The World Through Music

Five questions with Ameera Nimjee, assistant professor of ethnomusicology

Growing up in Toronto as a South Asian Ismaili Muslim, Ameera Nimjee saw the connections between music, culture, and society from a young age. She attended regular events at her community center, where fellow Muslims celebrated religious holidays together with nights of Indian folk dance, music parties, and Bollywood variety shows. While studying music as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, she was drawn to the field of ethnomusicology because it allowed her to bring this cultural background into her studies. As assistant professor of ethnomusicology in the School of Music and Asian Studies Program, now she’s helping students discover the importance of music and how it connects politics, class, race, and culture.

Q: What is ethnomusicology?
A: Ethnomusicology is the study of music in and as culture. I study how people make the music they do, and what this tells us about the world around them—socially, culturally, economically, and politically.

Q: With a subject so broad, how do you approach teaching?
A: For me, teaching is about nurturing critical thinking skills among students. I am much more interested in the kinds of questions students have rather than [them] being able to repeat back things I’ve said. All of my classes are about taking the performing arts and uncovering layers of meaning and consequences for who performs, why they perform, and how they perform.

Q: Speaking of performing arts, you began dancing kathak at the age of 18 and still perform regularly with a Toronto-based dance company. What is kathak and how does it resonate with you and the ethnomusicology field?
A: Kathak is a form of Indian classical dance in which dancers tap and stamp out rhythms with their feet on the floor as if the floor is a drum head. It is a storytelling form (“katha” is the Sanskrit word for story) using stylized mime to illustrate narratives that draw from Hindu mythology and the Mughal courts. Kathak was a way for me to connect with the formal, existing curricula for the South Asian music I had been exposed to my whole life. For example, the folk and religious songs I sang growing up were in musical systems that I later learned were part of Hindustani (North Indian classical) music. While the music theory aspects were new, the content and language was familiar, and had been in my family for generations.

Q: What do you want students to take away from your class?
A: I’ve devoted my life and career to studying music and its place in culture to show that it is not separate from the world, and how people live in the world as racialized, gendered, casted, and classed citizens. “Musicking” is very much a political process and by studying this, we can get better at connecting with and understanding the experiences of the individuals who inhabit the world.

Q: What did you love most about growing up in Toronto and what is one thing you miss that you wish you could find in Tacoma?
A: What I loved about growing up in Toronto was this general expectation that people participate in the food cultures, festivals, and celebrations of so many ethnic communities. It was much more normal to eat shawarma or jerk chicken roti for a quick grab-and-go lunch than sandwiches or salads—at least among my friends and peers. Here in Tacoma, there are so many vibrant ethnic communities. I look forward to one day being able to duck out of work for a quick khati roll or dosa.


By Anneli Haralson
Photos by Sy Bean
Published Nov. 1, 2020