The Musical Gift: Sonic Generosity in Post-War Sri Lanka

The Musical Gift tells Sri Lanka’s music history as a story of giving between humans and nonhumans, and between populations defined by difference. Author Jim Sykes argues that in the recent past, the genres we recognize today as Sri Lanka’s esteemed traditional musics were not originally about ethnic or religious identity, but were gifts to gods and people intended to foster protection and/or healing. Noting that the currently assumed link between music and identity helped produce the narratives of ethnic difference that drove Sri Lanka’s civil war (1983-2009), Sykes argues that the promotion of connected music histories has a role to play in post-war reconciliation. The Musical Gift includes a study of how NGOs used music to promote reconciliation in Sri Lanka, and it contains a theorization of the relations between musical gifts and commodities. Eschewing a binary between the gift and identity, Sykes claims the world’s music history is largely a story of entanglement between both paradigms. Drawing on fieldwork conducted widely across Sri Lanka over a span of eleven years–including the first study of Sinhala Buddhist drumming in English and the first ethnography of music-making in the former warzones of the north and east–this book brings anthropology’s canonic literature on “the gift” into music studies, while drawing on anthropology’s recent “ontological turn” and “the new materialism” in religious studies.