Benjamin Harbert
News Story

Benjamin Harbert Establishes Multimedia Journal for Ethnomusicology

A new web-based journal is upending how ethnomusicologists conduct and publish research. The Journal of Audiovisual Ethnomusicology (JAVEM) is a peer-reviewed streaming journal, which combines the rich medium of film with the rigor of academic inquiry. 

Sponsored by the Society for Ethnomusicology, JAVEM exists thanks to Benjamin J Harbert, one of the journal’s inaugural editors-in-chief. Harbert is an associate professor and the chair of the Department of Performing Arts in the College of Arts & Sciences. 

“We are bringing film into the institutional mainstream,” Harbert said. “For JAVEM’s first issue, we published a variety of pieces that represent many global musics and, importantly, different styles of filmmaking that achieve different perspectives. It’s a great showcase of how film can be used to investigate music.”

Bringing Film Into the Academic Mainstream

Harbert believes the written word is neither the only nor the best vehicle for academic and critical thought. His ethnomusicological journey began at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he studied under world-renowned documentarian Marina Goldovskaya. 

“Goldovskaya showed me how cinematic language could be as critical as anything I had read in print,” Harbert said. “Film and video just operate differently – experiential, provocative, ambiguous. It’s a critical medium rooted in feeling, narrative and character.”

After finishing his dissertation, Harbert took the research and directed the documentary Follow Me Down, exploring the musical traditions within three Louisiana prisons. Harbert’s debut movie was distributed by Films for the Sciences and Humanities to critical acclaim, acceptance to film festivals and international screenings. Despite its success, Harbert felt a tension between the value of a film and its valuation in academia. 

“I had to start backing up the scholarly value of ethnomusicological film,” Harbert said. “These weren’t essay films, but experimental films rooted in the language of cinema. So I wrote a book about five music documentaries, getting the chance to interview some of the greatest living documentarians.” 

Published in 2018, American Music Documentary used those five films as a basis for understanding the medium in an ethnomusicological context. The stage was set for JAVEM. In 2019, the editor for the field’s flagship journal, Ethnomusicology, brought the idea of a multimedia journal to Harbert. Together, Frank Gunderson and Harbert worked to get the journal off the ground with the support of the Society of Ethnomusicology. 

The Pains of Peer-Reviewing Film 

Bringing the journal and its first issue to life meant venturing boldly into the unknown with all the requisite blood, sweat and tears. The website needed to feel as deliberate and thought-out as the films it would showcase. To construct its virtual home, Harbert enlisted the help of Eloise Owen (SFS’22). 

“The work I did on JAVEM changed my perspective on website design, from a fun hobby to something I could explore professionally,” Owen said. “Professor Harbert supported me throughout some of my experimental pursuits and inspired me to make the most of my college experience by following the things I’m most excited and passionate about.”

While working on the JAVEM website, Owen polished off the thesis for her culture and politics major, an interactive website exploring the glitch aesthetic in contemporary electronic music. 

“Eloise is a longtime student of mine so I trusted her artistic and intellectual prowess,” Harbert explained. “The real serendipity was that she was working on an interactive website about music and posthumanism for her CULP thesis. I always learn so much from student thesis projects that I advise, but in this case I could put some of that work directly into JAVEM.”

Combining the standards of peer-reviewed research with the nature of shooting and editing video proved another unique obstacle. 

“In print, it’s easy to ask for a single author to make changes to their work,” Harbert explained. “For film, we had to think about the nature of feedback and revision. In some cases, directors had spent money on post-production and we were cognizant that requests for extensive reshoots were impossible – and different for each project.”

The editorial process for the first issue, as a result, was much longer than it would be for a traditional print journal. The process itself required implementing new processes that the editorial team is now ready to deploy for future issues.

For Harbert, the journey is just beginning, and he’s excited to see the kinds of multimedia projects that JAVEM will feature in the future. 

“As an ethnomusicologist, I’m always interested in thinking about how music is connected to its worlds,” Harbert said. “Film can be great at showing that entanglement with people, places, and issues. Plus, you get to actually hear the music and see the performers!”

To experience the first issue, visit

Performing Arts