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Music Endangerment: How Language Maintenance Can Help

August 15, 2014

By Dr. Catherine Grant, Joy Ingall Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at  The School of Creative Arts at the University of Newcastle. She is the author of Music Endangerment: How Language Maintenance Can Help, available on Oxford Scholarship Online.

Music Endangerment

On a recent trip to Cambodia, I found myself sitting in a temple courtyard with Seng Norn, an elderly master-musician of the ceremonial funeral music tradition kantaoming. A survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime, Seng Norn is one of the few remaining artists in Cambodia with a deep knowledge of this tradition. He is making enormous efforts to pass on his skills to the younger generation while he is still able, including to his own grandson. ‘Kantaoming is important for our soul, for who we are’, he told me. ‘I will not let it die.’

This story, though unique in detail, is replaying all over the world – wherever musical traditions are under threat from political, economic, social, technological, colonial or other forces. In my own country, since British colonization an estimated 98% of Australian Indigenous performances practices have already been lost. This includes most of the rich ceremonial traditions that were an integral part of social events, from initiations to marriages to funerals. Efforts are being made to document, maintain and revitalize the remaining practices while it is still possible to do so, but time is of the essence.

There are many reasons why this ‘cultural crisis’ might be a cause for concern. In most cultures across the world, including to some extent the Western one, music plays an important role in daily life. It helps us express our individual identity, and reaffirms our membership of a community, our sense of being and belonging. Particularly for Indigenous and minority peoples, music can provide a sense of continuity with the past, with cultural traditions and ancestral heritage. Existing traditions also form a basis for new cultural expressions, and in this way, a diversity of music genres enables innovation, too.

Music Endangerment: How Language Maintenance Can Help explores the phenomenon of endangered music genres across the world. It responds to the increasing sense of international urgency to take action against the threat to global ‘intangible cultural heritage’.

It also examines the ways in which the fields of language endangerment and language maintenance may help us better understand music endangerment, and what to do about it. For decades now, linguists have been vigorously responding with research, advocacy, and community activism to the perilous situation of many languages across the world. Without urgent action, an estimated 50% of the world’s 6000-odd languages will no longer be spoken by the end of this century.

In some ways, the problem of music endangerment, like that of language endangerment, is a wicked one. Many complex interdependencies mean that the problem itself is hard to define – and so too are the solutions. Rather than offering prescriptive approaches, Music Endangerment: How Language Maintenance Can Help suggests that specific situations of music endangerment are best tackled at the community level. It also argues, however, that robust support mechanisms at the higher levels can provide local communities with the frameworks, resources, networks, and tools needed to develop their own tailored solutions.

With this in mind, the six key recommendations made in the final chapter of the book are offered to help guide future advocacy, policy, research and activism on the issue of music endangerment.

I hope that the examples, stories, concepts, tools, and recommendations in the book will be of interest and use to researchers, policy-makers, cultural workers, and those individuals with a concern or a passion for the rich diversity of cultural heritage and cultural expressions in our world. Most of all, with this book I hope to ultimately benefit the very communities and individuals most affected by the ‘cultural crisis’ facing the world in the 21st century.

Discover more: Read Catherine's article on the OUPblog, entitled 'Why we should all care about "dying" musics', and the 'Introduction' of Music Endangerment: How Language Maintenance Can Help which is now free and available to read until the end of September. Get access to all of this book, as well almost 300 other Oxford Music titles, by recommending OSO to your librarian today.