Proficiency: Listening

From the Series: Proficiency

Photo by Bruce Turner.

Héctor Beltrán points out how the question of proficiency in fieldwork has centered around questions of language and, in particular, on the need to speak the “local language.” The concept of bimusicality—understood as analogous to bilingualism—has, in turn, influenced ethnomusicologists, who have come to view it as a more participatory way to access insider knowledge. Shifting my focus to the cultural context in which the musico-poetic tradition I wanted to study evolved was a decision influenced by a reflection on the politics of language, bilingualism, the problem of cultural translation, and the historical and political relations between two languages. Thus, in thinking about the relationship between proficiency and participant-observation, I want to reflect on how I became proficient in listening: training my ears to recognize which sound is meaningful, invested with significance, given emotional weight. In doing so, I reflect on the meaning of my own learning during fieldwork and on what political power can do when we transfer meaning from one culture to another.

“I want to smell the soil (bghrit nshǝm ṭ-ṭrab), taste the rural (bghrit nduq l-‘ǝrubiya),” said a Moroccan woman who wanted to listen to a recording of ‘aiṭa, a genre of sung poetry from the Moroccan Plains and Plateaus. It was not the first time that my Moroccan interlocutors associated this genre with the rural; on this occasion, however, the woman articulated a listening experience that evoked for her a specific notion of the rural, l-‘ǝrubiya. I began thinking about how such a statement could provide insight into a critical aesthetic of sound and, in turn, how the rural is reconstructed and articulated in performance. After all, the musicians themselves often commented on how the essence of ‘aiṭa was anchored in the richness of local associations embedded in the term rural. My interest, therefore, resided in understanding what the rural in sound means to audiences, how and to what effect this sound is deployed, and what it does.

Acknowledgments placed at the beginning or end of our publications can never really express—or, for that matter, do justice—to our interlocutors. Learning how to listen tol-‘ǝrubiya, to develop the proficiency necessary to engage with indigenous notions of music, sound, and meaning required endless conversations. Listening with and listening to those with skills and knowledge has thus been central to my training. Learning how to listen to the rural required an interdisciplinary approach, a web of relationships and interactions, an acoustic assemblage that “implies the need to explore the richness of a multiplicity of variables among what different people consider the given and what they consider the made that come together in the acoustic” (Ochoa Gautier 2014, 22). L-ʿərubiya, in fact, is best understood as a constellation of ideas, embodied dispositions, experiences, and meanings.

I learned to listen to the rural from a historical perspective, insofar as the notion of lʿərubiya is grounded in the cultural history of central Morocco and, more specifically, in an Arab identity associated with a Bedouin past. I learned through language that the notion of lʿərubiya is associated with the use of a colloquial Arabic thought to be unaffected by urbanity and with an overall aesthetic that is said to reflect rural life. I learned through poetic verses, whose brevity allows only the sketching of an image through the use of a terse language and fragmentary syntax characteristic of everyday rural language. These verses are imbued with traditional lore, recounting images of battles, saints, voyages, horses and cavaliers, historical figures, nature, passion, and desire. I learned to listen to the rural through a full-chested voice, a voice whose timbre is described by musicians and listeners as “coarse” or “rough” (ḥərsh). This, I learned, was a metamusical discourse by which an embodied sound signaled collectively recognized meaning. A vocal timbre was understood as acoustically embodying nature, the environment, and experiences of space, time, and memory. I learned that it is through this sound, through this voice, through this timbre that, for historically denigrated and marginalized populations, the rural intertwines the past and the future through the present. It marks an affective notion of place, and an idea of personhood and belonging.

In the hit radio show Riḥt ad-dwar (“The Smell of the Village”), the Moroccan comedian Mohammed ‘Atir uses the voice and other characteristics that I have described to sonically capture the essence of the rural, giving authority and, to a certain extent, authenticity to jokes, proverbs, anecdotes, and other forms of oral narrative that he collects and that form the basis of the show. According to ‘Atir, it is through such a voice that “we can listen to the smell of l-‘ǝrubiya.”

As I listen to ‘Atir performing the rural, as I listen to his externalization of competence and his knowledge of a system of rules that are at once grammatical and cultural (Sankoff 1980), I reflect on my own competence, my own proficiency in listening. It is a product of ethnographic encounters; it involves multiple layers of interpretation or translation inherent to the practice of ethnography. It entails an exchange between emic and etic modes of listening. In Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language, the Moroccan writer and literary critic Abdelfattah Kilito (2008) reminds us of the perils of rendering the texts of one’s language into another, for changes in signification may result in keeping with prevailing power systems. As with every act of translation or production of interpretive texts, we should remain aware that (proficiency in) listening falls in the domains of both ethics and politics.


Kilito, Abdelfattah. 2008. Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language. Translated by Waïl S. Hassan. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press.

Ochoa Gautier, Ana María. 2014. Aurality: Listening and Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century Colombia. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Sankoff, Gillian. 1980. The Social Life of Language. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.