Stokes—Migration and Music

Migration and Music

Martin Stokes

Abstract: The current sense of crisis in the study of migration and music calls out for a broader contextualization. The study of migrant culture sat comfortably for a while with a structural-functionalist culture concept emphasizing boundedness and stasis, figured as transitional, adaptive, evidence of modernization or Westernization. An orientation toward hybridity in the 1980s began to shake some of these certainties, even if it kept others (the normative framework of the nation-state) in place. This article argues that work on refugees and diasporas at around the same time departed from them more radically. The current moment is one in which the final vestiges of language about migrant culture as adaptive have been swept away and in which the populist evocation of a migrant crisis at our gates has posed unsettling challenges. This article explores the tensions in the current literature between an emphasis on migrant creativity and survival, mobility and motility, and identity and citizenship.

Keywords: music, dance, migration, refugees, mobility, citizenship

Martin Stokes is King Edward Professor of Music at King’s College London.

Stokes, Martin. 2020. “Migration and Music.” Music Research Annual 1: 1–29.

Marked as it is by a sense of crisis, the field of music and migration has become “impossible to map,” as one recent commentator observes (Aksoy 2019, 299). The measured language of the social sciences and the humanities—contextualizing, explaining, interpreting—does not fit easily with the emotions many of us surely feel at the news that flashes across our screens. Another boat laden with migrants sinks. Another far-right rally is on our doorstep. More ambiguous words on the day’s events are heard from our elected politicians. The crisis might well have been manufactured and manipulated, but it is, still, a crisis, and one that challenges any attempt at a calm overview.

Of course, academic scholars have not stood idly by. The recent record is humbling and impressive. From supplying musical instruments in refugee camps; musicking with migrants and refugees; organizing concerts, events, and recordings; and helping migrants network and find musical and academic jobs on the one hand to, on the other, more formal horizontal knowledge-exchange programs and attempts to intervene in policy, we are not short of inspiring models of scholarly engagement and activism.

They have also constructed a field of study. I would argue that ethnomusicologists have played a preeminent role in shaping it and that their efforts have had a significant impact on historical (Western) musicology, as well as popular music studies. This is reflected in the range of texts discussed in what follows. I have attempted to cast the net widely, but some important fields of study have inevitably, and unhappily, been pushed to the margins.1 It is clearly, however, a very wide field, perhaps even, for mapping purposes, impossibly diffuse.

Mapping might also seem morally dubious. A brief, and perhaps personal, word of justification feels necessary. Migrant and refugee musicians and their music are now part of my everyday academic life. This has fundamentally changed how I think about and do things, as I know is the case for many ethnomusicologists. It has become harder than ever to put pen to paper. But there are things to be gained from an attempt to review recent literature, I believe. Among such potential gains I would include a sense of the broader connections and conversations that might strengthen (and perhaps challenge) our local-level interventions. In the first half of this article I comment on quite a long history of reflection on music and migration, one that might help us contextualize our current sense of crisis. In the second half of this article, I ask how the topic of music and migration relates to some tricky, but productive, critical oppositions: creativity/survival, mobility/motility, identity/citizenship.

The current migrant crisis, as many have pointed out, is the product of a very particular conjuncture of wars, failed states, climate crisis, and populist politics in Europe and North America.2 In 2015, European leaders failed to handle an influx of people fleeing the protracted civil war in Syria. The resultant chaos at European borders (involving refugees from various other war zones) was exacerbated by German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to open Germany’s doors to about a million refugees. Hopes that this might mobilize a Europe-wide response and pressure other governments to live up to their legal responsibilities were swiftly dashed. A number of European countries immediately re-introduced pre-Schengen border checks to stop migrants and refugees entering or transiting these countries on their way to Germany.3 Images of lines of migrants at border crossings were swiftly manipulated by populist and nativist political parties across Europe.4

Meanwhile, in 2017 unprecedented numbers of refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras (often referred to as the Northern Triangle) were seeking asylum in neighboring countries, primarily Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama. The migrant caravans slowly traveling north toward the United States were met at the border by force. The scenes at the border, involving the incarceration of minors and the separation of family members, shocked many across the world. But they strengthened American President Donald Trump’s fantasies, popular among his supporters, of walling off the southern border on the eve of the 2018 mid-term elections.

Others leaped in to exploit the situation. Mexico’s promises to control immigration from the Northern Triangle, effectively to act on behalf of US immigration at the Mexico/Guatemala border, were intended to gain leverage in discussions over the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s threats to relax Turkey’s controls over migrant and refugee flows from Syria succeeded in resurrecting stalled talks about European Union (EU) accession.5 Libyan leader (1969–2011) Muammar al-Qaddafi’s threats to ‘turn Europe Black’ in the early 2000s resulted in significant economic deals between Libya and Italy. These broke down with the Libyan revolution in 2011, leaving a failed state and refugees negotiating horrific detainment camps in Libya, lethal boat journeys across the Mediterranean, and a maze of bureaucracy in Italy. Here, as elsewhere, such bureaucracy has little purpose other than to slow down the northward movement of these migrants while responsibilities and quotas within Europe are haggled over and anti-immigrant rhetoric is brought to the boil (see Beckles Willson’s remarks in Rasmussen et al. 2019).

European media has had a significant role to play in the construction of this crisis, as British journalist Daniel Trilling has argued recently. It has been mobilized by the quest for striking imagery that will shed light on the human story: “who needs protection, who is innocent and who is deserving of blame” (Trilling 2019). But the quest is conditioned, as he shows, by earlier ideas about what disasters look like as well as modern news media’s insatiable demand for clickbait. The images they produce are so heavily edited and manipulated that it is often impossible to draw any clear messages about what is going on. Trilling takes as a case study the shocking image of the body of Alan Kurdi, the drowned three-year-old Syrian infant photographed in the arms of a Turkish police officer. It gained the status it did, Trilling argues, “for a mix of reasons–political, commercial, but also aesthetic” (Trilling 2019). The arrangement of bodies in the image indeed bore some relationship to Michelangelo’s Pietà. A consequence of this media construction has been migrant subjects removed in the Western imagination from place, history, and causality. They are just there, “they move, it’s what they do” (Trilling 2019). The prefixes im- and em- once, even if only minimally, signified directions of travel, histories, and futures but have by now largely disappeared from newspaper articles and television news reports. The media’s urge to locate the human story and create compassionate foci for action is, perversely and ironically, intimately connected to the ever-deepening construction in public debate of migrants as existential threats to citizenship and security.6

Neither is there any necessary contradiction between the construction of migrants as, on the one hand, threats to citizenship and security and, on the other, a fetishization of migrant fashion, food, music, urban neighborhoods, and so forth–a multicultural migrant sublime–that flourished around the turn of the millennium. As ‘global cities’ marketed themselves as such around the turn of the century to attract investment and an educated global workforce, immigrant neighborhoods were billed as a leisure amenity and a source of diversity, color, and entertainment. Significant local world music scenes grew up around them, intersecting with the world music/world beat fashion in the mainstream recording industry at the time. This has been extensively analyzed (see Kosnick 2007; Stokes 2012). But such celebrations of migrant culture–in the context of a racialized and securitized backlash against globalization–now seem nostalgic and remote from the mainstream.7

Music scholars tend to distance themselves from both the current political paranoia and the celebratory nostalgia concerning migration. Debates and discussions take place within a relatively narrow bandwidth of agreement about fundamental issues. There is general consensus, for instance, about the value of migrant culture; about the point of locating it in broad social, cultural, and historical contexts; about the necessity of understanding musical creativity and innovation within transnational spaces of circulation; and about the ways in which it is changing ethnomusicology. Such discussions have been taking shape over a period of time–a fact that has already stimulated useful critical reviews of the emerging field (e.g., Slobin 1994; Slobin 2012; Erlmann 2003).8

Starting points inevitably have an arbitrary nature and one might argue that musicology has never not been interested in migration. Comparative musicology, the precursor to modern ethnomusicology, was indeed built on the study through time and place of music, musicians, and musical instruments in motion. Contemporary ethnomusicology might have rejected the fundamental tenets of comparative musicology–its speculative archaeological methods and the cherry picking of data (i.e., “armchair ethnography”) to suit the psychological, evolutionary, and racial agendas of the time–but the discipline never entirely forgot it either. These disciplinary memories resonate in certain ways in the more contemporary study of music and migration. If one is to locate a more recent starting point for many ethnomusicologists, one might single out the 1977 conference held at the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress, titled Ethnic Recordings in America: A Neglected Heritage. It produced, among other things, the important seven-volume discography by American musicologist Richard Spottswood (1990). Its agenda is still a lively one and worth reflecting on here.

