Playing it Dangerously: Tambura Bands, Race, and Affective Block in Croatia and Its Intimates

By Ian MacMillen. 2019. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press. 288 pages. ISBN: 978-0-8195-7902-7 (hard cover).


Reviewed by Richard March, Wisconsin Arts Board

[Review length: 850 words • Review posted on September 9, 2021]


[Cover ofPlaying it Dangerously: Tambura Bands, Race, and Affective Block in Croatia and Its Intimates]

It is very gratifying to see that an excellent work has been published, written by a younger colleague, that builds upon and extends work that I did beginning in the 1970s. Ian MacMillen’s Playing it Dangerously: Tambura Bands, Race, and Affective Block in Croatia and Its Intimates is a very well-researched study by an insightful and talented scholar.

MacMillen’s concentrated period of field research took place from 2008 through 2010, comprising one year among tambura musicians and their communities in the Pittsburgh area, and the following year in the Croatian region of Slavonia, both tambura hotbeds. His work comes a bit more than thirty years after my concentrated fieldwork from 1975 through 1978. In that interval, there is much that changed and much that remained the same.

MacMillen devised a canny fieldwork plan characterized by in-depth participant-observation. Judging by the complexity of conversations he reports on in ethnographic descriptions, he has a very high degree of fluency in the Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian language. It is also obvious that he is quite proficient at playing more than one of the instruments in the tambura family of plucked fretted strings. He not only participated as a member of large amateur orchestras in Rankin, Pennsylvania, and Osijek, Croatia, but also was deemed competent by professional tambura musicians in Croatia to temporarily replace a regular member of their ensemble.

Armed with these considerable assets, MacMillen proceeded to initiate prolonged and ongoing contact with several of the key actors in the tambura music scenes of Pittsburgh and Slavonia. He used his sharp powers of observation to target the broad context of performance events: the musicians, their audiences, and event organizers, as well as the wider socio-cultural and political contexts both in Europe and North America of this traditional music that has an intense symbolic meaning to Croatian national identity.

Among the massive changes I alluded to earlier have been major wars in the 1990s associated with the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the emergence of separate Croatian, Bosnian, and Serbian sovereign states. There has been the dissolution of the Yugoslav socialist system of government, ending both its restraints upon and its considerable support for musical entities involving the tambura, also the intensification of nationalist symbolism surrounding the instruments and their music, and the dispersal of musicians and musical communities as refugees from the wars. MacMillen does an admirable job of treating the consequences of these many changes.

It is clear that MacMillen established deep and empathetic relationships with his interlocutors during fieldwork and has achieved an accepted role in those communities, albeit, as he acknowledges, as a guest, a welcomed outsider. And it is precisely that outsider status that sharpened his perceptions of interactions between musicians and among different segments of audiences. Although he clearly has an underlying affection for the music and communities, he doesn’t hesitate to point out misogynistic aspects of this male-dominated tradition, of racialized and even racist attitudes toward Romani musicians in Europe and in North America and toward African Americans who are now the majority occupants of Pittsburgh’s old Croatian neighborhoods.

MacMillen’s awesome musicological skills are key to significant analysis of internal features of musical performances. A striking example is his demystification of the difference between the Romani style of play and that of “white” Croatian musicians by meticulously notating two renditions of the same song by Romani and Croatian groups.

Coming now to the customary point in a review to discuss the reading audience to whom I would recommend this book, I am obliged to make my sole negative assessment, and it is not so much of MacMillen himself but of the expected manner of expression, the jargonistic writing style that his and related disciplines have turned to in the past few decades. I contend that there are no insights so deep nor analyses so complex that they cannot be elucidated fully using language readily intelligible to any well-educated reader.

Unfortunately, there are substantial analytical sections of Playing It Dangerously that I, a PhD in a closely related field and a specialist in the subject matter of the book, can scarcely apprehend. The overuse of in-group jargon may serve as a handy shortcut to a writer, but that benefit is outweighed greatly by the baleful result of rendering it nearly incomprehensible to all but a small cohort of the initiated. In times like these, when academic freedom and the socio-cultural value of the entire scholarly pursuit is under constant attack, it is incumbent upon all participants, scholarly writers, acquisitions editors at presses, peer reviewers, and editors to emphasize the intelligibility of works to as broad an audience as possible without diluting scholarly quality. An especial ethical obligation is to the interlocutors and their communities who are treated in studies of this sort. They should be able to comprehend readily what has been written about them.

There is so much to praise in MacMillen’s work. I would urge this talented younger scholar, and indeed all scholars, to rise to the challenge of finding a manner to express the important insights of post-modernist, meta-modernist, and affect-theory thought in widely accessible language.

Richard March, Portland, Oregon

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