Jerome Roche Prize Interview 

Following the keynote lecture by the recipient of the 2022 Jerome Roche Prize at the BFE/RMA Research Students’ Conference held at the University of Cardiff, the RMA student representative, Mollie Carlyle, interviewed the prizewinner, Gabrielle Messeder, to discuss performance, ethnography and Gabrielle’s recent research into Lebanese/Brazilian music. Below is the edited interview, which took place on 22nd February 2024. 

Dr Gabrielle Messeder is a visiting lecturer at the Department of Music at City, University of London and an Associate Lecturer at Goldsmiths. She has recently completed an appointment as a Research Fellow at the University of Greenwich on the AHRC-funded project ‘Exploring cultural diversity in experimental sound’. Gabrielle is currently working on a monograph based on her doctoral research, which is concerned with how sociopolitical anxieties regarding gender, ethnicity and ‘race’ have shaped the production, performance and reception of Brazilian music and dance in postcolonial Beirut. Her work contributes to the emerging literature on transnational, migratory and cultural connections between the Middle East and Brazil and to contemporary ethnomusicological work on music, precarity, and crisis. Gabrielle’s wider areas of interest include popular musics of the Middle East and South America, particularly those of Brazil, and she is planning a new research project about masculinity, ‘race’ and politics in the Rio de Janeiro pagode music scene. Gabrielle also works as a music teacher and musician, and regularly performs Brazilian music in the UK.

Your talk at the recent BFE/RMA Research Students’ Conference was fantastic. Would you mind recapping the subject of the paper that you gave. 

My talk was about Brazilian musicians and dancers in Beirut and how they embody very flexible and quite complex transnational identities. I talked about how some of these performers play on their ethnic ambiguity as they are perceived in Lebanon and how they can do this in different ways. For example, sometimes performers of, say, mixed Brazilian and Lebanese heritage might capitalise on their Brazilian-ness and their perceived ‘authenticity’ in order to get work. I also talked about how some performers, particularly dancers, come across a lot of social and legal barriers in their work and sometimes that entails trying to pass as Lebanese to avoid hassle from security forces. I was talking about their different identities and how they pick and choose which elements of their identities to highlight at any given time during their careers. 

Can you tell me a bit about your academic journey and how you came to be interested in Brazilian/Lebanese music? 

I did my PhD at City University, London, and it was finally awarded last March, just under a year ago. I did a standard music degree for my first degree, and in my second and third years I started getting interested in the ethnomusicology modules on offer. I decided to pursue that in my Masters a couple of years later. So I guess I was drawn to ethnomusicology fairly early when I was an undergraduate. There was one module in particular, ‘Music Traditions of the Middle East’, which was taught by Laudan Nooshin – who ended up being my PhD supervisor. Prior to that I thought I wanted to get into music production, the more music technology side of things, despite not really knowing anything about it. But I took this module, ‘Music Traditions in the Middle East’ and I knew absolutely nothing about the region or its musics at all. Laudan is of Iranian heritage and her research focuses on various kinds of Iranian music, and she somehow managed to get research funding to take a group of us, me and five other students, to Iran. This was back in 2008 when I was in my second year, and it’s pretty crazy when you think about it. That would just not happen now. It completely blew my mind – I’d never really been outside Europe before. She took us to meet lots of musicians that she’d been working with and watched live music, and it was just a really fantastic experience. That trip in many ways provided the background for a lot of my later research interests. So there was that module, which was super important, and there was also a module about Brazilian music which was led by Bosco De Oliveira, who is an amazing Brazilian percussionist. Around that time I’d been getting more into Brazilian music. I joined a samba percussion ensemble at City – I played percussion and later sang with them as well. London in general has a really great live Brazilian music scene, so after I graduated I met other musicians working in that scene and started playing in other bands. Also, my parent are jazz musicians so I grew up listening to jazz and some Brazilian music as well (they had lots of Bossa Nova records). So those two regional areas have continued to be of great importance to me ever since. In terms of my PhD topic, I actually came to this subject completely by accident. My initial proposal was to do with music making amongst Syrian refugees in Beirut but when I first turned up to do some research, I felt very out of my depth. I met some musicians working in that scene and I realised that I’d been over ambitious. My Arabic wasn’t good enough, the ethical issues were pretty complex, and I was starting to feel very pessimistic about it. Then I happened to meet a guy who played Brazilian percussion through a friend. He also played capoeira and he was really obsessed with Brazilian culture in general. We became great friends and through him, I met lots of the musicians working in the Brazilian music scene and then decided to change my subject. 