In this context, ethnic recordings referred to the commercial recording and music publishing by immigrants to the United States in the early years of the twentieth century. Recall that 13.5 percent of the population was foreign-born in 1900.9 The largest portion was from Europe and the fragmenting Ottoman Empire. The nascent sound-recording industry was quick to define and exploit this market. By 1920, the American recording companies Columbia and Victor had already each released 20,000 recordings of ethnic music. The market collapsed in the mid-1920s with the Depression, the Immigration Act of 1924, and the rise of radio, which became a cheaper way of listening to music in the home. We learn from Spottswood (1990) that, to our knowledge, some 200,000 commercial recordings were made of ethnic music between 1893 and 1942, and this is perhaps only a fraction of the total. Many refer to this as a Golden Age of ethnic recording. This body of recordings constitutes an extraordinary record of immigrant life in the United States in the early twentieth century. Patient and valuable discographic research on commercial recordings of ethnic music continues as a legacy of the 1977 Library of Congress conference.

Ethnic music recordings undoubtedly constitute an extraordinarily valuable kind of documentary evidence of migrant life worlds in the past. However, more recent research–particularly in the US–has underlined the importance of contextualizing and interpreting the recordings within a broader array of documentary sources (see, in particular, the contributors to Rasmussen and Lornell 2016). The written records of ethnic churches, labor organizations, and fraternal societies in the United States early in the nineteenth century are extraordinarily rich in information about immigrant music-making.

Commercial ethnic music recordings must also be considered alongside the emerging field of ethnographic recordings in the wake of Benjamin Gilman’s recordings at the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893 and alongside the emerging field of ethnic music publishing (Signell 1997; Slobin and Spottswood 1985). Captain Francis O’Neill’s 1903 Music of Ireland was, for instance, the music publishing sensation of its time. O’Neill was a Chicago police chief and amateur ethnographer of Irish life in that city (Dillane 2018). His remarkable volume is still used as a source of instrumental dance tunes today. All Irish musicians know it.

Contextualized thus, one would now want to underline the fact that commercial sound recordings were constructions just as much as various other commodities circulating in the market for ethnic entertainment. As such, they require a great deal of interpretation and contextualization to be remotely intelligible today. Recorded repertories were adapted to accommodate to the new medium and mixed by immigrant entrepreneurs capable of imagining the emerging migrant intimacies of New York and its hinterlands, which made, for instance, polka, klezmer, or Middle Eastern dance music of such appeal outside the communities in which they might be said to have originated. Research on these scenes (see, for example, Rasmussen 2016; Slobin and Spottswood 1985; Slobin 2000) has richly illuminated processes of mediation and entrepreneurialism and the place of sound recordings in broader and constantly evolving media ecologies.

What, though, are we to make of this so-called Golden Age? Nostalgia has clearly been at play in this field of discographic scholarship, but nostalgia for what, exactly? For a United States at ease with, rather than haunted by, its immigrant past? For a melting pot ideology untroubled by questions of race and class? For the coherence of a rescue narrative vis-à-vis the Old World? Early twentieth-century migration politics in the United States was, after all, shot through with xenophobia and racism. That said, it is important to see that the discographer’s nostalgic longing for the imagined world of early twentieth-century American immigrant enclaves shows the complexity of the contemporary situation—however far the imagined world was from the historical reality. In whatever manner one regards this nostalgia, a later wave of thinking about music and migration—one that located it in broader arguments about race, the city, and globalization—was to change things significantly.

Of course, migrations take place within nation-states as well as between them. From a North American perspective, the 1950s were pivotal in the Great Migration of African Americans from southern to northern states. General speculation about African retentions in African American music was supplanted by detailed fieldwork in African American neighborhoods, and with patient and politically-committed engagement with living musical cultures. The challenge was one of confronting the general idea that migration produced cultural loss and the more specific idea that African American culture took shape around tropes of absence (for example, of father figures in African American households). Ethnomusicologist Charles Keil and others revealed these to be the crude racial myths and stereotypes they patently were, and patiently explained music as a space of culture-making (Keil 1966; Ramsey 2004); writer Imamu Amiri Baraka connected such efforts with the broader, global politics of race (Jones 1963); historian and literary scholar Paul Gilroy considered the question of slavery and its artistic legacy in a broader theorization of diaspora (Gilroy 1993). Others showed how Black expressive culture connected with other scenes of displacement and exclusion in the New World: Jewish, Asian, Mexican, and others (Melnick 1999; Wong 2004; Hellier-Tinico 2011).

To speak about diaspora rather than migration in this context was to talk about scenes of violent and traumatic displacement, scatterings haunted by painful and irretrievable origin myths, and highly-refracted communication across global spaces. It was also to acknowledge that the West’s modernity rests on slavery. How and why various people around the world might come to feel themselves to be Black and part of an African diaspora, musically speaking, has been a preoccupation on the part of ethnomusicologists and other music scholars over a considerable period of time. (For an early exploration of the issue, see Lipsitz 1997.)10 As numerous studies attest, rap and hip hop have been particularly significant in this regard (Rollefson 2017).11 Various overlapping motivations are in play: empowering acts of identification with the Civil Rights and Black Power movements in the US; acts of reclaiming and repatriation by the global south (Aterianus-Owanga 2019a); playful mobilizations of minority languages, dialects, and creoles against official language policies (White 2019); and the forging of political alliances among second- and third-generation immigrants of different backgrounds (Martiniello 2019).

If questions about migration have generally, at some level or another, been questions about race and ethnicity, they have also been questions about the city. Habits of thinking of urbanization as an inevitable and inexorable process of homogenization and so-called cultural grey-out (Lomax 1972) died out slowly in ethnomusicology. The contributors to Eight Urban Musical Cultures (Nettl 1978) took early and influential steps to challenge this idea. Ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl distinguished between musical modernization (a rationalization and systematization of traditional musical culture) and Westernization (an emulation of Western musical practices) in his introduction to the volume, emphasizing the need for distinctions and discriminations in talk about musical urbanization. If Nettl’s volume made the case for an urban ethnomusicology, a number of studies in the late 1980s and 1990s could be said to have developed and extended it (see Baumann 1987; Finnegan 1989; Waterman 1990; Cohen 1991; Stokes 1992; Manuel 1993; Turino 1993; Pacini-Hernandez 1995; Erlmann 1995; Austerlitz 1997; Wade 2000).

Many of these looked at urban music-making in the context of national cultural integration programs, the movement of migrants from impoverished nation-state peripheries to the squatter-towns, bidonvilles, favelas and gecekondus of emerging industrial cities, and the new media technologies (particularly cassettes) that allowed rural-urban migrants to create alternative musical public spheres for themselves. Most took the nation-state as the taken-for-granted context of the musical transformations they analyzed, even if many also underlined their broader global dimensions. Herein lay a limitation, though. Particularizing within nation-state frameworks, they never entirely freed themselves from the gravitational pull of the passing of traditional society narratives characteristic of what used to be called modernization theory.12 They shared modernization theory’s interest in the transformation of villager into urbanite, peasant into citizen. Rural “tradition,” meanwhile, was typically understood as an object of nostalgia, as something disappearing in the rear-view mirror.

If, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the more far-sighted of these studies (e.g., Waterman 1990) initially raised questions about the global dimensions of these transformations, they were to take center stage soon after. Ethnomusicologist Mark Slobin’s study of urban micromusics (Slobin 1993) was particularly influential, anticipating aspects of what we now might describe, following anthropologist Steven Vertovec, as super-diversity (Vertovec 2007). One consequence of globalization was the sedimentation of multiple historical migrant flows in the cities of western Europe and North America. Micromusics show how increased numbers of fragmented, transnationally-connected immigrants from multiple origins interact with one another and with the broader system. Slobin drew on anthropologist Arjun Appadurai’s conception of -scapes (ethnoscapes, technoscapes, finanscapes, mediascapes, and ideoscapes), a fractal, pluralizing, and multi-causal picture of cultural globalization freed from the simplistic and unilinear teleologies of modernization, “McDonaldization,” cultural imperialism, and so forth (Appadurai 1996).13 By contrast, ethnomusicologist Veit Erlmann (2002) interpreted musical globalization in terms of an intensifying fetishization of race that was complicit with the phantasmagoria of global late capitalism: a world, in other words, of musical difference progressively tamed and spectacularized for consumption. If debates about globalization occasionally polarized positions, they also generated new foci, richly localized: urban scenes of cosmopolitanism (Feld 2012), border zones (Simonett 2001), pilgrimage and religious revival (Bohlman 2013), and festivals and tourism (De Witt 1999; Lashua, Spracklen, and Long 2014; Krüger and Trandafoui 2014; Hodgson 2016; Guilbault and Rommen 2019).

