STUDY GROUP: Anthropology of Music in Mediterranean Cultures

Report on the meeting "Music as Representation of Gender in Mediterranean Culture"
Venice, June 11-13 1998

The ICTM Study Group on the "Anthropology of Music in Mediterranean Cultures" met in June 11-13 1998 at the "Fondazione Ugo e Olga Levi per gli studi musicali" in Venice. The topic of the meeting was "Music as Representation of Gender in Mediterranean Culture". It included fourteen presentations in five sessions and a closing discussion.

Svanibor Pettan, Karin Van Nieuwkerk, Antonio Baldassarre

The approach to the issue of gender in the meeting went far beyond the common questions of musical research related to this subject, such as the exploration of female repertoires traditionally neglected by the scholars. Basic issues on the agenda were the fundamental role played by music in representing the roles of gender and the relations between genders in different social, ethnic, and religious groups in past and present Mediterranean cultures. Emphasis was placed on the musical event as a venue for the public construction and representation of the relationships between genders. The meeting intended to contribute to the ongoing investigations on the issue of gender carried on within the fields of social and cultural anthropology of the Mediterranean.

The presentations covered a wide variety of Mediterranean cultures, musical genres and styles and historical periods. The meeting opened with Tullia Magrini's introduction to the topic and her reconsideration of the classical "honor and shame" syndrome, once proposed by the scholars of the Oxford school as a pan-Mediterranean trait. In her following paper on "Women 'work of pain' in Christian Mediterranean Europe," Magrini argued that women in the Christian Mediterranean world, living in a male-dominated society, resorted to symbolic means to express their identity. In religious and ritual behavior women found emotional and expressive outlets that were acceptable and available to them in public contexts. The expression and elaboration of suffering is one of the chief contexts in which women acted meaningfully on their own behalf and on behalf of their community. An association between femininity and suffering became common in the Christian Mediterranean societies that have been examined. This association stems from the bond between human and sacred femininity which is found in the parallelism between the mother's suffering, expressed in religious practices, and the prominence of the Madonna (in particular in her being the "Mother of Sorrow") as the main female figure of Christianity. Organically following Magrini's presentation, Iain Fenlon's paper on "Music, ceremony and female piety in Renaissance Venice" treated the invisibility of Venetian women in the public life of the city in the Renaissance period, a tradition which restricted vocational choice of women to either the palace or the convent. Fenlon linked this aspect of social life to a central aspect of the rhetoric of Venetian official historiography in which the city is presented as a pure, uncorrupted virgin state, that is, a city unviolated by outside forces. Both Marian devotion and the designation of Venice as a special protectorate of the Virgin completed the notion of uniqueness and perfection which lies at the heart of the 'Myth of Venice'. This concept was publicly expressed in the great civic celebrations of the Republic. In musical terms this idea was reflected in the wide range of Marian compositions written by composers working in Venice.

Two other papers treated gender in Western art music traditions. Martha Feldman, in her "The absent mother in opera seria," stressed as her point of departure the close relation between experience and message in opera seria. Discontinuous listening was possible in Italian theaters of the Settecento because inviolable patriarchy was a foregone conclusion of the plots. Other signs in the listening habits and contents of opera seria , however, suggested fractures in the patriarchal relations that ruled the old regime.

Feldman focused on the crisis of two key gendered social institutions: that of marriage, represented by the absence of husbands from their theater boxes and their substitution by cecisbei, and that of motherhood, observed in the reappearance in the late eighteenth century of the figure of the mother, which had been all but suppressed in early-eighteenth-century opera seria. Michela Garda's "Re-telling and revising our musical past: feminine voices of the male music" posed the following question: Is the patriarchal paradigm inscribed in the language and form of Western classical music, or can we suppose that music provided, sometimes and somewhere, a space for developing a dialectic within the discourse of gender.

Martha Feldman, Michela Garda, Iain Fenlon

The first approach leads us to explain the current concern of musicology with women composers as a compensatory one, dedicated to saving women's unheard voices that remained on the margins of both the musical canon and academic musicology. The second approach suggests that women's music is neither the immediate expression of a personal subjectivity of a privileged inferiority, nor the expression of women's collective soul, that is to say, of "femininity." It rather represents a complex dialectics between social construction and personal achievement.

Several papers addressed the issue of gender and music in the Arabic countries of North Africa. Karin van Nieuwerk, in her paper "'An hour for God and an hour for the heart': Islam gender and female entertainment in Egypt," discussed the effect of the growing influence of religious fundamentalism on public entertainment, and particularly on music, singing and dancing in the Islamic strongholds of South Egypt. She discussed this phenomenon in the framework of the relationship between the religious discourse on music and entertainment and the religious discourse on gender. Tony Langlois addressed similar issues in his paper "Invisible but audible: women's religious music in Morocco". He focused on the gatherings of the A'issawa, a social practice of the city of Oudja, in eastern Morocco, which includes the loss of self control to emotions during dancing, and chanting to music played by women for women.

Langlois suggested that such ecstatic religious practices are typically resorted to by those who do not have the political voice to express grievances in any other way. Although the segregation of women in these closed events perpetuates the established gulf between gender discourses in Islam, the gatherings also mark a degree of independence from, and resistance to, normative Islamic ideology. A similar issue was raised in the presentation of Antonio Baldassarre, who studied female religiosity among the black religious brotherhood known as Gnawa in the ceremonial and traditional context in which it is expressed.

