[Invited Submission - Special Issue]

Muti Music – In Search of Suspicion

By Mercedes Pavlicevic & Charlotte Cripps


Our playful title, "Muti Music", emblematises our stance of deliberate and cultivated suspicion towards medical ethnomusicology, for this special issue. Positioned within and between music therapy, medical anthropology and ethnomusicology, this paper considers how these disciplinary discourses and practices might engage with Medical Ethnomusicology, and what that prism might offer music therapy in particular. Muti Music proposes messy hybridity, which we suggest reflects the social-cultural and cosmological fusions necessary for contemporary practices whether in, or of, the South, East, North or West. Straddling the South and the Global North, we propose that Western (and at times bio-medically informed) healing and health practices might well consider reclaiming and re-sourcing their own, and other, traditional and indigenous healing cosmologies, whatever their respective and situated ideologies and ontologies. Despite apparent (and possibly intellectual and ideological) segmentations and separations of disciplines by Western scholarship and economics, we propose that "the ancestors" and "the aspirin" need to embrace rather than view one another with suspicion. Just possibly, each might become enriched (and discomforted) by the silenced coincidences of one another’s desires to know and experience our common humanity through music.

Keywords: medical ethnomusicology, music therapy, health, healing rituals, South Africa, cultural spaces, music healing narratives

Who Are We?

Two practitioners and scholars who, between us, have experiences of "doing music" in distinctive settings, in the North and in the South. One of us is a music therapist and a community musician, and the other is a singer and ethnomusicology scholar. We both have experiences of working as part of a South African based NGO called MUSICWORKS (www.musicworks.co.za), which develops community-led music and music therapy programmes in the Western Cape. We also have links with Nordoff Robbins Music Therapy, a UK-based charity that delivers music therapy across a range of sites in the UK; and with the School for Oriental and African study, (SOAS, University of London).

Our engagement with the topic in this issue is grounded in our own experiences of working in various settings, both deeply familiar and unfamiliar. These experiences have at various times disrupted and interrupted our assumptions about music, health, illness, and wellbeing – and it is from this (possibly naïve) stance that our thoughts emerge.

A word about the title: Muti[1], is a generic Southern African colloquialism used by all linguistic groups in South Africa to signify medicine, magic or healing lotion or potion, whose function is to heal, cure, ward off evil spirits – and at the very least, protect us from any of these. Muti is also used more specifically to signify traditional medicine – such as herbs and potions, used by traditional African healers as part of their healing work. This healing work happens not only in rural areas where indigenous practices are the norm, but also in the metropolis. Here, many who live and work in the great African cities – which often present Western veneer and shiny hospital corridors - straddle the worlds and practices of Western Medicine and Muti Medicine with equanimity. Indeed, it could be argued that for many, neither one would be effective without the other. For this paper, Muti Music offers a symbolic melding of geographies, language and discourses, with their histories, politics and implicit and explicit values. Also, Muti Music invites a temporary suspending of our situated understandings (as readers and writers) of pre-modern, modern and post-modern attitudes; and provides instead a specific prism that views – or rather, ignores - the separation of traditional, indigenous[2] and colonial music-belief-health practices. This is not to dismiss their distinctive attributes, nor to erase knowledge worlds and discourses that have refined our own music-health practices. Rather, Muti Music emblematises the "messy realities" of making sense of the familiar, the strange, the distant and close-up, the known and unknowable, and the in-betweens.

Our engagement with the topic, then, pivots around the notion of offering and receiving, encapsulated in two questions. What does the medical ethnomusicology discourse offer music therapy, both as a discourse and practice? And what can medical ethnomusicology receive from music therapy?

We now attempt to clarify our questions with an unapologetic beginning rooted in suspicion.

