Class of 1960 Lecture
Prof. Richard Wolf
"Hearing what you want to hear: Perspectival discrimination in the ritual and drumming of Muharram in South Asia"

Professor Richard Wolf, Harvard Professor of Music, Graduate Advisor in Ethnomusicology

“Hearing what you want to hear: Perspectival discrimination in the ritual and drumming of Muharram in South Asia”

Shī‘ī muslims and a variety of other communities in south Asia engage in public and private observances of Muharram each year. Narrowly conceived, Muharram is a commemoration of the martyrdom of Husain (the grandson of the prophet, Muhammad) and his small band of followers on the dusty plains of Karbala in 680 CE. More broadly, it is an occasion upon which different communities project aspects of their own religious and cultural values onto a set of ritual practices held somewhat in common. This leads to mimesis of different kinds, involving pain and suffering, triumph and tribute, and the universalization of protest. A striking visual example is the reinterpretation of Muslim tomb-replicas as temple chariots. Keeping in mind the insights of such philosophers as Wittgenstein and Husserl regarding the role of a perceiver’s attitude in making sense of any object, I wish to explore ways in which south Asian Shī‘ahs, Sunnis, and Hindus interpret their own ritual practices and those of one other. Muharram drumming is of particular interest because it involves all these communities and draws radically different interpretations. Some look to popular versions of the Karbala narrative to equate drumming with the gloating of the enemy; others analogize drumming to other Muharram-appropriate mimetic activities; some view drumming as the outward manifestation of an intimate textual tradition; and many resist the act of interpreting drumming in relation to Muharram at all. Populations thus engaged might not always “hear what they want to hear,” or see what they wish to see: they may feel obliged to take one position or another. Nevertheless, in keeping with the historical role of dramatic public displays in attracting followers to many religions, Muharram processions are also invitations for all those around to dig beneath the surface, should they so desire.

In 1980, an extraordinary performance of south Indian classical (Karnatak) music forever changed the life of Richard Wolf, erstwhile electric guitarist and student of Renaissance lute and classical guitar. In 1982 this experience led him to devote a year of music and Tamil language study in south India. After returning to Oberlin College the following year, he completed the last few courses toward a bachelor’s degree in Mathematics (1984) and then devoted himself to ethnomusicological study.

Following fourteen months of further study in India, Wolf began his graduate work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; there he completed a Master of Music thesis exploring social-cultural as well as technical components of Karnatak “style” (bani) (1989). For his PhD dissertation, Wolf conducted fieldwork for two years on the music and ritual of one of the tribal minority populations of the Nilgiri Hills, the Kotas (1997).

In November 1996, the final draft of Wolf’s PhD thesis was still in the mail when he boarded a plane with his wife to commence two-and-a-half years of new field research. This work in north India and Pakistan centered on drumming, “recitation,” and music in public Islamic contexts. Wolf returned from south Asia to take up a position at Harvard in 1999 and has remained there ever since.

Wolf’s thematic interests include emotional complexity in ceremonial contexts, the constitutive properties of musical action in rituals, the poetics of non-verbal activities, the musical qualities of languages and the analytic potentials of particular languages for the study of music. Wolf speaks Tamil and draws from his study of several other languages, including Urdu and Persian, in his research and writings. His studies of the Kota language, soon be published, will include a dictionary.

Several publications address issues of music and Islam in south Asia including “The poetics of Sufi practice: Drumming, dancing, and complex agency at Madho Lal Husain (and beyond),” (American Ethnologist 2006). His monograph titled Reciting Remembrance: Performing Popular Islam in South Asia is currently under preparation for the University of Illinois Press. He has also drafted another monograph, provisionally titled Song and Subjectivity in Modern India, based on continuing research on south Indian folk and tribal music. Wolf’s interest in sociomusical processes that transcend the borders of South Asia is reflected in the edited volume, Theorizing the Local: Music, Practice, and Experience in South Asia and Beyond (Oxford University Press, New York, 2009).

Wolf has been the recipient of numerous grants and fellowships, including recent awards from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Social Science Research Council, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Institute of Pakistan Studies. Wolf’s first book, The Black Cow’s Footprint: Time, Space, and Music in the Lives of the Kotas of South India (Permanent Black, 2005 and University of Illinois Press, 2006), earned the Edward Cameron Dimock, Jr. Prize in the Humanities.

In the summer of 2009, Wolf was Professeur Invité at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris and Gastprofessur für ethnologische Nilgiriforschung at the Institute for Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Munich. He has served on several editorial boards and currently serves on the Executive Committee and Board of Trustees of the American Institute of Pakistan Studies. In addition to teaching and writing about music, Wolf occasionally performs on the vina; he is a disciple of the renowned performer, Ranganayaki Rajagopalan.