The recent renewal of interest in trance, within the field of ethnomusicology as well as without, warrants a reconsideration of the particular challenges of studying musics of spirit possession. These include a disciplinary focus on ‘the music’, an approach that runs the risk of artificially abstracting music from the larger ritual and cultural complex of which it is a part. They also involve wrestling with the limits of epistemology and with personal convictions and social biases that influence the encounter with the unseen. Particularly problematic is the tension between native explication of possession trance, which grants agency to supernatural beings, and the parameters of academic discourse, which are shaped by the search for ‘rational’ explanations. These entrenched yet often unacknowledged attitudes, I argue, can be counterproductive, for they prevent us from learning from, or even acknowledging, indigenous understandings of the relations between music, trance, and possession, and ultimately reify the barrier between Self and Other. Drawing on my ethnographic experience studying and performing Tunisian stambeli, I consider the potential value of applying a radically empirical approach to the study of spirit possession musics.
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