Rooting Our Suspicion: Othering Practices, Closing Our Discourses

While alert to medical ethnomusicology's discourses being embedded within Western scholarship, it is the distance between discourse(s) and the music-health practices that they represent that is our first suspicion. Whether the practices are in close up or in distant geographical places is not the issue here. Scholars, practitioners and many professionals in the West[3] may well assume considerable shared cultural understandings with the (familiar) people they serve or study on their doorsteps, within their localities – and also assume that this is reflected in the authenticity of their discourses as representational. In contrast, the conventions of (traditional) anthropological endeavours (and those of ethnomusicologists) have been to represent more distant social and cultural geographies. They (starting perhaps with Malinowski) lived in the field, alongside and with the people they studied. This was understood as an essential practice of a cultural induction, helping to enrich their understandings, to sensitise their making sense and making meaning; and to create accounts about meanings and practices in distant places and people that could be as "authentic" as possible. The convention then was that many early anthropologists did not see themselves as part of the account, the discourse or the everyday: their presence was apparently invisible and did not count. With the more recent intellectual and discursive turn to reflexivity[4], and with anthropological curiosity becoming relocated to "home territory", scholars of anthropology and ethnomusicology have become more alert to their presence and agency in the act of observing and describing not just what they see and hear – but also what they experience. We're not suggesting that this makes for more or less authentic representations; but rather, we are noting the change in conventions. Being the voice of representation today is understood to be inseparable from the process of defining – and, we would add, from the process of becoming - oneself in a particular cultural and social landscape. Ethnomusicologist Kisliuk captures this in her question: “What does it mean to define oneself as a field researcher, ethnographer, or apprentice? The dialectic of defining oneself or being defined by others is the cornerstone of social and cultural politics […]” (Kisliuk, 2008, p. 187). The politics here, we understand as the power assumed by the voice of representation: the creating and legitimising of a place through narrating it.

By embracing the experiencing of places and persons, ethnographers have put themselves "at risk" of having their identity altered, tampered with, dismantled, and enriched (Collins & Gallinat, 2010). Thus, fieldwork is understood to be "[…] an inherently valuable and extraordinary human activity with the capacity of integrating scholar scholarship and life" (Shelemay, cited in Barz & Cooley, 2008, p. 5). From music therapy perspectives, we ask how medical ethnomusicology situates and develops accounts around those places and social spaces whose notions of what it means to be ill, be well, be healed, and to be doing music, might insist on remaining truly distant and unfamiliar? With this rich heritage that has swirled around the Batesons, the Malinowskis, Durkheims, and Geerzs (for starters), how comfortable is medical ethnomusicology with representing that which, through distance and unfamiliarity, remains elusive, and possibly not knowable? Our suspicion plays around such questions which we also address to our home music therapy territory (as professional locals and natives). We might all question the integrity and authenticity of our own discourses. How might we mitigate the risks of discourse(s) distorting the apparent taking seriously of an experience "on its own terms" and in its own social, cultural time? How might we avoid imposing – and distorting – such practices? Is such a thing possible? And if we (re)turn our lens to the far away, then the question becomes, how do we, as Western scholars and practitioners, avoid the risk of centralising the "West" and "othering" anything "non-Western"? How alert are we to the risks of using terms like "Western" and "indigenous", which appear to imply that the "West" is not also indigenous... (Bakan, 2014; Benning, 2013; Hart, 2010)

It would seem that talking, thinking, writing and reading are complex actions – and each offers the possibility of "othering" and "distancing" that which is being documented, observed, and experienced. However, talking, reading and writing, we suggest, also offer practitioners and scholars the opposite possibilities: i.e., the possibilities for assuming familiarity and closeness. Enter Maori educationalist and academic Linda Tuhiwai Smith (1999): as a "native" and "‘indigenous" Maori, who is also educated in "Western" academia, Smith makes an emphatic case for not resolving the issue of familiarity or distance; but rather, she suggests that the contested (and complicated) space between what she calls "colonising" and "native" narratives needs to be retained – and explored. In her chapter entitled "They came, they saw, they named, they claimed" she lambasts Western scholars for imposing their narratives on (in this instance) the Maori identity, through their representations in academic discourses. Through this legacy of academic colonising, the Maori identity, she posits, is reconfigured according to the conventions of different world views (I.e., Western scholarship) – with no negotiation between these. Her strong critique brings us to a consideration familiar to anthropologists and ethnomusicologists, but possibly less so to music therapists: how do any of us, as Western scholars, engage with the notion of the "cultural other"? When are we at risk of being professionally and discursively disembodied and reduced? Are we protective of our disciplinary identity by wrapping our narratives safely within familiar discourses? Are we at risk of "claiming and conquering", by relocating work in "other" cultural spaces inside "Western" scholarship?

Our first suspicion is rooted in the distancing – albeit reflexive – of any practice from its narratives not only ontologically and epistemologically, but also culturally. As two music practitioners who have worked in Western, hybrid and indigenous settings, both as "insiders" and "outsiders", we remain with the uncomfortable question which goes something like this: how might practices that may not be able to narrate themselves to a scholarly knowledge world be represented, and by whom? And how might we, as Western scholars (and practitioners) negotiate a shared (and possibly uncomfortable) discourse between these worlds? We suggest that this space cannot be addressed – and that nobody should claim to "represent" – no matter how reflexively.

