Sunday, 22 February 2015

Presentation at Special Research Forum, 19/2/15: ‘Singing Identity: Music and Endangered Languages’

Kit Ashton presentation - Special Research Forum, Goldsmiths College, University of London 19/2/15 from Kit Ashton on Vimeo.

This Special Research Forum was hosted by Goldsmiths College, University of London, in partnership with the University of Osaka.
Stuart Hall Building, Goldsmiths College, University of London

J’ai tchilyi la belle rose,
J’ai tchilyi la belle rose,
Tchi pendait au blianc rôsyi,
Belle rose,
Tchi pendait au blianc rosyi,
Belle rose, rose au blianc.

Jé l’apportis à ma méthe,
Jé l’apportis à ma méthe,
Entre Saint Ouën et Saint Jean,
Belle Rose,
Entre Saint Ouën et Saint Jean,
Belle rose, rose au blianc.

Those two verses are from a song called ‘Belle Rose’, which dates back at least as far as 1633, though it could be much older.

The language I was singing in was Jèrriais – a dialect of Norman French unique to my home island of Jersey in the Channel Islands, spoken there for many hundreds of years. But Jèrriais is now an endangered language - today only a few hundred native speakers remain (out of a population of 100,000) - all of whom are over the age of 50.

So why should we care about that?

Well firstly, this may not be very objective or academic but I care because this is my home, my community, my family. My Gran only spoke French and Jèrriais until she went to school, where she not only had to learn English, but would have been beaten for speaking Jèrriais. She was told that if you want to get on in life you need to speak English and ‘proper’ French. Eventually she married an Englishman and consequently never passed on our native language to my father, or uncles and aunt.
Now I’m on a journey of discovery, learning Jèrriais and thinking about the ways in which music might be able to help revitalise the language, which is a key part of the intangible cultural heritage of Jersey. And it is this journey that is hopefully beginning to reveal something of wider academic interest.
I’m exploring the potential of applied ethnomusicology to contribute to language revitalisation through the ongoing project of shaping cultural identity and language ideology. Connections between music and cultural identity are profound and powerful (though complex) and an initial consideration of this underscores my argument that understanding and engaging with these connections in context offers the strongest potential for ‘musical language activism’, in combination with other elements.
I’ll come back to Jersey later, but let’s first look at some of the wider context, and some of the theoretical ideas, followed by a few other examples from around the world. I will conclude by noting some of the philosophical and ethical concerns, as well as practical challenges, hoping to lead to a balanced view that recognises the need to weigh optimism for the positive potential against a proper and careful consideration of the manifold complexities. My research in Jersey is ongoing, so I would welcome any thoughts, criticism, and suggestions at the end of this presentation.


Over 40% of the world’s approximate 7,000 languages are at risk of disappearing during this century.
[The Endangered Language Project]
In 2003 UNESCO member states voted for a new international treaty: ‘the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage’, energising a concerted global attempt to stem the rapid loss of languages, music, and other elements of fragile human cultural identity and history:

The Convention aims to ensure the survival and vitality of the world’s living local, national, and regional cultural heritage in the face of increasing globalisation and its perceived homogenising effects on culture.

As anthropologist Richard Kurin notes:

The world has lost literally thousands of linguistic communities, and with them much of the oral literature, the stories and tales and ways in which humans have seen and imagined the world - and how they might have done so in the future. Music, dance, performances and rituals, culinary and occupational traditions, craftsmanship and a large variety of knowledge systems have been lost or are in decline.
So - indigenous lifeways of all kinds are being fragmented, diluted and threatened in many ways and at many levels. This is a fact of human life in the 21st Century. The important question is how we respond and why. Well-meaning votes and treaties need real action to take effect. Each of those endangered languages represent a unique community, heritage and culture – intrinsically precious in human terms, as well as of great academic interest. Each loss is its own particular tragedy. It is a struggle against time and (cultural) tide, which is why every potentially helpful strategy should be considered, and where I believe music holds some real promise.

Why revitalise an almost-dead language? 

To answer this important question, I would argue firstly that the cognitive, intellectual, social and economic merits of bilingualism in general are well-evidenced and speak for themselves.

Bilingualism promotes cognitive control processes, metalinguistic awareness, general language and literacy development, and conceptual thinking - stretching our abilities to learn and think in new ways. At this purely cognitive and intellectual level it’s worth noting that music can play a helpful role in language acquisition – enhancing mood, focus, motivation, memory, even phonological discrimination and structural awareness. A bilingual person is also (arguably) a ‘richer’ person in some respects, making them more ‘rounded’ and employable – showing cultural depth and diversity, communication and social skills, as well as the other cognitive skills mentioned above.

