Collaborative Ethnomusicology: Thoughts and projects in community music

by Jamie Topper

A community bombazo at Africaribe Cultural Center, Chicago

A community bombazo at Africaribe Cultural Center, Chicago

I am a musician and Teaching Artist.  I have found myself repeatedly invited into musical cultures different from my own ethnic heritage.   This is a gift, and my impulse to reciprocate has led me to develop community projects that I call collaborative ethnomusicology.  In this essay I will share three examples of these types of projects, the philosophical and pedagogical frameworks that support them, and the nuts and bolts of how they get done.

Conceptual framework

Over the past 10 years I have been invited into the worlds of Afro-Caribbean music and dance as it lives and breathes here in Chicago.  This is due to a combination of things working together over time: my own curiosity and open mind, geographical proximity to Hispanic-strong neighborhoods, and musician friends whose generous spirits open doors that would otherwise be closed no matter how nearby I lived to them.  And of course my musicianship; without my ability to hold down parts well, I would be much less useful to have around.

A community bombazo at La Casita, Chicago

I do not come from the ethnic group that created and maintains this music; therefore, I am a guest by nature, and my being there at all is a gift.  It is a privilege to be present as a musician for ceremonies and events that are primarily attended by insiders- either by blood, by marriage or by music.  I am a participant-observer, a boundary crosser, traveling very near my home.
In recognition of the intrinsic value of the gift of sharing culture, which is intangible but deeply felt, I have the impulse to reciprocate.  I help carry drums, I help make the music, I help bring people out to shows, and I teach when it feels right.  I demonstrate the relevance of this music beyond the culture of origin just by being there and participating, as a Jewish non-Caribbean person.  And it is crucial that I recognize and can readily articulate what it is that I relate to about this music, on a human level, beyond ethnicity.  But beyond that I feel drawn to help document, to do what I can to help support, sustain, and celebrate this music.  I can help hold the mirror.

When research and knowledge about musical form is used to help sustain the culture that

A patient at Rush University Children's Hospital listening to the song of a New Orleans watermelon vendor

created it, we approach the realm of applied ethnomusicology, an academic term for what happens when cultural boundary-crossing musicians and scholars try to describe what is happening, for and with whom, and why it’s important.  Jeff Todd Titon of Brown University identifies applied work as follows:

APPLIED ETHNOMUSICOLOGY is the approach guided by principles of social responsibility, which extends the usual academic goal of broadening and deepening knowledge and understanding toward solving concrete problems and toward working both inside and beyond typical academic contexts.

Applied work doesn’t just involve participant-observation research in musical cultures, but also collaborations as people in the community take a major role in practical problem-solving having to do with the place of music in the life of the community. Applied ethnomusicology sometimes is a gift and it usually results in some kind of tangible result or product. Examples include musical apprenticeships, cultivation of musical skills, and the transmission of music; musicians-in-the-schools, festivals, radio, television or computer programs; written histories of the musicculture; policymaking on arts councils and other political and cultural agencies; community musical documentation projects; films and videos made for the music-culture and, often, the general public; festivals, parades, and public concert series; arts consultancies; surveys of traditional music with a view to bringing the musicians into contact with one another; museum exhibits and demonstrations; and archival preservation initiatives coupled with repatriating music from archives back to the original communities.

Other examples of applied ethnomusicology include public programming involving documentation and presentation of under-represented music at museums and festivals; participatory action research, involving partnerships with community scholars to work toward mutual community music goals such as encouraging conditions under which music will flourish; music, peace studies, and conflict resolution, particularly with regard to ethnic rivalries in the Balkans and Middle East; education, enabling multicultural initiatives such as a diversity of music in the curriculum; and cultural policy regarding music, including sustainability initiatives.

-from JEFF TODD TITON’s blog
This is active, collective community scholarship, at work for the good of the folks, as they define it.  Though my undergraduate work was in Anthropology, and I have presented at academic conferences on my work, I am not currently affiliated with any university in my community work.  As a Teaching Artist, I do work through Columbia College (Center for Community Arts Partnerships and Arts Integration Mentorship) and Northeastern University (Chicago Teachers’ Center), but in direct service, not research per se.

Un Arbol Que Me De Sombra: Bomba in Chicago
I have become deeply involved with the Afro-Puertorican music community in Chicago, studying and performing Bomba and Plena music with 4 different ensemble families.  After several years of workshops, classes, lessons, community bombazos, rehearsals and performances, a feeling began to rise up in me that I was witnessing and participating in a golden moment.  The timing was right: along with my growing familiarity and comfort within the community and vice versa, right now there are 5 different groups in Chicago actively researching, teaching, performing and growing this music, and several supporting cultural organizations working to provide outreach and educational opportunities.  In a typical week this summer I could easily find myself spending 4-5 nights a week at a rehearsal, class, community event or performance, and still have the feeling that I wasn’t putting enough practice or research time in.  For a relatively small community, this is an extremely active and passionate one.
I began meeting with the musicians and proposing a documentation project. The film as it stands now is intended to document the depth and diversity of the community, through the music itself.  It is being organized as a collection of songs and stories through which the larger issues will be recognized.  Each group/ organization featured in the film is being offered the opportunity to present one song from their repertoire that they feel represents their approach, philosophy, and beliefs about this music and its historical and contemporary relevance.  From my work in Arts Education, I am using the process of Inquiry to drive the project: I have developed a list of guiding questions in collaboration with the participants to help focus our ideas.   I ask each participant which of the questions he or she relates to most, and we go from there into a discussion of the ideas which follow, and then toward a design for the shoot.