Our Second suspicion is rooted in the launching of yet another discursive territory. Discourteously put[5]: why is Medical Ethnomusicology necessary? And if so, who needs it for whose purposes? Do tracts in the Medical Humanities, and ethnomusicology[6] – coupled with the turn to Community Music Therapy (Ansdell & Stige, forthcomming; Stige, Ansdell, Elephant & Pavlicevic, 2010; Stige & Aarø 2012; Pavlicevic & Ansdell 2004), and Community Music (Higgins, 2012) - not suffice collectively as representations of music-people-health in all their diversity of place, social spaces and practices, with strong overlaps of interest? And if indeed there is a need for this defined and boundaried discourse, then, as naïve essayists, we remain suspicious about the assembling of such disparate stances and accounts, under one umbrella, even if that umbrella avoids "a unified narrative" (Koen, 2008, p.15).

If we peek closely at this umbrella, then we would imagine that the positioning of the "Ethno" between the Medical and Musical, would be a strong signal about the need to consider the place, the persons, the social –cultural patterns, their values and norms (leaving aside for now, the question about the familiar / the distant / other / etc). We seek reflexive narratives, that would elaborate on the gaps between what happens where (situated events), and how such healing events are described, experienced, understood and narrated; with the narrator explicitly situated within, alongside and around the narratives. Marina Roseman offers an alluring stance, as an ethnographer, musician, and Western scholar: "Ethnography relishes cultural variables and accounts for them through in-depth, local understanding and practice, as well as cross-cultural comparison and contrast of commonality and diversity. (Roseman, 2008, p. 24)

Even more trustingly, as suspicious readers, we seek accounts that convey the complexities of misfit (retaining Linda Smith’s contested gap).... and fit. We seek answers to situated questions such as how conventions from spaces that spawn the Gamelan tradition "fit" with Western music therapy; how might both be enriched through knowing the other; why should Western biomedical paradigms make sense of practices where the body is not anatomised – and how do we make meaning, make sense, and talk sense in such instances? However reflexive Roseman’s stance, we’re uncomfortable when she posits:

.... we might ask whether the human heartbeat (or collective pulse of ceremonial participants singing, dancing, and trancing together) is entrained through an unmediated physics of soundwaves interfacing with human biological rhythms such as heart rate or symbolically and empathetically through imagined metaphors and cultural meanings weighting those sounds. Or is it a little bit of both? (Roseman, 2008, p. 32)

Using our equally reflexive, stance, which is also situated and suspicious, we suggest that a statement such as this conveys medical ethnomusicology’s own conundrum: how are separate world views, presented through its texts, to be addressed, beyond posing the question? Discourses from biomedicine (that separates heartbeats and rhythms), science (that reduces and separates), psychology, anthropology, ethnomusicology all seem to jostle in the same pot. Is medical ethnomusicology the discursive pot?

Observation, understanding, and description are a messy business – and it seems that there is no stability either in ourselves, in what we observe – let alone in our attempting an account. This is conveyed by Bakan’s (2014) exploration of music therapy- informed music-making with a group (ARTISM) that includes people on the ASD spectrum. Using ethnomusicology principles, he considers that, in contrast to medical (deficit)-model informed notions of Autism, an ethnomusicology informed epistemology frames this event as a social-musical model, that engages with people’s music-making on their terms, understanding that people are "experts at being who they are." The therapeutic (or beneficial) aspects of the group’s musical encounters and are experienced by all; and Bakan leaves us pondering on the vexing nature of (what we would call) the selective reductionist claiming of epistemological territories, by distinctive scholars and practitioners. With some minor tweaks, this paper reads convincingly as (socially and culturally informed) community music therapy – whose practices are explicitly critical of epistemological and socio-cultural distancing and "othering" espoused by deficit or medical models, and of practices that are driven by addressing symptoms and pathology. Which returns us to the – increasingly complex - question of why medical ethnomusicology? If – as in the Bakan paper – applied medical ethnomusicology provides a distinctive and complexifying lens for re-representing (or translating) practices, then what does such a practice (that is tantalisingly aligned to Community Music Therapy in its thinking) offer music therapy, beyond an additional discursive framing?

