DIALOGUES: Towards Decolonizing Music and Dance Studies

Embracing a Decentred Approach in the Borderlands of Ethnomusicology


Alexander M. Cannon (University of Birmingham)


Alexander M. Cannon




Alexander M. Cannon
Hsu Hsin-Wen (National Taiwan Normal University)
Kiku Day (Goldsmiths, University of London)
Tasaw Lu Hsin-Chun (Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica, Taipei)

A vital aspect of decolonizing ethnomusicology and, more generally, decolonizing knowledge, entails decentring whiteness. In this ICTM Dialogues session, we identify vestiges of white supremacy in the discipline, especially in the way that stories are clipped, sutured, rationalized, translated, and ordered to fit fashionable theories or common narratives. Part of our decolonizing effort includes accepting that previous works are products of their time, and then following the lead of our fieldwork interlocutors to repair the misunderstandings generated. Decentring suggests a replacement of focus, but on what should we now focus in our discipline’s work?

By focusing our efforts on the lives of Black and Indigenous musicians, we offer renewed attention on the experiences of marginalized and non-settler experiences. How might this kind of focus operate in locations in Asia? Categories invoked by decolonizing scholarship are contested; indeed, groups living away from perceived ancestral homelands may not identify as “settler colonials” as the term is invoked in North American scholarship. How do ethnographers support decolonized practice if research partners or consultants in Asia do not abide by the assumptions underpinning Indigeneity and settler status? What happens if scholars identify multiple Indigenous experiences on which to focus? As speakers in this session, we draw on our research experiences in Denmark, Japan, Myanmar, Taiwan, Vietnam, and the United States. We respond to these questions using ethnographically-based considerations of what are considered “borderlands” that run between and through more easily identifiable categories in Asia. We seek to engage decolonization and further decentre whiteness by foregrounding perspectives of inhabitants of the many borderlands folded into the fabric of music practice in Asia. These borderlands have been described occasionally as “transnational” or “translocal” but do not fit easily into either of these groupings. Inhabitants of borderlands seek certain affinities and resist others; in many ways, they seek tactical decentring to maintain where and who they are. Should ethnographic decentring seek new centres or remain decentred? How might constant unmooring generate agency?

The four presenters in this session each deliver short presentations, and then take part in a discussion amongst one other and, subsequently, with the audience. Alexander M. Cannon investigates how southern Vietnamese musicians decouple their practice from narratives of the “national character” as a way of forming new methods of sovereignty and social solidarity with musicians outside of Vietnam. Hsu Hsin-Wen examines the creation of Hakka hymns in Taiwan and how Hakka Christians in Taiwan and beyond have fought for the legitimacy and institutional support for Hakka missions. Kiku Day reflects on locations of knowledge about the shakuhachi, noting the many more “Western” studies of the instrument and its practices compared to those in Japan, and considers who owns intellectual knowledge about it. Tasaw Lu Hsin-Chun seeks to decolonize hegemonic theoretical paradigms in studies of borderland communities and draws from specific examples in the Golden Triangle on the Thai-Myanmar border and among “world-music ensembles” in Taiwan. This session therefore embraces decentred approaches and perspectives to explore emergent bounds of community in historical and contemporary borderlands.


Further References

Ahmed, Sara. 2007. “A Phenomenology of Whiteness.” Feminist Theory 8 (2):149–168.
Comaroff, John L and Jean Comaroff. 2009. Ethnicity Inc. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Guo, Pei-Yi. 2014. “Gongzuo de ‘Tonglixin’: Chongfan/fan Suoluomen Qundao Langalanga Jiaohu Qu de Tianye Gongzuo” (共做的「同理心」:重反/返所羅門群島Langalanga 礁湖區的田野工作) [Co-acting ‘Empathy’: Reflections on Fieldwork among the Langalanga People in the Solomon Islands”], In Tongli Xin, Qinggan Yu Huwei Zhuti: Renleixue Yu Xinlixue de Duihua (同理心、情感與互為主體:人類學與心理學的對話) [Empathy, Affect, and Intersubjectivity: Dialogue between Anthropology and Psychology], edited by Liu Fei-Wen and Chu Ruey-Ling, 19-67. Taipei: Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica.
Harris, Rachel. 2020. Soundscapes of Uyghur Islam. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Hsu, Hsin-Wen. 2021. “The Making of Hakka Hymns in Postwar Taiwan: Negotiating Identity Conflicts and Contextualizing Christian Practices.” In Resounding Taiwan: Musical Reverberations Across a Vital Island, edited by Nancy Guy, 105-123. London and New York: Routledge.
Moussawi, Ghassan, and Salvador Vidal-Ortiz. 2020. “A Queer Sociology: On Power, Race, and Decentering Whiteness.” Sociological Forum 35 (4): 1272–1289.
Puwar, Nirmal. 2004. Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place. Oxford and New York: Berg.
Robinson, Gregory J. 2013. “Remembering the Borderlands: Traditional Music and the Post-Frontier in Aisén.” Ethnomusicology 57 (3): 455–484.
Said, Edward W. 2000. Reflections on Exile and Other Essays. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Shirazi, Roozbeh. 2018. “Decentering Americanness: Transnational Youth Experiences of Recognition and Belonging in Two U.S. High Schools.” Anthropology & Education Quarterly 49 (2):111–128.
Tan, Shzr Ee. 2021. “Whose Decolonisation? Checking for Intersectionality, Lane-policing an Academic Privilege from a Transnational (Chinese) Vantage Point.” Ethnomusicology Forum 30 (1):1–23.


Discussions of decentred practices and movements have taken place in ethnomusicology (and music studies more generally) for decades. As academics offered ways of decentring knowledge and ideas, these ways later become new centres and new disciplining paradigms. This ICTM Dialogues session encourages a revised consideration of decentring through the concept of the borderlands as a dynamic and developing process, a process that necessarily operates as social practice. Borderlands are not fixed entities but well-traversed, sometimes purposefully hidden, and are constantly reconstituted by inhabitants and travelers. Within these borderlands, ideologies and belief systems cannot be easily reconciled; herein lies their power to maintain decentred approaches. This session and its participants discuss ways of rethinking educational structures. They revise research methodologies to foreground voices and experiences of non-academic musicians outside centres of power. Decentring whiteness enables this work and fosters greater dialogue; it also sustains engagement with local practices and encourages new forms of reflexivity. Still, it is essential that we do not solely rely on reflexivity. A continual engagement with decentred research approaches benefits ethnographic research. It helps researchers create cooperative relations with research subjects in their collective negotiations with normative structures, in sounding silenced identities, and in achieving social justice.


Questions to Consider

Why are we talking about “de-centring” now? What new centres, norms, and colonizing powers have been newly created, and in which contexts? 

What forms of borderlands built on the old centres have also emerged? (How) Do those require us to think of decentering and recentring? If forms of borderlands have transformed into new centers and new paradigms, should we consider decolonizing or welcoming such forms?

How can we include more non-academic musicians in our field so that they have a direct voice in research, and can engage in greater dialogue with us?

What are some other kinds of decentred approaches that are also needed in the borderlands of ethnomusicology?

How might engaging with borderlands of ethnomusicology offer new approaches to interrogating authenticity and tradition?

How can ethnomusicologists change their ethnographic research approaches to decentre whiteness?

How important is the development of local programs in ethnomusicology to the project of decentring?

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