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Among the Jasmine Trees: Music and Modernity in Contemporary Syria

by Jonathan Shannon
Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT, 2006
292 pp. illus. 24 b/w. Trade, $40
ISBN: 0-8195-6798-1.

Reviewed by Jonathan Zilberg
Jakarta Institute of the Arts

Among the Jasmine Trees is a hauntingly beautiful example of all that is best in contemporary anthropology and ethnomusicology and their mutual nexus with performance studies and ideas of embodied knowledge. It is also an important book for those interested in ethnographic studies of the contemporary Arab world and of how cultural heritage is being used to express alternative forms of modernity that draw on sentiment and emotion.

Chapter One introduces the reader to Aleppo, where the study was conducted. It relates why Aleppo is a critical site for studying tarab music in that it has long been seen as the cradle of traditional Arab music and tarab music itself is seen as a quintessentially Arabic tradition connecting contemporary Syriac music back to the Golden age of Levantine culture. Chapter Two introduces the key concept to which the author will elaborate upon in each chapter — authenticity. Holt Shannon relates how while in the past, authenticity signified "genuineness", "rootedeness, fixedness, permanence, and lineage" today its meaning has shifted such that modernity has become the essence of authenticity. The shock of modernity has led to a revival in which alternative modernities are emerging through the creative use of their cultural heritage that involves the construction, performance, and contestation of musical authenticity.

Accordingly, Chapters Three, Five and Six focus on different aspects of authenticity in tarab music. While Chapter Three focuses on the role of history, cultural memory and the emotions in the construction of authenticity, Chapter Five focuses on what constitutes an authentic performance and how authenticity is performed and Chapter Six focuses on the relationship between sentiment and authenticity in tarab music. The intervening chapter, Chapter Four, examines the all important Dhikr ceremony which is a ritual invocation and remembrance of God and which is especially important for understanding the historical roots of "authentic" Arab music as well as for engaging the notion of body memory which is of central importance to this study and the music itself. All in all then, this is very much a study of authenticity and is, I believe, currently the most detailed case study of authenticity to be found in the ethnographic literature.

In doing so, the study succeeds admirably in showing how musical authenticity is imagined, constructed, performed, embodied, and contested. It closely examines the genealogy of the key terms authenticity, heritage, and modernity in the Arab world and provides a nuanced study of the different uses of origins in constructing alternative narratives of authenticity. It also provides a convincing account of how Syrian musicians are engaged in a project of performing and imagining an alternative modernity that emphasizes emotion over rationality.

In all this, there are two ethnographic incidents that are extremely compelling examples of the difficulties and pleasures involved in conducting anthropological fieldwork.

The first incident relates his search for dhikr, his difficulties in getting invited to such a performance, and the virtually mystical way in which he eventually experienced it. In this it is a classic example of the strength of humanistic anthropology to leave the reader with the experience of having been there and having come to understand something of the dare I say "authentic" Other. The second incident involves his personal experience of embodied knowledge in which through the inexplicable failure of his recording equipment, he came to have a deep emotional experience of just how important embodied knowledge is, of how it is "written on the back of the heart". For all this, and more, this study certainly deserved the Kerr Award, but there is a major problem at hand as regards the anthropology of authenticity.

Holt Shannon reveals how contemporary Syrian artists consider authenticity as a negative aesthetic and how it is a fundamentally important determinant of their musical experience in which the authentic is always opposed to the inauthentic. In this, at the behest of his informant’s advice, Holt Shannon deftly returns us to Adorno — but at a price — for the absence of engagement with the anthropological research on authenticity is stunning. It will be fascinating to see how anthropologists invested in authenticity in such different ways to Sholt Hannon will respond to this work.

It is above all fascinating to see how Shannon is so deeply committed to Sapir’s and Adorno’s ideas that have been so thoroughly rejected in post- modernist anthropology and cultural studies. One possible reason for this is that the study ultimately relies on an essentialist conception of authenticity as a negative aesthetic. In this, Holt Shannon’s intellectual inheritance lies within the classical tradition of Theodore Adorno’s The Jargon of Authenticity (1973), Edward Sapir’s Adorno-esque notion of the "genuine" versus the "spurious", Lionel Trilling’s important work Sincerity and Authenticity (1972) and Suzanne Langer‘s all important study Feeling and Form (1953). Drawing on subsequent ethnomusicological studies which engage the topic of authenticity, the axioms on authenticity developed in anthropology are nevertheless all sensitively evoked. These include the constructivist and emergent nature of reality, the importance of discourse, the nature of culture as fractured and contested, the invention of tradition, and the importance of ambiguity, contradiction and paradox in which all that was considered as formerly solid has melted into air.

Despite this fundamental contradiction, this study, perhaps, deserves to become a classic of early 21st century ethnography. Herein, we see how intellectuals and musicians reflect upon and theorize the imagined tension between the present and the past and the ways in which different subject positions deploy and experience the notion of the authentic versus the inauthentic. Though it will be interesting to see how anthropologists working on authenticity react to it having been so utterly left out of the equation, it will be more interesting still to see how Arab intellectuals respond to this work and how Muslim tarab audiences in Africa and Asia respond to it in terms of its silence on how Syrian women and the rest of the Islamic world experience tarab.



Updated 1st November 2006

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