At the start of this essay, we defined our stance as that of naïve scholars and experienced practitioners, and we now present three scenarios, followed by brief commentaries, before offering responses to the questions posed at the start. A caveat here is yet another suspicion (already addressed by ethnographers) – this time turned towards ourselves – about the pitfalls of locating the strange and unfamiliar exclusively in an "exotic" framing. Rather, like many old and new anthropologists, our quest is that of "making strange": on the understanding that the strange (or exotic) helps to revisit our quotidian.

Strange Scenes From the Familiar

Scenario One – Aspirins and Ancestors

The first scenario is narrated by the first author, and is an account of a music therapy session located in the ward of a South African adult psychiatry Hospital situated explicitly within a Western biomedical world view.

Two music therapy students sit among 8 or 9 women in an adult women's locked ward. The women, from different parts of South Africa, speak different languages, and it seems that nobody understands the language of others. The lingua franca is English, mixed with Zulu, Sotho, some Xhosa, Southern Sotho and Afrikaans. This is a locked female ward, and many of the patients have diagnoses of schizophrenia, and some have variations of affective conditions. The acoustics in the large ward echo, so that all sound is amplified – to play and sing quietly is almost impossible: sound bounces everywhere. I am behind a video camera, filming this event for a training debriefing with the students, post session. The patients are medicated, and the ambience is lethargic, even while singing. The women have spontaneously started a missionary hymn ‘Yes, Jesus loves me’, and one of the students is on the portable electronic keyboard. As if by common cue, the singing begins to gather pace, the women stand, and begin to move slowly as they sing. The music gathers pace and the group plunges into a song unfamiliar to the students, and to some of the women. Very quickly, now, the energy mounts, until it reaches an eruption of singing, ululating and dancing. At some point the cleaner, who has been mopping in another part of the ward, moves towards the group and joins in, moving in and out, across the group with her hands in the air. The students go with the flow, join the dancing which becomes ecstatic. One woman drops to her knees as though in a trance or spirit possession, while another begins to sing in a high pitched crying voice. The rest are in a frenzy. I begin to wonder when and how this will end. From participating in traditional healing ceremonies, I know that we could be here until the following morning. One of the women then moves into the middle of the circle and begins some kind of rapid litany – which could be a prayer, invocation, blessing, or curse – and from the actions of the rest of the group I realise that she is a Sangoma, or traditional healer. The kneeling woman is the focus of the Sangoma’s litany, and she writhes as the music continues with tight loud persistence. Eventually she seems to keel over, as though in a faint. My heart is racing, and I wonder whether she is having a fit. The music rapidly fades and the women sit down, apparently spent. In our post-session teaching and debriefing, one of the students explains that the litany was in the form of a prayer and invocation, addressing spirits and exhorting them to gather, pray and surround the women. After exploring our experiences during the music-making, we consider how, as music therapists, the students will manage the nexus between writing a report for the multi-disciplinary medical meeting, which both respects and ignores the concurrence of different healing/medicine rites realities, in what was – to all intents and purposes – shared music making in music therapy.


The music therapy voice may well ask, somewhat uncomfortably: has the supernatural occupied music therapy? Have the ancestors befriended the aspirin? (And if so, by whose notion of aspirins and ancestors?)

In our debriefing, the three of us agreed that making music together felt animated, somewhat on the edge of the known and unknown, and generous and inclusive. As music therapists, we felt invited and part of the music, despite not knowing or understanding the music, the words, or the event. Not altogether comfortable, but connected. The students suggested that the shared music-making seemed to embrace and accommodate the ancestors, the Sangoma, and the aspirin; and perhaps it was our presence (representing both the world of the aspirin and the ancestors), that triggered the arrival of the ancestral spirits through the Sangoma. We knew about such rites, having experienced them, and having heard many stories and accounts from those for whom such rites are part of the ongoing life of the village. We explored the musical acceptance and embracing as dismantling and reconfiguring everybody's identities, roles and expertise. One of the patients became the healer – the Sangoma – and the music therapists were accompanists to her healing litany. The patient – psychotic or not – remained the one who needed (or was accorded) healing, but this was now configured from another knowledge, in which ancestral spirits need to be invoked and assuaged, and possibly evil spirits cast out. The casting out seemed to happen through the frenzied drumming and dancing; which we understood through our experiences of living in South Africa, through Western scholarship, and through our ancestral memories of medieval rites of exorcism. At least, this was our making sense of what happened, having shared this viscerally with the women in that time and place; having experienced ourselves within, among and as both part of and separate from the entire episode; and acknowledging that the music therapists may not have been in the same social / ancestral space as (some of) the women. Added complexities presented themselves in our debriefing: we discussed how this event would 'fit' with the formal reporting structures of the hospital? How might this be translated into medical talk? What kind of discourses might enable navigating between worlds? What might be the risks – for the patients, and also for the students - of keeping silent? Or of speaking out?

