DIALOGUES: Towards Decolonizing Music and Dance Studies

Reading Together in a Far-Reaching Community

Applying Decolonization to Practice


Kate Walker (University of Sheffield)


Peter Underwood (Bath Spa University)




Hannah Bates (SOAS, University of London)
Karin Bindu (University of Vienna)
Abel Marcel Calderon Arias (Conservatorium van Amsterdam and Pianist)
Sajith Vijayan (Mizhavu Percussionist and Performer)
Kate Walker (University of Sheffield)

Speakers in this ICTM Dialogues session share a common experience: all belong to a grassroots, online, global ethnomusicology reading group (ERG). Members range from MA students to senior academics who gather weekly as a community of practice. Participants share an interest in ethnomusicology and cognate disciplines, and they meet to improve their critical skills. The ERG is guided by a single principle: accessibility for all.

Since 2016, the ERG co-chairs have prepared reading lists concerning varied themes, regions, and musical practices. In 2020, however, we recognized the absence of scholarship from beyond the Euro-American academic systems; our omission was made more conspicuous by the regular attendance of participants from Nigeria, Sudan, India, and Indonesia. As UK-educated white scholars, we acknowledged our role in dictating what is of academic value as well as our complicity in replicating power structures in higher education.

To begin this ICTM Dialogues session, the ERG co-chairs introduce its activities and guiding principle. Acknowledging that BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour) ethnomusicologists are doing the heavy lifting to effect systemic change, we consider our positionality in relation to challenging the universality of academic outputs by white researchers. In particular, we critically assess our curation of a reading list of works by academics from low- and middle-income countries and our decision to make underrepresented scholars integral to our future reading lists – processes intended to better reflect the community that we serve. Thereafter, the speakers discuss how the issues raised in 2020 ERG sessions – the researcher and the researched, academics’ links to non-academics, the university and its relationship with the community, and positionality – affect their ethnomusicological research.

In the first presentation and musical performance, Sajith Vijayan (Mizhavu percussionist and performer) and Karin Bindu (Austrian percussionist and ethnomusicologist) examine the South Indian visual sacrifice Kutiyattam. They reflect how both visiting scholars and performers from Kerala approach research methods differently, including mutual recognition, criticism, inspiration, and collaborative potential. Second, Kate Walker autoethnographically critiques her participation in a large-scale programme delivered by Asian-American taiko players in direct response to Black Lives Matter. She considers how race, ethnicity, and gender affect players’ everyday lives as well as their musical and social participation in taiko. By sharing a collaborative performance, she considers why the burden falls on BIPOC players (who form the majority of community members) to challenge the status quo. Third, Abel Marcel Calderon Arias and Hannah Bates reflect upon the roles of dialogue and listening, both with each other as intellectuals, researchers, musicians and friends, and with a wider circle of interlocutors on their individual research and musical paths. Through their reflections, they engage with ideas of insider-/outsider-ness, orality versus literacy, and “official” versus erased narratives, and the parts such issues play in applying principles of decolonization to ethnomusicological practice.

Collectively, we challenge long-standing, outdated methods and approaches to sharing knowledge that reinforce hegemonic powers in our discipline. The co-chairs conclude that decolonization of the ERG necessitates a symbiotic relationship: participants’ work is affected by taking part in discussions, and the group’s development should in turn be impacted by its members’ scholarly activities.

Further References

Au Yong, Byron, and Aaron Jafferis. N.d. “Activist Songbook.” Accessed January 14, 2022. https://www.activistsongbook.org/p/home.html.
Bindu, Karin, and Sajith Vijayan. 2021. “Kerala’s Ancient Mizhavu Drum: Transformations and Sustainability.” Asian European Music Research Journal 8: 27-38. https://doi.org/10.30819/aemr.8.
De Los Ángeles Córdoba, María. 2012. Música y Memoria Histórica (Fernando Ortiz In Memoriam). La Habana: Cúpulas.
Dunphy, Kim. 2018. "Theorizing Arts Participation as a Social Change Mechanism." In The Oxford Handbook of Community Music, edited by Brydie-Leigh Bartleet and Lee Higgins, 301-322. New York: Oxford University Press.
Taylor, Diana. 2007. The Archive and The Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. Durham: Duke University Press.


Our panel brought together scholars and interlocutors who used diverse formats to share their ideas. Despite focusing on varied musical and social practices, our contributors still identified common themes and values, particularly openness to engaging with scholars and musicians from different (academic) systems and structures. This, for us, highlighted the inherent value of multiple perspectives as well as diverse modes of participation and exchange toward dismantling hegemonic structures within ethnomusicology.

Since our ICTM Dialogues session, we have refined and implemented our identified action points in light of our new understanding of the importance of multiple modes of engagement. First, we are more vigorously promoting the ERG to widen access to activities among underrepresented groups. Second, we are diversifying our modes of participation and exchange by hosting regular online structured study days. Finally, we are advocating for agile, grassroots communities of practice beyond academia (like the ERG) as part of our vision for ethnomusicology in 2022 and beyond.


Questions to Consider

Given the ERG’s organising principle of accessibility for all, and the employment of diverse presentational modes, how can we best facilitate exchange among people with experience in diverse contexts (academic or otherwise)?

At the end of our ICTM Dialogues session, we commited to drawing attention to the potential of grassroots initiatives for advancing equity and inclusion within our discipline. This presumes that these grassroots initiatives would solely bring about positive change. What are some of the potential challenges that grassroots initiatives could present in this context - and are there ways to circumvent or mitigate any potential impact?


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