Diversity, Inclusive Programming, and Music Education (part 2): Postcolonialism

This is the second of a multi-part series about Diversity, Inclusive Programming, and Music Education (for part one, click here). As this piece follows up on ideas brought up in the previous post it’s suggested you read it first. Also, as I mentioned at the conclusion of that piece, it might be useful for you to watch the video of an introduction to Postcolonialism as many of the ideas and themes in this, and future pieces of this series, will build on ideas and themes from that field.

The Maples Elementary Arabic Music Ensemble in Dearborn, Michigan was founded in 2002. Website: https://maples.dearbornschools.org/maples-drummers/

Arabic Music Education in Dearbon, Michigan

As I mentioned in the first part of this series,1 regions with large concentrations of immigrant populations will tend to have performing arts organizations that are tied to the immigrants’ country of origin. What is starting to happen, though, is that the music ecosystem in those regions are starting to reflect the populations as well. The examples of Chinese American music in the Bay Area and Mexican American music in Chicago from the previous post in this series show how large performing arts organizations can either help create an environment for a music education program to flourish, or be the result of a growing music education program. Either way, a large ethnic population usually needs to exist for both to thrive.

The Detroit MSA has the largest Arab American population in the United States, and some have claimed it is the largest Arabic population outside of the Middle East.2 One of the cities in that MSA, Dearborn, has a population of 98,153 (2010 Census) of which about 40,000 are Arab Americans. It is also home to one of many U.S. based Arabic large ensembles, the National Arab Orchestra.3

Dearborn Public Schools has 34 schools serving 21,000 students, 66% of which are Arab American. Several of the schools have some kind of Arabic music instruction as part of their general music and music/choral ensemble programs. At Maples Elementary, the Maples Elementary Arabic Music Ensemble grew out of the understanding that the traditional “Western approach to music education was not going to be sufficient for our population.”4 Any of the more than 600 students may audition for the ensemble and the students write and perform their own percussion compositions as well also sing in multiple languages.5

Dearborn’s McDonald Elementary Arabic Drumming Ensemble and Madrigal Choir after a performance at Logan Elementary School in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Website: https://iblog.dearbornschools.org/mcdonaldmusic/

Singing Arabic songs and incorporating Arabic Drumming Ensembles (as well as folkloric dances) is a part of the music curricula in programs both in and outside of Dearborn whenever there’s a large Arab American population. Some of the programs outside of the Detroit MSA are lead by initiatives started by nonprof organizations sharing Arabic culture. Al Bustan6 in Philadelphia has worked with the John Moffet Elementary School and their Arabic Choir Program. Sometimes this involves bringing in living composers of Arabic Music, such as the Lebanese composer Marcel Khalife, to work with the children.

Moffet Elementary School and their Al-Bustan Arabic Choir Program with composer, Marcel Khalife, and Al-Bustan clinicians. Website: https://www.albustanseeds.org/news/afterschool-arts-at-moffet/

In regions with smaller Arab American populations, the live musical resources are more scarce.7 In those cases, the previously mentioned National Arab Orchestra will travel to do outreach and clinics with musicians and vocalists in various regions. One recent residency took place in Houston, Texas last November. In the quickly growing Arabic speaking population in Houston you can find Arabic Karaoke but live public music performances are a bit rarer. The recently formed Houston Arab Youth Chorus had the wonderful opportunity to sing with the NAO and Lebanese singer and musicologist, Abeer Nehme.

The Houston Arab Youth Chorus and the National Arab Orchestra of Dearborn, Michigan performing Sayed Darwish‘s “Zuruni” at Rice University, 16 November 2019.

Like the ecosystems for Chinese American and Mexican American music, Arab American music ecosystems are becoming more fleshed out and integrated into those immigrant communities. Much like the life cycles of orchestras,8 different parts of a music ecosystem need time to evolve, but more importantly a safe environment in which the infrastructure can flourish. The one thing that has helped all of these immigrant and ethnic groups is a relatively large population which helps the communities break the threshold to generate sustainable economic, cultural, and socio-political power for the maintenance and growth of their music ecosystems.


