Interview with Dr. Carolyn Ramzy: Soundscapes of Belonging

How did you get started in academia? What drew you to the subject matter of your doctoral studies?

Forgive my cliché response here, but I’ve always been drawn to music. As a kid, I participated in school choirs, musicals, and listened avidly to whatever I could get my hands on. My parents were also devout Coptic Orthodox churchgoers and the highlight of the long services was the opportunity to sing standing next to my mother. Importantly though, music emerged as a way to shape and navigate my immersion into new places as my family immigrated from Kuwait, to Egypt, Canada, various parts of the United States, and for me, back to Canada all over again. I have distinct memories of curling my fingers around a cello bow for the first time in Scarborough, on the outskirts of Toronto; opening my mouth and hearing my voice blend into a large high school choir in Hilton, New York; and finally, coming to the table to bake cookies with my grandmother in Rochester while singing Arabic devotional songs called taratīl (s. tartīla) and taranīm (s. tarnīma). As my mother tongue gave away from Arabic to English, these songs became the remaining threads I had of one home as I grew into the next. And, these songs complemented the musicals I learned at school, the Arvo Pärt, Tori Amos, and Nirvana that fed into my teenage angst, and the classical art song and orchestral music that engaged my intellect. As a teenager, I began to understand the critical role that music and devotional songs played in community life. Once I got my driver’s license, I use to sneak away during Orthodox church services and drive to other local religious communities in Rochester: a Russian Orthodox Church, a Gospel church, a Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and the city’s only mosque at the time to explore their services. In Tallahassee, Florida, I discovered the rich soundscapes of Baha’i services. In each of those places, I was in awe of the power and beauty of music-making as part of worship and community building, and I could not help but compare it to my own. I also got lucky: I had a host of wonderful teachers who mentored and cultivated my interests along the way.

After high school, I enrolled in the Eastman School of Music to study opera and music education. There, I found myself engrossed in the music history courses that gave context to the music I sang. I was astounded to learn how much music emerged to grapple with conflict and war and, in an age of imperialism and colonization, borrowed, took, and assimilated new genres into old ones.  I got lucky again: Ellen Koskoff, an eminent ethnomusicologist, had just launched her certificate of ethnomusicology at a traditional classical music conservatory. I enrolled in graduate level musicology courses and noted that I could merge my passions for history, anthropology, and music. 

My time at Florida State University was pivotal in my research on Coptic Orthodox music. Grappling with my own homesickness in Tallahassee, Florida, I turned my attention to how immigrants in Toronto, Canada navigated their own feelings of separation, homelessness, and estrangement via taratīl and taranīm. I was astounded to learn that, among the few belongings that families packed for their new homes in Canada, taratīl cassettes almost always accompanied their journeys. These interests paved the way for my doctoral research in Cairo; while Coptic-Canadian immigrants nostalgically framed Egypt as a preferred homeland with its family and community networks, Copts in Egypt looked to the afterlife as the true “heavenly nation” or “al-waṭan al-samāwi.” I noted that Coptic popular and liturgical music culture emphasized tropes of death, sacrifice, and martyrdom as the community responded to increasing civic isolation and heightened sectarian tensions in a Muslim-majority country. Copts were not the only ones to strategically use these tropes; in 2011, I watched as Copts, secular protestors, and Muslim Brotherhood supporters arrived to Tahrir Square ready to die for church, nation, or mosque. Between chants that “a martyr was available,” they also sang nationalist songs. In turn, many Orthodox and Protestant Copts brought taranīm to the Square. The songs my grandmother sang had shifted from prayer to holy pop, then to protest songs! It is at these intersections of politics, religion, popular culture, and now gender, that I find my research questions.

Considering the state of Middle East studies more generally, and scholarship on Egypt more particularly, what topics and issues would you like to see addressed? 

Teaching a course on “Musics of the Middle East and North Africa” has given me real insight into the richness, diversity, and shared musical as well as cultural commonalities, not just in Egypt, but also all over the region. While my work on Orthodox Copts has me often thinking about the role of the afterlife in shaping and sounding lived experiences, these ideas also shape other music communities as well: ethnomusicologist Jean During (2002) writes that sound is also deeply integral to many Muslim devotional practice as well as mystical interpretations of the creationist story and eschatology. For example, Sufi liturgies from Morocco to Iraq are sounded rituals that aim to reunite believers with God until their spirit finally ascends to heaven, all through chant and movement. Sounds familiar, right? In Egypt, the heavily revered sounds of Coptic and Muslim religious festivals (mūlids) also closely echo the overwhelming sounds of “electro sha’abi,” or urban street music that young listeners use to dance and sing their way into delirium. I would like to connect the dots between religious and devotional practices in the Middle East, particularly across seemingly “hard” and “fixed” sectarian and sacred lines. How do religious traditions and eschatologies continue to undergird many of today’s music innovations in Egyptian popular music and culture? How do younger generations challenge or comply with these ideas, and in turn, critique their own religious and state institutions? Finally, while paying attention to these new shifts in music culture, I think it is critical to look at the imbrications of gender, power, and class in the Middle East, and of course, in Egypt.

Given your current (or past) interest in Egypt’s Coptic populations, how would you frame the issue of Coptic belonging in Egypt and its diasporas?

