Visiting with Ethnomusicologist, Dr. Andrés R. Amado – Interview Series #6

Today’s latest installment in my interview series brings an especially intellectually-stimulating conversation with my friend, Dr. Andrés R. Amado. Andrés is an ethnomusicologist and an Assistant Professor at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Keep reading to learn about his fascinating research and teaching! Don’t miss the pictures at the end!


Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda (AJP): Andrés, thank you for participating in my interview series! You always blow me away with your knowledge and insight. Are you ready to talk more about your teaching and research?  

Dr. Andrés R. Amado (AA): Thank you Andrew. You’re very kind. I’m ready.

AJP: First of all, could you tell us what it means to be an ethnomusicologist? What is “ethnomusicology”?

AA: That’s a great question. And not a simple one. I spend a whole semester on it in one of the graduate seminars I teach.

The short answer is that ethnomusicology is a relatively young academic field that studies music, usually from an ethnographic perspective. In other words, we try to immerse ourselves in particular cultures (however defined) and gain first-hand knowledge of their music through lived experience, performance, interviews, participant observation, and so on. Some ethnomusicologists see the discipline as a hybrid between music and anthropology; however, it includes a wide variety of methodologies and theoretical approaches, so the definition I just shared does not apply in all cases.

Even when the word “ethnomusicology” was coined, or rather, standardized with the founding of the Society for Ethnomusicology in the 1950s, there were already competing ideas of what the field should encompass. Broadly speaking, two emphases emerged: Some scholars engaged in ethnomusicology to enrich musical knowledge through the study of musical systems outside the Western art tradition (the so-called classical music), while others were drawn to ethnomusicology because of its anthropological potential, in other words they sought to advance our understanding of human cultures and societies through the study of music. Both had precedents in other fields like folklore studies, cultural anthropology, and comparative musicology.

AJP: What, then, are some of the biggest on-going debates about what it means to be an ethnomusicologist?

AA: Over the years, ethnomusicologists have argued whether their field is defined by the types of music they study, their methodology (and if they should even assume they share one), or theoretical approaches. For instance, should ethnomusicology primarily focus on the study of non-Western musics? Or “folk”/ “traditional” musics? What about commercial or popular musics? Should ethnomusicology exclude the study of Western classical music? With respect to methods and theories people debate whether we are more anthropologists than musicologists, or the other way around, and to what extent we may also be historians, music theorists, semioticians, or cultural activists/advocates. These debates haven’t entirely been settled so they resurface periodically in different guises. Defining our disciplinary identity is like pushing Sisyphus’ boulder up the mountain. The task never ends.

I personally identify as an ethnomusicologist on a contextual basis. I conduct historical and ethnographic research. I study popular music and music that may be considered “cultivated,” or closer to what historical musicologists study. Some people label me an ethnomusicologist because I study Guatemalan music, but in certain cases I’m more of a music or cultural historian.

AJP: What are your research areas within ethnomusicology? How did you determine what topics to research?

AA: When I was studying music as an undergraduate, I realized I wanted to continue doing it professionally. I had a hard time deciding whether I wanted to study performance (I was drawn to choral music and conducting), music history, music theory, or ethnomusicology.

After some research, I realized that music in my home country, Guatemala, was largely neglected in all of these fields, and I thought that perhaps I could contribute a thing or two on the subject.

Even though my first questions on Guatemalan music centered on sixteenth-century polyphony, several researchers encouraged me to pursue ethnomusicology, perhaps projecting the old bias that all “non-European” music should be the domain of ethnomusicology. Who knows. But I had taken a world music survey and an anthropology course that broadened my thinking about music and culture, so I did not take offense to being directed towards ethnomusicology. Still, as I looked for graduate programs, I sought out schools that conceived of the boundary between historical musicology and ethnomusicology as fluid, if they even saw one at all.

I was fortunate to gain admission at these kinds of schools. I pursued my Masters at Arizona State University where I studied ethnomusicology with Ted Solis and Richard Haefer while also studying choral conducting and working as a Teaching Assistant for instructors of courses in U.S. vernacular music and the canonic Western music history sequence for music majors. I went on with my doctoral studies at the University of Texas at Austin where all graduate students in ethnomusicology study musicology and vice versa.

My current research on Guatemalan music focuses on the nationalization of the Marimba repertoire in the 20th century, and on sacred choral music in the nineteenth century. And since moving to the Rio Grande Valley, I have taken interest in the music of the U.S.-Mexico border as well. In these contexts, I explore the intersections of race/ethnicity, politics, religion, and their various musical expressions.

AJP: In other conversations, we have talked about how there are different rules of etiquette in ethnomusicology at times, such as students more often being welcomed to call professors by their first names. Could you tell us about this, and why it is important?

