Meeting the Staff: Virginia Danielson

I sat with Virginia Danielson, known as Ginny at NYU Abu Dhabi, in her improvised office by the Research Center in the library. It was almost ...

Dec 13, 2014

I sat with Virginia Danielson, known as Ginny at NYU Abu Dhabi, in her improvised office by the Research Center in the library. It was almost unnoticeable that her original office was flooded some weeks ago and that she has had barely any time to accommodate to the new space, judging from the amount of folders, books and ornaments that she has managed to fit into the tiny space. There were a few CDs scattered on her table and shelves, and while we chatted, I asked about her personal favorite.
With a smile, she explained to me that her tastes are very eclectic, but that she has just finished listening to a Lebanese Jazz band, Cynema Beyrouth, which she says she found “extremely entertaining.”
Our conversation spanned a vast range of topics, from her time as a Richard F. French librarian of the Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library at Harvard University, to her years as a Fulbright fellow in Cairo. She also spoke of her years in Upper Egypt where she met her husband. We talked about her many publications in the field of ethnomusicology, mostly focused on the Middle East, and her lectures at Harvard and other universities and, after she's done explaining all of this, I ask her where it all began.
“When I was an undergraduate I did a degree in piano and, afterwards, I decided that what I was really interested in is the role of music in people’s lives, which is basically what ethnomusicology studies. So I did my graduate work and my PhD in ethnomusicology, and that’s when I became interested in the Arab world — I basically just liked the music,” she explained. As simple as she makes it sound, this fondness of Arab traditional music is what has shaped the last decades of her life and motivated her decision to learn Arabic and work at NYU Abu Dhabi.
“I knew that it would be a nice place to live and it would allow Jim [her husband] and I to get back to the Middle East … and develop my interest towards Emirati [musical] heritage,” she explains.
While the focus of her research has been traditional Arab singers, devotional music in Egyptian settings and women in music, living in Abu Dhabi has developed new areas of interest for her and future studies.
“What interests me more here is dance and the fact that so much of Emirati musical expression is performative in such holistic ways that involve poetry, vocalization and bodily movement, whereas in the area of the so-called Eastern Mediterranean there is more dominance of solo songs and court music,” Ginny says. She also told me that she is working on a conference on music in the Arabian Peninsula with Professor Zev Feldman that will be held next march here in Abu Dhabi, which has allowed her to meet with younger scholars of the region that sparked her interest into more local genres, such as wedding singers in Saudi Arabia.
We spoke about her time and position at NYUAD, and I asked her where her interest for librarianship came from:
“I started working in libraries when I was an undergraduate student. I wasn’t really interested in the professoriate, and libraries have always captured my imagination and provided a good path for me,” she said. She has worked in libraries “for more years than I would like to admit”, and although she did not tell me herself, she has played a leading role in music librarianship ever since her time as an acting director of Loeb Music, where she completely transformed audio preservation systems at Harvard.
Regarding her role at NYUAD, she identifies two main goals since her arrival. In the first place, she has “tried to understand where NYUAD was taking their academic programs and build a library that would serve that.” This is something that was finally achieved after NYUAD’s class of 2014’s graduation.
Her second goal, she explained to me, was “providing the types of programs that students need so that they understand there are sophisticated research tools that we provide for you … so that the quality of student research remains pretty high.” While she does not plan to teach again any time soon, as she did at other institutions, she expressed her willingness to meet with students for individual concerns and to stay at the library for, at least, a few more years.
Before leaving, I asked her for a music recommendation. She told me, pensively, what she has been liking recently: “I have been listening to Mohammad Abdul, who is a sort of [an], almost classic, Saudi singer, and I have really enjoyed his performances. I like Italian canzona — Canzona Napoletana, some of the old Sorrento songs. We recently vacationed in Italy, so I just became interested in that music. And I like a lot of American music,” she concluded, again with a subtle smile in her face.
Mario Zapata is deputy features editor. Email him at 
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