In 1960, the ethnomusicologist Mantle Hood wrote an influential article called “The Challenge Of Bi-Musicality.” The article argues for the importance of the western student learning how to perform non-western music. Performance allows us to get inside the music and experience its technical, aesthetic, and sonic challenges. Drawing on examples from his research on Indonesian gamelan music, Hood discusses the skill sets required to hear complex rhythmic cycles and small gradations of pitch and tuning. “The training of the ears, hands, eyes and voice and fluency gained in these skills assures a real comprehension of theoretical studies” he wrote. Hood’s article reminds us that music performance in any tradition makes huge cognitive and physical demands and to be bi-musical is analogous to being bilingual or fluent in more than one musical “language.” Okay, music may not be a language, but when we learn to speak through its various tongues we can experience new ways of being in the world.
I thought about bi-musicality when I heard about the story of Jennifer Grout, a young American woman from Boston who has made the finals on Arabs Got Talent by impressing the judges with her fluid Arabic singing and competent oud playing. While attending university in Montreal, Grout began learning oud and singing Arabic popular songs. She even travelled to Morocco to learn Berber music. And yet she understands very little Arabic. In other words, Grout is bi-musical but not bilingual (not yet, anyway).
Here is Grout performing “Baeed Annak”, a love song made famous by Umm Kulthoum (1898-1975), Egypt’s most beloved singer: