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Music, Trance, and Alterity in Tunisia

In Stambeli, Richard C. Jankowsky presents a vivid ethnographic account of the healing trance music created by the descendants of sub-Saharan slaves brought to Tunisia during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Stambeli music calls upon an elaborate pantheon of sub-Saharan spirits and North African Muslim saints to heal humans through ritualized trance. Based on nearly two years of participation in the musical, ritual, and social worlds of stambeli musicians, Jankowsky’s study explores the way the music evokes the cross-cultural, migratory past of its originators and their encounters with the Arab-Islamic world in which they found themselves. Stambeli, Jankowsky avers, is thoroughly marked by a sense of otherness—the healing spirits, the founding musicians, and the instruments mostly come from outside Tunisia—which creates a unique space for profoundly meaningful interactions between sub-Saharan and North African people, beliefs, histories, and aesthetics.

Part ethnography, part history of the complex relationship between Tunisia’s Arab and sub-Saharan populations, Stambeli will be welcomed by scholars and students of ethnomusicology, anthropology, African studies, and religion.

256 pages | 7 halftones, 12 line drawings, 1 map, 7 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2010

Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology

African Studies

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Music: Ethnomusicology

Religion: Religion and Society


Stambeli is a stunningly original, ethnographically rich, and theoretically nuanced work that nicely bridges the gap that often separates ethnomusicology from less musically inclined anthropological scholarship. Jankowsky knows his music, has spent quality time as an apprentice stambeli musician, and has used this highly focused experience in the field to think deeply about the phenomenology of spirit possession—he has immersed himself in the world of stambeli music, and we, the readers, are richer for it.”

Paul Stoller, West Chester University

“This is by far the best book on Maghrebi music in English. The analysis is sophisticated and theoretically informed, but Jankowsky never lets that obscure his sensitive portrait of the community where he lived. The book moves gracefully from the broad sweep of history to the organization of the society of musicians and spirits, particular performances, contemporary developments, Jankowsky’s personal experiences, and a hint of what may lie ahead.”--Philip D. Schuyler, University of Washington

Philip D. Schuyler

Stambeli, Richard C. Jankowsky’s ethnographic and historiographic study of this Tunisian musical tradition, is a welcome contribution to the scholarship on a North African country that is infrequently the subject of such nuanced and extended treatment….Drawing broadly on historical, ethnomusicological, and anthropological sources, Jankowsky has composed a study that offers not only meticulous analysis of the components of this distinctive musical genre and trance healing tradition, but also a sophisticated theoretical engagement with the socio-historical context that fostered its emergence.” 

Rodney Collins | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

“a book marked by a convincing ethnography and sound theoretical judgment, clarity of language, and an engaging narrative.”

Bode Omojola | Canadian Journal of African Studies

Stambeli is a welcome addition to existing ethnomusicological accounts of music’s role in the production of religious ecstasy. . . . Jankowsky’s study is a rich, nuanced, and theoretically sophisticated ethnography of a little-studied tradition that helps further our understanding of the complex cultural history of Tunisia.”

Journal of Religion in Africa

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Note on Spelling and Transliteration


PART I Histories and Geographies of Encounter

1 Encountering the Other People
Alterity, Possession, Ethnography

2 Displacement and Emplacement
The Trans-Saharan Slave Trade and the Emergence of Stambēlī

3 Black Spirits White Saints
Geographies of Encounter in the Stambēlī Pantheon

PART II Musical Aesthetics and Ritual Dynamics

4 Voices of Ritual Authority
Musicians, Instruments, and Vocality

5 Sounding the Spirits
The Ritual Dynamics of Temporality, Modality, and Sonic Density

6 Trance, Healing, and the Bodily Experience
From Individual Affliction to Collective Appeasement

PART III Movements and Trajectories

7 Pilgrimage and Place
Local Performances, Transnational Imaginaries

8 Stambēlī on stage
(Re)presentations, Musical Cosmopolitanism, and the Public Sphere

9 Conclusion
Music, Trance, and Alterity

Epilogue (with Notes on Audio Examples)


Society for the Anthropology of Religion: Clifford Geertz Prize
Honorable Mention

Society for Ethnomusicology, African Music Section: Kwabena Nketia Book Prize
Honorable Mention

American Institute for Maghrib Studies: L. Carl Brown AIMS Book Prize in North African Studies
Honorable Mention

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