Secondly, the safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage preserves a healthy diversity in our global cultural ecosystem, as well as an ongoing appreciation of living heritage that may be rooted in the past but can also evolve consciously and positively. This has wider potential economic benefits for tourism, local branding, and creative business innovation.

Thirdly, and perhaps most optimistically, it is my view that revitalization of a locally situated endangered language could contribute to a positive, non-exclusive sense of local cultural identity. This in itself may improve social cohesion, centred around a local ‘linguistic community’ that can transcend other perceived social, cultural and genetic boundaries in a globalised, multi-cultural world. A properly revitalised language would be passed on organically from generation to generation, fostering the ongoing evolution of intangible cultural heritage as opposed to just ‘preservation’ in a metaphorical (or actual) cultural museum. For all of UNESCO’s efforts, the danger of museumification is very real (though that would be better than nothing of course), and this is where music has a significant role to play.

As Ethnomusicologist Henry Johnson says:

[A] study that interconnects a minority and endangered language and the creation of music culture offers a new perspective to ethnomusicological scholarship. It is with such a cultural interface that the researcher can see the power that song can have in mobilizing people, and how people can create song as a result of language activism.
So how would Johnson’s idea of a ‘cultural interface’ work?

Music, Voice and Identity

A key goal in language revitalisation is to change general ‘awareness and approval’ into specific engagement, attachment, acquisition and use. This is where a broad and passive appreciation of the language as part of cultural identity becomes a focussed and active language ideology - and music could be a useful tool in this process. There seems to be real potential for the research and development of various projects in this area, and my view is that the musical aesthetic employed should not only consider embracing the enactment of ‘traditional’ musics, or even ‘contemporary’ re-workings of already culturally significant works, but take a constructivist approach to identity and develop entirely new works that include some singing and also make particular use of a well-researched understanding of local youth culture towards this end.

My thoughts on the connections between music and identity draw on writing from several broad fields including philosophy (Strawson, Perry), neuroscience (Levitin), sociology (Hall, DeNora), psychology (Leary, Tangney), and musicology (Frith, Negus). Let’s take a brief walk through some of those thoughts and see how this might work.

First of all, let’s establish that I am making use of a ‘non-essentialist’ conception of identity as a process which is developed or ‘constructed’ over time, rather than a fixed or unified ‘thing’. This is in line with contemporary thinking in the fields of psychology and sociology. The experience of identity happens, or becomes relevant, where social forces interact with us as individuals with evolving subjective characteristics. Identity is thus an ongoing project to define or design – to construct – what makes us ‘different’ in the process of engaging or integrating with the world around us. It is a necessarily interactive and comparative experience of being conscious and social - and music offers a unique experience of this, which is partly why it is such a powerful tool for constructing and shaping our identity.

Many musicologists including Simon Frith, Timothy Rice and Martin Stokes have explored this idea. As Frith says: Making music isn't a way of expressing ideas; it is a way of living them. This raises the question of how music can embody an identity rather than simply represent it. Frith again: The issue is not how a particular piece of music or a performance reflects the people, but how it produces them, how it creates and constructs an experience - a musical experience, an aesthetic experience - that we can only make sense of by taking on both a subjective and a collective identity. This has become known as the ‘reverse-homological’ approach, as opposed to the homological -which would try to understand the ways in which performances ‘express’ already-existing ideas and identities.

The role of the voice 

Singing (and rapping) which explicitly combines music with the language is important. People can repeatedly listen to, enjoy, engage, and identify with, performances and recordings. Also, the physical act of communal singing pro-actively embodies solidarity, linguistic praxis and collective identity in a memorable, direct, unmediated experience.

The crucial phase: Childhood 

The early years leading into young adulthood are clearly crucial, not just in the emergence of an identity, but in the very formation of the deep structures of the brain, which form the basis of all the cognitive and psychological processes involved in being who one is.

Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin has written about this in relation to music and culture. Drawing on several studies he shows how musical perception and memory begins in the womb, preference for music of one’s own culture begins by age two, we internalize rules about harmony and typical chord progressions around age five, with increased understanding and a taste for greater complexity progressing into the teen years, which are “the turning point for musical preference”, when much “neural pruning” occurs, and peer dynamics are at their most formative (Levitin mentions the age of fourteen specifically). No matter what musical training and tastes are subsequently acquired, in general musical perceptions and preferences are largely set for life before the average person turns twenty - neural structures and general concepts relating to music are well established by this point. This journey is clearly both neurological and psychological – a collaboration of biological, social and historical factors – which will vary dramatically from age to age, culture to culture, person to person.

