MusicMarch 31, 2012 at 6:02 am

Ruminating with Rommen

Street chats with Professor Tim Rommen, of Penn's favorite World Musics and Cultures class, about the accordion, yoiking and Passion Pit.

Street: What is your background in music?
Tim Rommen: I earned a B.A. in Music (guitar) and then moved into studies in musicology and ethnomusicology during graduate school. Since then, I have worked mostly on popular and sacred music in the Caribbean—in places like Trinidad and the Bahamas.

Street: You teach classes about some pretty exotic music, what first attracted you to this topic?
TR: I think the things that attracted me to music within my own tradition led me to extend my interests beyond the sounds that I had grown up listening to and participating in as a musician. But the idea of what constitutes the exotic depends a great deal on who you are and where you’re from and often forecloses on the potential for real engagement and mutual enrichment, so I’ve moved away from thinking in terms of the exotic and toward thinking, instead, about how I might understand music, no matter the tradition, as a multiply-meaningful endeavor.

So, what attracted me to music in the first place? How music functions in social networks, what it means to communities, how it participates in and helps shape rituals of all kinds, and the ways in which it is uniquely able to transcend the local, cross borders, and offer a vehicle for the subversive (whether politically, economically, or culturally).

Street: In your opinion, what constitutes as music?
TR: I’ll suggest a definition, borrowing from a colleague I respect a great deal (Martin Stokes), that remains open to the great variety of possibilities suggested by humanly organized sound: music IS whatever a given social group considers it to be.

Street: What are some of your favorite types of music and what region(s) of the world do they come from? 
TR: I love funk, reggae, old time, vallenato, jazz, calypso, Hindustani music, juju, zydeco, and rai music, to name a few, but really I’m an omnivore when it comes to music…I love it all! I’ve not listed regions here because I’m interested in the ways that all of these musical traditions move around the globe, claiming new places, adding new shades of meaning, and shifting and adapting to new communities of practice in the process.

Street: We know that you teach a course called Accordions of the New World. Do you play the accordion? Do you play any other musical instruments?
TR: I don’t play the accordion (something I hope to change in the coming years) but have always loved what the accordion can do as a solo instrument and as part of an ensemble. I was trained primarily as a guitarist, but also as a vocalist. These days I don’t play nearly as much as I would like, but will probably come back to active performance in the coming years.

Street: Do you consider accordion music to be something that is phasing out over time?
TR: No. It has definitely had its ups and downs in terms of popularity, but it remains a very important instrument for social dance music throughout the Americas and continues to be popular throughout the world. Not that this is a leading indicator, per se, but I found it interesting that Bob Dylan’s Together Through Life (’09) features accordion on every track.

Street: What is the most unusual type of music of you’ve ever heard?
TM: If by unusual you mean extraordinary, then I’ll go with yoiking. The Saami consider a yoik to be more than song. The yoik, and the act of yoiking it, encapsulates the essential character of a place, an animal, or very often a human. So, the yoik isn’t ABOUT a person, but rather IS that person. When a Saami yoiks another human being, it enacts a social bond hard to describe in words, but profound and lasting, for the yoik, once made, remains part of that person’s life going forward.

Street: If you could meet any musician living or dead who would it be?
TR: Wes Montgomery (jazz musician)! I’ve always been amazed at his technique and the way that he structured his improvisations. He was just flat-out one of the best guitarists ever to walk the planet and I would have liked to have a chance to watch him play in person and to hear him explain his approach.

Street: Passion Pit and Tiesto are the artists at this year’s Spring Fling. Are you familiar with their music? If so, how do you feel about this type of music? Other music that is currently popular in the U.S. like hip-hop?
TR: I love Manners by Passion Pit. It’s a great debut and I’m glad they’ll be here for Fling. I love the way Passion Pit works with such a HUGE keyboard-driven sound and, while I prefer their sound to Tiesto’s (and I like his earlier work better than his newer stuff), both of these artists will get the crowd dancing for the whole set! Fling should be a lot of fun. As for how I feel about this and other popular musics in the U.S., I love them. My iPod is filled with these sounds, along with with jazz, art music, and many other musics of the world. In fact, I think of Passion Pit and Tiesto as examples of particular musics of the world in the same way as I think of yoiks or Hindustani music.

Street: Where do you see instruments like the accordion or even the acoustic guitar going in an age where a lot of the music scene is becoming dominated by electronic artists?
TR: I think that sampling of live instruments will continue to be a popular option, but the corollary to this trend is the incorporation of deejays into live bands, which is also an increasingly popular practice. So, it seems to me that there will continue to be innovative musicians (both instrumentalists and electronic musicians) who push at the boundaries of the possibility of using whatever tools they can harness and that this is precisely what creative musicians should be striving for in their sound art.

Street: Do you consider an electronic artist who has never played a conventional instrument in his/her life to be a musician?
TR: Absolutely. The skills involved in doing what they do are amazing and they have to use their ears in ways that are really nuanced and every bit as challenging in their own right as what instrumentalists have to do in order to perform together. In the end, electronic artists produce incredible music, just using different tools and a different set of skills than their counterparts who play more conventional instruments.

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