ground in the popular culture, promotes the film” (p.195).

Even though this book was published in 2007 it does not really take into account the importance of internet and though she discusses the importance of television and various live shows, it appears to me, that she does not really capture the extent of the industry. Moreover, nowadays there are numerous ‘making of the song/film’ videos available all over the internet, as well as numerous TV-shows featuring the stars, directors, singers, music directors etc. discussing the production and marketing process and many other things. This all is the promotion of the songs. However, though she notes that “these shows add another layer of importance to film songs, but are still parasitic on the cinema” (p.220), she does not really consider them in the analysis any depth.

In the last chapter, Morcom deals with the audience reception of Hindi films and with the life of the film song after its release. She again wonders if the songs are “able to become independent of the context of the parent film or of ‘film culture’ in general” (p.208). She analyzes different charts from several websites, concluding:

“(I)ndividual songs have, to some extent, a life of their own in terms of popularity and may become popular even if the parent film is a flop. However, when it is taken into account that only a minority of films are hits, the songs from hit films can be seen to further dominate the chart” (p.211).

When it comes to appropriation of film songs by the audiences, again a part of the text which is based on fieldwork, we get to know very briefly that people appropriate songs by

  • singing them,
  • playing them and singing at various occasions such as weddings, Holi, romancing or using them as devotional songs in the temple,
  • identifying with them across disparate communities in South Asia and the Diaspora as they refer to shared experience
  • performing them (from amateurs to professionals).

The conclusion she thus draws is that audiences actively appropriate these songs. However, what is striking when we realize that most of the Hindi film songs are dance songs is the lack of consideration of dance as a form of appropriation. As well as the lack of serious consideration of the movements and gestures in relation to the narrative, lyrics and music as a mode of expression. The embodiment of music and sound is definitely a way of appropriation of music that needs to be considered in any such analysis, and even more so in the analysis of Hindi film songs that rely visually to an extreme degree on bodily movements, gestures and dance scenes.

Reading this book as an anthropologist gave me an insight into on which premises ethnomusicology is established and it certainly thought me to be more sensitive to the various ways in which sound conveys meaning, which is possible the biggest lesson of the book – to give a thought to the various sounds and their interplay with the visual (however I would also include the somatic, emotional and embodied practices) and their ways to express, convey and reproduce meaning. At the same time, I feel that ethnomusicology, as I experienced it though this book, would profit from a more thorough study of anthropology, to get a more nuanced perspective and become more sensitive to the context.

Tereza Kuldova

>> more information by the publisher (Ashgate)

>> download the first chapter


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