In Egypt, I think the issue of a “heavenly nation” still has some serious currency, mitigating the way that Coptic Orthodox Christians engage in public civic life. I think this is particularly the case among an older generation that was raised under Pope Shenouda’s guidance and a vibrant Sunday School beginning in the 1970s. Pope Shenouda’s famous mantras “Egypt is not a nation in which we live, but rather a nation that lives inside of us” and the “Lord is Here” have shaped the way in which the community has turned its focus inward on ascetic piety, Sunday school education, and community services, leaving public spaces behind. Songs like “Strangers in the World,” “A Pilgrim,” and “The World Build and Plants” with its famous refrain “I am not from here, I have another home (waṭan)” began to proliferate on Arab and Coptic Christian satellite channels reflecting these broader sentiments. Of course, this religious revival parallels one that was happening in Egypt more broadly, shaping Muslim religious subjectivities, ethical soundscapes, and a sense of true belonging in the afterlife as well. After 2011, I think younger (and specifically middle and upper middle class) generations are starting to question this exclusive focus on the afterlife, focusing their energies on acts of service and some public engagement, though still largely remaining within Christian circles.

In the diaspora, I think issues of Coptic belonging are expressed quite differently. In many places like Los Angeles, California and Toronto, Canada, Coptic churches have greatly thrived, with cathedral size churches coming up within close drives of one another. In these contexts, churches are sometimes literally framed as pieces of heaven on earth. In turn, Coptic immigrant communities have formed conclaves around their churches, mirroring many of the same activities, social services, and music culture in Egypt. Despite these bustling communities, first and second generation Coptic-Americans and Canadians are prodding further on how they want to belong to both their heritage communities as well as to their new homelands. Missionary churches and American Coptic Orthodox Churches are a rising trend to minister to these hyphenated and liminal identities of diaspora Copts. Their focus on English language ministries, interreligious marriage, and culturally assimilated services (for example, using football analogies in sermons) have drawn a large number of attendees who chafe at the more traditional and Arabic services offered in older churches. Interestingly, conversations about the potential innovation of Coptic hymns are vibrant in these spaces. But, these conversations can also be quite tense; should parishioners and cantors add harmony to historically monophonic hymns? How can congregations further involve women parishioners in liturgical singing and traditional male sonic soundscapes? And finally, how can singers navigate the Arabic language and Arab-sounding ornaments from services that may cause some listeners some unrest (and point to some underlying Islamophobia)?  All of these questions reflect larger struggles to maintain tradition while concomitantly reflecting the changing culture of a Coptic diaspora community.

As scholars, what sort of impact do you believe we should have in the increasingly xenophobic and Islamophobic climate in North America? 

Fear, Islamophobia, and xenophobia are parts of larger power matrixes. As scholars, it is important to understand these power dynamics through the study of (sounded) historical memories and the intertwined role of music and politics to deconstruct some of these biases. Of course, as an ethnomusicologist, I believe that music is one of the most conducive spaces to have honest and empathetic conversations about hard topics such as racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, misogyny, and homophobia. In my classroom, I always begin with the music. Students watch some of the latest popular music video from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and American/Canadian presidential campaigns to investigate parallel dynamics that may shape or contest public opinion and tastes. In one example, we follow how musicians in Saudi Arabia helped to launch conversations about women’s right to drive. By drawing out shared experiences of youth culture between places, particularly though popular music, students can empathize about many of the issues they share with others in our globalized and neocapitalist world.

I also think it is critical to tackle Islamophobia in Coptic Christian communities where we work as well. Understandably, Copts have historical memories of colonialism, discrimination, and sectarian violence back in Egypt that have shaped many of their encounters with Islam, and it is important not to gloss over them, even acknowledging the need for reparations. But, coupled with the rising Islamophobia and xenophobia in North America, and we have conditions for a perfect storm. Sensitively unpacking these memories and critiquing the way the media and politicians have utilized these fears helps to get the conversations started. For Copts, this means thinking twice about politicians showing up in their local churches whose agendas may simultaneously target other (specifically Muslim) immigrant communities from the Middle East. What does it mean to sing the national anthem and a translated version of the tarnīma “My Coptic Church” in one breath while politicians are present? I believe that looking for shared musical experiences open up some pathways towards mutual respect and understanding. 

Are you working on a new project? What topics and themes do you hope to address in your future work?

This past summer, I organized a concert at a local Coptic Church in Ottawa to bookend a joint conference for the Canadian Society for Coptic Studies and L’Association Francophonie de Coptologie. The concert comprised of church cantors, and a community choir with members hailing from all of the churches in the city. This experience tuned me in to many of the musical ambivalences and ambitions of growing “missionary churches” in the Coptic diaspora. I am particularly fascinated by their conversations around making church music more “accessible” to non-Copts and new converts, as well as reflecting the sounds of their diaspora homes. While debates around translations of liturgical hymns from Coptic to Arabic to English have long taken place, there is now interest to add harmony and include many western performance styles such as instrumental accompaniment as well as uniform choral robes. Interestingly, like the rise of the Sunday School movement and its accompanying taranīm soundscapes, women are also spearheading many of these movements—and are singing the harmonies themselves. Partnering with many first and second-generation male Coptic allies, they are also challenging the Church to be more inclusive of women’s liturgical participation. Using feminist ethnomusicology as a method that broadly uses gender relations as a prism through which to explore power dynamics, I am exploring how women’s participation in diaspora contexts shape, contest, or reinscribe women’s subjectivities in the Coptic Orthodox Church.


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Carolyn Ramzy is an associate professor of music at Carleton University. Her research focuses on Egyptian Christian popular music in Egypt and a quickly growing diaspora community in the U.S. and Canada. Specifically, she examines the discursive politics of the community’s religious pop songs in the lives of Coptic Orthodox women. Her current projects investigate how popular religious songs shape, contest, or reinscribe Coptic women’s subjectivities in popular and religious movements. She also examines how the songs’ gendered motifs reconfigure commentary about Coptic national belonging within Egypt’s changing political topography following the Arab Spring, and how the songs change in their new transnational contexts as Copts increasingly migrate abroad.

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