Jon Bullock: Let's Talk About Tradition

Photo showing a variety of Kurdish instruments


By Jon Bullock

For many of us, the concept of tradition is a personal—perhaps even intimate—one, one that connects deeply with various aspects of our emotional, familial, and communal lives and histories. Even though the practices we call “traditions” might include acts as banal as sharing a can of jellied cranberry sauce every Thanksgiving, the very words we use to talk about tradition (words like observehonor, and respect) reveal the collective value underlying tradition at the conceptual level. At the same time, tradition is just as often seen as a kind of historical baggage (for several years now, there’s been a meme circulating online that describes tradition as “peer pressure from dead people”) or as a kind of hindrance to growth or progress. At no time in recent history have these differing conceptions of tradition clashed so prominently, nor played such a central role in US-American public discourse, than in the past 4+ years, whether in conversations about the removal of Confederate monuments, disagreements regarding the importance of political precedent, or comparisons of certain global pandemics across time. As a whole, US-Americans, it would seem, have a tenuous relationship with tradition.

In academic scholarship, tradition has generally been associated with practices that are repeated across history over varying periods of time, thereby cementing the general association of tradition with continuities in time (this is not to say, of course, that traditions cannot be deceivingly new, as works like the 1983 volume The Invention of Tradition make clear). In ethnomusicology, scholars have utilized the idea of a “Great Musical Tradition” to explain certain similarities among various musical systems of the Middle East and Central Asia; these scholars suggest that the region’s “Great” tradition, which is perhaps most apparent in similar approaches toward modal systems of melodic organization, began in the pre-Islamic era, later flourishing in the courts of great Islamic empires before developing into more localized musical systems such as those of the Arabs, Turks, and Persians. It is important to note that this application of tradition within ethnomusicology reflects the conceptual influence of Robert Redfield, an anthropologist who taught at the University of Chicago beginning in the 1930s. In particular, it was Redfield’s “Comparative Civilizations Project,” which received funding from the Ford Foundation in 1951, that prompted Redfield to propose the terms “great” and “little” traditions as a way of considering the relationships between historical civilizations and local communities in South Asia.

In addition to sharing a similar conception of tradition as a series of practices repeated across time, both of these paradigms also share two key shortcomings: the first is the implication that there exists some kind of dichotomy between tradition and modernity, as if the two are so easily separated. The second is the failure of these paradigms to account for the importance of conflict within tradition (after all, who gets to decide which cultural practices become tradition, or which traditions represent a particular group of people?). The implications of these shortcomings are perhaps nowhere more evident than in geographic locations formerly subjugated by colonial powers. As many academics have in recent decades collectively sought to acknowledge the histories and ongoing impact of these colonial legacies, some have struggled with how to reconcile the supposed continuities of tradition with the destructive weight of colonialism, which in many cases ensured the erasure of local forms of knowledge and cultural production. This devastating impact has led various postcolonial scholars to describe tradition as either rendered impossible by colonial rule, useless in the struggle against colonial power, inferior in the minds of the colonized compared with colonial notions of “progress” or “civilization,” or a mere fantasy devised by the powerless.

Given these varying conceptions of tradition, it may seem a bit of a paradox that one of the main arguments of my dissertation, which is titled (Re)sounding Tradition: Iraqi Kurdish Music as a Critique of Colonial Power, 1923-Present, is that we might understand Iraqi Kurdish music as representing a kind of “discursive tradition,” albeit one that challenges the normative understanding of tradition. Before explaining what this concept means and how I find it useful, I should note that “Iraqi Kurdish” is a fairly recent designation in the grand sweep of history. Kurds, the largest stateless people in the world, have been subject to colonial power for centuries, be it that of the Ottomans, the Safavids, or the British (beginning in 1914). Around the end of the nineteenth century, Kurdish nationalist movements in various regions of Kurdistan led many to begin lobbying Western powers for the creation of an autonomous Kurdish nation-state. In the Treaty of Sèvres (1920), which awarded large swaths of formerly Ottoman territory to Western colonial powers including France and the United Kingdom, Kurds were promised the possibility of national autonomy after one year of Western rule. Instead, the Treaty of Sèvres was replaced in 1923 by the Treaty of Lausanne, which awarded authority over certain oil-rich lands to the Allies and made no mention of the Kurds whatsoever. In the following years, Kurds found themselves divided by the newly created boundaries of the modern nation-states of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. As Iraqi Kurdish poet Choman Hardi describes in her poem “Lausanne, 1923”: “Sitting around an old table/ They drew lines across the map/ Dividing the place/ I would call my country.”