This is where a Postcolonial viewpoint can be useful in helping us unpack a number of issues regarding the cultural power of a White, and primarily, European (or Euro-American) music ecosystem. If you watched Tom Nicolas’ “What The Theory?” An Intro to Postcolonial Theory, you’ll recall that he summarized that:

Postcolonialism is an umbrella term which we use to describe a set of theory and practices which seek to explain the legacy of colonialism in the present day.

Tom Nicolas, “An Intro to Postcolonialism” What the Theory?, 2018 October 24

Nicolas goes on to briefly mention some of the prominent figures in Postcolonial Theory, including those I referred to in the previous post as the “Holy Trinity” of the field: namely, Said, Spivak, and Bhabha. He frames Postcolonialism through Peter Barry’s discussion in Chapter 10 of his book, “Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory.”9 Through this framing, Barry pulls four characteristics of Postcolonial analyses.

  1. “[A]n awareness of representations of the non-European as exotic or immoral ‘Other’.”
  2. An interest in the role of language in supporting or subverting that power dynamic.
  3. “[An] emphasis on identity as doubled, hybrid, or unstable”.
  4. “[A] stress on ‘cross-cultural’ interactions”.

I’m not going to take the time to discuss how classical musicians and their audiences view other cultures through a colonial lens. Nor will I talk about musical orientalism10 in classical music, especially since Lucy Cheung did a fine job of illustrating it through Barenboim’s Orientalist othering of non European/American cultures through the years.11 Instead, there are plenty of musical examples in this and the previous piece that we can unpack with the four characteristics above. All the better as all three of the broad musical styles and ensemble types have been heavily influenced by Western Art Music (WAM) and/or Western instrumental styles thus exhibiting 3. above in having a hybrid identity.

The representation of the exotic other (number 1.) is obviously tied to that hybrid identity. Since these ensembles, and the music they play, are not an essentialist WAM ensemble they can safely be excluded from the borders of classical music, even if Western trained composers are being influenced by the music tied to their ethnic identities. Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances can be programmed on an orchestra concert, but not Fikrət Əmirov’s Symphonic Mugham Shur, nor Chew Hee Chiat’s Orchestral Suites.

An opera in Spanish? No problem. But will José “Pepe” Martínez and Leonard Foglia’s Mariachi Opera, Cruzar la Cara de la Luna, become a regular thing? What about Behzad Abdi’s Persian Puppet Opera, Hafez? Language in song, choral works, and opera are obvious candidates for number 2. above. Also, as Philip Ewell stated in the second part of his Music Theory’s White Racial Frame, the foreign language competency requirements for advanced degrees in Music Theory are

Ancient Greek, Latin, Italian, French, and German. Thus competency in these languages has been required in U.S. graduate music theory programs. In top-down fashion, all remaining languages are othered such that, if a student wants to use a different language to satisfy the language requirement, some kind of dispensation must be granted

Philip Ewell, “Race, Gender, and Their Intersection in Music Theory,” Music Theory’s White Racial Frame
Confronting Racism and Sexism in American Music Theory, 2020 April 12

If it isn’t apparent from all the examples, they’re all about cross-cultural interactions (number 4.). Many are examples of how individuals in non-European cultures respond to, and interact with, WAM. And all of the music programs discussed in these two posts are hybrid cross-cultural interactions with WAM that have existed nearly a century (in the case of Chinese and Arabic music programs) or more than a century (in the case of Mariachi).

More importantly, these kinds of music programs can allow children to create their own blended identities rather than simply CosPlay a role in the White European Classical Music Culture. In the end it was only apparently White because of exclusion in its own music ecosystem. The next post in this series will take a deeper look at assimilation12 as a cultural colonial force and how the indigenous peoples in the Americas, after the massacres, and violent displacement, felt the “soft hand” of cultural colonialism.

In the next piece of this series I’ll focus on the following. The story of Zitkála-Šá, the Yankton Dakota Sioux activist, author, and violinist who wrote the first Native American Opera, The Sun Dance Opera, experienced forced assimilation in one of the United States’ Indian Boarding Schools. These boarding schools existed at the same time that the United States started early attempts at “multicultural music education” because of the growing third wave of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. The U.S. will see an explosion of Mandolin Orchestras during this period and the Croatian immigrants started passing on their musical culture intra-communally with the establishment of Tamburitza orchestras, societies, and Junior Tamburitzan groups.


