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A friend to endangered music

Catherine Grant’s quest to sustain the world’s musical genres, from yak hymns to funeral songs

Kantaoming master Seng Norn (right) and students. Ian Kirkland

I n the highlands of Tibet, for centuries, it was commonplace for farmers to sing a particular kind of song to their yaks. The melodies were intended to coax the yaks to produce more milk, praising the sheen of their coats and the beauty of their horns. The particular combination of tones was said to have special powers to relax the yaks and get the milk flowing. Today, only a handful of old-timers still remember those songs; younger herders simply don’t learn the music, distracted by the pop songs coming in over the radio. And when the old-timers die, most likely the songs will die as well.

These yak songs are just one of countless endangered music traditions around the world, vanishing as modern life intrudes and the last practitioners die without passing them on. Worried about the loss, ethnomusicologists have begun trying to document, preserve, and even breathe new life into these disappearing traditions—much as linguists over the last two decades have launched a concerted effort to support endangered languages in the face of predictions that 3,000 are likely to vanish by the end of the century.

UNESCO considers local music, like language, an “intangible cultural heritage.” As ethnomusicologists see it, music contains vital information about how people live—about their animals, their weather, their practices, and traditions—and about the world we share. One Australian researcher, Allan Marett, recently wrote that the loss of certain music like traditional fishing or food-gathering songs represents a loss of ecological knowledge that could “potentially compromise our ability to adapt to as yet unforeseen changes.”

It’s this sad reality of cultural destruction that struck Catherine Grant, a postdoctoral ethnomusicology researcher at Australia’s University of Newcastle, while assisting on a project looking at the situation of ca trù, a sophisticated Vietnamese chamber music. Unlike for language, Grant discovered, no one had developed a systematic way to gauge the stage of life of a music genre, or offered any tools for assessing whether it was dying. So, borrowing from the work of linguists engaged in “language maintenance,” she developed her own set of factors for judging a music tradition’s vitality. Now, she has presented that methodology in a new book, “Music Endangerment: How Language Maintenance Can Help.”


Since she finished the book, Grant has embarked on an ambitious attempt to see how 100 music genres all over the world were holding up. Using an online survey that tapped both researchers and musicians, she has accumulated information on a wide range of genres, including the “shima uta” songs of the Amami Islands in Japan, Dinka ox-songs from Sudan, Khmer classical wedding music from Cambodia, Gaelic songs from Nova Scotia, and the “sompoton” mouth organ of the indigenous Kadazan Dusun people of Sabah, Malaysia.


Ideas caught up with Grant at a guest house in northern Cambodia, where she has been conducting fieldwork. This interview was transcribed from audio responses to e-mailed questions.

IDEAS: Ethnomusicology seems as old a discipline as the phonograph. There has always been a desire in the West to record exotically different forms of music. What’s changed now?

“I somewhat object to being called a preservationist,” said Catherine Grant.

GRANT: In the early days of ethnomusicology, around the 1890s—when it began as a field called comparative musicology—research on endangered music genres was often driven by the interests of the researchers rather than of the community members themselves. The stereotypical picture of those ethnomusicologists was of a man—it was typically a man—hiding behind a tree in a village somewhere with his recording gear, trying to capture whatever he could in the community, then take it away, perhaps log it an archive somewhere....The community [might] never see any benefit from the research.

These days we’ve moved on from that, and there’s been much more of an attempt at collaborative research. It’s often even designed with the specific needs and interests of the community in mind.

IDEAS: So how do you decide that a music genre is so endangered it needs an intervention by an ethnomusicologist?


GRANT: Take kantaoming, a funeral music genre from Cambodia. I’ve been personally helping to try and keep this genre alive. But to get a sense of some of the obstacles it faces, I can look at the kantaoming response in my global survey. The researcher who filled it out, Mr. Chhuon Sarin from Cambodian Living Arts, described a music that is mostly being performed by an older generation that is struggling to pass on knowledge to younger musicians. Most people these days are using cassette tapes during funerals, so there is not enough work for musicians and that’s why not many people are interested in learning this genre....And then there’s the practical issue that this genre can only be practiced in a pagoda, so people have to travel to learn, and instruments can be expensive.

IDEAS: You said you intervened with kantaoming. What did this mean?

GRANT: When I was in Cambodia last year, I was speaking to Seng Norn, a master of kantaoming, and he said that one of the barriers to teaching this genre, to passing it on to youngsters, was that his instruments were in fairly poor condition and that when his village needed these instruments for a funeral ceremony, which could last some days, he couldn’t teach. When I returned to Australia, I thought that I may be able to help, and with his permission I led a crowdfunding campaign to raise the 2,000 Australian dollars to commission from a local instrument builder a whole set of instruments, which were delivered to a little village outside Siem Riep in the north of Cambodia later that year.


IDEAS: Doesn’t that turn you into more of an activist, a preservationist, than an academic doing research with objective distance?

GRANT: I somewhat object to being called a preservationist. I’m not interested in preserving or conserving for their own sake. I’m more interested in working with the communities to find the best ways for them to keep their cultural practices strong. So if that means through innovation, super. If that means through maintenance and sustainability of older forms, also super. But to answer the question about becoming an activist, I think attitudes in a lot of fields have changed completely. Ethnomusicologists have started to feel that objective distance really isn’t the aim of our research. And I’m reminded of one researcher on ca trù, Barley Norton, who said he was “unashamedly interventionist” in the revival of that genre.

IDEAS: You must come across communities that simply don’t see the point.

GRANT: There was a music researcher in the 1960s who studied Maori rowing boat songs, and he was struck that those songs were dying out but for the very simple reason that Maori people were beginning to use motorboats. So they had no need for us to come in and tell them to keep on singing those songs even though they didn’t want them anymore....Some of my colleagues don’t actually believe that what I and others call music endangerment is much of a problem. They believe that music genres naturally rise and disappear like languages or like civilizations themselves. That’s true, but I would add that nowadays that the process of loss is at a far greater rate than the natural growth and attrition of music genres and indeed cultures, perhaps [in a way that’s] analogous to the environmental crisis.


The concern is when these pressures are coming in from the outside and happening against the will of the communities concerned. And then it’s just about listening to the views of the community members, and there may be quite different views as to whether or not their tradition should be preserved. In my experience, there is often something of an age divide in these attitudes. The older people want to keep the old forms and the younger people are happier to experiment.

One way to overcome those differences in opinion is to have it both ways. To make sure that the older tradition is at least documented well so that it can form the basis of innovation at a later stage. So it’s not so much about preservation as about maintenance, or sustainability.

Gal Beckerman is a journalist and author. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” was named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post in 2010, and has been released in paperback.