Bucuvalas, Tina, Editor. Greek Music in America. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. 2019. Pp. xii + 467. 105 figures. Cloth $30.00.
With the decentering of identity that accompanied the rise of postmodernism in the 1990s, ethnicity theory became the focus of increasing scrutiny. Some critics rejected the notion of primordial and homogeneous ethnicity as an inherently reductive category, one lacking in conceptual and analytical clarity. Others advocated for an intersectional approach, positioning ethnicity as malleable and performative and in constant renegotiation with diverse modalities such as class, gender, and race. Ethnomusicologists were particularly vocal in this discussion, entering a decade of intense self-reflexivity in which they not only questioned the fundamental assumptions of the field but also debated the very name of their discipline: To many, the “ethno” prefix implied a primordial understanding of ethnicity that ignored its socially constructed and performative nature. In practice, ethnomusicologists had already embraced intersectionality, understanding the “ethno” prefix as a misnomer for various kinds of intraethnic subcultures shaped by permeable and malleable identity concepts such as race, gender, and class that were constantly renegotiated and redefined.
If scholarship is truly an activist undertaking with the potential to articulate and affect identity politics (Wong, 2004), then Tina Bucuvalas advocates proudly for a return to ethnicity as identity framework in Greek Music in America. The book engages Greek music as the ontological framework for surveying the history and scope of music performance and research by Greek Americans since the late nineteenth century: This is evident in the singular title of the book and in the introductory “Overview” chapter that assumes a shared understanding of Greek music. With few exceptions, as I will explain later, the rest of the volume does little to problematize identity constructs or draw out the syncretisms and cross-cultural dynamics that shape the music practices of Greek Americans.
As the first book to compile the most important articles on the topic , Greek Music in America is certainly a landmark publication and essential reading for any scholar of Greek American studies. Reprints of seminal publications include: “Amanes: The Legacy of the Oriental Mother” by Gail Holst-Warhaft; “Communities Born in Song” by Anna Caravelli; and “‘Health to You, Marko, with Your Bouzouki!’: The Role of Spoken Interjection in Greek Musicians’ Imagined Performance World in Historical Recordings Made in America and Abroad” by Michael G. Kaloyanides. A number of previously unpublished essays offer welcome new perspectives including “Rebetika, the Blues of Greece—and Australia” by Stathis Gauntlett and “Turkish Music in the Greek American Experience” by Joseph G. Graziosi.
The organization of the book is clear and logical. It begins with a brief introduction that outlines the contents and emphasizes the pressing need for scholarship on the musical practices of Greek Americans. This is followed by a chapter titled “Overview of Greek Music in America,” co-authored by Bucuvalas and Stavros K. Frangos. Combining a thematic and chronological approach, the authors survey music practices by Greeks in the United States beginning with the influx of immigrants in the 1880s and concluding in the present. While clearly a cursory overview of such a large category of musical practice, this chapter is certainly a valiant effort to capture the complexity of Greek American music practice and scholarship.
The main contents of the book are organized into four large sections: Part I, “Musical Genre, Style, and Content,” contains essays on various music genres and styles ranging from rebetika to liturgical music. Part II, “Places,” considers the music culture of specific Greek American communities like the wedding celebrations of Olymbites of Baltimore and tsambouna traditions of Kalymnians of Tarpon Springs. Part III, “Delivering the Music: Recording Companies and Performance Venues,” surveys various formats for the distribution of Greek music in the United States including piano rolls, early records, and live performances at Greek bouzouki clubs. Part IV “Profiles,” presents the biographies of twenty-one Greek Americans associated with the music industry and brief essays about various institutions that helped shape the course of Greek American music production and consumption in the United States. The book ends with an Appendix “Greek Music Collections in the United States” by Frangos that offers an annotated list of relevant music collections.
