Singing the Past. Music and the Politics of Memory
From 27 April 2017 to 28 April 2017


University of Lisbon


This international conference intends to investigate how songs can constitute means to narrate historical events as well as social and political figures. These narrative songs raise the issue of the relation between the fabric of songs and political authority which has been dealt with in several ethnomusicological publications. They may be official when commissioned or appropriated by a political authority and, thus, be shaped as patriotic songs or praises of a political leader or of a military or political victory. As such, they constitute obvious tools for the building of a nationalist discourse (Mlama 2008). In this context, censorship, content control and, ultimately, rewriting may take place, transforming existing songs in order to fit their new purpose (Trebinjac 2000).

This symposium intends to explore “unofficial” narratives that are clearly distinct from or opposing to political authority. This will allow us to investigate various relations to the past and how those may be performed, often through personal narratives constructing alternative histories. These narratives may often be coined as “popular”. “Popular songs” dealing with history and historical figures relate to many socio-cultural configurations. They range from the caricatures of “great men”, and its inherent ambivalence between mockery and reverence (Bonhomme & Jaoul 2010), to the re-appropriation of a political figure or a political event by one specific group or organisation following a more or less coherent agenda. Songs may directly deal with the past, echoing hagiographical narratives, dealing with the construction of nations, or rather confronting their own present and constituting materials for historical analysis. More than often, songs escape top-down political control and may be considered as sources for counter-historiographies. As sites of contesting representations, they offer counter-narratives of the nation (Trotman 2007), relate to “discursive battles” over historical figures (Askew 2006), their ideas and legacy (Smocovitis 2009).

But narrative songs do not simply constitute tools or mirrors of discursive and representational spaces. They may also serve wider purposes of social cohesion, whether as praise songs or protest songs. Common struggles, federative leaders, victories and defeats are sung to make the members of a group remember what binds them together. By their programmatic nature, these narratives may blur the sometimes thin line between history and mythology as in the case of singing filiations (Loncke 2009).

Another central issue is the content of the songs. In other words, what in the songs’ material conveys historical and political meaning? Text naturally appears as the main vehicle. Its literary content, the images it generates, the context of its creation and diffusion are all defining elements for understanding the way it interacts with political and historical representations. Nevertheless, it should not be studied apart from the music which conveys its social meaning. The choice of musical instruments,  forms and aesthetics as well as musical borrowings or quotations highlights symbols that are superposed to and intertwined with textual content in a complex semiotic structure that needs to be unpacked.


4 sessions:

  1. Reshaping past struggles
  2. Past heroes and counter-narratives
  3. Nostalgia and sonic recreation
  4. Plurivocal memories



Thursday, April 27

Morning: 10:00 – 13:00

Welcome and introduction

SESSION 1: Reshaping past struggles

Maria Elizabeth Lucas (Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul).
Sonic narratives of dystopia-utopia: thinking along with youth performative politics in Brazil

[Break: 11:15-11:45]

Rui Cidra (INET—md).
Questioning Creole pasts: the ‘new music of Santiago’ and the poetics of the Cape Verdean nation

[Lunch: 12:30-14:30]


Afternoon: 14:30 – 17:15

SESSION 2: Past heroes and counter-narratives

Jean Lambert (MNHN, CREM-LESC).
The zajal sung poetry in Lebanon: popular historiography and expression of conflicts

Joël Cabalion (Université de Tours, CEIAS) & Julien Jugand (CREM-LESC, Labex Les passés dans le  présent).
‘If Bhimrao hadn’t been there’: singing emancipation amongst dalits of Maharashtra (India)

[Break: 16:00-16:30]

PM: Paper 3 Salwa Castelo-Branco.


Friday, April 28

Morning 10:00 – 13:00

SESSION 3: Nostalgia and sonic recreation

Ariane Zevaco (CEIAS, CREM-LESC).
From Collective Recollection to Intimate Nostalgia. On the Musical Poetics of Memory in Tajikistan

Leonor Losa (INET-md).
Singing as in the past: the interpretation of traditional fados as vernacular historicity

[Break: 11h30-12h]

Christine Guillebaud (CREM-LESC).
The world of pulsator. Reinventing the tradition of church bells tolling in contemporary Kerala (India).

[Lunch 12:45-14:30]


Afternoon: 14:30 – 18:00

SESSION 4: Plurivocal memories

Beverley Diamond (Memorial University, St. John’s, Canada).
Giving Voice when Sonic Memories are Supressed

Clara Biermann (CREM-LESC, CREDA).
Candombe's tributes. Musical Construction of Filiation, Counter-Narratives and Honoring within the Afro-Uruguayan Community

[Break 16:00-16:30]

Maho Sebiane (CREM-LESC, CFASS).
Duplicity in Song? Changing words for another history in United Arabs Emirates

[Break 17:15-17:30]

17:30 – 18:30
Final round-table discussion



  • Christine Guillebaud (CNRS, Centre de recherche en ethnomusicologie, LESC-CREM UMR 7186, Université Paris Nanterre)
  • Salwa Castelo-Branco (Instituto de Etnomusicologia, Centro de Estudos em Música e Dança, INET-md, Universidade Nova de Lisboa)
  • Julien Jugand (Centre de recherche en ethnomusicologie, LESC-CREM UMR 7186, Université Paris Nanterre)



  • Cluster of Excellence (Labex) “Pasts in the Present: history, heritage, Memory”
  • Centre de recherche en ethnomusicologie, LESC-CREM UMR 7186, Université Paris Ouest Nanterre

  • Instituto de Etnomusicologia, Centro de Estudos em Música e Dança, INET-md



Hélène de Foucaud - hdefouca(AT)



University of Lisbon
Portugal _____