If discussions about music, migration, and diaspora at the turn of the millennium tended to converge and mutually amplify one another in their mutual reference and citational habits, those concerning music and refugees seemed to occupy a slightly different space. In the mid-1980s, ethnomusicologist Adeleida Reyes-Schramm studied the music of Vietnamese refugees in New Jersey and went on to define the key questions and methodological challenges (Reyes-Schramm 1989). Around the same time, Italian ethnomusicologist Giovanni Giuriati was studying Cambodian music culture among Cambodian refugees in Baltimore, where he was doing his PhD with Mantle Hood (Giuriati 2005). (Hood was a pioneer in the field of ethnomusicology and subsequently the founder of the ethnomusicology program at UCLA.) Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, ethnomusicologists John Baily and Veronica Doubleday began to follow the lives of musicians displaced by the 1978 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (Baily 2005).

From today’s perspective, which is shaped by intense debates about what (if any) distinctions are to be made between migrants and refugees, it appears strange that such important projects stood slightly apart from more mainstream discussions about migration. Today we talk, after all, about a generalized migrant crisis, knowing how inadequate the category of migrant is, but we are all too well aware of the difficulties and dangers involved in attempting to sub-categorize.14 This standing-slightly-apart may have had to do with the relative invisibility of these particular refugees in North America and northern Europe at the time (the larger numbers being absorbed by neighboring countries). It may also have been to do with the ambiguity of the political debates taking place over the refugees’ heads. In the 1980s, Afghan refugees from the Soviet war may not have been exactly welcomed in North America and western Europe but were nonetheless seen by the (conservative) press in a positive light, primarily as victims of Soviet expansionism or as romantic figures of resistance to it. Following the US-led wars against the Taliban in Afghanistan that occurred twenty years later, the same newspapers would depict them as potential terrorists and threats to national security. And it may have had to do with the broader challenges—indeed, failures—of thinking about refugees and other displaced people in the liberal discourse of human rights. The key contradiction in this matter had earlier been voiced, tellingly, by the American-German philosopher Hannah Arendt. As she famously put it, “the paradox of the loss of human rights is that such loss coincides with the instant when a person becomes a human being in general” (Arendt 1958, 7). The challenge, for her, was one of responding to the challenge of building a refugee politics from the perspective of multiplicity. It is “men, rather than Man” she observed, “who live on the earth and inhabit the earth” (Arendt 1968, 302).15 For various reasons, then, refugees in this discussion stood slightly apart from the broader questions raised about migration.

Earlier ethnomusicological work on refugees inhabited and explored these ambiguities and paradoxes. On the one hand, they are drawn toward the human tragedy, the “bare life” (Agamben 1998, 88) of the refugee, the state of existential isolation; on the other, they are at pains to show refugees rebuilding lives, businesses, cultures, and families. A telling and pivotal scene in Baily’s classic film Amir: An Afghan Refugee’s Life in Peshawar, Pakistan (Baily 1985) expresses this tension succinctly. It shows its protagonist, Amir, weeping at his daughter’s grave in a dusty refugee graveyard close to a Sufi shrine. The sound of a jet—a war machine, oblivious to the destruction and grief it is causing ten thousand feet below—rumbles overhead, adding pathos to Amir’s terrible solitude. The camera watches Amir awkwardly, from a distance and for what feels like a long time. But then the sounds of the jet mingle with the sounds of rushing water. Death gives way to life, gray to green. The figure of Amir eventually emerges, smiling, smoking a cigarette, stretching his legs on a roadside break in the mountains, on his way to play at a refugee wedding. It is a self-consciously artful moment: uncomfortable and intense. It is also a moment Baily has often reflected on, aware of its complexity and its status as a sign of the demands—ethical and pragmatic—such situations place on the ethnographer and the pressures they exert on the ethnographic text (Baily 2009).

The inhabitation and exploration of these theoretical and political ambiguities has also taken the form of an experimentation with ethnographic form. Anthropologists working elsewhere, and on other subjects, were also experimenting, of course.16 But an objectivizing, scientific ethnography was always going to have seemed particularly inappropriate to these scenes of suffering and displacement. Traditional methods of learning to play musical instruments and learning song repertories have, meanwhile, assumed extra layers of significance. They have been seen, for instance, as key to a process of finding human common ground for creative, culture-affirming interactions with refugee musicians. And ethnographers have, in the context of conflicts that have lasted decades, and which have devasted cultural infrastructures and transmission systems, become among the few with the knowledge, archives, and skills to bring them back to life when some semblance of normality returns. By the year 2000, it was quite possible to talk about an ethnomusicology for rather than about refugees (to redeploy anthropologist David Turton’s distinction between two kinds of ethnography; Turton 2003), which anticipated the more explicitly activist and interventionist ethnomusicology of the current moment.17

At this point, conferences and special issues of journals devoted to migration and music—a topic by now incorporating studies of refugee music-making—began to appear with some regularity. Major points of reference include projects like those of Frances Aparicio and Candida Jacquez (2003), John Baily and Michael Collyer (2006), Tina Ramnarine (2007), Jason Toynbee and Byron Dueck (2011), Simone Krüger and Ruxandra Trandafoui (2014), Maria de São José Corte-Real (2010), Eric Levi and Florian Scheding (2010), and Florian Scheding et al. (2018). A handful of social scientists, thoroughly in conversation with ethnomusicologists and popular music scholars, have also entered the field (see, in particular, Kasinitz and Martiniello 2019; Aterianus-Owanga and Guedj 2014).

Most of the researchers on these lists have been explicitly or implicitly concerned with particular facets of the study of migrant and refugee music: Ramnarine with performance, Krüger and Trandafoui with the relationship between migration and tourism, Corte-Real with migrant cultural policy and NGOs, and Kasinitz and Martiniello with music in second- and third-generation immigrant politics. Many have some kind of regional emphasis: Corte-Real on the Lusophone world, Aparicio and Jacquez on Latin America, Scheding et al. on contemporary Britain, and Aterianus-Owanga and Guedj on the Black Atlantic. And some, like projects by Toynbee and Dueck (2011) or Levi and Scheding (2010) negotiate sub-divisions within the field of music studies (for the former, popular music studies and ethnomusicology; for the later, ethnomusicology and the historical study of Western music).

This might suggest an orderly succession of emerging debates, paradigm shifts, and sub-disciplinary specializations. However, a number of individual authors’ names appear in more than one of these collections (e.g., those of Cohen and Baily), and in their selection of contributors and other editorial choices, the editors of these projects implicitly or explicitly signal that research in this area cannot be enclosed within narrow intellectual categories. Debate and discussion are, rather, to be located more dialectically in tensions that are inbuilt, as it were, in some of its organizing tropes today.

To identify these, we might start with a recent statement: “Ethnomusicological Responses to the Contemporary Dynamics of Migrants and Refugees” (Rasmussen et al. 2019). Unlike the edited volumes and special issue mentioned, which explore rather specific themes, this multi-authored “Call and Response” derives from a Society for Ethnomusicology Presidential Roundtable and has a conversational and open-ended tone.18 The contributors are united, though, in their sense of crisis: one that is defined in terms of lethal new alignments of imperialism, militarism, extractivism, and neoliberalism. All are clear, too, that this crisis has hugely complicated their professional lives. Their university-based ensembles now routinely necessitate regular contact with migrants and refugees. They find themselves involved in more regular, but also more difficult, interactions with state and municipality integration initiatives. They note a significant increase in invitations to translate, mediate, curate, participate in juries, and act as a gatekeeper in the ever-proliferating cultural spaces between migrants and refugees, the state, and corporate bodies. And all of the contributors speak eloquently about the ways in which the situation has ramped up the ethical stakes of academic life and writing. But they welcome these pressures and are emphatic that their ethnomusicological training—“a primary training in sound, attunement and listening,” as contributor Denise Gill puts it in the piece (Rasmussen et al. 2019, 303)—is indispensable and a vital guide to action, as well as compassion, in the present.

All contributors to the “Call and Response” link the migrant and refugee crisis to a crisis of theoretical language in ethnomusicology. Ethnomusicologist and performer Ozan Aksoy argues that an “ethnomusicology of nation” urgently needs to give way to an “ethnomusicology of migration” (2019, 280). Ethnomusicologist Angela Impey points to the gap between academic language and that of development and aid organizations. For the latter, ethnomusicological lines of inquiry can seem utterly irrelevant, or worse. Among the predominantly Dinka refugees with whom she worked in Southern Sudan, however, music was clearly where attitudes of “receptivity, respect, empathy, and self-awareness” were cultivated, attitudes they themselves considered “a necessary precondition for reconciliation” (2019, 288). Working from a more philosophical perspective, ethnomusicologist Michael Frishkopf is concerned with the gap between what he describes (following Habermas and others) as “system world” language (associated with the dehumanization and instrumentalization of the human subject) and “lifeworld” language (associated with human connectivity, interaction, and bonding). All suggest that academic language has its problems; the biggest of them is its lack of effectiveness, its growing helplessness when confronted by the magnitude of the disaster, and its distance from the practical work that must, somehow, be done.