Scenario Two – Collaboratively Negotiated Storying

(The second author narrates the second scenario in a more distant voice, situated in MUSICWORKS, in Cape Town South Africa.)

The team consists of community musicians, community developers, music therapists, as well as financial, operations and administrative staff; and collectively they represent Xhosa, English and Afrikaans languages and backgrounds.

The team joins around a table every Monday morning for the weekly check-in meeting at the office in a suburb of Cape Town. Even now, years after the Group Areas Act during the apartheid, the diversity of the team is reflected by the very different commutes to work. Some have driven in their cars from down the road; others have taken minibus taxis[7] for the 40 minutes drive from Khayelitsha – a Xhosa township South East of the city centre. The senior community musician from the same township, now living in the township Gugulethu, takes the train. Two of the music therapists have driven at least an hour from the Western Cape's idyllic winelands, and another from the holiday coast on the other side of the mountain. The intern cycles in from a close by Southern suburb. The team settles into the office with much teasing about whether cafetiere coffee or "ricoffee" (a local instant coffee) tastes better. The discussion moves to the logistics of bringing together young people from two townships with different music traditions, to play Marimba together. Mark, who’s the community musician, and Zwai, the development worker, are explaining that it’s been a journey of musically adapting style and pace. Both groups have been working on the same repertoire for the joint performance: the youth from Lavender Hill township have had to rein in their fast-paced Klopse style; whilst those from Nyanga township adapted the songs to dance to with their own pace and rhythms. The MUSICWORKS team discusses how the young people with very different styles of playing might expand on each other’s repertoire and potentially develop or negotiate something new and unique between themselves. The team then discuss more logistics: from making sure that the Marimbas are in tune with one another for the concert, to organising transport, refreshments and pick-up points. These are part of discussing what the respective groups and communities want to get out of the joint performance.


The second scenario describes a situation where to think in terms of "cultural Other" would be an entirely unfitting frame. Instead of polarising musical styles by labelling these as "indigenous", local, "Western" or "World Music", the team is familiar with the histories and development of the various musical styles, and have also all experienced these first hand. They know that the Klopse musical style is a hybrid, with roots in Western, indigenous, other.[8] Their shared understanding has the benefit of input by people who represent many perspectives, languages and cultures. No one perspective is imposed on the other. Contributors are not re-presented by anyone on their behalf, but they present themselves, and knit a collective conversation in this collaborative ambience which both retains difference (though the coffee, past histories and politics, and the commute to the team meeting) and dissolves it (through shared commitment to music-making event).

Scenario Three – Strange Moment In the Familiar[9]

The woman has been in prison for the past 2 years, and through weekly music therapy, has become an accomplished song writer. Prison rules dictate that staff divulge nothing about their personal lives so that after a holiday break, from which the therapist returns brown and sunned in the bleak Northern mid-winter, there is an understanding that the whereabouts of the absence are not for discussion. The prisoner doesn’t ask. In considering what they might like to do, after the therapist’s absence, the woman suddenly says: do you know Surrender? / Who? / It’s a song! (the woman laughs) / Whose song?/ The Resonators ? /The Who? / Not The Who! They’re ancient! The Resonators….. They’re from London…… / Really? / Ah! Says the prisoner to the therapist, not your scene I suppose!


Here is a sudden, sharp fissure – made sharper (and also softer) by prison conventions that insist on othering through the forbidding of personal information. The familiar is retained in the energetic teasing from the prisoner, who also insists on injecting additional othering into the banter: to do with local music scenes and "cool" factor, as well as (less explicitly) age. The strange making happens in the middle of the familiar, and in a moment. This is not an exotic distancing created by social or cultural geographies – but rather, the "close-up and familiar" social and cultural differences that crack open the interaction. The fissure remains, with no attempt at repair by either speaker. Using discourse from music therapy, this could be explained as a deep shared and trusting understanding of what is and isn’t included in their relationship.

