making music, writing culture

About Ethnolyrical

Ethnolyrical is a space for experimental work in global music-making. The name of this project comes from the twin hearts of cultural studies, in which I am earning my Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina:

Ethnography is the practice of “writing culture,” or the art of understanding and representing cultural practices, performances, materials, places, sounds, works and dances in my words, recordings, lesson plans, conversations, understandings, and new poetry and music of my own. As I write about music, I bring into the conversation my own ideas, imagination, and experiences of how the world works, and these understandings work in partnership with the music to shape the research that I do.

Lyrical is a way of describing how words and music, poetry and performance, communication and imagination are richly interwoven both in my own work and the work of the musicians, poets and communities with whom I study. It seems that even when the words themselves are unsung, the sounds and voices of the instruments have a poetry of their own. Without words, they carry ideas and feelings that affect the worlds they touch. And when words are boiled down to the text of a book, even when it feels very heavy and un-musical, they still carry voices with them, in their style and context, and in our imaginations.

My research in cultural studies is focused on music and the people and communities who make it because, first of all, I love music more than anything in this world. So much so that I think of everything as musical: art and nature, religion and philosophy, walking through the airport and eating a new food are, for me, all ethnolyrical in their own ways. Each of these cultural materials and performances has a particular rhythm, a taste, a call-and-response with others, ideas and sounds. Secondly, music allows us a rich perspective on how culture works. In the space of a song, the sound of an event, or the life of an artist, we hear the convergence of the many sensations, languages, conversations, histories and experiences that are the materials and performances of our cultural world.

Ethnolyrical is a space in which I can bring my experience in music journalism, cultural studies, global fieldwork, and my love of playing music as a multi-instrumentalist and turntablist, together. Many of the entries here will document my current two-year research project with contemporary women musical practitioners in Dakar, Senegal. Others will mark other kinds of new encounters, inspirations and understandings as I dance through what I hope will continue to be a musical life.

Read more about researcher and author Ali Colleen Neff here.

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