Study Group “Mediterranean Music Studies” (MMS)

Symposium on “Musical Insularity”
Lisbon, July 2012
Instituto de Etnomusicologia, Centro de Estudos de Música e Dança (INET-MD)
Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas
Nova Universidade de Lisboa

Between July 10 and 12, 2012 the Study Group for Mediterranean Music Studies held its 9th  Symposium in Lisbon, Portugal, hosted by INET-MD at the Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humana of the Nova Universidade de Lisboa. We are all very grateful to Professor Salwa El-Shawan Castelo-Branco, Director of INET- MD, for her  cordial hospitality, impeccable organization, and active participation as discussant and session chair.

The theme of this Symposium was “Musical Insularity: How it Favours Conservation, How it Triggers Innovation.” Papers were selected by a committee, made up of Caroline Bithell, Kevin Dawe, and myself. It is with great regret that we could not have Kevin's presence, because of a joyful event in his family requiring his total attention.

The choice of a theme such as “insularity”requires a bit of explaining because in June 2004, Tullia Magrini organized in Venice the 6th Meeting of the Study Group, then called "Anthropology of Music in Mediterranean Cultures," devoted to a discussion of “Music in Mediterranean Islands.” Since then Islands have become a much bigger topic than they ever were. In fact, thanks largely to Godfrey Baldacchino (University of Prince Edward Island, Canada) and his hournal “Island studies” this topic has become a veritable new field of intellectual endeavour. That is why it seemed challenging to musically revisit “islands,” and do so in an even wider perspective – that of “insularity.” Luckily, we could have in Lisbon, some of the people who had previously been in Venice (
Judith Cohen, Caroline Bithell, Ruth Davis, Franco Fabbri, and Gail Holst-Warhaft) and so the connection between the 2004 event and this later one was more than merely symbolic.

In Lisbon a welcome address was given by by Salwa El-Shawan Castelo-Branco, followed by a few words by myself. Six sessions followed, with eighteen papers by representatives of eleven nations (Albania, Croatia, France, Greece, Italy, Malta, Morocco, Portugal, Israel, UK, USA). Actually more than eleven nations, if one considers how many of our speakers are either bi-national or live and work in a Country different from that of their upbringing. They all made up a very interesting party, where old friends were happy to meet each other again, and where new people were equally happy to join the group.

We adopted, in keeping with a philosophy developed and tested last year in the Portel Symposium, a “slow food” approach. The program was full, but not packed, and a good amount of time was devoted to discussions. In evenings we all could satisfy our thirst for Fado performances.

The list of papers presented, reproduced here below, in the order of appearance, gives an idea of the variety of topics put on the table for discussion; some of the papers explored the idea of musical insularity in its more general terms, others in its anchorage and manifestation in local settings:

  • Ioannis Tsioulakis (University College, Cork): “Musical Eclecticism and the Pre-recession Athenian Ethnic Scene: Fragments of a Salvage Ethnography”
  • Gail Holst-Warhaft (Cornell University): “Porous Borders and Liminality: the Aegean Islands as Musical Conduit and Crossroads”
  • Franco Fabbri (Università degli Studi di Torino): “Beam me up, Scotty!” Metaphoric and Real Insularity in the Globalized World (or: a Sea Star Trek)”
  • Mojca Piskor (University of Zagreb): “Island Islanded: Decoding the Islandness of the Otočki Rock”
  • Ruth Davis (Corpus Christi College, Cambridge): “Islands of Musical Memory: Recalling the Jewish Arab past in North Africa and the Levant”
  • Judith Cohen (York University, Canada): “Singing Beyond the Island: New Musical Strategies among Iberian Crypto-Jews”
  • Vanessa Paloma (Brandeis University): “A Songbook from Alcazarquivir’s Early 20th Century”
  • Ed Emery (SOAS, London): “The Insularity of Insular Song”
  • Jorge Castro Ribeiro (Ethnomusicology Institute INET-MD Lisbon,
  • University of Aveiro): “Beyond Insularity and Tourism: Popular Music in the Madeira Archipelago”
  • Cassandre Balosso-Bardin (SOAS, London): “The Xeremies in Mallorca: Between tradition and Modernity, the Modern Day Situation of the Majorcan Bagpipes after its Revival in the 1970s”
  • Goffredo Plastino (University of Newcastle). “A Tough Sound: the Calabrian Lira from Isolation to Innovation”
  • Andrew Pace (University of Manchester): “A Comparison of Performance Context Between Maltese Communities in Malta and Australia”
  • Abigail Wood (SOAS, London/Haifa University, Israel): “Insularity in a Crowded Place: Music and the Boundaries of Belonging in Jerusalem’s Old City”
  • Mikaela Minga (Università degli Studi di Milano): “The Serenata Korçare: How a Song Can Be Insular”
  • Loren Chuse (Berkeley, California): “Spanish Flamenco: A Case of Musical Insularity and Innovation”
  • Maria Hnaraki (Drexel University): “Dancing with the Heroes: Conservation and Innovation in Cretan Performance”
  • Marcello Sorce Keller (University of Malta): "Musings on Islands, Insularity, and Cultural Diversity"
  • Caroline Bithell (University of Manchester): “Reimagining the island”