AA: Titles matter. They reinforce social hierarchies. We use them to affirm people’s places in society, including our own.

I was raised in Guatemala, a country with a legacy of hundreds of years of colonization. I was also raised in a conservative religious household. In those contexts, I was taught that politeness and respect entail addressing people by their titles: Mom, Dad, Aunt, Uncle, Mr. or Mrs. Or at church: Brother, Sister, Elder, Bishop, and so on. In Guatemala, education is a hard-earned privilege in many cases, so we tend to recognize people who hold academic and professional degrees with appropriate titles: Licenciado or Licenciada (Bachelor’s or law degrees), Ingeniero or Ingeniera (engineer), Arquitecto or Arquitecta (architect), profesor or profesora (teachers, not necessarily professors), and of course, doctor or doctora. We also have various levels of formality to address interlocutors in Spanish: usted is formal, is less formal. In Guatemala we also have vos, which is more familiar than . Combined with titles, the use of these pronouns and their respective verb conjugations delineate various strata in Guatemalan society.

Raised in this environment, imagine my reaction when Ted Solis, a well-respected scholar, insisted that I, a mere student, call him “Ted.” I could not bring myself to do it at first. But as I got socialized into ethnomusicology, I learned that using first names is the norm, so calling people by title began to feel odd. When everyone around me calls my doctoral advisor “Robin,” I could not call him “Dr. Moore,” you see? So I cave in, but only partly, as I’ll explain in a minute.

I should first note that we actually have epistemological reasons for using first names in ethnomusicology. We don’t do it to try to be “cool,” or as an exercise in false modesty. We do it because we try to see ourselves not as “studying people” (which seems colonialist to us) but rather as “learning from people.”

Since the postmodern turn and postcolonial moment in U.S. academia in the 1980s and 1990s, ethnomusicologists have become more sensitive to the colonialist legacy of the discipline and the power imbalance between researchers and those whose music they study. We now tend to avoid the term “informants” in favor of “consultants” or even “teachers” when referring to our field associates. They in fact hold the knowledge of their own music and culture, and we do not. In a very real sense, they teach us. Our academic training may grant us the privilege of sharing and theorizing some of our experiences with them, but to what extent do we represent or misrepresent them in the process? Do we speak about them, with them, or for them? What is our relationship and what are our moral responsibilities towards them when they share their music and knowledge with us?

I understand that using first names does not make the colonialist aspects of academic research disappear. Some might see this move as condescending, pretentious, or even dangerous, since it may in fact hide our own privileges and thus render our hegemonic positions more insidious.

However, I still think that using first names at the very least reminds us, just as titles do, what our place can/should be while conducting fieldwork. In the field, you are a student. And even more generally, what is a scholar if not a professional student? As I teach, I routinely encounter students who are more knowledgeable than me in particular musical and cultural traditions. Why not learn from them as I try to share with them what I have learned? You can imagine that as one approaches teaching and scholarship in such ways, titles become less relevant, even hypocritical, perhaps. Using first names, does not give us license to ignore professional boundaries, nor does it dissolves power dynamics, of course, but it should at least remind us to remain curious and open-minded as we interact with others.

That said, I know that people from traditionally underrepresented groups in academia make an opposite argument. They ask to be addressed by their titles as a reminder to students and colleagues that they belong to erudite communities, and as a recognition of their credentials, which they took great pains and sacrifices to earn, particularly in environments of systemic oppression where the cards were stacked against them. Through titles, they claim the respect that may be denied them, as women, People of Color, immigrants, LGBTQ+, disabled, or whatever the case may be. I understand and respect this position.

In general, my approach is this: I invite students, especially graduate students, to call me by my first name. I work at an institution where the culture is very much the opposite, so nobody takes me up on the offer. Having been in their shoes myself, I understand their apprehension to calling me “Andrés,” so I don’t insist. I’m “Dr. Amado” to them and that’s fine. In fact, I have grown to appreciate the respect and affection with which they use the title.

AJP: I’m also interested in how you identify. How do your identities influence your research and teaching as far as privilege and oppression go?

AA: Some of your readers might find me insufferable by now, because yet again, I cannot give you a short answer. Once again, I’ll say that it depends. I suppose this means I should identify as the annoying professor, right? Maybe that’s my identity.

In all seriousness though, I have, over time, come to appreciate the performative and relational aspects of identity. In other words, we constantly construct and negotiate our identities as we perform them in relation to one another’s constructs, and those of the social groups in which we interact.

