Explaining trance and music, part deux

I’d like to now offer a different viewpoint on Richard Jankowsky’s Stambeli (2010), in which I focus on what I take to be the book’s excellent points (of which there are in fact many). While my criticism of Jankowsky’s take on trance and spirit possession as human phenomena (rather than as subjective, individual phenomena) remains a sticking point for me, it surely cannot be taken to be a critique of the work as a whole.

One reason that Jankowsky’s take on trance denies the necessity of its explication has to be that his focus is squarely on musicians rather than trancers (in this case, as in many, they are separate (one reason why trance can’t be considered as inherent to the music (if it were, then musicians would be trancing along with the trancers, no? (which is why one expert on trance, Gilbert Rouget, so coyly wrote that if that were true, then “half of Africa would be in a trance from the beginning of the year to the end” (1986:175))))). Now, what makes this interesting is that it changes Jankowsky’s focus: if you focus your analysis on the trancers, then how and why trancing occurs becomes central to explaining the trance event. If you focus on how the context of ritual makes trance possible, you can effectively ignore the “facts” of trance and consider the process of ritual in developing trance-states.

I think this fairly encapsulates Jankowsky’s approach to stambeli trance, and it explains his relative disinterest in the internal workings of trance-states, the process and efficacy of healing, and the “facts” of trancing behavior. This is similar to doing research in a hospital and focusing not on patients but rather on doctors (and not making that distinction strongly enough ;P).

One reason why this approach is interesting (despite sidestepping the thorny issue of trance and subjectivity) is that it points to a key feature of many Middle Eastern musical forms: the patterning of musical “suites”. The thoughtful figuration of different musical forms, genres, and non-musical practices and objects is one widely shared performance technique throughout the region. Crucially, as Jankowsky points out, its is not only music that prepares humans for trance, but a wide range of spatial, sensual, social, and ritual cues, ranging from smells to objects to the development of rhythms. He may even underemphasize the significance of the suite format (exemplified in both the nūba and silsila terms) in connecting stambeli to broader trends in Middle Eastern ritual and art musics.

Interestingly, this trance format does not rely on the punctuation of grooves with suitable “breaks”, as is so common in Afro-Caribbean trance musics (watch 1:30 to 2:00 here for Papa Legba in Haitian vodou) but rather on the gradual, predictable, and necessary microscopic shifting of the groove from one identifiable pattern into another. Jankowsky’s method for outlining this glacial shift should absolutely be emulated. Rather than taking the musical notions of “measure”, “meter”, or “accent pattern” as fixed, he shows how periods of unit-time are slowly re-accentuated over the development of particular grooves. Jankowsky refers to these unit-times as “rhythmic cells”, and very clearly documents their compression in performance of particular tunes, seen here on ‘his’ website.

One more element of Jankowsky’s ethnography that needs to be drawn out is his intense and constant interest in the deployment of aesthetic terminology amongst practitioners. While some musicians may not devote much thought to the ways in which their sounds are undergirded by music theory (rather trusting themselves as practitioners to “do it right”), an extreme amount of attention is devoted to timbre, timbral blending, and what Jankowsky usefully calls “musical motion” – that is, the sense that musical sound is necessarily directed, goal-driven, and processual.

Lastly, this film on stambeli is particularly great.


Taking an extended look at features that grabbed my attention is only a service to me, to be sure. I like the idea of putting down some of my ideas in a format that is neither “notes” nor a “review”, but rather a more casual conceptual look at the pros and cons of  recent musical ethnographies. Hopefully, this will provide a place for less formal thoughts that may be of some interest to colleagues and other readers and help frame my thinking for my future research.

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About Bradford Garvey

Ph.D student in Ethnomusicology, CUNY GC. Adjunct Lecturer in Music, CUNY Hunter.
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