Cultural identity and language acquisition follow a similar journey – so clearly for language activists the first few years of a child’s life is the crucial phase to tie these three threads together – music, language, and cultural identity – and the teen years represent the culmination of this process. If a young person authentically identifies with the music, language, and general identity of a given culture by the age of fourteen, there is a good chance they will retain a strong affiliation with all three for the rest of their lives, informing their ‘Cultural Model’, consciously and unconsciously. They would then quite possibly want to pass them on to their children and beyond.

So that’s the theory.

Now let’s look at a few examples, followed by a bit more detail about Jersey.

1. Maze, Norway. The language of Sami. Artist/activist: Slincraze. Style: Hip-hop/rap

2.  Guatemala. The languages of Quiché, Tz’utujil, and Kaqchikel. Artist/activist:  Rene Dionisio (Tzutu Baktun Kan) / Casa Ahau. Style: Hip-hop/rap

Casa Ahau - Hip Hop hits the Maya Highlands from David Mercer on Vimeo.

3. Isle of Man, Britain. The language of Manx. Artist/activist: Ruth Keggin/ Culture Vannin (formerly Manx Heritage Foundation. Style: Folk/ Various


Jèrriais is a dialect of Norman French unique to Jersey, widely spoken in the past but now endangered due to various, mainly economic and political reasons. Recent years have seen the beginnings of a revitalisation process, thanks to the efforts of a very active few, including the government funded body L’Office Du Jèrriais, which teaches and promotes the language across the island. Music has been an active part of the strategy – most regularly through the use of folk song and amateur singing groups, but latterly through a more contemporary approach – I was commissioned in 2012 to arrange and record six Jèrriais folk songs in a more ‘pop’ style for Jèrriais teachers to use as a resource in schools.

Badlabecques is a pop-folk band that I founded out of that commission. The band is now popular and active in raising the profile of the language as a living part of local cultural identity. Badlabecques’ repertoire mixes re-contextualised traditional songs, translated pop ‘covers’, and original songs. This is a performance for the National Trust for Jersey at a particular site they manage, with a natural amphitheatre and an ancient dolmen nearby:

Badlabecques is now a relatively well-established part of the local cultural landscape, performing regularly at festivals and cultural events, releasing recordings and appearing in the local press, raising the profile of the language, and even appearing in a cartoon form with a sing-along section of a history book produced by Jersey Heritage. This is all well and good but I believe there is much more that can be done.

What I am hoping to establish in my research at Masters level is firstly that music does indeed play an active role in shaping the identity of young people in Jersey at the moment, and secondly that Badlabecques is contributing to an evolving cultural identity in some way. Thirdly, and perhaps most optimistically, I’m hoping to devise a small-scale pilot study to help test my thesis and sketch out the ethnomusicological ‘reality on the ground’. I hope this may tentatively point towards new potential music projects, which could be generally characterised as ‘applied ethnomusicology’, be they educational programmes, community choirs, new bands, radio programmes, competitions or projects of some other kind – the nature of which will only be revealed through further field research.

Consequently, I would be keen to establish the detail by undertaking a thorough and grounded PhD-level study of the typical music practices (listening, practicing, identification etc) of the various communities in Jersey. This field work could involve focus groups and interviews in schools, youth clubs and community centres; ‘vox pops’ in the street/clubs/bars; online surveys and dialogue on social media (identity is now online as much as elsewhere); further pilot projects and experiments; as well as engagement with current language activists, teachers, other stakeholders and local government.

I hope to reach a helpful ‘engaged analysis’ of what is inevitably a complex cultural context, to understand how music relates to that context, and consider what potential this offers. Given the many diverse sub-cultures as well as interconnected social, economic, historical, and environmental dynamics in Jersey I recognise that this is an ambitious hope.

And there are other philosophical, ethical and practical questions too. Issues of democracy, governmental paternalism, political manipulation and even problematic nationalism loom on the horizon. For example - what language and cultural identity do the people really want and need? Whilst recent surveys have shown the public in Jersey do generally support the idea of keeping Jèrriais alive, is their everyday lack of involvement the more honest message? Whose right is it to ‘shape’ culture, in whose hands should that fall, and in whose interest is it done? At what point would grassroots music and language projects become social engineering, artificially manipulating children’s identity? When does an ‘authentic’ revitalisation programme become a doomed ‘fake’ fabrication? What would revitalization actually look like? English will be the dominant language in Jersey for the foreseeable future so what role should Jèrriais, and Jèrriais music play for generations to come? When is it ‘too late’ or pointless to keep investing in such programmes anyway – especially during uncertain economic times of limited financial resources?

Given all of the above, I hope to be able to maintain a balance that is both realistic about the challenges and complexities, and optimistic about the potential for positive outcomes.

Mèrcie bein des fais pouor m’êcouter. Thank you very much for listening.