Teaching World Musics in the First Person

Following is the tenth in a series by participants in the Winter 2022 Open Pedagogy Fellowship (which will be known, going forward, as the Open Knowledge Fellowship), coordinated by the Mina Rees Library. Fellows share insight into the process of converting a syllabus to openly-licensed and/or zero-cost resources, as well as their experiences teaching undergraduate courses at CUNY. 

Farah Zahra is a Ph.D. student in ethnomusicology at The Graduate Center. She holds a master’s degree in ethnomusicology from The Graduate Center and a master’s degree in religious studies  from Harvard University. Her research explores amateur archiving practices of Iraqi traditional music in postwar Iraq. Farah is also an adjunct instructor at Brooklyn College and Hunter College where she teaches courses on world music.


My initial interest in the Open Pedagogy Fellowship offered by the Mina Rees Library’s wonderful team was guided by my frustration with world music textbooks that are, like other textbooks, unaffordable for many students enrolled in public universities. I was also disillusioned by the textbooks’ general organization and presentation of “world musics” that appear archaic and that are presented across strict nation-states lines. 

I also noticed that such textbooks use “politically correct” language to avoid unpleasant but much-needed discussions on historical events—such as employing passive verb forms to refer to the atrocities suffered by colonized peoples at the hands of colonial powers rather than explicitly citing the perpetrator, and using the language of “discovery” to refer to Christopher Columbus’s arrival to the American continent without reference to any other perspective. 

Furthermore, our textbooks and academic manuscripts on music tend to privilege words over sounds. We see this in the way they rely on text, instead of musical materials, and prioritize written transcriptions of audio interviews, instead of playing them live in an A/V format. In other words, the existing body of written and auditory ethnomusicology scholarship is left out of the textbook narrative, existing in a kind of ironic silence. At the same time, our textbooks on world music are largely written in the third person, for a third person, abstracting both the original creators and audience for the work.

Before starting the Fellowship, the search for open access resources did not appear to be very challenging. Following the first workshop, which covered strategies for identifying and evaluating open access and free of cost resources, the task emerged rife with challenges. Finding credible and open access written sources was no easy task. The lack of convincing written resources has pushed me to change my strategy of syllabus design. By that I was obliged (and luckily so) to rethink not only the type of resources to include but also the overall approach to teaching world music for undergraduate, non-music major students. My current course site and syllabus features the new approach informed by values advanced by OER advocates, while I became ever more convinced of the necessity to rethink restricting definitions of “scholarly” material in a classroom setting.

On my course site for “The World of Music,” students will be able to find resources that are largely audio-visual materials which feature and/or are produced by native/local musicians and practitioners. The sources range from educational websites created by musicians (such as mbira.org, introducing mbira music from Zimbabwe, and maqamworld.com, explaining the world of Arab music) to documentaries produced in collaboration with local musicians (such as the documentary series Havana Club: Rumba Session, which introduces viewers to the current Rumba scene in Cuba; videos directed by ethnomusicologist Vaughan Hatch documenting collaborative efforts to preserving Gamelan music in Bali; and locally produced documentaries such as Ocean of Melody, which was commissioned by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs). In addition, I included a list of freely accessible resources in world music for students to consult and hopefully be inspired by. My plan is to expand the list to include more resources by allowing students to edit the page on the course site to include their own suggestions. Students will also be able to record their own reflections on the audio-visual class materials in the form of blog posts.

Overall, the recourse to audio-visual materials seems to have organically privileged “emic” or “insider” perspectives on various musical cultures. On my side, however, that choice was intentional. The course on world musics is no longer “written” by a third person for a third person—but rather fully or partially presented and celebrated by a first person for engaged and immersed listeners.

Photo by Youssef Abdelwahab, shared on Unsplash under the Unsplash license.


About the Author

Katherine Pradt is the Adjunct Reference and Digital Outreach Librarian at the Graduate Center.