I have a multiplicity of identities that intersect in various ways at various moments, and they change over time too. I can be an extremely privileged individual in certain contexts: I have three post-secondary degrees and two secondary ones, I’m fluent in three languages, I earn a living wage, I am a cisgender male, I have a typically abled body. In other contexts, I may find myself at a disadvantage. I don’t fit this country’s criteria of “Whiteness.” Here, I’m considered a “POC” (Person of Color, although I’m not quite sure what “Color”). Interestingly, my Guatemalan official ID describes me as “White,” so how is that for a relational identity? Furthermore, even though I’m a legal resident and pay taxes in this country, I’m not a U.S. citizen, so I do not have a voice at the ballot box and do not have representation at the local, state, or federal levels of government. I’m an alien. I can also identify with sexual minorities and even religious minorities to some extent.

I could go on and on, and haven’t even begun to discuss how these different intersections of identity play out differently when I go back to Latin America. But my point is that identity is complex. Accordingly, it needs sophisticated theorization and thorough analysis from as many angles as possible, including music.

Music is an important component of how people perform and therefore construct identity. If music is “a thing” (and we could argue about that, one might think of it more as an activity, for example, but that’s a different subject) it may be viewed as a highly versatile and multifaceted semiotic medium, a complex system in which we create and convey meaning; consequently, music plays a crucial role in the construction and deconstruction of identities. One cannot overstate the importance of music, for example, in the construction of nationalism, since at least the Enlightenment, and perhaps earlier.

As you can imagine, the literature addressing aspects of music and identity is vast, so I won’t pretend I can do it justice here. I’ll wrap up my answer by stating that this literature informs my teaching in many ways, from curriculum decisions, to assignments, and class discussions. Because people identify through music, understanding how such identifications occur is important, not only academically but also at a personal level (for me and each student).

AJP: I sure do appreciate your detailed and thoughtful responses, Andrés, and I know readers will too. Can you tell us more about your teaching? Maybe to start, why ethnomusicology is important for students to learn about?

AA: Since I already established my identity as the annoying professor, I will continue in that role for a little while longer, if I may.

I’ll push back against your question a bit because it seems fixated on “ethnomusicology” as a discipline. And understandably so. Ethnomusicology is a weird word, one that not many people have heard, and one whose legitimacy in academia ethnomusicologists and their allies continuously fight to establish and defend. And I do appreciate the platform you are giving me to bring awareness to ethnomusicology. But considering what I have said before regarding identities and disciplinary labels, I will articulate a different position, one to which some ethnomusicologists might take exception: I do not believe that “ethnomusicology” per se, is important for students to learn about. I would argue, that it is important for students to learn to think about music critically and from a variety of perspectives, ethnomusicology being an important one of them. A better question might be, why is MUSIC important for students to learn about?”

Ethnomusicology can tell us something about music as a cultural practice, but we can also learn about music from historical musicology, from psychology and other neurosciences, from musical performances themselves, as audience members and performers. I’m not going to draw a territory around me called “ethnomusicology,” plant a flag on it, and defend it. At certain times and places there is a need for that, to be sure.

But in general, I think what needs defending is the study of vernacular musics and commercial musics as legitimate components of history and culture. I argue in favor of broader definitions of music and their fields of study. I wish to highlight the hegemony of the Western canon while also acknowledging its aesthetic potential (and thus its value). In other words, I hope to advance cultural relativism and reflexivity. On these subjects, ethnomusicology has a lot to teach us. But let’s not forget, for example, that on feminism and queer theory, historical musicologists led the way since the advent of the so-called “new musicology” of the 1980s and 90s, and that only more recently did ethnomusicologists follow in their footsteps.

In short, I believe students should learn to think carefully, critically, and analytically about music and not take its significance for granted. To me, ethnomusicology is a tool to that end (and one of my preferred tools, I admit), but we should not confuse the tool with what the tool can help us achieve. Does that make sense?

AJP: I can tell that we both are really focused on providing students with opportunities to learn and think critically. What topics, theories, people, do you most look forward to teaching and why?

AA: As a Latin Americanist, I look forward to teaching Latin American musics and cultures. These traditions are overlooked in the Western canon, but the research on the region continues to expand. I include the cultivated traditions of Latin America as I teach the Western History sequence. I also enjoy teaching the indigenous and popular repertoires, the intersections of these musics, and exploring their relations to broader social and cultural issues in the region (such as colonialism, imperialism, Eurocentrism, exoticism, and so on). As my institution continues to grow and hire more musicologists/ethnomusicologists, I hope I’ll be able to teach more courses in my specific area of specialization, which has been a challenge given my current responsibilities.

I’m also intrigued by the growing sub-fields of music and disability studies and medical ethnomusicology, which focus on the cultural dimensions of disability, healing, and well-being, and how music can intersect with them. I’m currently collaborating with a colleague in Social Work who is proposing a course we would team-teach as an introduction to art therapies, including music. I don’t claim to be a music therapist, but at the basic level we intend for the course, I can expose students to various ideas and literature on the subject.

