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An existential approach to popular music in Africa: Rock and Metal in Antananarivo (Madagascar)

Final Report Summary - EXAROMA (An existential approach to popular music in Africa: Rock and Metal in Antananarivo (Madagascar))

Results and conclusions

The aim of the EXAROMA project was threefold:

(1) To establish an existential framework for the study of popular music in Africa, an approach stressing the aesthetic experience of popular music and relating it to contextual analysis; this approach was to be developed in close cooperation with ethnomusicology and musicology scholars from University of California Los Angeles (UCLA).
(2) To apply this framework to the interpretation of ethnographic material on rock and metal music in Madagascar which had been gathered in long-term anthropological fieldwork before the start of the project; this was to be done in close interaction with scholars of various disciplines engaged in African studies at the University of Bayreuth.
(3) To disseminate the acquired knowledge trough articles, lectures, conferences, networks, and teaching.

We are happy to report that all research objectives of the EXAROMA project have successfully been met. However, in respect to content, major adjustments needed to be made as work progressed, in order to allow for intellectual advancements and gains in argumentative clarity and precision to be adequately considered. Therefore, new benchmarks had to be defined after the end of the first period which would better relate to the theoretical framework for the study of popular music that had been developed during the first year of the project.

The readjustments geared at three major aims:

- to focus more strongly,
- to gain in coherence, and thus
- to render the theoretical argument more convincing.

Initially, the project had set out to relate the historical and ethnographic aspects of Malagasy metal's aesthetic and existential dimensions to those of metal worldwide, in order to look for similarities and differences. After the theoretical framework for the empirical study of popular music as a kind of aesthetic experience had been developed, we decided however that the historical and ethnographical parts would need to reflect more explicitly the theoretical strivings of the project.

From the outset, the EXAROMA project was closely tied to the writing of a habilitation thesis / book on the topic, the chapters of which were used as benchmarks against which the progress of the project could be evaluated. Thus, in order to meet our aspirations, we needed to completely reorganise the chapters / benchmarks. This was done by defining four aesthetic principles crucial for Malagasy metal (wildness, darkness, melancholy, and sophistication) which would now serve as new benchmarks. As a result, the aesthetic and existential dimensions of Malagasy metal music could now be presented in a form that directly echoes the main positions of the theoretical framework developed during the first period of EXAROMA, and thus better serves to both illustrate and empirically support the main theoretical argument: that popular music needs to be studied form a perspective that takes its aesthetic experience into account, not least because this experience relates closely to the ways in which both its listeners and practitioners conduct their everyday lives.


What we expect of our work is that it helps reshape the anthropological study of popular music, and finally the study of popular music in general. From our point of view, popular music must not only be rendered meaningful in respect to its numerous conditions, social, economical, political, or otherwise. Instead, it must be taken seriously as an aesthetic experience that directly speaks to imaginations which are crucial for the construction of everyday life. Thus, it is our aim to contribute to ongoing debates about the ontological status of popular music from an anthropological perspective - from a perspective, that is, which is fundamentally based on ethnographic fieldwork and a focus on the cultural construction of meaning. This far, we had very good feedback on our ideas whenever we presented them; we were also already able to publish programmatic articles in peer reviewed journals and textbooks. Besides, we engage in various scholarly networks in order to disseminate our ideas, not least within the rapidly evolving interdisciplinary field of heavy metal studies, which will, due to its unique character, undoubtedly exert a strong influence on general popular music studies during the next decade(s).

In respect to a wider societal impact, we are thus very confident that our work will contribute to deconstructing the fundamental gap between serious music and popular music. This gap not only still characterises most academic attitudes toward popular music, but is also present within society at large. In neglecting popular music's aesthetic value and reducing it to a merely sociological phenomenon, this dichotomy serves to critique the musical taste of millions of fans and practitioners, and thus, as sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has convincingly shown, to generally outclass them by denying them good taste (Bourdieu: Distinction. A social critique of the judegment of taste). A critique of the sociological reductionism to which popular music is subjected not only by its critics, but even by those being sympathetic to it, may thus not only help to revalue the music that is loved by so many people, but also to establish these people as competent listeners and, finally, as nondeficient personalities.

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