Student Spotlight: Ethnomusicology graduate student Sunaina Kale on her contribution to Keywords for an Indigenized Sound Studies

Sunaina KaleEthnomusicology graduate student Sunaina Kale has been invited to contribute to the forthcoming edited volume, Keywords for an Indigenized Sound Studies. Sunaina participated in a seminar for this project at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe, New Mexico on November 12-13, 2018. She will also take part in a symposium entitled "Listenings" at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario from March 21st to 24th, 2019, which is being put on by members of the Keywords project.
We asked Sunaina to tell us about how she became involved in these projects and their importance to the fields of sound and indigenous studies, as well as what drew her to study ethnomusicology at UCSB.
Education: UCSB M.A. in Music, emphasis in Ethnomusicology; UC Davis B.A. in Music with honors, minor in Art Studio
Hometown: Orinda, CA
Q: We are looking forward to the release of your contribution to Keywords for an Indigenized Sound Studies! How did you become involved in this project?
A: Thank you! I became involved with the project by speaking to one of the organizers, Trevor Reed. He and several other members of the group gave a presentation at the national Society for Ethnomusicology annual meeting in 2017. I was interested in the topic of the panel and approached Trevor afterward. After chatting for a while, he suggested that I be in the group. Several months later, he and Jessica Bissett Perea, the other organizer, formally invited me to join. I’m still fairly new to the project and very excited and humbled to be included!
Q: Keywords for an Indigenized Sound Studies aims to “cultivate a more Indigenized sound studies and a more sounded indigenous studies.” Can you tell us more about the importance of this project in bridging the gap between the fields of sound and indigenous studies?
A: This volume is influenced by two fields that are becoming increasingly important in ethnomusicology, indigenous studies and sound studies. It’s perhaps more influenced by indigenous studies than previous work on indigenous music in ethnomusicology. Indigenous studies has a strong political orientation. As such, we’re privileging indigenous worldviews in our discussions of sound and music, and we would like it to have some sort of community or practical political engagement. We’re also trying to make the volume fundamentally collaborative. Rather than writing our own chapters, we’re going to write chapters in groups. We’re also thinking about making the volume a digital book, which would increase access and also allow us to be more creative in the way that we format the book.
Additionally, this edited volume is important because it’s the first time that indigenous scholars working on indigenous sound/music have been showcased in a substantial way in ethnomusicology. Most of the scholars in the group are indigenous. This is important because some of ethnomusicology’s foundational activities were white academics recording and archiving of native musics in the United States at the turn of the 20th century, and this legacy has continued throughout the history of the discipline. Our project, then, is about returning the power of studying indigenous music to indigenous people. The group is also diverse in other ways. Although most of the group are professors, there is also another grad student, an art curator, a composer, and someone who works at an academic publishing house.
The Listenings symposium is being put on by members of the Keywords group, along with other academics and musicians. I think we will be discussing similar issues important to the Keywords volume while attending other events—Queen’s University is holding several events on indigenous music and art making at that time.
Q: What topics are you focused on in your current research? What role does fieldwork play in your research?
A: Right now, I’m in the midst of doing fieldwork in Hawai‘i for my dissertation, and I plan to come back to UCSB for the 2019-2020 academic year. My dissertation is on reggae music in Hawai‘i and Hawaiian identity. The way that Hawaiianness is expressed in the genre changes all the time, and is intimately related to other identity categories like indigeneity, localness, the global, and the Pacific.
Fieldwork is one of the main methods I’m using in my research, and it is typically how ethnomusicologists do research. For me, this means doing formal interviews, talking to people informally, and attending concerts and other events. There isn’t much written or archived about the genre, so it’s simply hard to get information about it without being in Hawai‘i and witnessing events and talking to people. I can also get more targeted information about the specific issues I want to address in my dissertation.
Fieldwork can also mean just living. Navigating the joys and challenges of living on a tiny tropical island, the most remote landmass in the world, gives you insight into why reggae musicians, promoters, and fans make certain decisions.
Sometimes, ethnomusicologists play the music that they study as a part of their fieldwork, but I don’t. Maybe someday!
Q: What inspired you to pursue ethnomusicology in graduate school and ultimately, to choose UC Santa Barbara?
A: Both were happy accidents, actually. I started out as an oboe performance major in undergrad but then developed tendinitis in my hands, so I had to stop playing regularly. To finish the music major, I had to choose something that wasn’t performance, and studying the music of my heritage was the most appealing to me. I had always known that I wanted to go to grad school, and ethnomusicology made the most sense with a project on a non-western music. At first, I wasn’t sure which music to focus on—I’m Asian Indian and Native Hawaiian—so I applied to UCSB because I wanted to work with Scott Marcus, who is an Indian music expert. Eventually, however, I chose to study Hawaiian music. I had grown up listening to it and had always loved it. My choice of discipline and project worked out well in the end because my main academic interest has become identity, the study of which has a strong precedent in ethnomusicology.
I’m very happy that I decided to come to UCSB. I get to work with some incredible people who have supported me and made my work so much better!
Q: Any advice for incoming ethnomusicology students?
A: It’s okay if your project changes—everyone’s does. It took me almost two years after I began at UCSB to find my topic and really get into it. Also, make sure to make time for yourself and activities outside of grad school, and try to arrange your school life so that you can do as best you can. It seems impossible with all of the work we have to do, but it made a big difference for me (even though I only started to take this seriously in my fourth year of grad school). You’re more than your productivity!


Sunaina Keonaona Kale is a Ph.D. candidate in ethnomusicology. She holds an M.A. in ethnomusicology from UCSB, and researches reggae music in Hawai‘i and Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) identity. She is interested in how definitions of Hawaiian music and identity constantly shift and interrelate with indigenous political movements, traditional ways of knowing, local identity, and the global. She has presented at the national and regional chapter meetings of the Society for Ethnomusicology, has been awarded the society’s Annual Meeting Subvention Award for 2017, and has also been awarded the Graduate Opportunity Fellowship at UCSB. At UCSB, she has served as a teaching assistant for classes on American popular music, music and society, writing about music, music theory, and world music. She is also active in the indigenous studies area here and helped organize its annual symposium in 2018.
Sunaina Kale