Reflecting on participation in the sonic and tactile ritual activities (“deathwork”; Rasmussen et al. 2019, 299) that give unknown migrants and refugees in Turkey a proper Muslim burial, Gill goes further. Like Aksoy, she observes that “we are in the midst of experiencing the dissolution of particular certitudes that the terms ‘community,’ ‘tradition,’ and ‘nation-state’ once ostensibly offered us” (Rasmussen et al. 2019, 303). But she includes human life itself among these certitudes. For once we attempt to include in our analyses the anonymous dead washed up on the shores of the Aegean as human actors and not just as objects of emotional and manipulative imagery or as the signs of bare life onto which the state projects its power, we quickly find ourselves confronting the foundational lines habitually drawn by the humanities and social sciences between culture and nature, human and nonhuman, life and death.

The “Call and Response” discussion suggests that anxieties about what our words might achieve have focused other kinds of energy, other modes of response and engagement. In one way or another, all the contributors make the point that as musicians we know something about listening, empathizing, communicating, and organizing around music, often with complete strangers, and that, as scholars, we know something about reflexivity, about how to simultaneously participate and observe. This pushes many into what we might label experimental spaces of engagement and activism. The contributors imply that these are often accidentally found, a matter of determining obvious but perhaps unanticipated ways of making oneself useful among people in dire need. Rachel Beckles Willson’s provision of temporary musical infrastructures with African refugees in Sicily (2013) and Gill’s assumption of ritual responsibilities for the refugee dead in Turkish Aegean towns (Rasmussen et al. 2019) stand out as examples of how and when it might be necessary to put (academic) words and research agendas to one side and let the situation dictate a productive and helpful course of action.

In sum, earlier work on music and migration initially developed organically within paradigms of cultural change rooted in modernization theory and an anthropological vision of discrete societies with self-contained cultures, and within earlier debates about race and ethnicity in the United States. In tune with such paradigms, many studies focused on the unidirectional movement of people and their music between or within individual nation-states, with a focus on matters of integration and civil rights. The refugee movements associated with the wars in South East Asia and Afghanistan disrupted this picture in the late 1970s. Ethnomusicologists were now obliged to reckon with the effects of war, trauma, and survival, and the global dispersal of refugees. Theorizations of diaspora, emerging later in conjunction with postcolonial studies, provided a common interdisciplinary vocabulary for thinking about forced movement and circulation which stressed historically-rooted global power imbalances. This also drew on emerging debates about race, globalization, and the city. The edited collections and special issues on music and migration mentioned earlier reflect a thoughtful consolidation of these various different paradigms over the last ten years or so.

As we have seen, the status of the current migrant crisis as crisis is a complex, multidimensional topic. Most scholars agree that the migrant crisis is political in the sense that population movements resulting in incalculable human suffering are a consequence of war on people and environments. Crises mark the moments when the powerful feel their interests and security are threatened, and their declaration normalizes underlying and usually invisible structures of exploitation and violence. A question lingers, however. Does 2015 and its migrant crisis in Europe mark some kind of tipping point, with ethical and epistemological consequences that are now inescapable and irreversible? Or does it suggest exactly the opposite: a moment in which it might be more useful to stress connections and continuities with earlier lines of thinking?

In the remainder of this article, I will discuss three emerging topics in the study of music and migration that might help us return to these questions more productively. The first concerns creativity. Migration has habitually been associated with creativity, which is a relic of European romanticism’s fascination with the figure of the gypsy. This fact, alone, makes creativity a problematic term19 and raises an important question: is our task as music scholars to engage with (in the sense of interpret, critique, celebrate, contextualize) the exemplary work of migrants who have created and innovated, however these two terms are to be defined? Or is our task to focus on music’s work in scenes of everyday survival?

A second concerns the question of the human agent. Are we to see the (music-making) human agent in situations of migration as somehow central or as just one of an array of mobilities and motilities, and perhaps not a central one?

A third concerns the nature of participation. If migrant music-making makes less sense in terms of constructing identities, with all of the closure and boundedness of community that this implies, what other models of participation are in play? Does the current turn to citizenship resolve these difficulties, or complicate them further? The following sections outline, in more detail, some responses to these questions in the recent literature.


In a recent keynote, anthropologist Hélène Neveu-Kringelbach (2013) described some facets of her work on Senegalese migrants and African dance scenes in Europe and asked the question: “Does migration necessarily foster creativity in the performing arts?…Or do we need to reconceptualize the relationship between creativity and movement altogether?”20 Her questions were primarily about the distribution of creativity: who, in a given situation, is deemed to have it and who is not. Underlying these questions is the elusive nature of creativity itself. What, exactly, is it that is deemed to separate creativity from other forms of cultural transmission? The creativity of migrant culture—perhaps as a reaction to lingering ideas about movement as cultural loss or degeneration—is still very often unquestioned as a starting point.

Sociologist Marco Martiniello’s contribution to an important collection on music and political mobilization among second- and third-generation European immigrant communities (Kasinitz and Martiniello 2019) engages the question from a political angle (Martiniello 2019). His single-authored article concerns a collective called Organisation hors du Kommun(OHK; translated as “Uncommon Organization”) originating in La Préalle, a working-class district of Liège in Belgium. Liège, he notes, is a “super-diverse city in which more than 140 nationalities are represented” (Martiniello 2019, 1004) and in which immigrants are routinely blamed and scapegoated. OHK’s members came together in 2006 in the hip hop workshops subsidized by Belgian federal urban policy in which rap and hip hop were imagined to have a role to play in “pacifying” local youth. Two members of the group, Illicite (a young Italian-Belgian rapper) and Mujahid (a young Turkish-Belgian rapper), decided to stand for local elections in the city of Herstal in October 2012 for the Partie de Travail de Belgique (PTB). Their campaign was not, in the event, successful. Martiniello discusses the use of a hip hop clip in their election campaign and reflects, in conclusion, on the challenges this poses to thinking about the arts and migrant politics.

Martiniello (2019) argues that under particular circumstances, the popular arts in general and music in particular can serve as a vehicle for political mobilization among second- and third-generation immigrants. Music is relatively cheap, and it can transcend ethnicity and identity politics. Martiniello warns, however, against exaggerating the political dimension of rap and hip hop, particularly in migrant communities. Popular music serves other purposes, after all: “[S]eeing humans as homo politicus by essence is as simplistic as considering them homo oeconomicus as the rational-choice theorists do” (Martiniello 2019, 995). He shows how important it is to understand the specific and local conditions that shape migrant politics and connect them to particular domains of popular culture. The politics in question here are intersectional, in the sense of bringing together people variously othered in Belgian society by race, gender, religion, and class.

The politics in question also encompass a kind of entrepreneurialism, a bricolage-type of creativity, in finding means of expression that can bridge intersectional divides and forge spaces of common feeling—a theme evident in many of the contributions to this collection.21 Second- and third-generation migrants are often free from pressures to either maintain their home culture or assimilate that often afflict first-generation migrants.22 Popular music, which “doesn’t respect borders or stick to racial categories” (Kasinitz and Martiniello 2019, 857, citing author and journalist Moises Velasquez-Manoff), permits ways of reimagining community, and art is a domain in which innovation is valued. Sociologically speaking, migrants therefore have a certain advantage in the creativity stakes (Kasinitz and Martiniello 2019).

A recent article by anthropologist and documentary filmmaker Alice Aterianus-Owanga (2019b) shows that these advantages have limits and are not always evenly distributed within migrant communities. She looks at the uptake of West African dance practices (specifically Senegalese sabar) in the West, and discusses the impact this has had on dance scenes back in West Africa. One has to attend carefully, she insists, to who moves and who gets left behind, to the ways in which age, gender, and sexuality confer and limit creative opportunities. Sabar is a largely female practice in Senegal, with both ritual and recreational elements. It began to attract the interest of female tourists from Europe in the 1980s, an interest that, in some cases, has been very long-lasting. This has both transformed the dance practice in Senegal and contributed to the significant growth of pan-African dance teaching and display in Europe. Europeans have the dominant position of economic power, and the mobility; in contrast, Senegalese dancers have the dominant symbolic capital as what she calls the “converters” (Aterianus-Owanga 2019b, 358). Gendered asymmetries are particularly significant, she shows. Tourist women marry Senegalese dance instructors, who return with them to Europe to teach sabar, an option not available to the Senegalese women. Men, as a consequence, have moved from the periphery of sabar to the center, and the dance practice itself has become correspondingly more public. In the public sphere, in public displays and performances, the Wolof ethnic group elements of the dance have become more pronounced and performances are oriented toward pan-African, global dance practices.23 One could talk about the migrant creativities involved in transforming sabar for a transnational market, but this would downplay or ignore the question of who is in a position to exploit the opportunities available, and who is not. Such asymmetries are the key to the contemporary transformation of the dance practice.

