Music and Minorities


The International Council for Traditional Music is a worldwide association devoted to ethnomusicology. It consists of numerous specialized Study Groups focusing on specific areas of interest. Its Study Group on “Music and Minorities”.  has much attracted my interest over the last several years. I owe it to this Study Group that I came to regard the concept of “minority” as a potential category for no less than a wide-angle view on world music history. I mean to say that musical change, at all levels, can possibly be viewed as a process triggered, at least in part, by the interaction among social groups, majorities and minorities.


No doubt, defining what a minority is, is crucial; ideally one that psychologist William James would have appreciated. In fact, James maintained that definitions (concepts, categories) need to have “cash value”. He meant, they should help us catch aspects of reality that otherwise would escape our attention. 



Having that in mind, and considering how much research has been made on minorities, usually focusing on circumscribed, local realities, I wonder whether the time is ripe for a general theory. A theory might help see beyond single case studies. I am thinking of something like Veblen’s “theory of the leisure class”, Talcott Parson's “theory of social action”, or John Rawls "Theory of Justice".


I also rather wonder whether a theory should be limited to discriminated minorities  (which has been so far usually the case) or, on the contrary (for the sake of comparison), include hegemonic ones. I think here, for instance, of the old Charles Wright Mills study of elites. There has been no shortage of hegemonic minorities in the course of history (patricians in ancient Rome, whites people in apartheid South Africa, aristocracies across the world at all times). Surely minorities in power are studied by historians and political scientists, but not of from the point of view of their musical behaviour. Neither have transnational “sound groups”  received much attention: people of different languages, nationalities, occupational roles, who somehow happen to enjoy the same music – Elvis Presley, for instance. What I am trying to say is that oppressed or discriminated minorities, could perhaps be better understood (and possibly helped) by comprehending what makes other minorities avoid discrimination and acquire power and respect. 


I am intrigued by the fact that minorities in power, do not necessarily appear as musically identifiable as discriminated ones. Or are they? In any case, even minorities that are not musically identifiable interest me, and I wonder under what conditions they may find it functional to acquire a musical voice. Only when in direct confrontation with majorities? Do we need to take seriously the hypothesis that discrimination and violence favor the development of musical identities? And the preservation of traditional forms of culture; while assimilation and integration do not? And if that is true, in order to preserve traditions, if that is what we wish to do, do we need to maintain discrimination?


Equally fascinating I find minorities who to a smaller or larger extent share the music of majorities, for a variety of reasons, including hope for social promotion. Fascinating as well are of minorities who ostentatiously marginalize themselves and make of their condition the source of pride. 


On the question of minority rights I have mixed feelings. I am all in favour of defending people’s rights, but I see rights as something we need to apply to individuals, not groups. The concept of “minority rights” entails the risk of having to constantly decide who is eligible to claim them (South African officials once measured the crinkliness of people’s hair in order to determine whether they were Bantu, White, or Coloured). Not to mention the difficulty that everyone of us is member of some minority or another; even members of ethnic majorities may be red-headed, albinos, male or female. Does the law have to codify the rights of every group within other groups? It is much easier and straightforward to only spell out what rights apply to all citizens. 


Questions, questions, questions. It hurts to leave them unanswered. That is why I would so very much like the minority issue to be framed within a general theory. Surely there must be young scholars out there, capable of taking up the challenge. 


January 2021