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Interview with Andrew Eisenberg: Winner of the SEM 2018 Jaap Kunst Prize

Friday, October 18, 2019   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Stephen Stuempfle
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Interview with Andrew Eisenberg:
Winner of the SEM 2018 Jaap Kunst Prize

By Jesse Fivecoate, Indiana University Bloomington

Andrew Eisenberg, Assistant Professor of Music at New York University Abu Dhabi, was the winner of the SEM 2018 Jaap Kunst Prize for “The Swahili Art of Indian Taarab: A Poetics of Vocality and Ethnicity on the Kenyan Coast,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 37, no. 2 (2017): 336-354. Through 2018 the Kunst Prize recognized the most significant article in ethnomusicology written by an SEM member and published within the previous year.

Eisenberg began his study of music not as an ethnomusicologist but as a jazz performer at New York University. He says that he chose NYU for his undergraduate training because he wanted to write and perform professionally as a musician. During this time, he also minored in anthropology: “It seemed obvious to me at the time that music was a human phenomenon, and anthropology was the study of human phenomena.” He remembers that the final course for his minor was “Anthropology of World Beat,” taught by Steven Feld. It was this class that changed his outlook on what the study of music could be. “I knew what ethnomusicology was by that point, but just barely. I thought, ‘If this is what ethnomusicology is about, I’m in.’” He continued his ethnomusicological education at Columbia University, eventually conducting ethnographic research on Kenya’s Swahili Coast.

Eisenberg’s prize-winning article grew out of the work that he conducted for his dissertation. He observes: “My work on Swahili music and sonic expressive culture continues. But at a methodological level, this article also informs my work on style in Kenya’s postmillennial popular music genres.” While his research has recently moved in multiple directions, there remains a common thread. In order to reach a more general audience, he has authored a piece for the companion website to Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, which “reflects on the meme-like spread of a Kikuyu benga melody through Kenya’s cosmopolitan popular music genres.” In addition, he has created a digital collection at New York University Abu Dhabi on rare historical recordings of Swahili music. He says that this new sonic digital humanities work takes him out of his methodological comfort zone, but that it is exciting because it is “radically interdisciplinary”—combining computational and humanistic methods.

Eisenberg states: “For me, ethnomusicology’s strength lies in its emphasis on engaged, dialogic ethnography. As an arena of meaning making and subject formation, music is incredibly rich for ethnographic work on just about any aspect of the human experience.” He adds that he is very pleased to have received the Kunst Prize, given his deep respect for the members of the prize committee and the fact that he has been living with this research for a long time. Now that the article is published, he is happy that “all that time and work resulted in something that really speaks to other scholars in the field.”

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