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Music and Healing across Cultures

br2007_087Akombo, David Otieno (2006). Music and Healing across Cultures. Ames, IA: Culicidae Press (102 pages).

Music and Healing across (Two) Cultures

In Music and Healing across Cultures David Otieno Akombo examines the healing rituals of two separate cultures, the Balinese of Indonesia and the Taita of Kenya. According to established principles in ethnomusicology he attempts to describe musical traditions and practices in cultural context. The three broad questions that have guided his inquiry are: “First, what are the similarities within these two cultures that would seem to support the use of music in healing? Second, are the elements of music within each culture used in similar ways when a specific result is intended? Third, can these traditions survive in the face of modernization and western ideologies which contrast the efficacy of music?” (p. 1)

The author’s starting point in describing the two chosen cultures are different: As a native of Kenya, Akombo has lived among the Taita and witnessed their healing rituals on many occasions. The observations made, he explains, have been “augmented” through study of the literature and through contacts with other ethnomusicologists. His foundation for describing the healing rituals in Bali has mainly developed during a three-week trip to that island in the summer of 2001, combined of course, with study of some of the existing literature on Balinese culture.

Akombo’s book consists of nine short chapters. After Chapter 1, the Introduction, Akombo gives in the next chapter an overview of the purpose of his study. Chapter 3 is contextualized by a brief description of historical and cultural perspectives on music and healing. In this chapter he refers to the work of some central ethnomusicologists on music and healing, such as Friedson, but he also refers to music therapy pioneers such as Benenzon and Alvin. He chooses not to refer to the relatively recent anthologies edited by Horden (2000) and Gouk (2000) on the theme of this chapter. Neither does he include a discussion of recent culture- and community-oriented perspectives in music therapy (see e.g. Ruud, 1998; Pavlicevic & Ansdell, 2004).

In Chapter 4 Akombo presents a brief history of the Taita; a group of about 250 000 people who live in the Coast Province of Kenya, close to the Tanzanian border. The Taita live in a hilly rural landscape and their small farms of five to ten acres are located around a few countryside villages. Akombo argues that in order to understand the role of the Taita healing rituals it is necessary to understand the history, culture, and cosmology of this people. Interestingly, Akombo describes the Taita as a neo-traditional culture created through a mixture of influences; only in the twentieth century have they identified themselves as one people with one culture.

In the next chapter the author gives an outline of the history of the people of Bali, one of the islands in Southeast Asia’s Indonesian archipelago. The Balinese, Akombo explains, constitute approximately of 3 million people and have a long history where various cultural traditions have merged. The Balinese religion and worshipping of deities, he suggests, have their origins both in Buddhism and Hinduism, even though Hinduism is the dominating religion today.

Chapter 6 is called “Mysticism and the Balinese Culture.” Here the narrative style changes; Akombo tells about his three-week visit to Bali in 2001, almost day by day. We read about the first thing that caught Akombos’ attention on arrival at the airport, we read about the friendly professors that helped him, we read about Akombo’s observation of a child’s birthday ceremony, of temple festivals, and of a tourist performance, etc. The style is honest, since it reveals that the fieldwork supporting the discussion of Balinese culture in this book is limited.

The seventh chapter is given the quite general title “Contextualization of music in healing” but concentrates on the healing music (and dance and drama) of the Taita people of Kenya. Here Akombo obviously is much less of a tourist than when describing Balinese culture. His knowledge of language, musical instruments, colours, etc. strengthens the descriptions, but to my surprise the chapter seems not to be based in any systematic fieldwork. Almost all accounts are based on the literature and on available internet resources.

The penultimate chapter has the same title as the previous chapter, but this time it is the healing music of the Balinese that is in focus. He starts with a very brief description of how illnesses are classified in Balinese culture, before describing his observation of temple festivals with ritualized healing as one of the components. The largest bulk in this chapter is the description of Akombo’s experiences as participant-observer at a psychiatric hospital where the gamelan gong kebyar was used as therapy with schizophrenic patients.

In the final chapter Akombo gives a comparative analysis where he describes similarities and differences between the two cultures he has studied in relation to music and healing. Differences relates both to musical features and to the specificity of the healing aspect in the rituals of the two cultures. Concerning similarities, Akombo considers music to be a unifying factor in both societies (which, as described, both have a history of mixed influences) and he underlines that both cultures have a rich tradition of oral transmission of knowledge and values. He also mentions things such as engendering of instruments, purification, and (a hared) principles for the construction of shrines. In the Conclusion he adds that “both cultures employ pseudo-shamanic techniques that are embraced by both cultures because they believe that illnesses are caused by the weakness, displacement, or even loss of the soul.” This conclusion reveals a theme that is developed throughout the book, namely how music and healing is woven into the cosmology of the two cultures described.

