I was 14, and it was about 100 years since Livingstone searched for the sources of the Nile. Living in a small savanna town, young enough to be an explorer and old enough to know the sources of the Nile, I concentrated my efforts on investigating the tiny valley of a river on the outskirts of town. It was a separate world; no people, no houses, only running water and small waterfalls, enormous green trees with colorful flowers and mystical networks of lianas, and - not to forget - huge lizards sunbathing on beautiful rocks in the midst of the water. I almost believed that nobody had seen anything like this before.
At the same age I started to discover other worlds too, not through climbing and skipping from stone to stone but through reading. Entertaining books had of course been with me for years. What was new was that I discovered books that challenged the values of my culture. Most books I had read up until then had confirmed rather than challenged the world I was living in. I remember reading the narrative of a North American explorer of the tropical rainforests of South America. He was accepted by an Indigenous tribe that up to that point had hardly been in contact with Western civilization. He did everything to be accepted, including participation in rituals of cannibalism. I was shocked. How could he do that? A very different and nagging question also troubled me. What right - or possibility for that matter - would he have had to try to stop the ritual? Coming from a pious Christian either-or culture, where the one Truth is a certain and unchangeable thing, I was starting to struggle with relativism and its limits.
Another book I read at that time was a novel called Is it possible? It was written by a Maasai author, which in itself was a rare thing. I do not remember the author's first name, but his last name - Ole - has not been so difficult for me to memorize, since this very typical Maasai last name also is a very typical Norwegian first name. The Maasai people, famous warriors and semi-nomads of Eastern Africa, had accepted neither the religion nor the habits of the European colonial powers. The question the author was asking was: is it possible to be born Maasai, go to school and take modern education, and still be Maasai? The book did not give any clear answers, only a series of dilemmas and struggles.
I read these two books in the early 1970's, before postmodern pluralism was on everybody's lips. Maybe contrasts and conflicts between local and traditional values on one side and globalized modern values on the other were starker at that time than now, I do not know. I am convinced though that there are plenty of dilemmas and struggles left.
Such dilemmas and struggles are part of the context for the development of music therapy as a discipline and professional practice. Starting in the United States after the Second World War professional music therapy is now developing on all continents. Will this discipline be dominated by Eurocentric and American values, as has been the case with most modern disciplines, such as psychology? Or is it possible to imagine a more diverse and pluralistic discipline, sensitive to cultural differences and local traditions?
Is it possible to combine cultural sensitivity with the empirical grounding and theoretical stringency that comparable contemporary disciplines cultivate? Both ethical and theoretical dilemmas seem to be unavoidable. A culturally sensitive music therapist may for instance need to explore new and alternative roles between music therapist and client. In Western societies therapy is usually conceived of as a private and personal relationship. In contrast, healing rituals in many cultures are public, or semi-public, events. Is it possible for professional music therapists also to explore the possibilities of public rituals? "Public" quite quickly means "political" and ethical dilemmas, for example, due to dual role relationships - may arise. Are these possible to handle in constructive ways?
A discipline and professional practice is knowledge based. What relationships exist between local and scientific knowledge? Is music therapy theory a series of situated narratives or a body of universal statements? Perspectives informed by relativism, anti-relativism, anti-anti-relativism etc., are possible, and we may feel that we lack tools for navigation. We need such tools when we meet an uninvestigated case, which is what every new client is. In a professional practice such tools are usually provided by research-informed clinical theory. To know the sources of the Nile: does that help in the investigation of a small local river? A clinician may ask similar questions. To meet a new client is to discover a landscape nobody ever saw before. It may help though to know that water runs downwards, that some lianas are stronger than others, and that some lizards are quicker than others. The ideal seems to be to find some way of integrating the local and the global.
Is it possible?
Stige, Brynjulf, 2001 Is it possible?. Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy. Retrieved June 11, 2013, from http://testvoices.uib.no/?q=fortnightly-columns/2001-it-possible