This was not only an interesting mix of topics but also, in the estimation of this writer, a mix that gave us all a tangible perception of how large the topic of musical insularity really is, and of how it provided a new angle from which to examine the “tradition vs. innovation” dynamics; in other words, the dynamics of musical change.

A conclusive session, devoted to the discussion of future events, future publications, and future development of the MMS website took place at the end, chaired by Salwa El-Shawan Castelo-Branco. As far as future events are concerned, Palermo seems to be the place where our next colloquium will be hosted, thanks to Sergio Bonanzinga of Palermo University (Crete and Morocco, and even Australia are being considered for the medium range future). In the way of publications there seems to be a clear propension to go electronic, and the MMS website is probably the place for this to occur. This is something on which the èresent writer will have to work for the next several months.

At the very end a party took place. The music was provided at first by Sérgio Fonseca, doctoral student at INET, who is a Fado performer, and guitar collector. Then Franco Fabbri took over the guitar and gave us classical rock, as well as some of his songs written for the Italian group “Stormy Six.” Cassandra Balosso Bardin also took up her bagpipes, with Ioannis Tsioulakis at the keyboard, and Judith Cohen joined in with percussions and flute. Many of us enjoyed some dancing as well. It should not be forgotten that music and dancing we intermixed with wine, baked cod-fish with cream (a Portuguese delicacy) cake, and cookies. That was the appropiate way to enjoy once more each other's company, and then say good-by or, rather, arrivederci.

Marcello Sorce Keller


Portel Colloquium 2011


Portel, Portugal, December 1-5, 2011

Pan-Mediterranean Poetic Competitions and their Music:
Historical Perspectives and Contemporary Practice

Sponsored by

Study Group for Mediterranean Music Studies
International Council for Traditional Music [UNESCO]
INET-MD Universidade Nova de Lisboa
Câmara Municipal de Portel
Sistemas do Futuro

Program Committee: Salwa El-Shawan Castelo-Branco (New University of Lisbon), Ed Emery (SOAS), Caroline Bithell (University of Manchester), Marcello Sorce Keller (University of Malta).

Local Arrangements Committee: Salwa El-Shawan Castelo-Branco (Universidade Nova de Lisboa), Paulo Lima (Universidade Nova de Lisboa and Câmara Municipal de Portel).



This Colloquium we had in Portel (Portugal) was devoted to a discussion of “Pan-Mediterranean Poetic Competitions and their Music: Historical Perspectives and Contemporary Practice” following upon a welcome suggestion by Ed Emery (SOAS, London). It was co-organized by Marcello Sorce Keller (University of Malta), Salwa El-Shawan Castelo Branco (Instituto de Etnomusicologia – Centro de Estudos em Música e Dança, Universidade Nova de Lisboa) and Paulo Lima (Universidade Nova de Lisboa and Câmara Municipal de Portel), and generously sponsored by the “Câmara Municipal de Portel,” also with the support of  “Sistemas do futuro : multimédia, gestão e arte”.

Participants invited to present papers were Maria José Barriga (Universidade Nova de Lisboa), Fernando Cabral (Sistemas do Futuro), Fabio Calzia (Conservatorio di Musica, Cagliari), Ed Emery (SOAS, London), Francisco José Gomes Damasceno (Laboratório de Estudos e Pesquisa em História e Culturas — DÍCTIS/CNPq), Paulo Lima (Universidade Nova de Lisboa), Marco F. Lutzu (Conservatorio di Musica, Cagliari-Università di Roma La Sapienza), Ignazio Macchiarella (Università di Cagliari), Nicola Scaldaferri (Università degli Studi di Milano), and Marcello Sorce Keller (University of Malta). Discussions about papers and presentation, as well as about future activities of the Study Group, greatly benefited from the contribution of our Vice-President Salwa El-Shawan Castelo-Branco (Universidade Nova de Lisboa).

