Hidden Musicians and Public Musicking in Shanghai


Ruard Absaroka

PhD defended at: 

School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, UK.



This dissertation is a multi-sited musical ethnography of an area of central Shanghai. The main arguments are presented through two extended case studies, one of the Jiangnan sizhu “silk and bamboo” instrumental folk music and the other of the activities of amateur choirs. These studies are complemented by briefer discussions of Shanghai’s cosmopolitan jazz and EDM scenes and of the online musical community Neocha. Together they offer a wide-ranging understanding of music as a technology of the self, and the cultural capital of musicking in contemporary Shanghai. I draw the ethnographic strands together with reference to the 2010 Shanghai Expo: a six month collective municipal spectacle, whereby officials sought to marshal the musical resources of the city in a fashion consonant with the global projection of the city’s cultural and industrial might. Musicians became intimately involved in Expo activities, which provided them with practice opportunities, performance exposure and sometimes paid employment.

My aims are threefold. First, following the radical geographies of David Harvey and Mike Davis, I contribute to the politically-informed debates on the spatialities of music. My particular interest is in the relation between the state, municipal authorities and musicking in Shanghai which I treat in terms of “uneven musical development” and the “musical rights of the city”. Second, inspired by Ruth Finnegan, Adelaida Reyes and Helen Rees, I argue for the importance of considering the co-existence of over-lapping music-making within a single setting. Third, I apply Lave and Wenger’s ideas of situated learning and communities of practice to music in order to consider the sustainability and adaptability of musical cultures in a swiftly changing urban environment. Combining these approaches raises new questions concerning sonic permissibilities, access to, and control of public space, the generational inflection of musical cultures, and the relationship between music, work and leisure in the city.