When it came to your PhD, how did you find the ethnographic methodological approach to your research? Did you enjoy the PhD process? 

Well, my methodology was messy in a way. I didn’t really know what I was doing before I started. I basically just rocked up in Lebanon and started talking to people and that’s kind of how it developed. Obviously, doing ethnography in a place where you’ve never really been before and you don’t have many contacts is very challenging. Also in my experience, particularly in countries like Lebanon, there can be a little bit of suspicion of outside researchers, you know, guessing what your motives are, and so on. But I was very lucky, I ended up meeting a really fantastic group of people and I absolutely loved doing ethnography in Lebanon. I went there eight or nine times for short bursts – a few months or weeks at a time. My interlocutors there are still great friends of mine. There were challenges, obviously, particularly doing fieldwork as a solo female researcher. Often there were times when people didn’t want to talk to me for whatever reason, so access wasn’t always straightforward. But in general I found it immensely satisfying and a really great process. I did a bit of archival work as well, working in some newspaper archives, which I found rewarding in very different ways. I stumbled into the archival stuff through conversations and then going down weird little wormholes. I’ll explain what that means. I was told during my research that I really must talk to this particular musician who was active in Beirut in the seventies. He was at the forefront of the development of a Lebanese Bossa Nova style. So I interviewed him and he told me about all these musicians he met in Beirut in the seventies, and I was like, ‘Right, how do I find out who they were?’ So I found this amazing newspaper archive at the American University of Beirut and spent a couple of weeks huddled down there going through adverts in newspapers. I found all of this absolutely incredible stuff and evidence for what I’d been told in interviews, which was amazing. I found going on those journeys and finding evidence of the stories that I’d heard very rewarding. I found shifting from doing the ethnographic work out in Lebanon to then coming home and writing about it quite difficult. One of the hardest things was that I amassed so much information. I collected way more than I needed because I was trying to interview everyone and trying to take field notes of everything. I’ve got a whole bunch of stuff that didn’t even make it into my PhD and I don’t yet know what I’ll do with that. I think if I did it again, I would probably try and be a bit more organised with filing things in a logical way and not go quite so mad trying to get so much information. As everyone who’s doing a PhD knows, there are times when it is very hard and very stressful but overall I really enjoyed it. I was also very lucky that I had an amazing supervisor. 

How did you find working across cultural and language barriers in your ethnographic research?

When I first arrived, because I was by myself, I felt very self-conscious. You naturally feel that if you’re going to a country you don’t know very well. But Lebanon is a very diverse country and Beirut is a very diverse city. There are quite a few foreigners there, mainly working with NGOs, but you do have a few researchers there as well. A lot of Lebanese in Beirut are very internationally connected. If you have a group of 10 Lebanese, probably seven of them have got family abroad, whether that’s in Europe, South America, Canada, or whatever. So most of the places I ended up going were quite multicultural and diverse. Once I’d got used to the city, I didn’t really feel like I stuck out so much and once my Arabic got a bit better and I could converse fairly easily with taxi drivers and so on, it got a bit easier, I suppose. It was quite an interesting linguistic mix that a lot of my interlocutors used. I was working with Brazilians, Lebanese and also some people of other nationalities as well, for example Lebanese Venezuelans. I was quite fortunate because most of my interlocutors spoke perfect English. That’s very common in Lebanon, especially if you’re working in the music scene. Lebanon has three official languages, Arabic, French and English, so most people I spoke to spoke English, and the Brazilians obviously spoke Portuguese. I did one or two interviews in and I had to utilise my Arabic as well, which is not great but good enough to get by. Within this musical social group, a lot of people spoke a mixture of those languages. In one sentence there might be English, Portuguese, Arabic, and then even a word or two of French, so I learnt this mixed language. People would be sitting around a table and using slang words from all these languages. I still speak to some of them in that way today. If we WhatsApp each other or whatever, it will be like, ‘Oi, tudo bem, habibi’, a mixture of Portuguese and Arabic, which was really interesting for me. I didn’t have space to write about that so much in my thesis but I think that idea of having a very specific local mix of these languages in particular social circles is really interesting too. 

One of the things I absolutely loved about your talk was that you mentioned being involved with these musical social groups. How important do you think that was in facilitating conversation and establishing trust? 