A novelty in this Colloquium was that papers and discussions were given more time than is usually allowed in conferences, and this “slow-pace” approach proved to be productive as well as enjoyable. Also a novelty it was that a few video documents were presented and commented, in-between papers: Ed Emery presented a document about the Basque Bertsulari, Marco Lutzu one analytically describing the intriguingly complex compositional process of the Sa Repentina, and Marcello Sorce Keller a videoclip of Maltese Għana Spirtu Pront. The small number of participants made it unnecessary to have sessions governed by a chairperson. We all sat around a large table, and presentations as well as discussions could be extremely informal and spontaneous.

Papers Presented

Marcello Sorce Keller opened the Colloquium by putting together a wide-angle picture: poetic and musical competitions have existed in many cultures and often in different layers of the same culture (“Musical Duels in the Art-Music of the West and in Traditional Practice”); how they may occur in oral environments, in the low-brow end of literate traditions, or even in high-brow repertoires. Among orally transmitted repertoires, where they are by far more frequent, musico-poetic duels achieve an intriguing balance of elements: the ritual, the spectacular, the improvisatory dimension, the active involvement of the audience.

Ignazio Macchiarella then took over (“The Indispensable Irrelevant Element: Oral Poetic Duels and Music in Sardinian, Corsica and Central Italy)” explaining how according to nearly all Sardinian, Corsican and Central Italian oral poets (and their listeners) music is an almost irrelevant or minimal element within poetical duels. Wgat really counts is rather “pure poetry”, ideas and their  poetic elaboration within metric and style constraints. And yet those very representatives of the tradition concede that it is practically impossible for them to improvise poetically in the absence of music. It is a paradox of sorts that Macchiarella used to assess the basic role of music in the overall construction of improvisatory poetic discourses.

Francisco José Gomes Damasceno (“Cantadores e Cantorias at the Gateway to the Urban Northeast Brazil: Three experiments”) brought us a contribution from an area geographically remote from the Mediterranean, and yet related to it, as Luso-Brazilian traditions in so many ways reveal their connection to the other areas where romance languages are spoken. It was a set of reflections on the musical experience of three elderly “repentistas” singers from Northeastern Brazil whose lives exemplify the multiple aspects that music assumes in their milieu and how they embody knowledge acquired through music-making, and the most intriguing issue at stake here is how the rural space and the urban space of the city mark their musical practices.

Fabio Calzia brought us back to Sardinia (“Sos Muttos de Carrasecare: Carnival Poetic competitions in Lodine, a small Village in the central Sardinia”), telling us about Lodine, a Shepard's village in the center of the Island where the 380 inhabitants are tied to one another through a complex pattern of kinship. Music and poetry are very important for the life of this community, regulated by continuous challenges based on physical strength as well as vocal and poetical skills. His paper described how the community is brought together during the Carnival Festivals through poetic improvisation.

The first Portuguese contribution was by Maria José Barriga (“'Cante ao baldão': A Dueling Practice in the Alentejo Region”); a contributions based on fieldwork conducted in the lower Alentejo region, between 1995 e 1999 and which, although summarized in a publication appeared 2003, it still continues as it examines the practice of the “cante ao baldão” (developed during the XIX century in a rather contained area of Portugal) in the broader context of poetic dueling across Portugal, the Mediterranean, Brazil and Hispano-America. Also concerned with the Portuguese region of Alentejo was the contribution presented by Paulo Lima and Fernando Cabral (The 'Desafio' Musico-Poetic Practice in Portugal: A Proposal for a Cartography and Digitalization”). Theirs was the only contribution to tackled questions pertaining t the collection, organization and use of the information available on the practice of musico-poetic dueling.

Marco F. Lutzu at this point lead us back to Sardinia once again (“Antagonisms between Efis and Remo: defining the Sardinian poetic tradition of Sa Repentina”). As it turns out the Repentina is the less known and studied among the professional traditions of Sardinian improvised poetry, characterized by a complex set of metrical and musical forms. Over the last few decades the number of poets, and consequently of public competitions, has been greatly reduced. About five years ago the first investigations with an ethnomusicological approach were carried out and an informal school of 'Repentina' was organized. Lutzu's contention was that the explanation of what the 'Repentina' really is, can be best seen in the antagonistic relationship between Efis Caddeo and Remo Orrù, the last professional poets still active today.

