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The Voice in the Drum: Music, Language, and Emotion in Islamicate East Asia

by Richard K. Wolf
University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 2014
408 pp., illus., 23 b/w. Trade, $60.00
ISBN: 978-0-252-03858-7.

Reviewed by Jonathan Zilberg
Center for African Studies
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

The Voice in the Drum, by Richard Wolf, Professor of Music and South Asian Studies at Harvard, is a completely unique development in ethnomusicology. [1] It fully achieves the primary goal of the 1980’s inter-disciplinary impetus in cultural anthropology that was to radically experiment with the creative potential of the poetics and politics of representation of the self and the other. As an acutely detailed and richly contextualized musicological study, this powerful study thus not only synthesizes the creative ideals which energized the social sciences in the post-modern era but also significantly advances the theoretical research horizons for the anthropological study of ritual and music.

With its combined literary force and experimental form coupled with meticulous research and analysis, Richard Wolf has crossed a rubicon in his career-long interest in the semiotic potential of music, in this case of the drum. At once a massive musicological analysis, a literary experiment and a powerful historical novel, it is essentially a multi-sited historically situated experimental ethnography. Wolf has the writer’s eye for detail and the musicologist’s passion for documentation and analysis through the heightened insight that comes with embodied experience. If you are not a musicologist, however, you will be forgiven for glossing over the technical parts, in fact most of whole chapters and sections of endnotes. And though it might inspire future scholars in ethnomusicology to be this daring, few I imagine would be able to meet its standard.

This vast study focuses on the Shi’i ritual of remembering the massacre of Karbala - the historical origin of the Sunni – Shi’i conflict over who would inherit the Prophet Mohammad’s political and religious authority. It is thus a subject of vital contemporary significance considering the boiling sectarian tensions in much of the Muslim world today. Specifically Wolf focuses on the music of the Muharram ritual at a Sufi shrine in Lahore, Pakistan. Collected during a long period of fieldwork beginning there in 1996 and supplemented by much other material drawn from extensive field research both in India and Pakistan, Wolf presents here an intensely analytic story of a ritual musical tradition and its transformations over time. In doing so, he masterfully brings to life the plural history of religion and society in this part of the sub-continent in the 19th Century and especially the changes which followed after partition in 1947.

By skillfully drawing out his research interests through the character of Muharram Ali, Wolf manages to draw the reader into a historical drama of idealism and naiveté falling apart. His protagonist, a fictional journalist Muharram Ali, son of Ahmed Ali Khan, a 19th Century North Indian ruler, inadvertently discovers that the real story of his family was very different to that which he had been led to believe. The devilishly clever ending is masterful, the tactical revelation of the relation with the fictional editor brilliant. In short, in this most unusual work inspired by a dream, Wolf has opened up wholly new territory for ethnomusicology and beyond.

Ethnomusicology, arguably the most profound form of anthropology because it is so elementally grounded in the practice and principles of deep long-term participant observation, is here given a wholly new literary and intellectually playful dimension in which Wolf is interested in how music functions to keep alive the memory of the massacre of Karbala. At the same time as being interested in Islamic history, Wolf is specifically interested in the question of what it means for instruments to be voice-like. While the primary formal issues that Wolf tackles are the musicological analysis of the beat, rhythm, pitch and timbre, etc. of the drum in the Muharram tradition, in the manner of the acquisition of musical talent and above all in the nature of competence and excellence, the book is important far beyond the narrower confines of ethnomusicology. For instance, for the study of religion, it significantly advances the theoretical horizons for the anthropological study of ritual. As for the burgeoning fields of sound and archival studies, this study, also available as an e-book, is exemplary for how it brings alive the field data in a rich visual and sonic fashion through the materials provided on the companion web site. For teaching purposes, for musicians and the creative musical industry broadly speaking, it is in effect a landmark example of how to organize and present the field data behind one’s study. [2]

Finally, I cannot help but feel that there is a much smaller and less technical book waiting in here, a literary classic. If the complicated musical analysis could somehow be crystallized for a lay audience so as to radiate this jewel of a story from within it could reach a vast audience beyond the university. In the meantime, whether you are a university librarian responsible for Islamic studies, ethnomusicology, cultural anthropology, history or experimental literature, this is a book you cannot afford not to order.


[1] Richard Wolf is the author of The Black Cow’s Footprint: Time, Space, and Music in the Lives of the Kotas of South India (2006), editor of Theorizing the Local: Music, Practice, and Experience in South Asia and Beyond (2009) and co-editor with Frank Heidemann of The Bison and the Horn: Indigeneity, Performance and the State of India (2014).

For the companion website, see www.press.illinois.edu/books/wolf/voiceinthedrum.

Last Updated 1st February 2016

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