It is difficult to review this book because it is too easy to criticize it. It is based upon too limited fieldwork, the descriptions given are neither thick enough nor precise enough, and the interpretations are based upon a restricted use of the existing literature. Furthermore Akombo chooses not to be very critical in his use of sources. For instance, texts as various as Campbell’s (1997/2001) speculative book for a general audience and Juslin and Sloboda’s (2001) scholarly anthology are used in the same breath to support claims made. In addition, there are several inaccuracies at the level of detail, including some misspelling and omissions in the list of references. In short, the publisher has published this book before it was ready and has in my view thus performed a disservice to the author. My approach to reviewing this book will not be to delve into all problematic aspects then, but to sketch a few general problems and then to outline some of the interesting issues that the book in my reading suggests are worthy of further investigation.

As outlined in the first paragraph of this review, the writing of the book was informed by three broad questions. Of these, the author has concentrated upon the first question, by describing similarities between the two chosen cultures concerning use of music in healing. The question on specific musical elements for specific purposes is only touched upon and so is the question of whether or not the healing traditions described could survive in times of modernization and in the face of western medicine. These two latter questions reveal both some problems and some possibilities for further study.

The theme of specific musical elements for specific purposes is informed by a somewhat mechanistic understanding of the role of music. In the Introduction Akombo describes his approach in the following way: “I view music and healing as a quantitative experimental science” (p. 2). Apart from the fact that he does not refer much to the existing quantitative research on the themes he discusses, it is also a problem that he does not discuss how perspectives informed by quantitative experimental studies could be linked to ethnographic description and interpretation.

In describing the two cultures, Akombo stresses the spiritual beliefs to a considerable degree, and this seems warranted. But when he relates the traditional ideas to modern theory on music and health, it is almost solely through (relatively superficial) references to biomedical thinking. He has thus not been able to (or interested in) describing healing as social process and to integrate theoretical perspectives from psychology and the social sciences. I consider this a serious limitation, not least because the lack of integration and discussion of psychosocial theory is in contradiction with some of the claims Akombo makes, such as the claim that music is a unifying factor in the societies he has studied and the affirmation that both cultures have a rich tradition of oral transmission. I want to be quick in adding, however, that it is an almost impossible task for one author to be able to successfully integrate knowledge from biomedical, psychosocial, and cultural theories, so maybe one of the things we could learn from the present book is that research strategies for further investigation of rituals of music and healing require multidisciplinary work in multidisciplinary teams. Music therapy and ethnomusicology could be two of the disciplines that would benefit from such collaboration.

The question if traditional healing rituals could survive in times of modernization and in the face of western medicine is an interesting and important one. I think that Akombo in many ways points in the right direction for the investigation of this, when he underlines that we must try to understand healing rituals in various cultures in the context of history. He gives us glimpses of the Taita and the Balinese history and demonstrates how the present traditions of these cultures are a result of multiple influences. A more detailed study of this would be interesting in itself and could provide us with a basis for studying and understanding how contemporary ritual traditions could incorporate modern ideas and survive in transformed ways in modern contexts. This has previously been discussed in relation to ngoma traditions of southeast Africa, by John M. Janzen (2000). In a recent book on HIV/AIDS and music in Uganda, Gregory Barz (2006) has also described new hybrids where traditional forms of music, dance, and drama are used in new ways and for new purposes, partly with integration of modern medical knowledge. Akombo’s book is not very specific about this issue, especially not in the description of the Taita culture in the Kenyan context, but in one of the Balinese examples he describes how music and dance is used in the work with schizophrenic patients in a psychiatric hospital. Here then, we have a modern institution appropriating traditional rituals in new ways. This is a phenomenon that would be very interesting to study in more detail.

In sum, I suggest that Akombo’s book illuminates some questions and issues worthy of further study.


Barz, Gregory (2006). Singing for Life. HIV/AIDS and Music in Uganda. New York: Routledge.

Campbell, Don (1997/2001). The Mozart Effect: Tapping the Power of Music to Heal the Body, Strengthen the Mind, and Unlock the Creative Spirit. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Gouk, Penelope (Ed.) (2000). Musical Healing in Cultural Contexts. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Publishing Company.

Horden, Peregrin (Ed.) (2000). Music as Medicine: The History of Music Therapy since Antiquity. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Publishing Limited.

Janzen, John M. (2000). Theories of Music in African Ngoma Healing. In: Gouk, Penelope (Ed.). Musical Healing in Cultural Contexts. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.

Juslin, Patrik N. & John A. Sloboda (Eds.) (2001). Music and Emotions. Theory and Research. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pavlicevic, Mercédès & Gary Ansdell (Eds.) (2004). Community Music Therapy. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Ruud, Even (1998). Music Therapy: Improvisation, Communication and Culture. Gilsum, NH: Barcelona.

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