Arts & Culture

Falling in love with South Asian music

7 min read

As a young boy, Richard Wolf, professor of music, liked to sit at the piano in his grandparents’ home and invent short musical ditties.

“My grandfather would listen and shout, ‘Oh! It’s Bach! Oh, just like Mozart!’” Wolf recalled recently, with a laugh. “He was wonderfully encouraging.”

Despite his grandfather’s praise, Wolf’s budding interest in the piano was supplanted by a desire to play the guitar, and eventually the vina — a plucked stringed instrument from South Asia. But those early years of music-making fostered a passion for the art, which Wolf continues to nurture today, as an ethnomusicologist and a vina performer.

Wolf came to Harvard’s Department of Music as an assistant professor in 1999, and received tenure in October 2007. His courses explore the musical traditions of South and West Asia, with a focus on India, Pakistan, and Iran. He also teaches students how to play the vina in his seminar on Karnatak (classical Indian) music.

To play the vina, which is made primarily of wood, the performer sits cross-legged and balances the instrument atop his or her lap. The left hand presses the string against the frets, much like a guitar, while the right hand plucks one of the instrument’s four main metal strings. Compositions are learned by rote — rather than from written notation — and the performer is eventually encouraged to improvise.

“In Karnatak music, some ‘notes’ are supposed to be wiggled this way or that, rather than to remain constant on a specific pitch,” said Wolf. “The vina allows the performer to elaborate on the melody by pulling down on the strings and sliding the fingers up and down the neck to connect the notes together.”

Like his efforts on the piano, Wolf’s interest in South Asia began at a young age.

“In my fourth-grade class we were asked to write an imaginary travelogue, and I chose India,” he said. “I can remember listening to a speech by Gandhi and being completely captivated.”

As he grew older, Wolf was intrigued by the sounds of Indian music that, he said, “filtered through 1960s acid rock.” He finally had the opportunity to explore South Asian musical traditions in a formal setting when he enrolled in Oberlin College in 1980. There, he took lessons on the mridangam (an Indian drum), enjoyed concerts by visiting South Asian artists, and began to study ethnomusicology with a professor who was a specialist on India. During his junior year, Wolf studied in Madurai, south India, where he took intensive language courses and started playing the vina.

“My teacher Karaikkudi Lakshmi Ammal, who came from a family of vina players, had a very powerful influence on me,” Wolf said.

Following his graduation from Oberlin, Wolf returned to India for 14 months. While there, he decided to pursue an advanced degree in ethnomusicology. There was just one problem. By the time he came back to the United States, it was already July — too late to start applying for Ph.D. programs.

Fortunately for Wolf, two kind professors at the University of Illinois (UI) agreed to meet with him and discuss enrollment options.

“I just called up Bruno Nettl [a prominent ethnomusicologist at the UI] and drove down there,” Wolf recalled. “He warmly welcomed me, put me in touch with the Indian music specialist Charles Capwell, and the two of them arranged for me to start in the fall.”

It was a promising start. While at the University of Illinois, Wolf met Carol Babiracki, an ethnomusicologist who had conducted fieldwork on tribal music in Chota Nagpur (north India). Her experiences inspired Wolf to explore the tribal cultures of the South. Library research led him to the Nilgiri Hills, where the most well-known musicians belonged to the Kota tribe.

“The culture of the Kota people had been explored in great detail by the anthropologist David Mandelbaum as well as by the linguist Murray Emeneau,” said Wolf, “but neither scholar had paid much attention to their music.”

Eager to learn more, Wolf secured funding from the Fulbright Program and the American Institute of Indian Studies to spend a year living among the Kota people. He planned to explore the music and rituals of the tribe, who live in a mountainous region at the intersection of Tamilnadu, Kerala, and Karnataka states. His first challenge, though, was finding a way to gain acceptance from the community so he could begin to conduct research.

“It took a while to get settled,” Wolf said. “They had never let anyone who was not a Kota live inside their village.”

After several months, however, he was able to build strong relationships with several Kota men.

“They trusted that I would follow their rules and permitted me to move in,” he said. “From there, things really took off — I was able to make recordings of people singing, telling their stories, and explaining their rituals.”

Wolf became particularly close with one family, who helped him go through his many hours of field recordings and assisted his learning of the unwritten Kota language. He participated in many of the tribe’s rituals and began to take an interest in how they made use of their village space.

“Kotas felt the quality of their village space change at different times of the year,” he said. “For example, areas where you could or could not walk, dance, or make music varied according to the month or occasion.”

That visit was the first of many Wolf would make to the Kota village, not only to continue his research but also to visit new friends. In 2005, Wolf published a book on the Kota tribe titled “The Black Cow’s Footprint: Time, Space and Music in the Lives of the Kotas of South India” (Permanent Black, 2005, and University of Illinois Press, 2006). The text analyzes how music and ritual, expressed in spatial terms, play a key role in constructing Kota identity. He is also preparing a second book, which will focus on Kota songs.

In recent years, Wolf has begun to pursue a second ethnographic project that focuses on music in Islam.

“I am curious to learn how Muslims draw on the richness of sonic performance and use that in a meaningful way,” he said.

Wolf is fascinated, he said, by the way in which music can express, reflect, or be directly involved in the creation of political tensions in Islamic or Islamicate contexts.

“Conflicts arise based on how one defines the role that music should play in religious ritual,” he said. “For some Muslims, sonic expression that might be construed as too ‘musical’ is banned on occasions that are nominally mournful, while for others it is seen as a natural, welcome expression. It gets worked out differently for everyone. Issues associated with music and mourning run through my work on Islamic as well as Hindu and tribal cultures in South Asia.”

He is hoping to travel to Tehran to complete more research in December.

In the meantime, while he waits for the paperwork to be arranged, Wolf is content to keep teaching, writing, researching, and — of course — playing the vina. Though his grandfather is no longer present to sing Wolf’s praises, students who study with Professor Wolf have taken up their own chorus of commendation.