What Does Medical Ethnomusicology Offer Music Therapy and What Can Medical Ethnomusicology Receive From Music Therapy?

Having presented three scenarios and commentaries, we now attempt to respond our initial questions (while also recognising their limitations):

What does Medical Ethnomusicology offer Music Therapy, as a discourse and practice?

At our most idealistic (and naïve) we suggest that through its anthropological and ethnomusicological origins, Medical Ethnomusicology offers music therapy a sanctioned discursive tradition for acknowledging and respecting local cultural practices and cosmologies wherever these are situated: on our doorstep, in the everyday, and in the distant and strange.

Although increasingly self-critical about how music therapy narrates itself, and about its consensual adoption of psychological or medical discourses, music therapy discourse on the whole remains unreflexive about the geographical locating of its discourses – and risks of a one-size-fits all description of diverse music therapy practices (Ansdell, 2008). With exceptions[10], music therapists do not seem to engage in questions concerning the cosmologies of scientific, economic, or medical "facts." At risk of being rather ungentle, we propose that music therapy is at risk of conveying the impression that, as a practice with global, regional and – we hope - local norms, music therapy discourse remains comfortable with its tropes, which emerge almost exclusively from Western thought (whether musical, psychological, medical, or social). Anthropology (which is of course yet another Western trope), through Medical Ethnomusicology, allows us to "make strange" – to suspend our beliefs in the trope – and to re-engage with experience in a way that also takes seriously what it is that music therapists and clients believe, hear, see – and don’t. Music therapy discourse might begin by acknowledging that, "Western" musicians and music-health workers are generally rooted in a secular, materialist, realist culture, that is suspicious of notions like the spirit world, and of malevolent spirits causing illness and disease. Jungian Psychoanalysis understands this well (Ziegler, 2000) – yet such notions remain on the discursive fringes.

A second offering from Medical Ethnomusicology is that of knowledge worlds – however messy - that help music therapy to complexify the "contested space" between the familiar and the unfamiliar, while retaining rather than attempting to "explain it away" through known framings of "therapy" and "medicine" and "psychology" and "music." Thus, music-people-healing experiences in music therapy might embrace the possibility of being narrated as deeply embedded in the local, the cultural, the political and the cosmological dimensions of human and social life (The ancestor in the aspirin; the caffetiere and ricoffee; The Who and The Resonators).

Discursive tyrannies, of course, carry a health warning. By deciding to NOT reframe ancestral voices as voices of psychosis, of transference, of stimulus, or of heart-beat and cortisol testing, the music therapist practitioner risks being relegated to the professional fringes – if not excluded altogether. The discursive trespassing offered to music therapists by Medical Ethnomusicology could well contest directly the secular, materialist music therapy norms in the West, and also challenge the norms of professions that seek legitimacy from the state. Whether such discursive permissions would encourage the music therapists in scenario one to speak up in reporting to the hospital patients’ medical records (that carry more power) is questionable – but at least the music therapists might signal the nature of the gap between the familiar and the unknowable, and avert Linda Smith’s "claiming" through (unquestioning) conquering discourses.

Scenario two focusses on the team meeting that happens as part of organisational planning for the joint music performance. Knowledge, life experience, locality and norms, are acknowledged and voiced through playful bantering about coffee. We also see organisational identities and roles being suspended in the interests of a shared intent – the music performance. We propose that such a narrative could be read either through the discursive prism of Community Music Therapy, or that of Medical Ethnomusicology, depending on the reader's stance and construction. However, since this scenario is situated within, and informed by, Community Music Therapy epistemologies, and since the team is situated within a music-health practitioner setting, this is a useful point to address our second question: what can Medical Ethnomusicology learn from Music Therapy – as practice, discourse and discipline?

Although there is no single, global music therapy practice, we stake this essay on the grounds that, for music therapists everywhere, music-making is an invitation to listening, and to be listened to and with. We offer improvisatory listening as our own cosmology (since cosmologies are permitted), informed by Nordoff & Robbins' foundational music therapy improvisatory methods (1977), which are based on detailed listening of shared music-making. The three scenarios illustrate improvisatory listening-and-responding approaches that are familiar to music therapists, in distinctive ways. In the first, the therapists "go with the flow", listen closely to how the women play, and support and accompany – however unfamiliar the genre – as best they can. They are in the service of playing with the women. The second scenario shows a team with disparate life experiences, skills, roles and tasks bantering about coffee and music – with the same attentiveness to threading together all strands into one conversation. This is much in the way that music therapists would attend to, and engage in, a shared group improvisation in a music therapy setting. The third, we suggest, offers a retaining of the forbidden, the distance, and the unfamiliar – and a reconfiguring it through teasing and humour.