Martiniello and Aterianus-Owanga approach the question of creativity cautiously and critically, avoiding value judgments or, indeed, recourse to any kind of hermeneutics about what has been created (whether it is good to listen to or watch, or if it is “successful” or not).24 They focus on artistic practices that thrive in migrant communities and diasporas, the processes of circulation that link them with others as well as with their homelands. Martiniello, Aterianus-Owanga, and many others show these circulations widen the margins for innovation, exploration, critique, reflexivity, and the stimulation of debate and discussion.

At the same time, these circulations limit the opportunities available to locally-situated cultural or religious legislators to censor or to silence in other ways. The case of Tehrangelese culture (the diasporic culture of Iranians in Los Angeles), which is remote from their home country’s censorship regime, is particularly interesting in this regard (see Hemmasi 2020). Here, the scholarly eye is drawn to the innovators and the entrepreneurs, those who have crossed boundaries, mixed and matched, translated and adapted, whose work has suddenly become visible or audible because it made the journey from private, community spaces to a broader public. If individual art works, recordings, or performances are not typically judged, in a conventional aesthetic sense, a general tone of approval concerning migrant creativity is distinctly, and understandably, discernible. We have a moral as well as scholarly responsibility to show that what the host society habitually dismisses as the noise and smell of immigrant neighborhoods is, in fact, culture and creativity (Gross, McMurray, and Swedenburg 1996).

This kind of language about migrant creativity is in tension, though, with a more recent preoccupation with music as survival. The focus here is on music as a resource for emotional solidarity in communities that have been subjected to extremes of violence and for the narrative coherence of traumatized selves. Ethnomusicologist Joshua Pilzer looked at music in the lives of the Korean women who were subjected to sexual slavery in Japanese military camps and are now living out their old age, often in a glare of publicity, in a government-run community in Korea called the House of Sharing (Pilzer 2012, 2015). All had been forced to travel around the outer peripheries of Japan’s wartime empire, under the most brutal imaginable of circumstances. Three elderly women—Pak Duri, Mun Pilgi, and Bae Chunhui—weave a cosmopolitan repertory of songs into their everyday lives and conversations in the House of Sharing, songs they had originally learned to entertain Japanese soldiers. Pilzer shows how these micro-performances sustain their collective lives and solidarities, animate the protest movements with which they are intermittently associated, and, more elusively, provide each other with threads of narrative and emotional coherence as they learn to live in old age with their experiences. To talk, as Pilzer does, about survivors and survival is a way of treating people as agents rather than as victims, as human beings rather than mute pawns in the ongoing struggles between Japan and Korea over the legacy of the war. It is also to represent creativity in a rather particular way: not as the entrepreneurial crossing of lines others have drawn but as a collective exercise in finding a way to live within them, as a way to talk about the use of music to “fill out and fill in” such everyday spaces, to borrow music sociologist Tia DeNora’s luminous phrase (DeNora 2000, 74).25


An agenda-setting volume, Jason Stanyek and Sumanth Gopinath’s Oxford Handbook of Mobile Music Studies (2012) reconfigures music study in the burgeoning field of mobility studies (see also Urry 2007). Over the course of its 545 pages, the volume explores mobile music technologies from the transistor onwards and from Japan to the United States (via Brazil, Mexico, and India). Its human subjects range from schoolchildren to the military, but it dwells for the most part on hi-tech consumers in the developed economies. None of the contributions explicitly thematize migration, and neither the words migration or refugee appear in the index.26 The theoretical underpinnings of the volume—Latourian actor-network theory, cyborg and posthuman theory, soundscapes and the material turn—push the concept of mobility in rather different directions. The implication is that the human dimension is only one of many to be taken into account when explaining music’s mediations and circulations. The human being is no longer necessarily the measure of it.

These theoretical commitments give rise to a distinction between mobility and motility. If the mobility turn has sought to broaden and pluralize our conception of what moves and why it moves, motility, by contrast, is to be understood as “the capacity of a person to be mobile, or more precisely, as the way in which an individual appropriates what is possible in the domain of mobility and puts this potential to use for his or her activities” (Kaufmann 2002, 37). The distinction is central to ReinhardStrohm’s 2019 edited book The Music Road, which looks at the movement of music along the Silk Road. In his introduction to the volume, Strohm locates musical movement alongside the movement of a wide array of materials, people, and ideas (“silks, spices, stringed instruments, paper, philosophies, religions and armies”; Strohm, 2019, 5), noting that it is often hard to identify what exactly it is that migrates in transfers of music: people, sound, musical instruments? The Silk Road poses particular challenges in this regard. It is ideologically burdened (signifying, as it once did, the projection of European power eastwards and, today, of Chinese power westwards),27 but it also suggests for Strohm some refreshing lines of inquiry. It suggests, for example, adding other vectors of mobility such as nomadism and sedentarization to a repertoire of thinking about musical movement, which has traditionally privileged migration and diaspora. Motility, with its stress on the human actors and the choices available to them, brings such alternatives into focus.

If migration and diaspora have historically tended to work across Asia on an east-west axis from imperial city to imperial city, nomadism and sedentarization have tended to work multi-directionally along more complex axes. The flow of people between nomadic and sedentary ways of life have involved well-studied transfers, over considerable periods of time, between the mimetic, polyphonic, timbre-rich, shamanic aesthetic among (Turkic) nomads in the north and urban centers both to the south (the Persianate world) and to the east (China, and subsequently Japan). Musical, literary, and artistic practices along these axes, then, tend to bear the marks of both. The inclusion of a nomadization/sedentarization axis in thinking about musical motility can tell us something not only about the well-established musical traditions of the Silk Road, such as Uzbek and Tajik shashmaqom, but also about trans-Eurasian music histories, including those of Western Art Music.28 The term motility, then, enables Strohm simultaneously to locate music in a broad array of mobilities, and also to stress specific and local human and cultural agencies “appropriating what is possiblee…and put[ting] this potential to use” (Kaufmann 2002, 37). Strohm’s Music Road (2019) is, then, a series of loosely concatenated musical motilities, bound together primarily by the efforts, energies, and imaginations of the human actors who traversed it.

We are potentially left with a choice between dissolving the human actor into a broader space of mediation (material, cyborgian, posthuman) and recentering the human agent. But we are not obliged to see this as a dichotomy, as the recent literature on multiplicity implies (Ochoa Gautier 2016). The lines that Western thinking has historically drawn between body and technology, nature and culture, life and death are, in the definition of persons and selves, porous and negotiable. Ethnography might find other starting points. Angela Impey’s recent study of song walking among a border-crossing community in East Africa (Impey 2018) is an example of just how this might work.

Impey’s book is about the inhabitants of the Mozambique-South Africa borderlands, where Swazi, Zulu, Shangane, and Thonga speakers have been pushed together, long living very marginal lives. This marginality originally had to do with the pressures of the trade in slaves and metal, and in competing British and Portuguese colonial projects. Colonial and apartheid regimes in South Africa later devoted considerable efforts to controlling water, cultivating cotton, eliminating rinderpest and tsetse fly, and safeguarding migration routes for wildlife (primarily hippos and antelopes). As far as the authorities were concerned the local inhabitants were at best an irrelevance, and more often an irritant. In the 1960s, pressures on these local inhabitants intensified. The Lesotho-South Africa border hardened in South Africa’s efforts to track down African National Congress (ANC) activists. The Ndumu Wildlife Park—which later developed into a trans-frontier eco-reserve—drew even more lines across the landscape, separating fields, water sources, and ritual sites that, from a local point of view, should be kept together. Promises of jobs for locals in ecotourism quickly evaporated. Gold mining corporations, meanwhile, targeted local young men as a source of cheap labor, exploiting their desperate need for cash to buy the cattle necessary for bride price (lobela). Men returned from the mines to their villages having spent their money in the cities, often incapacitated by AIDS. Traditional culture withered.

The women left behind were able to mobilize and cooperate, however, as Impey (2018) shows. If men inherited cattle (for bride price), women inherited fields. This provided the basis on which they could farm cooperatively, trade their produce across the border, and brew beer from sugarcane together. They managed well, Impey suggests, if now at something of a loss as to how to contest the lines that others had drawn across their landscape. An experimental effort on Impey’s part to reintroduce a local Jew’s harp (amaculo manihama/isitweletwele) had unexpected effects. It was played by women rather than men and traditionally to accompany walking. The conjoined act of walking and playing would generate elliptical reflections on sex, womanhood, prostitution, and alcohol. The uptake on Impey’s experiment was slow and a bit sceptical, but before long women were playing and singing as they walked. Bit by bit, they recalled the local song traditions, remembering as they did hitherto forgotten stories about their landscape: their fields and homesteads, the cross-border stores in which they traded, and their ritual sites.

