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«Music is also a privileged prism to look to cross-cutting issues to human experience» – Interview to Salwa Castelo Branco

The path in music and the transformation that led the Professor to leave behind the dream of becoming a pianist in order to become one of the biggest names in Ethnomusicology.

Salwa Castelo Branco

Salwa Castelo-Branco is a Professor at the Department of Musical Sciences from Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas (NOVA FCSHand was recently distinguished with a Gulbenkian Chair that will allow to take further the work in the area to which she dedicated most of her life: Ethnomusicology, subject that studies the multiple dimensions of music, mainly social, cultural, cognitive and aesthetics.

The attribution of this chair reinforces the position of the Professor as a major player in the area of Musical Sciences at a national and international level which results from a life and career dedicated to music. Born in Egypt in 1950, Salwa Castelo-Branco grew up in a family in which music was a constant presence, mainly by influence of her father, a prominent Egyptian composer. At five years old she was already learning how to play the piano and by 12 she knew she wanted to pursue a career in music. She studied in the Conservatory and did a Bachelor Degree in Piano in the Egyptian capital, but it would be in New York, during the 70’s, that she would have a more intense artistic experience. The turning point to Ethnomusicology took place when she was introduced to the topic while taking a Master in Piano and was so fascinated that decided to switch from practice to the theory of music. In the beginning of the 80’s she already had a Master and PhD in Ethnomusicology that she would bring to Portugal, following her marriage with Gustavo Castelo Branco, Portuguese theoretical physicist and Professor at Instituto Superior Técnico.

Since she integrated the Department of Musical Sciences of NOVA FCSH in 1982, Salwa Castelo Branco transformed the Musical Sciences in Portugal and became progressively one of the protagonists in the area of Ethnomusicology. Among the several actions she put in place, it stands out the creation of the Instituto de Etnomusicologia – Centro de Estudos em Música e Dança - INET-MD (Institute of Ethnomusicology . Centre of Studies in Music and Dance), which nowadays has centers in Universidade de Lisboa, Universidade de Aveiro and Instituto Politécnico do Porto; and the direction of the four volumes of Enciclopédia da Música em Portugal no Século XX (2010), work that systematizes all the aspects of music in the XX century. It is also important to note that her professional curriculum goes beyond academic research, including as well her active role in the application of Fado to Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity and the position she helds since 2013 as the President of International Council for Traditional Music with formal consultative relations with UNESCO when it comes to proposals to Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

We talked with the Professor in her office at INET-MD, in NOVA FCSH. In this conversation, the Professor described her path in the area of music, the evolution of the students’ profile, the importance of the Gulbenkian Chair and the projects she still aims to conclude until the end of her career. She also left an important advise to all those that pursue a career in music studies.

NOVA (N): You moved to Portugal in the beginning of the 80’s. How did the integration in the Department of Musical Sciences happen?

Salwa Castelo Branco (SCB): I spoke with Professor Maria Augusta Barbosa, founder of the Department of Musical Sciences, at a time in which there were only three Professors. She realized right away that I was coming from a good school and considered that my education in Ethnomusicology centered in spaces outside Portugal and Europe could be an important asset for students in higher education. My first priority was to develop a generation of professionals with a good education. Since we still did not have a master degree or a PhD, I encouraged several of my students to pursue studies in the United States. Meanwhile, we launched a master with an area of expertise in Ethnomusicology and when we started having a minimal team, even without PhD professionals, I thought it was about time to create Instituto de Etnomusicologia, in 1995. That corresponded to the time when Minister Mariano Gago opened the possibility of Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia (central Portuguese governmental institution responsible for financing and evaluating the scientific and technological system) to support the Social and Human Sciences and, at that time, we won three projects. Later, in 1997, we gave our first steps in what was initially conceived as a dictionary and turned out to be an encyclopedia about music in Portugal in the XX century, which was published in 2010.

N: How do you evaluate the evolution of the Department of Musical Sciences and the Institute of Ethnomusicology?

SCB: I think the evolution was very positive, since Ethnomusicology is firmly implemented in Portugal, the Institute has a very good reputation on a national and international level as an institution of reference and we expanded to other institutions and subject areas. I also consider that the Institute contributed to eliminate the hierarchical idea of music. Classic music is not the only one that deserves to be studied, we must study all types of music.

«The Institute contributed to eliminate the hierarchical idea of music. Classic music is not the only one that deserves to be studied, we must study all types of music.»

Salwa Castelo Branco

N: The publication of Enciclopédia da Música em Portugal no Século XX was important to implement that way of approaching music?

SCB: Yes. In the cover of the encyclopedia (and this shocked a few) we have Luís de Freitas Branco (Portuguese composer from the XX century) and right next to him we have the bombos de Amarante (traditional portuguese percussion instrument). And we also have Quim Barreiros (popular Portuguese singer), who is a very popular musician, whether we like the figure or not. As scholars, we must understand all phenomena and cross them. Basically, study music as a social and cultural phenomenon, not only locally but also globally. The encyclopedia is an original research and therefore it took 13 years of hard work from a large team. It was also a school, a context of learning for many young professionals that worked on it. We all worked as a team and in tight collaboration with musicians that provided a wide range of materials that allowed us to do many interviews. For example, before the encyclopedia, there wasn’t a rigorous work that described not only the biography of Amália Rodrigues (singer of Fado from the XX century), but that also explained her success, her contribute to Fado, her innovative and interpretative style or that explained what distinguished her from former singers and that described her discography.

N: Should Musical Sciences be seen as a convergence of several social areas or even exact sciences?