As one might expect, the ramifications of this betrayal for Kurdish culture and language were both immense and catastrophic. In every one of the new states in which Kurds found themselves a minority, Kurds faced cultural suppression and even genocide to varying degrees. In Turkey and Iran, for example, even speaking Kurdish was outlawed, and in Iraq, Britain deliberately avoided the implementation of policies aimed at fostering education and administration in the Kurdish language. In the 1980s, Saddam Hussein carried out a genocide campaign against Iraq’s Kurds (especially those living in rural villages) with the goal of re-populating Kurdish-majority oil-rich territories. Given these conditions and the numerous disruptions of Kurdish life and culture as continuities-in-time, tradition might seem impossible in the (Iraqi) Kurdish context. After all, how could any culture survive the destruction of thousands of its villages and the urbanization of wide swaths of its population?

After all, how could any culture survive the destruction of thousands of its villages and the urbanization of wide swaths of its population? 

As I’ve already revealed, I maintain in the dissertation that we might indeed understand Iraqi Kurdish music-making as a kind of “discursive tradition.” This concept was first outlined by anthropologist Talal Asad in relation to the study of Islam, which many in the West continue to view as a kind of religio-cultural monolith describable only in terms of what its followers believe. In Asad’s formulation, however, understanding Islam as a “discursive tradition” requires deconstructing the Western boundaries between the religious and the secular, as well as those between the public and the private spheres. Islam as tradition is therefore less a matter of personal belief and more a form of knowledge production, one in which argument, conflict, and reason play essential roles in the formation of moral selves. This, of course, is a far cry from the way most of us typically understand tradition in a general sense. Yet this is precisely the intervention I hope to make: resisting the normalized conception of tradition as a set of practices repeated across time, I argue for the supplanting of practice-based conceptions of tradition in favor of examinations centering discursive relationships toward place and time. As in Asad’s formulation, this reorienting requires the reevaluation of tradition’s own internal logics (in this case, the concept of history as a kind of linear progression) as part of a larger reevaluation of what I call in the dissertation colonial logics of place and time.

Musical practice afforded some Kurdish musicians the chance to resist certain of these colonial logics, such as those dividing Kurdistan by means of arbitrary national boundaries. 

In the case of Iraqi Kurds, musical practice afforded some Kurdish musicians the chance to resist certain of these colonial logics, such as those dividing Kurdistan by means of arbitrary national boundaries. In the first few decades of the twentieth century, for example, Kurdish singers from various regions of Kurdistan visited Baghdad and other urban centers to record Kurdish songs; as they recorded, they were often accompanied by non-Kurdish Jewish or Christian instrumentalists who knew how to accompany multiple regional styles of music. When Radio Baghdad added a Kurdish section in 1939, Kurdish musicians and other cultural figures who worked at the station utilized these recordings in their early programming; in this way, these recordings helped to cement a general sense of how to understand “Kurdish music” as a whole. Later, majority-Kurdish orchestras were formed in major Iraqi Kurdish cities such as Silêmanî, Kirkuk, and Hewlêr (Erbil), the region’s capital. For decades (Kurdish Radio Baghdad continued broadcasting until the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003), the recording and broadcasting industries helped to cement the formation of a transnational Kurdish listening public that not only informed shifting aesthetic decisions (such as those arising from the early accompaniment of Kurdish singers by non-Kurdish instrumentalists), but also resisted the national boundaries dividing Kurds from their fellow listeners in other nations. The rich history of Kurdish music, then, is one that spans the national, religious, and ethnic boundaries that so often determine the ways we understand and talk about the world.

Given the changes that have characterized Iraqi Kurdish music over the last century, I should perhaps return to the problem of tradition as continuities in time. If the paragraph above demonstrates the capacity of Kurdish music to challenge colonial logics of place (via re-conceptions of national, linguistic, and cultural borders), Kurdish music history—and in fact, the Kurdish language itself—also reveals a unique relationship toward time itself.

In Sorani Kurdish, the words used to indicate “before” (pêș) and “after” (paș) in regard to time are also used to mean “in front of” and “behind” respectively. According to this logic, the past is always in front of one rather than behind, and the future behind one rather than before. In this way, the Kurdish linguistic conception of time challenges the typical Western conception of the past as existing “behind” us. In the dissertation, I argue that this non-linear conception of time also has the potential to challenge the ways scholars in the West think about time and tradition in the post-colonial era, particularly by rejecting practice-based conceptions of tradition that prioritize patterns of behavior at the expense of what these practices reveal about a society’s relationship toward the past.

What I do hope to impart, however, is the truth that far more important than the practices that make up what we typically call tradition are the ways people use these practices to express their own relationships toward place and time in a way that privileges certain forms of power and knowledge production.

Realistically, I don’t expect that my dissertation will change the way people talk about tradition in its everyday sense. What I do hope to impart, however, is the truth that far more important than the practices that make up what we typically call tradition are the ways people use these practices to express their own relationships toward place and time in a way that privileges certain forms of power and knowledge production. In this sense, tradition need not always be just the most recent link in the chain of history–as Iraqi Kurds have shown, tradition can sometimes break chains altogether.