Race and Empire in Global Music History, 1500–1800

AHA Session 91
Friday, January 5, 2018: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Diplomat Ballroom (Omni Shoreham, West Lobby)
Olivia Bloechl, University of Pittsburgh
Gabriel Solis, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Session Abstract

Historians of early modern music have increasingly turned their attention to empire, and the last decade has seen a wave of research on music in early global expansion, trade, and settlement, especially by Europeans. Not so with race, although by the sixteenth century racial thinking and social organization were emerging as supports for these “global projects,” in Walter Mignolo’s terms. From existing research we know that racialism often shaped early colonial music institutions and musical education, composition, performance, and knowledge production. Racialized religion, ethnicity, class, or caste also increasingly influenced musical life in Eurasian urban metropoles.

Despite these histories, race and coloniality have eluded study as elements of early modern world music history, partly due to disciplinary conventions. Historical musicologists (who are mainly Europeanists) rarely focus on race before 1800, while ethnomusicologists (who commonly work with racialized world musics) normally focus on the present. Further complicating matters is the very large scale of the colonial projects that introduced European racial orders into music cultures around the world. And Anglophone music scholars are just beginning to broach the question of how racial or quasi-racial structures might have organized musical life in other early modern empires.

In short, the racial dimension of early modern music history asks us to think across disciplines, musical traditions, and empires—and on a larger geocultural scale than music scholars normally address—in order to grasp the phenomenon in a more holistic, integrated way. This session contributes to this longer-term goal by bringing together three presenters whose work converges on problems of race, empire, and music in the early modern period. We begin with the earliest case study, centering on the Mughal empire. Richard Williams is a cultural historian and South Asianist who asks, through a reading of courtly poetic descriptions of Hindustani rāgas, how race may have shaped elite musical understanding in the Mughal world. With Bonnie Gordon’s presentation, we move to North America and the circum-Caribbean. Gordon, a music historian and early modernist, draws on her work with Thomas Jefferson's archives to analyze the role of racialized music and soundscapes—spanning post-Revolutionary Haiti, Louisiana, and Virginia—in the Jeffersonian project of nation building. Finally, music historian and eighteenth-century specialist Sarah Eyerly traces the Moravians’ long history of adapting Mozart’s music in their North American missions, and she documents their multi-lingual indigenization of this music, based on her work with Moravian historical archives.

The chair (Olivia Bloechl) and commentator (Gabriel Solis) bring complementary expertise in the musics of Atlantic and Pacific worlds and in the early modern and modern periods, respectively, which we hope will foster a richly textured dialogue. They are also both involved in a collaborative project developing critical theory and methods for the emerging area of global music history, and this panel is part of that larger work. This session should thus appeal to global and world historians, early modernists, cultural and arts historians, historians of race and empire, and those interested in decolonial or postcolonial historiographies.

See more of: AHA Sessions