SCB: Sure. Nowadays, not only the approach to Ethnomusicology as the one to Musical Sciences in general, is transdisciplinary, relying on the knowledge of fundamental issues and theoretical frameworks that come from Anthropology, Sociology, Humanities, History, Cultural Studies and Social Sciences in general. On a certain way, music is also a privileged prism to look to cross-cutting issues to human experience. We know music arouses certain emotions and therefore it is important to understand this phenomenon and, through it, use music in a positive way, of creating suited environments to an healthy experience.

«Music is also a privileged prism to look to cross-cutting issues to human experience.»

N: In what consists the Gulbenkian Chair, granted by the University of California in Berkeley?

SCB: Under this chair, I will give a seminar on heritage starting in the second semester of academic year 2017/2018, exploring mainly the Portuguese heritage in the European Context. I will also give several lectures and participate in several activities. The Gulbenkian Chair is granted through the European Studies Institute from the University of California in Berkeley, but the Professor must always be associated to a department, in my case it is the Department of Music.

N: Will this Chair be important for NOVA and the department?

SCB: Yes, absolutely. It is the beginning of a tight relation and a series of exchanges, not only in the Department of Music, that has a good program in Historic Musicology and Ethnomusicology, as well as with the Portuguese Studies Institute and the European Studies Institute. These networks are institutionally fundamental because they open doors and that has been one of my main roles, especially having in mind the future of young people.

N: The profile of the Musical Sciences students today is different from the one of students in the 80’s/90’s?

SCB: Yes. At least, at the bachelor level, we have a winder diversity. Students in the 80’s, when I started teaching at the bachelor level here, were a selected elite. They were students that came essentially from the Conservatory, who already had a good musical and cultural education and, most of them, came from prime means. This situation changed and that is a good thing since the university must be open, it must welcome students from very different backgrounds.

N: What are the main lessons and advise that you try to transmit to your students and the researchers that pursue a career in Ethnomusicology?

SCB: To have a social responsibility, As much as possible, to use their education to become active and responsible citizens. To have a sense of citizenship and, if possible, global citizenship: to feel not only citizens of their own country but citizens of the world. I think each one of us, in their specific area, may contribute to that. In the case of music, this plays a fundamental social role in the integration of population, in the dialogue of conflicting fronts, in the preservation of heritage issues and in the creation of opportunities for musicians and groups. Therefore, we must open doors, be a connecting element between worlds and contribute as much as possible to help improving the society in which we live in. I do not have a vision of the university as an ivory tower: the university must be an institution open to society and that provides a serious contribution.

«I do not have a vision of the university as an ivory tower: the university must be an institution open to society and that provides a serious contribution.»

N: In 2013, in an interview that you gave after becoming recently elected President of the International Council of Traditional Music (ICTM), you mentioned your purposes included «taking the organization beyond in the sense of extending and deepen its work, mainly in areas with very little representation such as Sub-Saharan Africa, Middle East or Latin America». What is the balance of these goals?

SCB: Unfortunately in the case of Middle East we were not able to deepen the work due to the several wars that happened. However, there has been a deeper relation with countries that were not at war, such as the Gulf countries or the Arab Emirates, where there was a meeting regarding heritage, for example. There was also a tightening of relations with Turkey and Central Asia as well. The World Congress in 2015 took place in Kazakhstan: it was for the first time in a Muslim country and it went very well. There was also progress with Sub-Saharan Africa and we are working deeply with several countries in this geographical area.

N: ICTM is one of the organizations consulted by UNESCO when it comes to applications to Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Besides Fado and Cante Alentejano (who already earned this title), is there any other element in Portugal that deserves such recognition?

SCB: There are several musical elements (and more) in Portugal with several ongoing applications. Portugal, from North to South, is a very rich country. There is a very interesting phenomenon that is taking place since the 90’s, which is a great revitalization of traditional practices in several contexts. For example, the practice of bagpipes is growing not only in the regions of Trás-os-Montes but also in Lisbon. Also, the group of bombos: it is impressive that only in Amarante there are 20 and they play in several occasions. Or the cavaquinho (traditional Portuguese strings instrument), mainly in the North, it is impressive the amount of groups that exist, or even the concertina (traditional Portuguese instrument) and cantares ao desafio (traditional singing practice), the viola campaniça of Alentejo (traditional Portuguese strings instrument)… it is impressive! There is a great local dynamics and a search not only to maintain the traditional practices but also to innovate and that is very important for continuity. No practice can remain still; it will not survive if it remains frozen.


Salwa Castelo Branco

N: Ethnomusicology tries to understand several social phenomena through music. What can music teaches us regarding globalization?

SCB: Music reflects global processes, insofar as there are combinations of all kinds and we see that clearly. On the other hand, it also contributes to construct them sonically and I think this attention to sound is something that came surprisingly late. Nowadays, in Ethnomusicology and even Anthropology, sound (not only musical but also in general, from the environment where we live) is something that is finally having the attention from scholars. We live not only in buildings but also in a noise climate that also configures our life and we must understand and contribute to make that better.

N: The creation of a National Sound Archive is one of the projects you seek to achieve. Besides this, is there any other big project that you would like to be part of until the end of your career?

SCB: I would like to continue to make collaborative research and to close some of the works I started and that I was not able to finish, such as a monography about my work in Alentejo and also to go back a little to my work in the Middle East. Those are some of the projects I have in mind.

N: If you had not come to Portugal, what do you think it would have been your path?

SCB: I think I would have stayed in America, at New York University. The academics in the United States have a lot of mobility and therefore I do not know if I would have stayed at NYU for the rest of my career, but I like the city of New York a lot and lived there an important period of my life. Between 20 and 32, it was a very educational period. I learned a lot, not only from the several schools in which I studied, but also from the city itself. The experience of the city was very intense and it is a city to which I return regularly, in which I also feel home.