Interview with Richard K. Wolf, 2009

Richard K. Wolf is Professor of Ethnomusicology at Harvard University. While working first on the Kotas of South India, he did fieldwork on Shia and Sufi rituals in Pakistan. Dr Frédérique Pagani, a MIFS member, interviewed him in May 2009 about his fieldwork in Sindh, including his methodology.

How did you come to study Sufism?

I started out studying ritual drumming. I looked at all the different contexts in which drumming was important. I didn’t start out with the intention of doing something Sufi at all. There was a close connection between Sufi and Shia things in a kind of a popular realm even though rather strict Shias don’t necessarily like to be associated with Sufism; still, we found a Shia family for example that was in charge of a Sufi shrine in Punjab, and I guess this is not all that uncommon.

You talk about a kind of porosity of religious boundaries between Shia and Sunni in Sindh which was very interesting. What was your understanding of this situation in Sindh?

Among Sindhis, my impression was that Shias and Sunnis both practice Muharram in the same places and engage in some of the same kind of activities. In some processions, at least, both populations would be together; Shias would also be musicians and so the kinds of distinctions between the two groups, which is more pronounced in most urban areas and outside of Sindh, did not seem to be so pronounced even in the relatively urban area of Hyderabad.

You said that when you cannot attend a musical event, you ask the people to do a demonstration, can you explain in a more detailed way the way you work with the musicians? Perhaps if you take a precise example…

For example, the drummers who played on my video tape of Madho Lal Hussain, I took their names and addresses at the event because I couldn’t talk with them there. And then, I tracked them down later and had them come to my apartment in Lahore. There I had a longer discussion with them about what they were doing there and their relationship with the dancers; I asked them to play their versions of the different rhythms I had been studying.

In Lahore the best place to record and interview was at my home; there, other people would not come and interrupt us, give their own opinions, and things like that. But sometimes I was forced to discuss these things in crowded places where there were a lot of interlopers and distractions. It was sometimes difficult to find a place where drummers could demonstrate because it’s so loud. The drumming would alert people and they would wonder why it was going on.

Has it also something to do with the fact that, you’re explaining in your paper on Madho Lal that there are appropriate ways to do music and inappropriate ways. Is it sometimes inappropriate to do music in front of you? Is it disrespectful? For example if it’s a musical religious event and if it’s detached from the context, has it something which sounds a bit disrespectful?

No. Not in that way. It’s not disrespectful. There are a number of different kinds of issues. So like among the Kotas, if you play funeral music when it’s not a funeral, then you don’t play any of this stuff, loud instruments, outdoors except for maybe some celebratory and not particularly marked occasion; but it’s OK if you go at distance, away from the village. Because otherwise people think that there is a funeral and they start feeling bad and so people would come and say, “Don’t do that.”

As for Muharram performance, if a group of musicians agree to go out to an open field and play the different rhythms, it usually doesn’t matter. But in urban contexts it could matter. In one Karachi neighborhood, as I discussed in my Muharram drumming article in the Yearbook for Traditional Music, a community that supported Muharram drumming was under pressure to curtail this activity and a number of related rituals such as carrying the taziyah. Their processions and drumming during Muharram were sort of tolerated; but reformers didn’t really think that’s a proper way to observe Islam. So members of this community were under pressure not to go outside and perform for me even though it was still the general period of Muharram (but not the first ten days). They did it indoors for me. Sometimes playing out of immediate context can be a sensitive issue, but it’s not a matter of musicians lacking respect for the context of the music exactly.

You give the concept of emotion a fundamental place in your paper on Muharram drumming and in several other publications. Can you detail a bit more the relation between emotion and music?

Well I got interested in that mainly because of funerals. Many people have been interested in why there are celebrations even on occasions of mourning. I was particularly interested in how we deal with the combination of different emotions that are associated with occasions like this – and the fact that musical pieces or styles can be associated with some components that have explicit emotional connotations.

In your paper on Madho Lal Hussain, you speak of the `urs as a “highly heterogeneous event”. Can you explain the notion of heterogeneity in relation to the rituals and the way you try to deal with this?

I think it’s very hard to talk as if you are dealing with a single culture when you’re looking at a very complex event. So many things are going on at once. But it turns out that there are usually some themes that people hold in common. They might deal with them differently. We can’t just say: “This is so heterogeneous, there is nothing at all in common and we have no grounding whatsoever.” People experience the same kinds of events over and over and develop certain expectations that are based on that experience. They’re also exposed to certain kinds of poetry in the respective languages that brings up so called Sufi themes… So it’s inevitable that there is going to a certain amount of common knowledge.

That means that you really need to be used to the event…

Ideally yes. It’s pretty hard to get used to the events themselves, but the picture starts to look more cohesive when you put together general observations with the points that participants make repeatedly during interviews.

Can you explain for instance how you worked on precise events?

I usually heard that something was coming up and I would decide I would go; I didn’t necessarily have time to prepare…

Yes, for example, you record, you try to analyze this, you show it to the participants…

Yes, that’s what I try to do. I would record interviews. Back in 1996, I would go over the recordings carefully with my Urdu teacher, and listen for where our discussions were ambiguous; there was often an issue to be explored at such places in the interview. So in general just working through the materials in multiple ways is very helpful. Often I found out about interesting places to research from these interviews with drummers. I would ask them to tell me stories of what happened when they were playing or about the pieces. Then I would want to go and see them in those contexts.

More on Richard K. Wolf

Richard K. Wolf has written about classical, folk and tribal musical traditions in South India as well as on musical traditions associated with Shi’ism and Sufism in North India and Pakistan.

(ed.) Theorizing the Local: Music, Practice, and Experience in South Asia and Beyond,

Oxford University Press, New York, 2009.

The Black Cow’s Footprint: Time, Space, and Music in the Lives of the Kotas of South India, Permanent Black, 2005 and University of Illinois Press, 2006.


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