Impey shows how we might situate human agents in fields shaped by the mobility and motility of other, nonhuman, actors.29 The sounds and cultural meanings of the amaculo manihama/isitweletwele are sounds we could now, conceivably, imagine from the perspective of hippopotamus or antelope, rinderpest or tsetse fly. And she describes an instrument with its own complex agencies. The Jew’s harp quite literally set people in motion, not only in the sense of walking but also in the sense of generating imaginative lines into the community’s past and future.

The instrument had long been attributed in these borderlands with certain agencies by virtue of being made of metal, a mobile substance. As well as being valued for its sonic properties, it also used to be an ornament, worn around young women’s necks. Impey shows, though, how it impelled things in her fieldwork in more modern senses. In mobilizing self-reflection among these women on what they had lost and what they still shared, these songs “offered pathways towards a more bearable citizenship” (Impey 2018, 26).


Identity is, these days, firmly construed as a problem—a lure that ethnomusicologists must resist (Sykes 2018). Signs of musical identity are underpinned by colonial racial ideologies, authoritarian and bureaucratic mindsets within the nation-state, and commodities for sale in the global cultural marketplace. But they also organize strategic, intersectional mobilizations of community around rather specific struggles for social and political justice. Clearly, they need to be read carefully. An indication of the caution with which such signs are now read is to be found in the shift in music studies from identity to citizenship.30

Citizenship studies have tended to speak to an anxiety about globalization theory and return us almost inevitably to questions about cultural rights and responsibilities within the nation-state. The problems this raises for thinking about migrants and refugees, whose rights and responsibilities reach far beyond, are obvious.31 But citizenship studies, as understood today in anthropology and elsewhere, have the advantage of replacing a rather static concept of political participation within nation-state borders with a more dynamic concept of bordering: the process of deciding where, how, and through what symbolic processes and activities certain categories of people are legally, politically, and culturally included or excluded (see Western’s contribution in Scheding et al. 2018). Bordering takes place with a certain intensity around nation-state borders but also deep within them and far beyond them.

In theoretical terms, we might understand this as a way of talking about the familiar anthropological problem of identity but without the necessity or inevitability of construing political community in opposition to others or outsiders.32 Bordering, in the context of citizenship, takes place primarily around the question of rights and duties, and of who is to be included and who is to be excluded in them. Such is the Ancient Greek and Roman political and philosophical baggage of the term. The newer trends within citizenship studies, however, recognize that such questions are negotiated from below as well as above, and that they involve signs and symbols, senses and emotions, as well as the legal and administrative categories of the nation-state (Trnka, Dureau, and Park 2013).

Music has a status in Western society as a sign of citizenly belonging, as well as a token of difference. One might date this back to the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris, the first, as Jann Pasler shows, to link the exhibiting of the world’s music to the cultivation of citizenly virtues (Pasler 2009). Music taught the recognition and respect of difference, the exercise of judgment, and the commitment to artistic as well as other kinds of progress. At the Exposition Universelle it was taken for granted that leadership of this progress should be in Western hands. That assumption persists, of course. Think for a moment about the rather different context of Western philanthropic support for music NGOs in Israel/Palestine in recent decades. Funding for such support is dependent upon commitments to peace and artistic exchange—global cultural citizenship if you will‚—to which Palestinian recipients must agree. Exchange in this context has meant that Western classical music has risen up the agenda of these organizations, and that the teaching of traditional Palestinian song (heavily politicized during the intifada) has declined (Beckles Willson 2013; Strohm and el-Ghadban 2013). Or think about the remarkable global spread of projects modeled on Venezuelan music educator José Antonio Abreu’s El Sistema and the Simon Bolivar Orchestra that grew out of it. When Abreu said, “music has to be recognized as an agent of social development in the highest sense because it transmits the highest values—solidarity, harmony, mutual compassion,”33 he meant Western classical music, not rap, hip hop, Venezuelan folk music, or anything else. And he implied that the lessons that Western classical music‚—supposedly uniquely—teaches concerning “solidarity, harmony and musical compassion” provide an answer to the problem of the vast and growing gap between rich and poor in countries like Venezuela.34

Kasinitz and Martiniello’s study of urban music and migration, discussed above, shows how “popular music can become a means of communication and dialogue between different groups to build some form of shared local citizenship” (Kasinitz and Martiniello 2019, 860). Local government has rarely been oblivious to this. Government initiatives promoting rap and hip hop as means of integrating immigrant youth and taking them off the streets go back to the time of Jack Lang, France’s culture minister in the 1980s (Gross, Swedenburg, and McMurray 1996). Discussing the formation of perke, which is a hybrid of immigrant (mainly Farsi and Turkish) languages and Danish in rap and hip hop in Denmark, ethnomusicologist Kristine Ringsager observes how quickly the ethnographer can get implicated in these initiatives as experts and, in her case, as a trained vocalist (Ringsager 2017). Associated as it is with inequality within the nation-state, and a poetics of wordplay and stylistic “disjuncture” (Schloss 2004, 33), hip hop has forged affective bonds of demonstrable strength. These have been turned, swiftly and effectively, in the direction of broader struggles over citizenship among immigrant groups and other displaced communities. A great many have contributed to this conversation.

Ilana Webster-Kogen’s account of the song “Ma Im Hakesef” by the Ethiopian-Israeli rapper Dejen Manchlot is of particular significance in this discussion, partly for the way it locates rap and hip hop in a much broader soundscape but also for the way it negotiates the complex tensions between identity and citizenship (Webster-Kogen 2019). In the Israeli context, Ethiopianness is a fraught category with regard to both. Those who claimed Jewish roots in Ethiopia (i.e., Beta Israel) once lived mainly as smiths, potters, and iron workers. A major wave of immigration to Israel took place in the mid-1980s following the dramatic air lifting of refugees from the Sudanese border by the Israeli Air Force. In Israel, the Etyopim (the term applied by Israelis to the Beta Israel) immediately provoked broad debate about whether they really were Jews. They have continued to be conspicuously marginalized in Israel. Webster-Kogen attributes this to inflexible top-down conceptions of integration, the decline of traditional routes to Israeli citizenship (primarily military and labor), and diminishing state support for groups pushed to the social and economic margins. There is a significant measure of racism too, she notes.

These factors have stimulated a variety of musical engagements with Blackness and Africanicity among Ethiopian-Israelis, which Webster-Kogen distinguishes as Ethiopianist, Afrodiasporic, and Zionist. The first is exemplified by nostalgic re-packaging of Ethiopian culture in bars and restaurants, involving traditional instruments such as krar, traditional dances such as eskesta, and the use of the Ethiopian musical modes (qingit). The second, exemplified by singer Ester Rada, involves singing in English and the development of “a composite Afrodiasporic style comprising soul, reggae, jazz, gospel, and Ethio-jazz” (Webster-Kogen 2019, 19). This has proved to be an effective response to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, which has increasingly inhibited the movement of Israeli artists on the world stage. It has also asserted the value for Ethiopians of looking to the African diaspora as a model of citizenly rights, social justice, and mobility within the Israeli context. The third, exemplified by the Idan Rachel Project, locates Ethiopian sounds within an Israeli melting pot ideology, reaching out and integrating musicians from various different immigrant backgrounds within Israel and beyond.35

Weaving between and strategically blending these options, Ethiopian musicians, she argues, “navigate their uncertain status in Israeli society through sound with an effectiveness notably lacking in political organisation and community work” (Webster-Kogen 2018, 8). They inherit an older aesthetics, referred to in Ethiopia as “wax and gold,” which is to say, the ability to conceal stinging critique with flattery, rooted in the art of the Ethiopian praise-singer, the Azmari (2019, 30). Azmari citizenship is a matter, then, of locating the work of these musicians—their singing, playing, and dancing—in both national and global struggles for rights and justice.

Considering this work, we can see that the turn to citizenship in studies of migration and diaspora does not entirely supersede an older interest in identity. In many ways, it extends it. Anthropological and ethnomusicological treatments of ethnicity and identity have, after all, gone to lengths to show that ethnic boundaries are multiple, overlapping, and contextual, and that they are invariably complex spaces of cultural transfer and meaning-making. The new questions about citizenship have, however, significantly sharpened the focus on politics and participation, both within and beyond the nation-state. They have also reminded us that citizenship now constitutes one of the harsher forms of exclusion and marginalization within the modern nation-states of the global north. Music becomes a part of broader discussions about citizenship when those who experience this exclusion and marginalization use it to assert the right to belong and to participate. In Western culture, it has been granted this particular power. But in many others, too, music is associated with the capacity to cross boundaries, to mobilize and connect, to seek justice and means of participation.


