Scholars Profile for John PR Schaefer
Dr. John PR Schaefer
Levey Hall 219, 4200 N. University Blvd., Middletown, OH 45042
Phone: +1 513 727 3204
My current project, The Black Sahara: Gnawa Music and Spiritual Work in Morocco, is based on a decade-long research project that explores the way culture is packaged and marketed in Morocco by low-income and working-class musicians for mature national and global audiences, and how in the process Moroccans have come to reframe their own identities to reflect transformations in the social imagination that have resulted from socioeconomic changes such as the intensification of international labor migration.
Based on evidence gathered during 15 months in the field between 2001 and 2010, I demonstrate that Moroccan identities have shifted over the past half-century away from Moroccans seeing themselves as primarily national subjects in comparison with European, African, and Arab subjects. Instead, many Moroccans see themselves as global subjects with a variety of identities to choose from (Berber, Black, French, Spanish, and a host of hyphenated identities). In this burgeoning multicultural frame, music plays a direct role in marking the various forms of “traveling culture”—musical tones, melodies, and rhythms that can track across vast geographical and cultural distances. Sometimes when this happens, sounds shed particular meanings and become something like “free-floating signifiers,” contributing to the “schizophonic mimesis” that Steven Feld has decried: samples lose their identities when they are remixed. At other times, essential and particular meanings are indelibly linked to the musical forms, even if these meanings become thinner and more banal over time and distance.
In one sense, the book is about “blackness,” which musically and globally is in general consonant with rock-and-roll, jazz, rhythm-and-blues, and hip-hop/rap, as well as a host of smaller genres such as electronica, trance music, reggae, funk, etc. How has blackness been transformed, and how can it still be, by the contribution of a small group of communities of Afro-Arab Moroccans? In another sense, the book explores how Moroccan national musical culture—Arab, African, and European/global—has become tagnawit, or “Gnawa-fied” through the continual development of Gnawa music, from a folkloric genre within the national cultural field, to a popular Moroccan genre that has been carefully constructed with an ear to national as well as global tastes and pressures, and thence to a global genre. The book relies on the methods of cultural history, media critique, political analysis, and fine-grained, long-term ethnographic interviews with musicians, fans, producers, managers, and ordinary Moroccans.
Gnawa music derives from a religious and cultural formation in Morocco around the descendants of sub-Saharan Africans brought to Morocco as slaves over the past millennium. Elaborate rituals and knowledge surrounding spirit possession are essential to Gnawa spiritual identity and practice. Apart from a sense that the Gnawa are “African,” two primary elements distinguish them from most other Moroccan religious orders: a fundamentally adorcist approach to spirit possession (the belief that possessing spirits should not be rejected but rather accepted), and an all-night ceremony called a lila (or leela, “night” in Arabic).
I am an anthropological folklorist by training. I was born in Ghana, West Africa, and I spent my formative years there, leaving in 1991 at the age of 16. In college I majored in English. I studied abroad in the Czech Republic in 1995. In the late 1990s I spent two summers learning Arabic in Lebanon and visiting Syria and Jordan. I received an MA in anthropology from the University of Arkansas in 2000, having researched and written a thesis on Lebanese in Ghana.
For the PhD in anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin, I switched from Lebanon/Ghana to Morocco. I studied Moroccan Arabic for two summers in Fes and traveled around the country. I spent a lot of time in the breezy Atlantic tourist town of Essaouira, where I have attended the annual Festival of Gnawa and World Music four times so far. The Gnawa are a loosely affiliated order of lay spiritual healers and musicians concentrated in southern Morocco and descended from West Africans enslaved and brought across the Sahara Desert. Their music sounds like West African roots music, and their healing rituals involve spirit possession and trance dancing. I spent most of 2006 in the industrial city of Tangier, northern Morocco, learning from a Gnawa troupe there.
I taught courses in English composition at Ashland University and in anthropology at the College of Wooster for a couple of years. Then I taught full time for one year each at Hartwick College (NY) and Wake Forest University (NC). After completing my dissertation in 2009 I taught for three years at the American University in Cairo, Egypt. The first half of my time there Egypt was under the rule of Hosni Mubarak, and the last half under military rule following the Egyptian Revolution of 2011.
At Miami I teach courses in anthropology, ethnography, and Middle East and African studies. I am a faculty affiliate in Black World Studies.
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