Nicola Scaldaferri (“The singer of tales on stage. Transformation of the Albanian epic repertories and performances from the traditional settings to the competitive contexts”) revisited the tradition of epic singing so famously described by Milman Parry and Albert B. Lord, and explained how nowadays old songs, resulting from formulaic composition, are often presented in festivals and competitions. In this new context they are inevitably transformed, sometimes drastically: formulas disappear, strophic structure is employed, duration is reduced, the quality of singing per se is emphasized, narratives are re-invented, and even the accompanying instrument – the Gusle – is often replaced. The entire symbolic frame of reference is reconfigured.

Ed Emery brought the series of presentations to an end with a contribution where, in addition to the ethnographic, also an historical and literary dimension was present. He examined the possibility that in the sonnet, a characteristically Italian verse form, identifiable continuities could be adduced between the Andalus tradition and the Italian tradition and concluded with a phenomenology of the sonnet as poetic dueling, and also as a manifestation of "correspondence poetry" (or poetry entailing the obligation for a response)– its conventions, behaviors and assumptions.

Discussion at Large

The multi-voiced discussion in-between papers and presentations actually focused on more musical-poetic competitions across more countries and territories than the title of the papers would indicate. It came out of the discussion how, however idiosyncratic each for of musico-poetic dueling really is, still the number of variants they represent is not infinite. In other words, very diverse situations were examined, but a finite number of them nonetheless exists. A typology would be possible  – contexts, creativity forms, use of the body, relationship with the audience. Impressive indeed is the number of strict constraints each traditions relies upon, and how the widespread social understanding of such constraints insures the comprehensibility and appreciation of performances. In fact performances based on confrontation, rivalry, competition are remarkably well comprehensible in their dynamics to those who share the tradition (either in the role of active performers, or as public). The audience knows exactly what to expect, knows very well what the performer is trying to do, and is in a position to assess whether the goal is aptly achieved, with prowess and style.

Another observation emerging from papers, presentation and discussions, is that quick wit and humor play an important and pre-eminent role in musico-poetic dueling. Spectators listen with great attention and participation, precisely because in a matter of a few seconds, they know the punchline is coming. Wit and humor in connection to music and poetry have not received, so far, much scholarly attention. In any further study of song dueling that would have to become a central question for analysis. In those traditions where no form of lashing is expected, the climax of the performance requires at least a striking line, a poetic surprising image which the melodic context is supposed to emphasize or frame for attention. Finally we had to realize, how many traditions of musico-poetic dueling makes use of nonsense syllables, words, or phrases; just like in Balladry (who does not know the refrain: “Parsely, Sage, Rosmary and Thyme”).

More important it was how the discussion, departing from the examples presented in the course of the colloquium, at some point progressed towards crucial questions of music-making at large: the definition of the musical object, piece, or performance, and the very concept of “music” itself, not always recognized by many actors of the traditions in question. On this note, that from the angle of musico-poetic competition  fundamental issues about music-making in general inevitably emerge, the meeting came to an end, with the perception that theme of this Colloquium turned out to be even more intriguing and substantial than anticipated, and will probably deserve to be revisited in the future in some way or form.

Possibilities to publish the proceedings, on paper or electronically, are being considered.

Marcello Sorce Keller





The Study Group “Mediterranean Music Studies” of the
International Council for Traditional Music (ICTM),
formerly “Anthropology of Music in Mediterranean Cultures”,
will hold its 9th Symposium in Lisbon, hosted and sponsored by 

Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia


on the theme

Musical Insularity:
How it Favours Conservation, How it Triggers Innovation

July 10th-12th, 2012

All interested in presenting a contribution, or simply in attending the Meeting may contact
Caroline Bithell: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
Kevin Dawe: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

Marcello Sorce Keller: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

The deadline for sending paper proposals is February 29, 2012

Proposals will be selected by a Program Committee:
Caroline Bithell, Kevin Dawe, Marcello Sorce Keller

The Study Group for Mediterranean Music Studies is a very informal pole of interest within the ICTM, and we like paper proposals to be as long or as short as the presenter wishes them to be.

Although papers are expected to be, as usual in conferences, 20 minutes long, we plan to have in our Symposium a relaxed atmosphere, with abundant time for discussions and convivial interaction.

Description of the Theme

Islands, Borders, and Insularity

A world without islands is hard to imagine. That is because what an island is, much depends on who you are and where you are. A table-land is an island of sorts, if you are unable to cross the mountains surrounding it. A lake is an island for the wildlife inhabiting it. It would also be very difficult to imagine a world without borders, because so many kinds of them exist: geographic, political, linguistic, social, psychological, etc.