The study of migrancy has a long history in music research. The current sense of crisis calls out for a broader contextualization than the current review of this literature can offer. For a while, the study of migrant culture sat comfortably with a culture concept emphasizing boundedness and stasis, figured as it was as transitional, adaptive, or evidence of modernization or Westernization. An orientation toward hybridity in the 1980s began to shake some of these certainties, even as it kept others (the normative framework of the nation-state) in place. Work on refugees and diasporas at around the same time departed from the older certainties more radically, I have suggested. The current moment is one in which the final vestiges of language about migrant culture as adaptive have been swept away and in which the nativist evocation of a migrant crisis at our gates has posed unsettling challenges. The crisis, real or manufactured, has clearly sharpened and made more visible tensions in the recent academic literature between emphasizing migrant creativity and survival, mobility and motility, identity and citizenship. Arguably, such tensions have been latent for many years in how we study music in situations of migrancy. One hopes they will continue to propel our discussions forward, since it is clear that the challenges are only set to rise.


I am happy to have had the opportunity to air parts of this article in conferences and collo quia at the University of Lausanne, Monash University, Uppsala University, the University of Cologne, and the University of Würzburg. I would like to thank Monika Salzbrunn, Margaret Kartomi, Lars Berglund, Eckehard Pistrick, and Juniper Hill, respectively, for those invitations; the discussions that followed were extremely productive. Conversations led by Denis Laborde in recent years within the GDRI (MIAMI) Research Network at Bayonne have been crucial to whatever sense of an overview of this huge topic I have been able to muster. The article was written during the course of a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship (2019–2022); it benefits from reflections deriving from that project, as well as the time it has made available. I am grateful to the two anonymous reviewers for many helpful suggestions. I would also like to thank Annabelle Wilkins, Eckehard Pistrick, and Gavin Williams for conversations that significantly shaped this article and its bibliography.

1 The literature discussed in this particular article comes primarily from the disciplines of ethnomusicology, anthropology, sociology, and the historical study of Western art music. I make some mention of jazz studies, media and communication studies, literary studies, and race and indigenous studies, particularly where those fields have touched on, or at least come close to, ethnomusicology (e.g., Plastino and Bohlman 2016; Kosnick 2007; Diamond, Szego, and Sparling 2012; Gilroy 1993). An article with a different disciplinary focus may, of course, have given a fuller representation of works from these fields. The process of writing and reviewing also meant encounters too late in the day with books I would have wanted to engage. Wills (2017) and Weber (2018), for instance, indicate the sophisticated, interdisciplinary ways in which literary historians have discussed the question of music and migration. Regarding philosophy and critical theory, disciplines also underrepresented here, I mention here Chambers (2008), which is highly relevant to many of the themes I develop in this article. The endnotes acknowledge at least some of the gaps, but closing them is, of course, impossible.

2 Obviously, there are now, and have been in the past, large population movements elsewhere that have been invisible to the global north, ones that might equally or with even more justification be labelled crises. In a recent book, Jacqueline Bhabha highlights the historical and geographic limitations of western European and North American framings of the current “migrant crisis” (Bhabha 2018). As she points out, unplanned movements of populations across borders were generally considered a benefit rather than a problem until the end of the nineteenth century. Slavery and indentured labor, after all, had been central to the emergence of the industrial powers. She also argues that migration must always be considered historically in terms of colonization, the forced recruitment of labor within or beyond the borders of specific nation-states, the reverse migrations of formerly colonized people, and what she labels “distress migration” (Bhabha 2018, 63; see also n14). A capacious historical perspective, she argues, helps in defusing the language of crisis, identifying what is driving it politically, considering what it hides from sight as well as makes visible, and imagining solutions. It also helps us remember that other ongoing situations of displacement and deterritorialization (e.g., those affecting Indigenous people across much of the planet) remain resolutely invisible, at least to the global north.

3 The Schengen zone was established in 1985 to allow free movement without border checks between five of the then ten European Community states. Now it applies to 26 European countries, excluding Ireland and the UK, and including some non-EU states such as Switzerland. (For current information, see Schengenvisinfo 2020.)

4 One of its demonstrable effects was on the United Kingdom’s narrow referendum decision to leave the European Union (EU) in 2016. The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP, the principal voice in the argument to leave the EU) produced a notorious poster with pictures of lines of refugees in Central Europe taken earlier that year and the caption “Breaking Point.” The racism and the resonance with Nazi propaganda films were quickly called out, but the poster ensured that Brexit quickly became a vote about immigration (see Stewart and Mason 2016).

5 Large numbers were returned to Turkey as a result of a deal with the EU in 2016. They joined the countless young men, mainly Syrian, who at the time of writing are an almost permanent (and audible) feature of the downtown streets and squares of Turkish cities. The exact figure is hard to establish given longstanding patterns of informal movement across the border, but the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) is currently providing the figure of 3.7 million (Operation Portal Refugee Situation 2020). On Syrian musicians in transit in Turkey, see Öğut (2015) and Shannon (2019).

6 Trilling’s (2019) article benefits from being read alongside Ahmed (2004) and Boltanski (1999). Ahmed shows how compassion often works to deny historical and political relationships with (and thus responsibilities for) those to whom it is extended. Boltanski offers a more philosophical meditation on the problems of distant suffering, bringing Adam Smith’s ironic observation about the limits of compassion for an imagined ‘Chinese earthquake’ (distant, and thus purportedly morally irrelevant) to bear on the construction of compassion in modern media. It is highly relevant to the question of how contemporary news media construct the current migrant and refugee crisis. For a related and much-cited anthropological critique of humanitarianism in refugee aid programs, see Harrell-Bond (1986).

7 An excellent example of the multicultural migrant sublime would be the playful Persian miniature-style evocations of Sikh-British cultural co-habitation made by the artists known as the Singh Twins. An example is on display at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in a room devoted to the immigrant contribution to Scottish culture. It shows, among much humorous detail, Guru Nanak and Robert the Bruce sharing a meal in an Indian restaurant, kilt-wearing Sikh bagpipe bands, and turbaned young men pasting an image of Mel Gibson as Braveheart onto a red brick wall, all watched in amusement by their shaven-headed, white counterparts. On the Singh Twins, see their official website (The Singh Twins n.d.).

8 It might be noted that questions about migration and music, which would now be highlighted in article titles or the titles of encyclopedia entries, were usually located in these reviews in broader questions about globalization, diaspora, hybridity, world music, and so forth. The Continuum Encyclopedia of Popular Musics of the World does contain a short article on migration, but it is almost exclusively concerned with North America (Oliver, Johnson, and Horn 2003).

9 The proportion was, of course, much higher in New York, where most immigrants settled. For broader contextualization, see Spottswood (1982, 1990). The statistics mentioned in this paragraph come from Spottswood (1982).

10 The West’s modernity also rests on the displacement and deterritorialization of Indigenous populations. This is a category of mobility that should not, of course, be treated separately, though it often is. The categories mentioned above of race, globalization, and city, which transformed the field of migrant music studies two or three decades ago, could also connect the fields of migration and Indigenous music study. Global histories of slavery, as noted here, are currently configured, experienced, and shared through the lens of Blackness (reggae, rap, and hip hop), for instance. Global histories of Indigeneity, which address populations uprooted from ancestral lands or simply destroyed upon them, might well be configured, experienced, and shared globally through the lens of country. The putative whiteness of some of the countries in which this took place makes taking this perspective a complex proposition but one that seems to be strongly suggested by some recent studies (see, e.g., Dueck 2013). Such a discussion would benefit from being located on the useful theoretical terrain of “Indigenous modernities” (Diamond, Szego, and Sparling 2012, 1).

11An earlier context for this was the jazz diplomacy (US State Department-sponsored tours by jazz musicians) that accompanied the projection of US soft power across its Cold War zones of influence (see Jankowsky 2016). For a global picture of jazz that is attuned to questions of mobility, and of broader musical conversations across the global African diaspora, see Plastino and Bohlman (2016).

12 For an influential and much-criticized example of modernization theory, see Lerner (1958).

13 Slobin’s more recent study of Detroit (Slobin 2018) brings this call to understand and theorize multiple migrations in a particular locale to fruit in a fine-grained, social-historical urban ethnography.

14Jacqueline Bhabha discusses the emergence of the category of refugee as a legal concept in the periods immediately before and after the Second World War, the declarations of emergency and crisis that have subsequently been deployed to limit its provisions and responsibilities, and the emergence of a language of economic migrancy to distinguish between desirable and undesirable immigration in the global centers of wealth and power. Noting how easy it is for people in situations of desperate need to be denied refugee status, her preferred term in discussing the current migrant crisis is “stress migration,” an expression she carefully distinguishes from others. She describes stress migration as a response to “desperation, vulnerability and need.” Bhabha considers it a more capacious term than the legally-limiting term refugee because it is more attentive to the broad circumstances that produce migration globally: “life-threatening conflict, indefinite economic misery, devastating climate change, lack of opportunity, [and] persistent exposure to violence” (Bhabha 2018, 65). Whether or not one chooses to use this particular term, her analysis of the history and political stakes of the alternatives is a useful one.