Listening as experience, and narrating from experience, are the daily fare of music therapy practitioners. In some texts, music therapists have articulated the struggle of representation, given the powers of medical and health discourses and of the academy to impose and distort and exclude the direct, visceral experience of being in and becoming through music. Some of these struggles are a matter of professional survival – they are more than discursive or disciplinary caprices. Without a practice that can be seen to fit the moulds of the state, the profession risks being returned to the margins (and practitioners risk losing their livelihood). Vigorous protests continue, with a more recent turn to critical ethnographic studies[11] that articulate the challenge of representation, and critique assumptions by the academy and the health professions. In an earlier mapping of the methodological attitude, music therapists Gary Ansdell and Mercedes Pavlicevic (2010) used the image of "Gentle Empiricism", drawing inspiration from Goethe's distinctive scientific attitude, to illustrate the need for the constant repeated navigating between experiencing, observing, detailed description, and respecting the entire phenomenon – while also respecting the 'natural habitat' of that which is being observed-and-experienced. All of this informed by music therapists’ experiences of doing just this in their practices, and as part of their skillset. With a rather broader geography in mind, a paper entitled "Deep Listening: Towards an imaginative reframing of Health and Wellbeing Practices in International Development" (Pavlicevic & Impey, 2013), Deep Listening draws from both the listening-and-responding stance of music therapists, and from the ethnomusicologist’s cultural and social listening, to argue against the intervention-as-solution in development work "overseas", and offer, instead, a frame for cultural, social and therapeutic listening that does not attempt to bridge or reconcile the unfamiliar or re-embedded it in the known. Ethnographically informed music therapy studies by Simon Procter (2013); Gary Ansdell (forthcoming); and Stuart Wood (2015) on the local, situated, the quotidian and familiar practices, offer possibilities for making strange on our doorstep, for retaining the experience within the discourse, (and the discourse within the experience), and for a different kind of restraint from imposing and assuming narratives and values.

A second offering from music therapy practice would be to retain unfamiliarity and distance - rather than "explaining away." In this sense we would like to respectfully dismantle the notion of reflexivity. We’d like to propose that music therapy practices are by their attentive, listening practices, reflexive (since the practice predicates on a relationship that includes them with the whole of their identity, memory, knowledge and culture), even if social and cultural reflexivity features in little of the professional canon. However, our suspicions are that too much discursive reflexivity – from Medical Ethnomusicology in this instance - can begin to sound like an apology for being a distant authorial voice, and for what is different about a space. In other words, viewed from music therapy, there is a risk that carefully staged reflexivity (like ours at the start of this essay) becomes a studied attempt to explain away the implicit discomfort with the gap between ourselves and the othered other. Or between discourse and practice. Or with a known ontological framing of unknowable events and experiences. We suggest that reflexivity – in these discursive contexts - needs a thorough overhaul.

We remain suspicious: if we restrict medical ethnomusicology to a discourse situated exclusively with that which is "different" and "distant", (and indigenous in the pre-colonial sense), then the narrative window of ancestors, cosmologies and trances adds an exotic dimension to a music therapy domain that continues in the main, to work in familiar territories. We are suspicious of music therapy continuing to be identified by medical ethnomusicology discourse, as a profession embedded exclusively within a (Western) medical / deficit model epistemology, despite a strong surge of socio-culturally informed music therapy texts and practices. Is this a useful ploy, to give credence to medical ethnomusicology as a necessary discursive remedying and rebalancing of people’s experiences of music and healing?

Our next suspicion hovers around applied ethnomusicology, and its apparent alignments with (especially) community music therapy. Here, we would offer the following critique: as Dirksen (Dirksen, 2012) helpfully explicates, Applied ethnomusicology needs to reconsider its origins in the academy. "Applied" carries the sense of knowledge being "applied" to places and practices. Music therapy as a profession and discourse, has emerged from the opposite. Beginning as music-making in everyday lives, with and for people in hospitals, special schools, residential centres, many of the music therapy pioneers were performers, seeking to "help" and "change" the lives of people through making music. From these origins, music therapy knowledge and theory has continued to emerge and become diverse: seeking to both retain its distinctive character, while engaging with theories that are close to its practices[12]. Community music therapy[13] is a reflexive engagement with people with a range of resources and abilities, with a strong commitment to, and practice of, social-musical flourishing, based on therapeutic norms and values of their contexts (Ansdell & DeNora, 2012). Community Music Therapy critiques the legitimising of the practice through pathology-based tropes, while also remaining engaged with the contextual, situated discourses – which may well be medical, educational, social, etc. However, Community Music therapy tropes, however culturally reflexive, stop short of the metaphysical.