  1. Joel Waldfogel’s (2007) work on Preference Externalities shows how population size can be crucial for bringing certain products to the market, especially if there are high fixed costs which necessitates having a large enough market to support the product. I discussed this in relation to large performing arts organizations (Silpayamanant 2011, 2012), but this could easily be applicable to, say, a music education program which necessitates a lot of material resources (musical instruments, sheet music, teacher training, private lessons and sectional coachings). This can be devastating for poorer ethnic communities who may still not have the financial means despite having a population size that would otherwise make a music ecosystem sustainable.
  2. Though the “official” number of those who trace their ancestry from Arab countries in the Detroit MSA is 200,000, some seem to dispute that number and put it closer to 300,000 (see Salloum 1998, Karoub 2007, Ghosh 2010). All of these figures are from older sources and I suppose we won’t know until date from the 2020 Census is published.
  3. Formerly known as the Michigan Arab Orchestra.
  4. Much of this was spearheaded by the music teacher, Catherine Prouse, as she navigated teaching in a growing Arab student population (see Meyer, et al 2010).
  5. The website at Dearborn Schools is a little ambiguous in that it refers to the group both as Maples Drummers and Maples Elementary School Arabic Music Ensemble. As singing is involved, at least in collaboration with non drummers, I’ve opted for referring to the group as the Maples Arabic Music Ensemble which seems to be the most common name for the ensemble.
  6. A number of the faculty at Al-Bustan are professional Arabic Musicians who perform in many of the Arabic Orchestras and Ensembles around the U.S.
  7. A number of the larger Arab American performing arts institutions, or individual artists do clinics and residencies like this that caters to smaller Arab American populations around the United States. Until those populations get larger, it will be difficult to create the type of music ecosystem that can support larger performing arts organizations like the NAO, the New York Arabic Orchestra, or MESTO.
  8. In my piece about the life cycle of orchestras (Silpayamanant 2015) I discuss the misguided and fallaciously idealized notion that orchestras in the United States started out fully fleshed like “Athena fully formed from Zeus’ forehead.” Nearly every orchestra started out as part-time, “pick-up” group–often centered around immigrant German communities or highly populated by imported German musicians. Which is exactly how these newer ethnic orchestras, ensembles, and music programs are forming. In fact, I argue that pretty much all music organizations and ecosystems have to start this way and develop–the necessary ingredient here being a growing ethnic population to support it. If we started treating European-Styled orchestras as just another type of ethnic ensemble, the conceit of their so-called “universality” would have far less force. For a great overview of the development of orchestras in the U.S. see Shadle (2016).
  9. While Barry’s (1995) treatment of Postcolonial Theory is a little dated, it serves well enough for the discussion at hand. As an example, he states that “The ancestry of postcolonial criticism can be traced to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, published in French in 1961” (pg. 192) but it’s often now accepted that Antonio Gramsci, because of his coining the term Subaltern, is probably the earliest intellectual ancestor to the field. Barry discusses Gramsci, but under the chapter on Marxism for the obvious reason that Gramsi was a Marxist or, more accurately, a neo-Marxist.
  10. Derek B. Scott (1997) gives a nice breakdown of a number of Musical Orientalism examples throughout the history of WAM.
  11. I’ve always been disturbed by the fact that Edward Said, the author of “Orientalism,” was great friends with Daniel Barenboim given his views. At the same time I’m saddened that Said, being Palestinian and having grown up listening to and hearing Arabic music, was as Orientalist towards it as Barenboim (see Said 1991; de Groot 2005; Capitain 2017).
  12. I’ll also talk about some of my story growing up as a Thai American kid in the Midwest and never having the opportunity to share phleng luk krung (เพลงลูกกรุง), which we listened to at home and which were the first songs I sang, with any schoolmates or friends since there were so few Thai families in Southern Indiana.