Greek Music in America effectively demonstrates the role of music in shaping individual and collective behavior as well as the broader music discourse, practices, and institutions of Greek Americans. The diversity of topics covered in its chapters illustrates the many ways in which understandings of Greek ethnicity are constantly reinscribed in music. For example, in his essay, “Greek Music Piano Rolls in the United States,” Meletios Pouliopoulos considers the oft-overlooked piano roll as one of the earliest means of packaging music for Greek American consumers. Though little record remains of this once popular format, Pouliopoulos urges the reader to consider the piano roll as an important early medium for reinscribing ethnic and racial imagination in music consumption. Further research on this topic could delve more deeply into the question of how this particular form of music commodification and consumption speaks to the performance of Greek American ethnicity. The relationship between music, dance, and identity formation for Kalymnians living in Tarpon Springs, Florida, receives sophisticated consideration in the article, “Alternate Resonances: Kalymnian Traditions in Tarpon Springs, Florida,” by Panayotis League. Of the many insights that emerge in this article, the wonderfully descriptive concluding anecdote is perhaps most impactful: As League articulates his experience disappointing a Kalymnian audience by performing a song in too “traditional” a style, the reader comes to understand that how a song is played is as important as the song selection itself; even the subtleties of musical style can profoundly affect understandings of self and other. By the end of the essay, the reader is convinced that music plays a major role in sustaining and challenging ethnic understandings of self and other for Greek Americans navigating a complex pluralistic society.
For a scholar well versed in the literature, Greek Music in America is certainly a celebrated and long-awaited publication. Yet, the book is not without its frustrations. The title obfuscates the fact that most of the substantive chapters in this book are pre-published essays that are readily available and very well known. And while the enormity of the topic means that content choices were inevitable, how these decisions were made is puzzling: For example, in Part I “Musical Genre, Style, and Content,” most of the essays are about rebetika or the closely related music of the café aman. Folk, pop, classical, and other music styles are only mentioned briefly or excluded entirely. Bucuvalas is clearly aware of these issues, and in the introduction, she warns the reader that the topics covered are determined in large part by the available literature and in part by the particular preferences of the editor and contributing authors (7). It is disappointing that women scholars and musicians are highly marginalized in this account: in addition to the editor, only four of the twenty-one contributing authors are women, and only four of the twenty-one biographies in Part IV are about women musicians. Finally, the book would have benefitted from more systematic guidelines for content selection: The length and academic merit of the articles vary widely, though this may in fact serve to broaden the readership of the book.
In sum, I certainly agree with Bucuvalas that ethnicity—Greek or otherwise—remains a salient identity concept within and outside of academia. As such, we cannot expect its eradication from emerging scholarly work on the music practices of Greek Americans. However, a second edition of this book might restructure its theoretical framework to incorporate intersectionality into ethnicity theory, presenting Greek music not as a set of songs, genres, or styles but as lived practice rich with implications about identity formation. Instead of attempting to cover the gamut of music performed and consumed by Greek Americans, the book could focus on identity politics with special emphasis on the social and political construction of Greek American identities through music. Each large section of the book could be united by a clear theoretical framework and prefaced by an introductory essay. For example, one section might focus on Greek Americans making music in environments of interethnic contact: How are the music practices of Greek Americans shaped by contact with African American, Irish American, and Anglo American musicians? Another section might consider the intersections between ethnicity and gender constructs: Examining the performance stage as a space of empowered sexuality, scholars could consider how Greek American musicians embrace or challenge gender stereotypes across lines of ethnicity, class, and sexual orientation. While returning agency to the people that appear in its pages, the book would simultaneously demonstrate that ethnicity— Greek or otherwise—is tangled in a dynamic web of power relations and is more performative than constative thus resembling music practice itself. With this in mind, I echo Bucuvalas in her urgent call for further academic consideration of the largely unexamined territory of Greek American music practices, in which ethnicity clearly permeates and structures the discourse, practices, institutions, and industries of music.
Yona Stamatis is Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology, University of Illinois Springfield.
Wong, Deborah. 2004. Speak It Louder: Asian Americans Making Music . New York: Routledge.