Nfld. & Labrador

From bands to books: meet MUN's heavy metal prof

Memorial University's latest Canada research chair is bringing some heavy metal thunder — and research — to campus.

MUN one of few places 'where folklore and ethnomusicology work together so closely'

Harris Berger is Memorial University's Canada research chair in ethnomusicology and director of the university's Research Centre for Music, Media and Place. (Heather Barrett/CBC)

Memorial University's latest Canada research chair is bringing some heavy metal thunder — and research — to campus.

Harris Berger is MUN's research chair in ethnomusicology and the director of the Research Centre for Music, Media and Place, but he didn't start out aiming for academia.

"When I was in high school and college, I wanted to be a rock musician. I played in bands, I wrote songs, the whole nine yards," he said.

"I also knew I wanted to study the liberal arts, I liked books and reading and thinking, and it was hard in the 1980s to find a place where you could study rock music from an academic perspective."

'It really was very controversial'

Berger said he later discovered the field of ethnomusicology, a discipline in which most researchers carried out ethnographic field work, interviewing and spending time with people in their own environments.

"I loved that work. I read all kinds of ethnographies that were exciting about music around the world and I wanted to bring that to a North American popular music context," he said.

"There's no controversy over studying popular music today, but back in the early '90s, it really was very controversial."

Berger has studied commercial hard rock and jazz, but said most of his attention has been on heavy metal because of the willing fans of the music.

"The people who wanted to talk the most, the people who were the most excited and articulate and would give me endless hours of time were the metalheads," he said.

"They loved their music, they wanted to think about the music, they loved talking about the music, and they were open for anything." 

Heavy metal everywhere

From talking with fans of the music, Berger said he found that in the 1990s, metal was most popular in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. in areas that had seen industrial economies fall into decline.

"I wanted to figure out what role this music played in people's lives … if you're looking at a large population, when you see the economic foundation of your city and town and region just stripped away, that's going to have a big impact," he said.

"Metal is very frequently the music of this kind of disenfranchised working class." 

I wanted to figure out what role this music played in people's lives.- Harris Berger

However, Berger said metal has a broader audience than ever in 2016.

"In 2016, you can find heavy metal everywhere around the world … it's just everywhere, it's a planetary music."

'Such a musical city'

Despite the worldwide reach of metal, Berger said he was drawn to Memorial by the talented faculty and the opportunity to work with both music and folklore.

"Memorial is one of the very few places in North America where folklore and ethnomusicology work together so closely, and that was a huge, huge part of the attraction," he said.

Berger will also be working with $1.4 million in grant money going toward the research centre for the study of music, media and place. He said there are lots of projects on the go at the research centre and invites people from the community to attend the centre's events.

The capital city's musical community was also part of the appeal of coming to Memorial, he said.

"One of the things I love about St. John's is that there's so much attention to music. This is such a musical city."

With files from Weekend AM

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