Really important. When I first met the Brazilian musicians, and by Brazilian musicians I also mean Lebanese musicians who play Brazilian music, I said, ‘Oh, I’ve been playing samba percussion for years’ and they were like, ‘Great, join our bloco! Join our percussion group’. So I did. I started playing with them and joined in at the first gig of theirs I went to. I knew a lot of the standard samba percussion repertoire so it was really easy for me to just slot in. I was quite useful to them in some ways because they needed a couple of players of this particular percussion instrument called a tamborim, and through that they started inviting me to come to rehearsals. I played at weddings with them too, as I mentioned in the talk. There’s something quite special about making friends through playing music. We would all have to battle Beirut’s terrible rush hour traffic to get to the rehearsal studios, we’d all turn up sweaty and tired, and then we would get together and play. Obviously during the breaks and afterwards we would maybe hang out together, have a beer, talk about the music. It was social first, before I started doing research with them. We created some really great bonds through doing that. It was really a fantastic way to meet people and to gain their trust, because they could tell that I had a genuine interest in what they were doing. 

Did you have any personal or professional challenges that you encountered undertaking this kind of ethnographic research? 

In many ways it was great for the research, and beyond the research, to become such close friends with interlocutors, but as we became better friends, some of them would confide in me and often gossip about other musicians. They would tell me things that maybe I could know as a friend but they wouldn’t want me to publish or include in my thesis. That was difficult sometimes because they would tell me really fascinating things that would drop another musician in it. From a purely selfish perspective, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is amazing information but what do I do with it?’ Obviously I didn’t publish anything without permission. Also, in interviews some interlocutors would also say slightly controversial things or things that I didn’t agree with. It becomes that bit harder to challenge people when you have a personal friendship. I found that quite tough at times. I didn’t always feel comfortable calling people out and maybe I would have done if we weren’t quite so close in that sense. With anonymising people, sometimes people would change their minds. There was one woman I spoke to and sometimes she was in an activist frame of mind, so she would want to have her name out there and would want me to talk publicly about the issues that she faced in Lebanon. But then sometimes, particularly if she’d been away from Lebanon and she knew she had to come in through the airport, she would then want everything to be very quiet again. That was a bit tricky because I wanted to obviously respect her wishes and whatever she wanted, but I just decided to err on the side of caution. Anything that I published I anonymised. I didn’t have any issues with the practicalities of travelling between countries for the ethnographic fieldwork. In fact, I really enjoyed going backwards and forwards as it gave me time to reflect upon what I’d found in Lebanon and also to recalibrate research questions before I went out the next time. Also, spending time independently in Lebanon was pretty intense, so it was quite nice to do that. Being in Lebanon, day-to-day life is quite tricky and it can be annoying – even though, obviously, I’m far more privileged than a lot of people living in Beirut. There are daily power cuts and lots of unforeseen things that pop up. I would have really frustrating days when I’d forgotten to charge my laptop, and then the power would cut out, and then my SIM card wouldn’t work, and then maybe a bridge had collapsed so that I wouldn’t be able to get to a particular interview. Day-to-day things like that. And those sorts of things are always exacerbated when you’re in a place that’s not home as well. It’s always that much more difficult to get around things. A fair few practical challenges in that regard.

How have you found life after a PhD and what are you working on at the moment? 

Since concluding my PhD, I’ve found that a couple of more senior ethnomusicologists have been really fantastic mentors. Obviously my PhD supervisor has been wonderful but my external examiner has been amazing too. He has overlapping interests with mine and he’s been really fantastic in giving me advice, taking time to talk to me, writing references and so on. So that’s been great. Choosing external examiners carefully with those things in mind is definitely a piece of advice that I would give to PhD students. I did a whole bunch of conferences in the year following my PhD and now that the PhD is over I have more confidence in my work and have found it easier to talk to people. I’m very lucky with my subject because it crosses two geographical areas, and lots of people have been really interested in that. I’ve actually had a pretty good reception for my work in that sense. 

In terms of current projects, I’ve just come back from undertaking proto-fieldwork for a new project that has some connecting themes to my PhD, but is more focused on Brazilian music as practiced in Brazil. I’m working on a proposal about the Pagode scene in Rio de Janeiro. Pagode is like a modern popular form of samba and it’s very male dominated in many ways. I’m looking at different constructions of masculinity, particularly since the presidential term of Jair Bolsonaro, so I spent three weeks in Brazil, going to lots of concerts, chatting to musicians and generally having quite a good time. I’m planning to adopt a similar methodology to my PhD research: meeting people, joining bands, playing music and interviewing. I’m also working on turning my PhD into a monograph. Lots of really fun work. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *