Sonia Seeman, associate professor of ethnomusicology, received a Fulbright Scholar grant to conduct research in Turkey for a book project. She plans to write about music as a form of labor, and will explore this issue through conducting research and supplementing already-collected materials on three Romani, or “Gypsy,” professional musician families. She has given three conference papers on different aspects of this topic at sites as diverse as Istanbul, Milton Keynes (outside of London) and Harvard, and looks forward to having the time to look more in-depth at these families’ complex histories.
Between teaching courses and traveling internationally, Seeman took a moment to answer some questions about this research and how the grant will support her goals.
What drew you to research these three families specifically?
It’s interesting that in ethnomusicology and anthropology, we work closely with particular individuals and their communities as resources for insights into larger social and cultural issues, but then neglect to explore the details of their lives as important in and of themselves. This may be due in large part to the influence of quantitative sociological models, and to the attempt in ethnomusicology to move away from individual "Great Men” narratives that have previously dominated the fields of music study. I have been a close friend with these family members since the initial period of my Ph.D. fieldwork in the 1990s—a period of large-scale economic and political changes in Turkey. A significant aspect of fieldwork in ethnomusicology is framed by what we call participant-observation, which works extremely well in musical fields in which musical, cultural and social knowledge systems are modeled rather than explicitly stated. This is even more important with marginalized communities like Roman (the preferred term in Turkey for Romani or “Gypsy” groups), who continue to labor hard to escape their marginalized positions with minimal access to mainstream social services and political processes.
These three families—Gümüş, Sesler and Kabacı—represent key contributors to Turkish classical and urban musical traditions. The Gümüş and Sesler families came from Greece during the 1920s’ forced population exchange in which Muslim families in Greece were forcibly moved to the new Turkish nation state, and Christian families in Anatolia were moved to Greece. The Sesler family was well known for their zurna (a folk oboe-like instrument) performers, and they moved to Turkish Thrace alongside their non-Roman patron families. The Gümüş family was the first to bring the G clarinet to Turkey and into Turkish Thracian musical traditions, and this family continues to provide musical services throughout Turkish Thrace and major urban areas such as Istanbul. The Kabacı family is typical of Roman musician families originally from Bulgaria, who immigrated to Anatolia in the late 19th century in the wake of the Crimean war. Many of their family members are active in the Istanbul, Ankara and Marmara regions, and also perform in the State Radio ensembles. Each one of these families represents significant contributions to the development of Turkish regional and urban music, and also demonstrates the impact of immigration on supporting the development of the new Turkish nation state. Also, each family has members who are involved in different aspects of music making. In addition to playing on the radio and in restaurants, weddings and festivals, members also run recording studios, providing arrangements for local and foreign artists. In this book, I wanted the family’s stories to tell a counter-narrative to the dominant portrayal of Turkish music as inherently ethnically Turk and only from Anatolia.
Was there something in the already-collected materials that spoke to you?
I already have so many hours of interviews and stories, which had not gone into my dissertation or articles, and I wanted their voices to tell these interesting and complex stories.
Can you further describe music as a form of labor? How is this different than a professional musician in Western culture?
I believe that all music making is a form of labor, and what interests me is why we don’t talk about it! Western European classical musicians spend hours every day improving their craft, just like Roman professional musicians. And then there are additional forms of labor that we don’t acknowledge: networking to learn about repertoire, better performance opportunities, even mundane but significant activities such as fixing your instrument or taking care of your voice. Then in preparing for a performance, musicians spend hours getting the set up right, doing the advertising, finding sound equipment. With the Western European notions of “great men” and “gifted genius,” we forget that musicianship is a craft that requires constant human labor of various kinds. In addition, performing itself is a form of physical labor, which tends to be ignored or masked in order to preserve the mystique of so-called musical genius.
What are the challenges in researching this subject? Is it notation and documentation? Or something else?
The challenges in research have mostly to do with background research, which is currently the subject of an article in progress. While there have been significant studies of labor, most work on music and labor examines music as an accompaniment to labor movements or as an aid to physical labor, which again masks the fact that music IS labor. The other challenge is time. I have many recorded interviews, which I have not had the time to transcribe; so next year will be a gift of much-needed time to focus on this project, as well as gather more materials and begin drafting the book.
Is there an anecdote or something that you’ve been really focused on lately from your research you can share?
I have been thinking about the applicability of this project to many areas of my own life and to larger social and political issues. I have started my own Arabic-Turkish music ensemble, Aşk-i Meşk, and we have just begun a once-a-month residency at Marakesh Cafe and Grill in Austin. While the scale of our group is not on the intensive level of my musician friends in Turkey, our performances take a large amount of labor in addition to rehearsals, practicing on my own, and the time actually performing. We can also look at the increasing amount of hidden labor that our faculty positions entail. I have also been struck by the strongly negative reactions of many U.S. citizens to immigrants and refugees. As someone who was a product of immigrant families on both sides who were fleeing violence, I am concerned about how our own country may be losing out on the benefits of willing, hard-working and productive future citizens. And this research project points to the crucial contribution of immigrant musicians to Turkish national music, while at the same time Turkey is the gateway to Europe and beyond for those fleeing Syria, Iraq and other conflict-ridden areas in the Middle East.
Photo: Sonia Seeman and Erdogan Dalkiran. By Danielle van Dobben. Bottom photo, Sonia Seeman playing music. Courtesy photo.