Working with communities to keep music strong

Music endangerment is not just a research field for Dr Catherine Grant; she is an activist and interventionist for communities that are suffering the cultural loss of their music traditions.

Grant is an ethnomusicologist in the School of Creative Arts whose focus is endangered music in Indigenous and minority communities. Her work is important to the revitalisation of traditional music, which assists in social cohesion, and a sense of individual and collective identity; in turn, this has benefits for the health and wellbeing of community members.

“Music contains knowledge of ancestors, kinship relations, the land, environment, food systems, and medicinal systems. This traditionally links with survival, but it also has the implications for the rest of us,” Grant said. “These songs tell history, give historical evidence and contain knowledge of potential importance. They also contribute to cultural diversity and intercultural relations.

“The threat to intangible cultural heritage is something that we should all be concerned about, in a way, like the environmental crisis. It doesn’t pose a threat to the very existence of humanity but it certainly poses a risk to how we relate to each other as people.”

A classical pianist, who trained at the Queensland Conservatorium, and spent time overseas teaching English as a second language, Grant says during her PhD she was struck by the fact that, unlike for languages, no one had developed a systematic way to gauge the strength of a music genre.

As a result, her research focus has been looking at the tools linguists use to assess the vitality of language and adapting them to music. After developing her own set of factors for judging a music genre’s vitality, which she has titled the Music Vitality and Endangerment Framework or MVEF, she has presented the methodology in a book – Music Endangerment: How Language Maintenance Can Help (2014).

Now, Grant is holding this framework up to 100 genres from across the world and collaborating with ethnomusicologists, music researchers, communities, and musicians to build a map of the vitality of the genres.

In 2003, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) adopted its Convention for the Urgent Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

“If this turns out to be a useful tool, it could be carried further into something like the UNESCO map of endangered languages,” Grant said.

However, Grant is not satisfied with what she calls “intellectual fun”; she is passionate about the communities and looks forward to more fieldwork.

In a 2014 interview with The Boston Globe, Grant stated that she objects to being called a ‘preservationist’. “I’m more interested in working collaboratively with the communities to find the best ways for them to keep their cultural practices strong, if that’s what they wish.”

The threat to intangible cultural heritage is something that we should all be concerned about, in a way, like the environmental crisis…

She has been personally involved in the revitalisation of music within communities. In 2013, she raised money via a crowd funding campaign to supply traditional instruments to a village in Cambodia.

During the devastation of the Pol Pot regime in the 1970s, Cambodia is one place where the people experienced an almost complete loss of intangible cultural heritage; not only the practice but the transmission to younger people.

“In Cambodia, quite often the artists spoke to me about identity – the ‘soul’ of Cambodia. Culture is the soul of a country and if you don’t have the arts then a country doesn’t thrive,” Grant said.

“My research is progressing to the stage where it’s time for me to look at what can be done about music endangerment; to move into the areas of music maintenance and revitalisation.

“I would like to look at the initiatives that are going on around the world to revitalise music traditions, and their successes and failures – because there are many. There is just no overarching framework yet that could help indicate what might work in any one situation.”

Learn more about UON’s Faculty of Education and the Arts Research Directions in 2015.

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