Ethnomusicology by and for Women

by Dr. Norman Stanfield ~ September 30th, 2011. Filed under: World Music Studies.

For the Reading Journal assignment in the second week of 2012 Fall classes, students were asked to summarize John Baily’s excellent essay, “Ethnomusicology, Intermusability, and Performance Practice,” found in The New Ethnomusicologies (edited by Henry Stobart, 2008). As I re-read the article, I suddenly realized that his wife is the amazing Veronica Doubleday.

I say “amazing” because her research on women’s music-making is extraordinary. She accompanied her husband, John Bailey, to Afghanistan and discovered music performed entirely by women, with the tambourine at its centre. Out of that encounter came her wonderful book Three Women of Herat: a memoir of life, love and friendship in Afghanistan (2006). The book partly culminated her research on the prominent place of the tambourine among women throughout Central Asia, the Middle East and southern Europe. Her findings are seen in Ethnomusicology volume 25, number 4 (1999), pp. 101-34, in an article entitled “The Frame Drum in the Middle East: Women, Musical Instruments and Power”.

I learned about the work of Veronica Doubleday when I was doing my own research on the history and culture of the tambourine among women in the Salvation Army.  My article, entitled  “The Tambourine and the Salvation Army: Rebellion in the Service of Authority,” can be seen in the Canadian Folk Music/ Musique folklorique canadienne, volume 41, number 4 (2007). The project began almost as a lark. I was wondering what it would be like to research a lowly music instrument that was found at the far end of the spectrum, opposite to the lofty Western Art Music instruments like piano and violin. Coincidentally, I was carrying around a memory of an explosive, singular newsflash from my days as a Resident Artist at EXPO 86. The Salvation Army tambourinists, or more properly, timbrelists were performing a kind of “flash mob event” on the main “street” of the fair with their tambourines and brass band accompanists, and everybody who witnessed it were gobsmacked. The delight and surprise crackled over the network of walkie-talkies, but I was unfortunately too far away to rush down and see them.

When I conducted my fieldwork among the SA timbrelists years later, I discovered the art of the tambourine in their hands was certainly not a lark. They took their performance art very seriously, and expended countless hours perfecting it. The performance art involves intricate hand and arm movements, sometimes enhanced with stage blocking, all the while striking the tambourine in complex rhythmic patterns, in unison with other timbrelists, and in rhythm to music selections provided by a glorious Salvation Army Brass Band. My best sighting occurred when I was invited to watch the North York timbrelists march through the streets of north Toronto at the head of the Salvation Army congretation,  brass band, a big bass drum (the sound most admired by the founder, William Booth) , flags and banners. Since then, I learned that a similar, even bigger production is seen every New Year’s Day on television across North America. In the morning, the Salvation Army massed brass bands and their massed timbrelists lead the massive Rose Parade. They also participate in the Calgary Stampede parade, to great applause, also in the same manner. But those are all faint echoes of the original context of the marching, when the SA would courageously and defiantly march down the slums and shantytown streets in cities and towns around the world, including Vancouver, broadcasting their message of joy and hope to the desperate and the disenfranchised.

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As I looked further afield, I came across an inspirational tambourine soloist, Layne Redmond, who has embraced the tambourine as a vehicle to express her feminist interests.  She has tied together the history of women’s traditional place as spiritual mentors and guiding lights in pre-historic Europe, with the tambourine (and its kin, the frame drum which is a tambourine without jingles). At one time there was an explosion of research that suggested ancient Europe was a matriarchal society before the arrival of male-dominated newcomers and their patriarchal, violent ways. All of these interests are recorded in her book, When the Drummers Were Women: A Spiritual History of Rhythm (1997).

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Although the theory is now refuted by authors such as Cynthia Eller in her book The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why An Invented Past Will Not Give Women a Future (2000), Layne Radmond’s  musical-theatrical productions of women re-enacting the spirit of ritual services while using the tambourine to enhance their songs and movements are really something to behold.  Her tambourine ensemble is called A Mob of Angels and I highly recommend looking for them on Youtube. While you’re on the web, be sure to look for Layne Redmond’s website, where you will discover that she is a major force in the world of percussion.

Another name I’m keeping an eye on is Allesandra Belloni who specializes in the tambourine of Southern Italy. When you look into that corner, you discover the truth about the Tarantella; it is a dance of ecstacy, not the hysterical response to the bite of a tarantula. In Spain there is the women’s tambourine ensemble Leilia which maintains the tambourine traditions of the Galician area in the north.

Not all the prodigiously talented tambourine players are women. There are brilliant male performers such as Glen Velez and Xabier Berasaluze “Leturia”, one of the duo of Spanish Basque musicians called Tapia and Leturia. In Brazil, the tambourine, called pandeiro, has taken on the status of national instrument. It is played by men and women. Back in Italy, in the province of Calabria, men dominate tambourine performance, a radical departure from the tradition. There’s probably a great story there.

I acknowledge that among female timbrelists, I am clearly an outsider. Julie C. Dunbar has provided people like me with important insights in her new book Women, Music, Culture: An Introduction (Routledge, 2010). Still, I suspect there is there is a level of appreciation entirely beyond my understanding . No matter. I love what they do.

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