I confess that I also love teaching the canonical music history sequence. Even as I acknowledge the problematic aspects of this tradition, I do not deny I find some of the music profoundly moving, intellectually intriguing, and in many ways significant.

I pretty much find everything about music fascinating, so I’m glad I get to teach all these different traditions and issues on a regular basis.

AJP: Have any authors or texts particularly influenced your teaching and/or research?

AA: Yes. Besides the obvious influences of the scholars with whom I studied directly, I can think of a few. 

Too be concise I’ll name but one: Tom Turino. He’s now an emeritus professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He retired around the time I finished my doctoral studies. As I pursued my Masters at Arizona State University, I found about everything he wrote relevant to my questions and interests. He specialized in the study of Andean and Zimbabwean music. He also developed compelling applications of Piercian semiotics to music.

Logically, I applied to study ethnomusicology at the University of Illinois with Turino for my doctoral work. Besides, that school has a great reputation in the field. My two graduate mentors at ASU studied there with Bruno Nettl, one of the most prolific ethnomusicologists around. Even though he was already emeritus by the time I applied, he was still publishing and giving occasional lectures and classes at UIUC, so I could have studied with my academic grandfather, if you will, had I gone to there. And I was admitted into their program, but I also was admitted to UT and two other schools that I liked for other reasons. Choosing my doctoral program was tough.

AJP: So why did you eventually decide on the program at UT?

AA: UT has a prestigious program. Besides their joint department of musicology and ethnomusicology and distinguished faculty, the university also boasts one of the largest Latin American collections in the hemisphere (the Benson Library) and more Guatemalinists that probably any other school in the United Sates: historians, anthropologists, linguists, archeologists, and literature scholars, all specializing in the study of this small yet complex country. I also had heard nothing but wonderful things about the city of Austin. If that weren’t enough, I was also offered the prestigious editorial assistantship at the Latin American Music Review, an important journal in my field published by the UT Press and edited by the person who would become my doctoral advisor, Robin Moore.

Over the years, it’s become increasingly clear to me that the University of Texas was the right choice for me. And not only because of the professors and the Latin American collection. I don’t wish to minimize the influence the faculty had on me. I owe them A LOT, and hope they know of my gratitude for all their support and mentorship. I could say a lot on that subject. But I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention my fellow graduate students.

And here I go back to your previous questions on what scholars and authors influence my research and teaching. I look up to my cohort of graduate students as well more established researchers and mentors; I studied with people who are fun, smart, collegial, very generous and open to sharing ideas, collaborating on projects, and extremely encouraging.

My cohort was also very diverse, so I learn a lot not only from their academic research, but from their lived experiences as well. In the UT musicology/ethnomusicology department I met students from Canada, the U.S.A., Mexico, Costa Rica, Colombia, Brazil, Jamaica, China, India, Tanzania, and Estonia. Besides the geography, the program was diverse in other ways. I met two graduate students old enough to be my grandparents; they had retired from life-long careers in other fields, and came back to school to earn doctorates in music because they felt passionate about the subject. Research interests also varied widely, from plainchant, to jazz, to music as intellectual property and intangible cultural heritage, to Broadway musicals, to Psychobilly rock, to eighteenth-century Portuguese-language opera.

I should add that even though not all of my peers stayed in academia after UT, they don’t cease to inspire me. This is yet another reason why I sometimes feel inadequate when addressed by an academic title. I know people far smarter than me who followed a different path where they don’t go by “doctor” or “professor,” and yet they are just as much, if not more deserving of such distinctions. There’s more to a person than their title or lack thereof.

AJP: Wow, wow… We’ve covered a lot. Thanks so much. You have given readers much to think about. Is there anything else you would like to add?

AA: Of course. I could talk about these things all day, but I think this is probably enough for now.

AJP: Sounds good! Until next time. Thanks so much for your time.

AA: Thank you.

If you would like to read one of Andrés’s articles, be sure to read “The Fox Trot in Guatemala: Cosmopolitan Nationalism among Ladinos.” You can also read his article “Gaudia Cantorum y Xojanel Keletzú: agenciamiento cultural en la música de dos conjuntos de marimba en Guatemala,” in Agencia cultural, arte, educación y prácticas sociales en América Latina y la frontera – Cultural Agency, Art and Education in Latin America and its Borders.

Thanks for reading! Please share and comment. 

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Andrés performing as a vocalist with the UT Caribbean Ensemble Fall 2012 Concert.
Andrés getting ready to perform with the University of Texas Pan American (now The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley) African drumming ensemble, directed by Dr. Virginia Davis in April 2014.
“Gigantes.” These giant puppets are used in the “baile de gigantes,” a traditional dance dating back to colonial times. Photograph by Andrés, Antigua Guatemala in July 2012.
Andrés roasting a marshmallow on cooling lava at the Pacaya volcano near Guatemala City in 2012.