15 Giorgio Agamben’s well-known argument about homo sacer is diametrically opposed to this view (Agamben 1998). According to him, biopolitics in the modern state reintegrates zoē (bare life) and bios (political life), which were deemed separate and separable for the Ancient Greeks, but it does so at a tremendous cost. By staging the reduction of certain categories of humanity to bare life, deprived of any kind of political or legal framework for existence beyond camps (internment, concentration, refugee), the state displays the conditions of its sovereignty. It is only when the powerless, those assigned to the camps, can make an effective display of their own conditions of bare life (for instance, through hunger strikes) that the conditions of this sovereignty might be more broadly contested. A significant controversy over Agamben’s position lies in his suggestion that in this regard the (neo) liberal order is not fundamentally different from a totalitarian state. The possibilities of challenging it thus seem remote. Critiques often proceed via rereadings and rethinkings of Arendt in relation to Agamben. See, for instance, Owens (2009).

16 An important turning point in the discussion in anthropology, of significance to those in ethnomusicology in particular, was Cohen (1991).

17 Beyond ethnomusicology and anthropology, Barbara Harrell-Bond’s Imposing Aid is a central point of reference on the notions of research for refugees and research about refugees (Harrell-Bond 1986).

18 The decision by the Society for Ethnomusicology to invite Scheherezade Hassan to give its annual Seeger Lecture in 2017 was not coincidental (Hassan 2017). Speaking about the Baghdad Maqam tradition, Hassan provided a powerful reminder to the Society of the West’s deep complicity in the longstanding neo-colonial wars, the wanton environmental damage, the contempt of Indigenous heritage and culture, and the emergence of the failed states that drive the dispersal of populations, as well as the fragmentation of musical traditions and much else that we experience today as crisis. Also see Blum (2016).

19 For the most thorough critique of such myths and an exploration of how they still shape the world of Roma musicians (particularly in the World Music market), see Silverman (2011). It is not only the legacy of romanticism that makes the term creativity so problematic but also its association with neoliberal governmentality and with language used to shift certain key responsibilities for distribution and social justice from the state to the private individual. It underpins, as is well known, the emergent culture industries, which have connected a language of creativity to this withdrawal and to a redefinition of new citizenly responsibilities. The key study is Hesmondhalgh (2018). The term remains a notoriously complex one in critical thinking. My own usage reflects the anthropological use of the term, with an emphasis less on creation ex-nihilo and more on translation, resignification, bricolage, the latencies inherent in transmission systems, and distributed creativities, implying a focus on collectivities and sociability rather than isolated individuals. I do not pretend, however, that the term is unproblematic.

20 Her talk was delivered at a conference entitled Migrer par les arts: Repenser les im/mobilités au prisme de la musique et la danse (Migration through the arts: Rethinking im/mobilities through the prism of music and dance), which was held at the University of Lausanne in June of 2016.

21 For two discussions in this collection that focus on the intersectional politics of immigrant music making, see Aksoy (2019) on saz playing amongst Alevis in Germany and Mazzola (2019) on popular music and immigrant solidarities in Naples.

22 Bithell and Hill’s handbook suggests we need to also take into account the reverse side of this particular coin, which is that migrancy and diaspora also stimulate the revival of musical traditions, an area in which it is not always wise, or indeed possible, to distinguish popular from other kinds of music and in which the generational transmission logic is often extremely complex (see Hill and Bithell 2016).

23 Sabar, as Neveu-Kringelbach shows in her study of the genre in Senegal (Neveu-Kringelbach 2013), was traditionally a composite of various ethnic elements, and there was always a tendency for those associated with the main social group, the Wolof, to dominate. It is these elements, Alterianus-Owanga suggests, that have been amplified as the dance practice has travelled.

24 Mieke Bal’s work on migratory aesthetics has consistently redressed this balance. Social scientific language, whether in its own sphere or as appropriated in the humanities, has tended to reduce questions about aesthetics and artistic value in contexts of migrancy to questions about other things (race, gender, class, integration, policy, or the state). The challenge has been one of keeping a tokenistic multiculturalism at an arm’s length. Art itself can supply ways of understanding migration—if and when approached as art, if and when we allow ourselves to learn from it (see Bal and Hernández-Navarro 2011). We are now, very rightly, wary of what is involved in the instinctive but often reductive reach for context in our explanations of art or music. Two energetic efforts to reengage the question of aesthetics in eth-nomusicology are Pistrick (2015) and Steingo (2016). The former, looking at southern Albanian migration to Europe, does so with references to theorizations of emotion. The latter, looking at kwaito, a music associated with the forced mobility/immobility of Black South Africans, does so with reference to Marxian theorizations of aesthetics.

25 DeNora once described music as “… a material that actors use to elaborate, to fill out and to fill in, to them-selves and to others, modes of aesthetic agency, and, with it, subjective stances and identities” (DeNora 2000, 74).

26 This blind-spot is particularly striking because around this time the UNHCR had registered some 7.6 million forcibly displaced people across the world. Numbers alone do not, of course, make things more or less visible or relevant; theoretical interests do. The question of the visibility and invisibility of migrants and refugees according to changing political situations and changing research agendas is an explicit matter of concern in Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, Gil Loescher, Katy Long, and Nando Sigona’s extremely useful overview of the field of refugee and forced migration studies (Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, Loescher, Long and Sigona 2012).

27 The term The Silk Road was reputedly coined by Ferdinand von Richtofen in 1877 (Strohm 2019, 4); appropriations of the term in various artistic and musical projects (such as Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble) have, arguably, not shaken off the ideological baggage. For the Silk Road Ensemble’s official website, see Silkroad (n.d.).

28 On other parts of the Silk Road, see Levin (2010). The argument about understanding the nomadization-sedentarization vector had long been anticipated by Laurence Picken (1954). His account of the shift from Turkic polyphonic practices to urban monophonic practice in the Ottoman courts was intended to reframe a broader set of arguments about the emergence of polyphony from monophony in western Europe at about the same time.

29 See also Silver (2018) for another monograph very much in tune with the recent concern with multiplicities. The motility of human actors (rural-urban migrants) in the world of forró music from the Brazilian sertão is seen here in relation not only to drought and water politics early in the twentieth century but also to the carnauba tree and its role in the production of wax central to the emerging music industry.

30 A related idea can be found in Sarah Bakker Kellog’s recent arguments for using the metaphor of perforation to interpret the struggles for state recognition by Syriac Christians in Holland (Bakker Kellog 2019). She asks how a legible and effective solidarity at municipal levels, which is associated with the use of the term Suroyo to refer to Syriac Christians, becomes less legible and effective at higher levels of discussion within the state, which deals in the relatively inflexible and purportedly secular categories of afkomst (ethnic otherness) and verzuiling (categorization according to religious community). The more perforated an identity, the more it acknowledges the possibility of separation into religious and ethnic (or other) components, and the less legible it is, as far as the state’s operative categories of citizenship are concerned. Groups within this community are more or less perforated, with significant implications for their interactions with the state. Using this metaphor, Bakker Kellog shows how Suroyo liturgical music has a significant role to play in the local politics of identity (see also Bakker Kellog 2015).

31 See the notion of perforation (Bakker Kellog 2019), which is discussed in note 30. In the Netherlands, religious identity hugely complicates the claims for recognition that migrants and refugees can make, but this varies according to administrative level. Also worth mentioning here is the notion of intangible cultural heritage (ICH), which reckons exclusively with nation-states. Discourses of ICH developed by organizations like UNESCO typically assume that all nations actually have functioning states and that such heritage can be safely and unproblematically returned to such states when detached from and carried elsewhere by migrants and refugees. For an overview of ICH issues in East Asia, see Howard (2017). For a detailed case study of musical ICH complicating national borders, see Kuutma (2007).

32 The yearning for this has deep roots in European thoughts, as the philological excavations of Agamben’s The Coming Community testify (Agamben 1993).

33 The quote appears in various sources. See, for example, Sig Anderson Music Award Foundation (n.d.).

34 The claims of Abreu and the El Sistema system, and a more nuanced typology concerning what is mobilized, exported, and translated as it has spread around the world, are discussed and critiqued in Baker (2015).

35 This theme has been explored extensively in relation to Israeli pop by Regev and Seroussi (2004). Other contexts are described in Shelemay’s work on Ethiopian Jews (Shelemay 1994), and on Syrian Jews in Brooklyn (Shelemay 1998).

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