Abraham, Tony (2016) “Why Moffet Elementary School students singing an Arabic song on stage should not be peculiar” Generocity, <<https://generocity.org/philly/2016/06/29/moffet-elementary-school-arabic-song/>>

Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture (2014) <<https://www.albustanseeds.org/>>

Barry, Peter (1995) “Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory” Manchester University Press <<>>

Capitain, Wouter (2017) “Edward Said on Popular Music” Popular Music and Society, Vol. 40:1, <<https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/03007766.2016.1228097>>

Cheung, Lucy (2016) “Classical Music and Colonialism” VAN Magazine, <<https://van-us.atavist.com/orientalism20>>

Ewell, Philip (2020) “Race, Gender, and Their Intersection in Music Theory,” Music Theory’s White Racial Frame: Confronting Racism and Sexism in American Music Theory, <<https://musictheoryswhiteracialframe.wordpress.com/2020/04/10/racism-sexism-and-their-intersection-in-music-theory/>>

Ghosh, Bobby (2010) “Arab-Americans: Detroit’s Unlikely Saviors: White flight, black flight, no matter: Arab Americans are betting big on the Motor City’s future” TIME, <<http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2028057,00.html>>

Karoub, Jeff (2007) “Detroit Expects Half of Iraqi Refugees” WPVI-TV, Associated Press, <<http://abclocal.go.com/wpvi/story?section=news/national_world&id=5358711>>, archived here <<https://www.webcitation.org/6GOjhnXRl?url=http://abclocal.go.com/wpvi/story?section=news%2Fnational_world&id=5358711>>

Maples Elementary School (nd) Maples Drummers! <<https://maples.dearbornschools.org/maples-drummers/>>

Meyer, Lisa M., Catherine Odom Prouse, and Terese Volk Tuohey (2010) “Alternatives to Music Education: East Meets West in Music Education” Alternative Approaches in Music Education: Case Studies from the Field, Ann C. Clements, ed., Rowman & Littlefield Education <<https://rowman.com/isbn/9781607098560/alternative-approaches-in-music-education-case-studies-from-the-field>>

National Museum of the American Indian (2007) “Boarding Schools: Coping with Cultural Repression,” Native Words, Native Warriors, <<https://americanindian.si.edu/education/codetalkers/html/chapter3.html>>

Nicolas, Tom (2018) “An Intro to Postcolonialism” What The Theory? <<https://youtu.be/jbLyd0mQwIk>>

Said, Edward (1991) “Musical Elaborations” Columbia University Press::New York, <<http://cup.columbia.edu/book/musical-elaborations/9780231073196>>

Salloum, Habeeb (1998) “Detroit – Arab Capital of North America” Al Jadid: A Review and Record of Arab Culture and Arts, <<https://www.aljadid.com/content/detroit-arab-capital-north-america>>

Scott, Derek B. (1997) “Orientalism and Musical Style,” Critical Musicology Journal, <<http://www.leeds.ac.uk/music/Info/critmus/articles/1997/02/01.html>>

Shadle, Douglas W. (2016) “Orchestrating the Nation: The Nineteenth-Century American Symphonic Enterprise” Oxford University Press <<https://global.oup.com/academic/product/orchestrating-the-nation-9780199358649>>

Silpayamanant, Jon (2011) “the economics of underserved audiences (part 2): ‘Who Benefits Whom’ and Preference Minorities” Mae Mai <<https://silpayamanant.wordpress.com/2011/03/11/the-economics-of-underserved-audiences-part-2-who-benefits-whom-and-preference-minorities/>>

Silpayamanant, Jon (2015) “‘…but, does that orchestra make any money?’ and Life Cycles of Orchestras” Mae Mai <<https://silpayamanant.wordpress.com/2015/12/01/but-does-that-orchestra-make-any-money/>>

Silpayamanant, Jon (2012) “What if there’s really no ‘decline’ in Classical Music audiences?” Mae Mai <<https://silpayamanant.wordpress.com/2012/03/24/what-if-theres-really-no-decline-in-classical-music-audience/>>

Tamburitza Association of America (2020) <<https://www.tamburitza.org/>>

Waldfogel, Joel (2007) The Tyranny of the Market: Why You Can’t Always Get What You Want, Harvard University Press|Cambridge, Massachussetts <<https://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674025813>>


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