Marie Virolle, Joaquina Labajo

Baldassarre also dealt with the pre-nuptial celebration (henna) and ritual practices of the haddarat, the ecstatic rituals, in Fes. His approach represents a departure from the commonly accepted view of male exclusiveness in the transmission of religious musical repertoires in North Africa. Marie Virolle's paper on "Women and Rai; roles and representations" went beyond the field of women and their expression of Islamic religiosity, into the field of popular music. Women played an important role in the elaboration and diffusion of traditional and modern Rai. Virolle perceives women artists in this genre as more undisciplined and spontaneous than their male counterparts. They are the exploited among the exploited, even more outcast than their male colleagues because they are transgressive women. But female performers are also catalysts of emotions, as we have seen in Christian Mediterranean environments. Because of their precarious position, they are also the most iconoclastic figures in relation to classical popular poetry and musical innovation which has been, overall, the province of men.

Martin Stokes, in his presentation on "Hypergender and Mediterraneanism," challenged the view of the authoritarian gendered and sexual binarisms embedded in the structuralist concerns of early Mediterranean anthropology and still found in the ethnomusicological literature on Mediterranean music. He argued that, while Mediterranean popular urban genres have been identified with subversive forms of gendered and sexual identity, the performances of Turkish popular artists such as ultra macho Ibrahim Tatlises and the gay icon Zeki Muren shape a decidedly contemporary experience which he defines as the "impossibility of gender". In this type of gender, the signifiers of an old gendered and sexual order (particularly those related to masculinity) are depicted as comically or tragically inadequate in the face of contemporary cultural realities. Stokes carried his hypothesis even further by arguing that it is the nature of the nation-state which problematizes gender roles, rather that Turkish Islam. Nationalism in Turkey remains a thoroughly gendered affair. The redefinition of gender in contemporary Turkish popular music are thus part of the redefinition of Turkishness itself. He linked the idea of "hypergender", that is, constructions of gender and sexuality which point to their inadequacy as models of contemporary behavior, to the collapse of national politics.

Two papers treated Mediterranean Jewish cultures. Philip Bohlman's "Schechinah, or the female sacre in music of the Jewish Mediterranean" moved from the observation that Jewish images of the sacred are overwhelmingly masculine, and that, therefore, sacred musical practices draw sharp distinctions between the masculine and the feminine. However, at a deeper level there is a powerful feminine presence in Jewish sacred musics in the imagery of the shechinah, the feminine presence of God. Bohlman contends that an increased awareness of the feminine sacred can lead us to chart entirely new paths for Jewish history across the Mediterranean. Edwin Seroussi in "Degendering Jewish music: the survival of the Judeo-Spanish folk song revisited" examined the social strategies of Sephardi Jewish women in the Ottoman Empire which ensured the survival of their traditional repertoire of songs - including ballads on subjects such as incest - in spite of the opposition of the rabbis.

Two presentations were concerned with gypsy communities in Europe. Joaquina Labajo discussed in "Body and voice, the construction of gender in flamenco" the evolution of the construction of the myth of the masculine "gypsy girl" and the archetypal low and broken voices in "deep" flamenco. She started by arguing that stereotyped images of flamenco were made by non-Spanish writers and male artists and that, therefore, an understanding of flamenco stereotypes cannot disregard the active and conditioning foreign presence that has been the most demanding factor of the development of an exotic language of gestures and attitudes. She showed as an example of this issue the evolution of the stereotype of the "gypsy girl" in the Hollywood movie industry.

Edwin Seroussi, Philip Bohlman

This image, however, is also endorsed by men working for domestic or foreign tourists. Another image of flamenco, more complex and rich, rises from the role of women in social and musical expressions in the Romany Gypsy community of Spain and in general, of Spanish society. Moreover, old recordings show that popular voices of flamenco dating from early in this century were modelled after the refined images of degendered operatic virtuoso style of men and classically educated female voices. In his presentation "'Male' and 'female' in culture and music of the Gypsies in Kosovo," Svanibor Pettan called for a reevaluation of the binary gender division in Mediterranean musical studies by stressing the role of the third gender, homosexuals. His study focused on the gypsy population of Kosovo, the Roma, and a musical practice of their women known as talava. He started by stressing that sexual segregation in Kosovo is related to ethnic and religious affiliation, to the rural/urban distinction, and to regional and local folkways. This segregation can be found in the stylistic features and musical instruments of each gender's music. An exception to this traditional pattern of sexual segregation can be observed among the Roma in the amplified version of the talava, which was transformed from female indoor music performed by women for female audiences to outdoor music performed by men for a general audience. The agents of this transformation were homosexuals.

The meeting concluded with a session chaired by Bruno Nettl. Nettl congratulated the participants for three features that characterized this encounter: the contestation of paradigms (e.g., the cultural homogeneity of the Mediterranean); the balance between theory and data; and the absence of a political agenda (e.g., the advancement of feminist or gay/lesbian interests). He then summarized the themes treated in the meeting: the use of music as a sign of distinction among genders; the role of women in the performance of music in religious systems; gender identity in public performances; music as a masking device; the use of anthropological theory in studies of elite Western music; the unity vs diversity of the Mediterranean as a cultural area; and, finally, Mediterranism as a destabilizing force of cultural homogeneity.

Edwin Seroussi
University of Bar-Ilan (Israel)

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