Decolonizable Spaces in Ethnomusicology


Decolonization which sets out to change the order of the world is, obviously, a programme of complete disorder.”

              Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth ([1963] 2004)


Decolonization is not a new idea to the field of ethnomusicology. In 2006, the Society for Ethnomusicology Annual Meeting, hosted by the University of Hawai’i, featured the theme “Decolonizing Ethnomusicology.”[1] As stated in their call for papers, the goal was to invite “critical discussion of the field and of its relationship to the people and the music we study.”[2] Do ethnomusicologists still believe in having this critical discussion? Do we separate people from the music we study? What is a critical discussion of the field in 2016? Addressing each of these questions begins with understanding decolonization from a variety of viewpoints. Accordingly, two lines of decolonial thought inform this essay: Native American Studies and Postcolonial Studies.

The term “decolonization” is often used metaphorically in humanities and education studies scholarship to describe an array of processes involving social justice, resistance, sustainability, and preservation (Tuck and Yang 2012, Bishop 2005, Cook-Lynn 1998). However, we argue against using the word “decolonization” in ethnomusicology as metaphor, because decolonization demands a level of political engagement different from these other projects. Decolonization implies fundamental changes in relations of power, worldviews, our roles as scholars, and our relationships to the university system as an industry. As Linda Tuhiwai Smith observes, “decolonization, once viewed as the formal process of handing over the instruments of government, is now recognized as a long-term process involving the bureaucratic, cultural, linguistic and psychological divesting of colonial power” (Smith [1999] 2008:98). Divesting colonial power involves repatriating land and resources and transforming existing paradigms of power and privilege created by settler colonialists. A discourse of decolonizing ethnomusicology should not propagate the term as a descriptive signifier while overlooking the issues mentioned above. Furthermore, the objective of decolonizing ethnomusicology must address colonial, or colonialist, representations of Indigenous peoples’ music.

Ethnography in ethnomusicology is both a process for and product of conducting qualitative research. Ethnomusicology’s reliance on these research methodologies, in various ways, obstructs how we, as a discipline, understand and represent music and people. At this point we must ask ourselves: are there alternative ways of engaging in ethnography that facilitate greater responsibility for and representation of communities we work with? Words such as “interlocutor” and “informant” create a prescriptive binary subject/object relationship. Reconfiguring this relationship de-centers the position of researchers as all-knowing specialists in a particular music culture and changes the balance of power.

Additionally, we propose ethnomusicologists engage in co-authored projects highlighting partnerships between participants and ethnomusicologists, and work emphasizing community-based participatory research. We envision co-authorship as research produced (using various modes of communication: written, oral, or performative) by the researcher and community, where ownership is mutually shared between those involved. The purpose of co-authored works is, among other things, to disrupt the predominant voice of the ethnographer and increase their responsibility toward the people being represented. Community-based participatory research engages with and includes multiple members of Indigenous and local communities in data gathering and cedes ownership and representation of their pasts and ways of understanding (Atalay 2012:4). Each of these possibilities creates new spaces for a multiplicity of knowledges and the possibility of undoing “Western” academic hierarchies of knowledge (Sefa Dei 2010:77). Creating these spaces also accounts for the project of provincializing European thought made universal by modern imperialism and (third-world) nationalism (Chakrabarty 2000). These two solutions begin to address what decolonization involves and how it can be done.

SEM Student News’ choice to feature this theme signifies that decolonization remains an unresolved matter in the discipline. However, decolonization in the field of ethnomusicology is not a complete rejection of all previous research or “Western” knowledge. Rather, decolonizing ethnomusicology is about rethinking our concerns and worldviews (Smith [1999] 2008:39). Rather than being immersed in metaphor and issues of social justice, our definition of decolonization connects to broader political implications of Indigenous sovereignty, and asserts that ethnomusicologists must address problems of methodology and approach.

-Luis Chávez and Russell P. Skelchy



The title of this essay is inspired by Ricardo Trimillos’ (2008) article “Histories, Resistances, and Reconciliations in a Decolonizable Space: The Philippine Delegation to the 1998 Smithsonian Folklife Festival,” The Journal of American Folklore 121(479):60–79.



Atalay, Sonya. 2012. Community-Based Archaeology: Research with, by and for Indigenous and Local Communities. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Bishop, Russell. 2005. “Freeing Ourselves from Neo-Colonial Domination in Research: A Kaupapa Māori Approach to Creating Knowledge.” In The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research, edited by Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, 109–38 (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 2000. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Cook-Lynn, Elizabeth. 1998. “American Indian Intellectualism and the New Indian Story.” In Natives and Academics: Research and Writing About American Indians, edited by Devon Abbot Mihesuah, 111–38. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Fanon, Frantz. [1963] 2004. The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Richard Philcox. New York: Grove Press.

Sefa Dei, George J. 2010. Teaching Africa: Towards a Transgressive Pedagogy. New York: Springer Press.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. [1999] 2008. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. London: Zed Books.

Tuck, Eve, and K. Wayne Yang. 2012. “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1(1):1–40.



[1] This contribution is a cross-publication from SEM Student News.

[2] See Accessed 4 October 2016.


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