Without the ethnomusicological trope, we suggest that the music therapy trope remains somewhat thinner – where are music therapists' beliefs and cosmologies? Where are the ancestors? Why are they hidden? The rub remains right here: the linking together of doing, experiencing, and telling the story. Whose story and how is it told? What is its purpose and what needs to be propelled to the foreground, and what needs left unsaid?

Muti Music emblematises our suspicion: as a frame, a fence and possibly a bridge, a story of its own. Muti Music signifies the hybrid, the messy straddling of worlds and beliefs and practices, and the complexities around narrating this messiness. Both music therapy and Medical Ethnomusicology need to retain Muti Music – if each is to continue to play with, and narrate the known, unknown, and question the familiar.


[1] Muti originates in the Nguni languages whose people migrated Southwards from regions of the Great Lakes, hundreds of years ago. Meaning traditional African medicine, Muti has become a generic word symbolising all medicines, and it enjoys lively colloquial use throughout Southern Africa (Wikipedia, 2015 and personal knowledge).

[2] Throughout this paper, we play with words such as Indigenous, Western, Native, and Traditional. Indigenous is generally taken to mean pre-colonial people and world views; but we contest this narrow use on the grounds of its etymology (people and cultures who are natives of particular places and environments). We propose that "indigenous" can include those who are situated within (so-called) Western scholarship, as well as people of all nations. (Merriam-Webster, 2015). This stance aligns closely with that of Kofi Agawu (2014), who contests the roots of African Ethnomusicology as implicitly about difference and separation of nations, cultures, ethnicities, etc., and its apparent ignoring of similarities and overlaps between peoples and their cultures. Thus we both retain the distinctions (which we contest), and use them as distinctive and separate.

[3] We retain the use of "the West" throughout, to insist on the (separate) locality of authors and discourses; leaving aside notions of globality of discourses for now.

[4] Reflexivity in this paper refers to its sociological understanding (see chapter 1 in Collins & Gallinat, 2010): the emergence of a critical awareness of the self as part of the event, the environment, social field, while concurrently being the self who is "observing", "participating", and documenting. This notion can also be understood as a countercurrent to the notion of separation and duality between cause and effect, and the observer and observed (as in scientific epistemologies) – positing that all human beings come with cultural, social subjectivity, which cannot be removed from that which is being studies. Ethnographic methodologies and epistemologies can be understood as embracing and putting to the fore the Self that is also the observer and documenter (and scientist).

[5] We might also ask why any distinctive academic discourse – including that of Community Music Therapy - is necessary: whose purposes does it serve?

[6] We’re aware that ethnomusicology is broader than music-and-healing/health; hence our contention that trans-disciplinary generosity and porousness might suffice.

[7]Minibus taxis generally thrive in areas with no public transport, and where people do not have resources for private car ownership. Often unsafe through being filled to capacity, with drivers forced by unscrupulous owners to maximise the passenger load, minibus taxis are protective of their routes – with taxi wars for competing passengers often having fatal consequences.

[8] As is the case for a lot of ‘othered’ or exoticised music. The label "world music" also connotes to the label of music that refers to all non-Western music in a commercial sense. Not only does the label "other" non-Western musics, but it has a reputation of compromising and essentialising identities for the sake of commodifying appropriated versions of music for a western, cosmopolitan market (Connell & Gibson, 2004, pp. 342-343).

[9] Narrated by the first author

[10] Procter (2013); Ansdell (forthcoming); Stige & Aarø (2012); Pavlicevic (2004 a+b)

[11] See the writings of Ansdell, Procter, Wood, Stige

[12] Ken Aigen’s book Music Centred Music Therapy gives a helpful taxonomy of different kinds of music therapy theories and discourses (Aigen, 2005)

[13] The entire issue of the International Journal of Community Music (2014), vol 17(2) edited by Giorgos Tsiris, was dedicated to Community Music Therapy, and includes foundational texts.


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