Islands and borders can also be transient, rather than permanent, or even porous (a concept Walter Benjamin introduced speaking of "Naples" in 1925). Islands and borders, alone, or intersecting one another (as borders may also exist within islands) generate multifarious forms and degrees of “insularity”.

Insularity and Cultural Diversity

Without insularity cultural diversity would not develop, because humans would be confronted with the same environment everywhere; and without barriers separating them, all their knowledge and experience would be shared. A common culture reacting to a common, environment is hardly likely to generate diversity. In fact, the point could be made that insularity of one form or another is the main factor at the origin of all cultural diversity (as in the biological domain). Insularity triggers variation and selection by giving people access to different kinds of resources, and the possibility to interact with them in idiosyncratic ways, depending on their history and experience. Do you need to send signals to be heard over long distance? In Switzerland it was done with Alphorn and Yodel; in the Canary Island of Gomera it was done with a whistled language that can be heard far away.

In other words: environments offer diverse challenges, but even when they are identical, different solutions may be found when different sets of experience, attitudes and resources are available. That is why it is so wonderful, to have territories surrounded by waters, small populations in out-of-the-way valleys, immigrants establishing Chinatowns and Little Italies within larger urban centers, tribal societies separated by the affluents of the Amazon River, cities that grow as veritable islands in the middle of the countryside. Wonderful because all such conditions of “insularity” develop special kinds of music.

Insularity and Isolation

To be sure, the term “insularity” is evocative of isolation and self-containment, and yet absolute isolation is only an “ideal type,” a mental construct, useful to gauge how distant single realities may be from the model. Insularity is always relative, and usually combines isolation on some levels with openness on others.

One symptom of insularity is usually the persistence of repertoires showing archaic features, when compared with the corresponding genres existing on the mainland or in surrounding areas (anthropologists call it “marginal survival”; sociologists, after William Ogburn, speak of “cultural lag”). It happens in Islands (in Mallorca ritual dancing survives, that disappeared long ago in mainland Spain; in the Faroer older forms of Danish music and dance still exist that you would no longer find in Denmark) and it happens with migrant populations as well, when immigrant communities – islands of sorts – retain behavior patterns (language, music, cuisine, etc.) in older forms, that do not undergo the evolutionary process taking place in their land of origin.

Insularity and Innovation

Confusingly, however, marginal survival is not the only and inevitable result of insularity, as it is also possible for cultural forms cultivated in insular conditions to develop along lines that will lead them to be very different from those still existing in the locale where they originated: the steel bands of Trinidad are an example of unique creativity, where oil cans were transformed into musical instruments. Transplanted African traditions only n Trinidad produced this very special kind of instrumental music. Such creativity is at the same time the result of insularity and contacts with the outer world - without oil cans steel bands would not have been conceivable. Obviously insularity and innovation are not necessarily in contradiction. Insular territories are known to offer very special soundscapes, where the local and the non-local, living side by side, provide striking contrast. We may get to hear the U2, Genesis and Bocelli in Mallorca, as well as in Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily, or Malta, but how such international genres intertwine with the local older traditions – and what space the overall mix occupies in the life of their people – is strikingly different from one island to the other; and it is different from what you find on the nearest shore of the mainland.

Insularity does not make contacts impossible. It rather allows more subtle selectivity about what forms of contact to accept and what others to reject. In other words, the existence of very local repertoires (not shared or claimed by others) may point to cultural isolation, but it is no sign of complete insularity “per se.” Some repertoires may only exist in one village but, at the same time, others may circulate in that village as well, even transnational ones. In other words still, insular territories can be open to innovation, they are just rather choosy about what kind of innovation and/or external influence they wish to accept. One could probably make the point that conditions of insularity are those where ther dynamics of culture change can better be studied and understood.

Patterns of Insularity Across the Mediterranean

A Meeting of the Study Group for Mediterranean Music Studies, where scholars knowledgeable of different contexts may help develop a better understanding of how insular musical cultures, make choices between endogenous innovation, external influences, and retention of ancient practices. The Mediterranean, “the most vigorous place of interaction between different societies on the face of this planet” (as David Abulafia recently called it in his The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean, 2011) is surely an ideal geographic area to pursue this kind of endeavor.

Marcello Sorce Keller, Study Group Chair
This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

<< Start < Prev 1 2 Next > End >>

Page 1 of 2

Logo designed by Oriano Sportelli