This written interview is part of a new series on Insights: “Ask A Scholar,” through which we highlight the personal experiences of fellows and other affiliated researchers. The following conversation with Melissa J. Scott (ACOR-CAORC predoctoral fellow, 2019–2020; fellow in residence at ACOR winter 2020–spring 2021) took place by email in April and May 2021.
Thanks for joining us on Insights! Tell us a little more about yourself and your current project.
I am a PhD candidate in ethnomusicology at the University of California, Berkeley. My dissertation project investigates the role of music in displacement from three different angles. Focusing on Amman, I first listen to how contemporary music performance makes audible histories of forced migration to Jordan. I then examine how NGO music programs contend with Western “humanitarian” norms in their work with displaced and marginalized populations. Finally, I explore how listening practices in displacement are critical to subjectivities among Syrian musicians in Amman. This last approach focuses on urban soundscapes and the “unification” of the call to prayer in Jordan by way of radio broadcast.
My research has brought me to study music and language across the SWANA region.1 I have been enormously privileged to be able to study Arabic and Turkish languages in a number of countries, mainly Jordan, Egypt, Oman, Turkey, and the United States. I am also an amateur oudist and performed for a number of years with the Aswat Ensemble in Oakland, California, and Disoriental at UC Berkeley.
What is one thing someone might not know about (ethno)musicology?
Well, not many people realize ethnomusicology actually exists as a discipline. So, I am here to tell you that it does exist! And that degrees in ethnomusicology are different from degrees in music performance. Some ethnomusicology programs do require performance training as part of the degree, but many others (such as Berkeley’s) do not. Most of my study in Arab music performance was in addition to my full-time graduate coursework. Also, some might not realize that ethnomusicologists cultivate a very diverse set of skills, as we tend toward interdisciplinary work. I’m happy to say that I’ve benefitted from a very collegial environment among graduate students at Berkeley as they have introduced me to different disciplinary perspectives and scholarship.
Who is someone who has inspired or influenced you in your course of study?
There are too many people to count! But I would say that my primary oud teacher, Ustaz Omar Abbad, has been a huge inspiration and influence on my course of study. I first tried to teach myself oud the summer before graduate school in 2014. I had a Turkish oud that was way too big for me, and some pretty suspect workbooks that I bought online. I then met Omar when he visited the Bay Area on a teaching residency with the Aswat Ensemble. I attended his oud and maqam classes twice a week, but our lessons were cut short when he returned to Amman. The following summer I received a U.S. Department of Education FLAS (Foreign Language and Area Studies) fellowship to continue my studies of Arabic, so I picked a language school in Amman in order to continue studying oud with Omar in addition to my other coursework. Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to regularly study with Omar on my research trips to Jordan.
Omar is widely known for his generosity, humor, and patience as an educator, and I deeply respect him as both a musician and person. He was my first introduction to Jordan and many of my interlocutors, so I owe him a lot!
Here is a video of him performing taqasim (instrumental improvisation) on maqam hijaz, one of the main melodic modes in Arab music:
Here is another clip of him teaching how to improvise on maqam saba, which many consider the saddest melodic mode in Arab music. In this lesson, he offers a map of how to navigate ajnas (singular, jins; a small group of notes) when melodically exploring the mode. In some ways, taqasim could be considered an art of modulating between different modes, which all have particular flavors or moods. Maqam saba is my favorite because of its interesting melodic structure, microtonal tuning, and evocative character.
Finally, could you please recommend some music for our readers to listen to? How do you personally find out about new artists or performance opportunities?
Amman hosts a number of rich, diverse music scenes, but I am most familiar with the “Arab music” scene, which is itself a contested category. Regardless, I find that Facebook is often the best way to keep up to date with new artists, releases, and events. I’d recommend following music institutions as well as individual musicians. If you would like to learn more about Arab music, the National Conservatory of Music in Amman regularly hosts music appreciation workshops that are open to the public. That would be a great way to learn about particular Arab composers and musicians, and Arab music more broadly. Some other institutions, groups, and musicians to keep an eye out for include (in no particular order) the Shoman Foundation, Etihad Chamber Orchestra, Juthoor, Amaan Choir XXI, Bait al Nai (which hosts fantastic nay-making workshops), Bait al-Ruwwad, Tareq al Nasser, Laith Suleiman, Tareq Jundi, Lara Elayyan, Rula Barghouthi, Nasser Salameh, Yarub Smarait, Yazan Sabbagh, Natalie Saman, Yousef Musharbash, and Layth Sidiq. I also occasionally perform with Awtar Amman, an oud ensemble at the Crescendo Music and Art Academy. Of course, there are also very popular musicians and groups in the alternative music and rock scenes, including Aziz Maraka and Autostrad.
This was just a partial list—my apologies to all of the talented artists in Jordan I have neglected to mention!
As for particular pieces of music, here are a few favorites from Jordan:
1) “Tala’a min bait abouha” (roughly, “Leaving Her Father’s Home”), as performed by Tareq Jundi
This is a classic song that is often broadly attributed to Iraqi musical heritage, and in this video it’s attributed to composer Othman Al Mosuli. In his rendition, Tareq Jundi applies a number of extended oud techniques and harmonies common to contemporary solo oud performance. The end of the clip features a snippet of the song as performed by renowned Iraqi singer Nazem al Ghazali in the mid-20th century, which I find a good point of comparison.
2) “A Dabke Groove–Tayara / Ma’aniyeh (The Flying),” by Laith Suleiman
3) “Palestinian Mashup,” by Luai Ahmaro and Natalie Saman
Here is a medley of Palestinian folksongs, many of which are common to Jordanian and Levantine musical heritage, arranged in a contemporary dance-pop setting. I’m particularly struck by the resources they draw on to further the rhythmic drive and trajectory of the song: “trap” percussion and bass from hip-hop, which is increasingly common in dance-pop production; percussive chords with a marimba sound; and the use of dabke calls (“huh! huh!”) on some offbeats, which simulate a live dance setting. If you turn on the subtitles/closed captioning on YouTube, it provides careful translations into English. You may also notice that much of this was filmed at Wild Jordan here in Amman.
Thanks, Melissa, and we look forward to learning more in the future about the results of your research!
1. Editor’s note: “SWANA” stands for Southwest Asia and North Africa, an alternative to the commonly used term “Middle East” as a part of decolonial practice. For more on this, see, for example, the open letter “Objection to the Term ‘Middle East’” by Wadha Al-Aqeedi (Mathqaf, 1 December 2020).
Melissa J. Scott is a PhD candidate in ethnomusicology at the University of California, Berkeley. She teaches and studies topics in music and sound in Arab-majority societies, and her dissertation examines the role of music in displacement in Amman, Jordan. Previously, her undergraduate honors thesis at the University of Chicago focused on the history of jazz in Turkey, and she is an oudist and performs with Disoriental at UC Berkeley and Awtar Amman in Jordan. Her fieldwork research has been supported by a Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad fellowship and an ACOR-CAORC predoctoral fellowship. During the 2017–2018 academic year, she was a Center for Arabic Study Abroad (CASA) fellow at the American University in Cairo, where she studied Arabic literature and Egyptian dialect while pursuing an internship at a local music center. She has also studied Arabic in Oman (through the Critical Language Scholarship [CLS] program), Jordan (FLAS), and California. Her research interests broadly include Levantine and Gulf music, anthropology of humanitarianism, critical refugee studies, secularism and secularity, theories of place and place-making, sound and violence, gift exchange, and late Ottoman studies.