This project is intended to be a collective statement, to pull our voices together in a way that will be of value to cultural insiders as well as outsiders.  It may include some words, but it will be primarily musical.  I dabble in scholarship but I am primarily involved as a musician, because I love the rhythms, songs and stories, and because I relate to the ideas underneath them.  This project is not an analysis, it is an alternate experience of the form.  I want it to be most interesting to the players themselves, to document, celebrate and share what we know and are curious about, at this time.  It is a collective musical ethnography of chicago bomba circa 2011-12, a visual album with a goal of musical and cultural conservation and sustainability.
Secret Voices: Homan Square Park Community Jukebox
The Secret Voices project was developed as part of my fellowship with MusicianCorps Chicago, a pilot program of Music National Service in 2009. The program placed musicians in community sites as part of a domestic musical Peace Corps, to serve in whatever way makes best use of that musician’s particular skill set.  Our goal: find a relevant community issue, and collaboratively design a music project in service to it.

I felt it was important that the issues be identified by the community itself- not by me. But it takes time to build the trust necessary to have honest discussions about issues that matter.  I began by offering a basic rhythm workshop to get to know folks and let them get to know me.  Eventually I became aware of an intergenerational tension that existed in the park.  There were park kids who scurried around, park staff who wrangled them, maintenance staff, older gentlemen playing chess, teens, and other passers-through of all ages.  Many recognized each other but did not interact much.  And, many held unfair impressions of each other (“Old people can’t play music,” “Young people are thoughtless thugs”).  With further discussion, we decided to focus on intergenerational dynamics.

My musical skill building focus became polyrhythm; holding together several simultaneous, contrasting rhythms.  Polyrhythm is a graceful metaphor for human dynamics, and a great exercise in active listening.

We soon decided on our larger project: to create a sonic archive of the community. Anyone found around the park was invited to contribute a recording.  It could be a song, statement, rap, giggle, poem, lullaby, or sound effect, made with their voice or any instrument.  Over 60 community members made recordings to add their voices to the archive.  I made sure many of them also learned to use the recording equipment in the process, if they were interested.  We used a Zoom H4N Digital recorder, a Roland Microcube amp for playback, and I did the simple editing and mastering using Audacity.

The privacy of the recording sessions created a crucial, nonjudgmental space.  The only guidance I gave was technical- bringing attention to levels but leaving the artist to control the aesthetic.  If they felt good about their recording, it went on the disc.

Then the idea came up to remove the names, listen back and try to guess whose voice we were hearing.   Now some very interesting things started happening!  People were surprised by voices they didn’t recognize, which ended up being people that they know.  Formerly unknown people were introduced to each other when folks heard the CD and then went around listening to find a match.  The hidden talents of some of the quieter members of the park community came out.  The resulting compilation is full of surprises.  Many of the recordings were later developed into larger pieces that we arranged, rehearsed and performed.  Even better, we had several intergenerational jams!  Sound and video documentation of the Secret Voices project can be seen at
Street Cries: Applied Ethnomusicology in a Children’s Hospital
The STREET CRIES project took place while I was Musician-in-Residence at Rush University Children’s Hospital through Snow City Arts.  Seeds for the project were planted when I brought in some recordings of the calls of street vendors and shared them with the young patients at the hospital because I thought they were interesting.  I love the use of musical tools in daily life for practical effect.  The calls of street vendors, singing out loud about their sweet watermelon, shoe shining and avocadoes, are a prime example.  The more attractive the song, the more successful the sale.

In a child’s hospital room, there is a similar stream of visitors each day: nurses, doctors, food service, and visitors.  We began to wonder: what if, instead of coming to a child’s room uninvited, all of these people passed through the hospital halls, calling out their wares, and the children could respond if they liked what was offered?  What would the ‘street cry’ of a doctor or nurse sound like?  The kids were very familiar with hospital staff’s tactics for sweetening something up to get them to accept it.

Using the field recordings as a model, we uncovered a structure: find a lyrical way to describe what’s on offer, stretch the words into a melodic line, add percussive sounds for effect, and repeat.   The children drew upon the unique heritage of this music to make compositions of their own that reflect the beauty, pain, and humor of life in the hospital.  Process documentation and the final product can be viewed at

“This work,” writes Jeff Todd Titon, “involves and empowers music-makers and music-cultures in collaborative projects that present, represent, and affect the cultural flow of music throughout the world” (“Music, the Public Interest, and the Practice of Ethnomusicology,” Ethnomusicology, Vol. 36, no. 3 [1992], p. 315).
Moments that clarify the development of this role are: actual friendships developing, with a certain kind of ease, humor, and reciprocity.  Again, Jeff Todd Titon: “This attitude of reciprocity, although it overlaps with academic concerns of applied ethnomusicology, is not new; it is how friends behave toward one another.”
As I continue to look for ways to sustain the things that sustain me, applied ethnomusicology is a field I come back to and hover around.  I welcome any opportunities to discuss and share my work.  Details of these and other projects can be explored at

Jamie Topper has been a Teaching Artist in Chicago for over 10 years for nationally renowned arts organizations such as Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education (CAPE), Columbia College’s Center for Community Arts Partnerships (CCAP) and Project AIM (Arts Integration Mentorship), Snow City Arts, and Chicago Teacher’s Center of Northeastern University.  In 2010 she won the 3Arts Teaching Artist Award for her work.


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