SMR at SEM 2018

Last month, several SMR members attended the Annual Meeting of the Society for Ethnomusicology, held in Albuquerque, NM. Four of these—Conner Singh VanderBeek, Richard Smith, Casper Chan, and James McNally—presented papers (see abstracts below), three of these on a single panel that they organized, entitled New Methodologies in the Age of Social Media: Identities, Celebrity, and Subculture. Congratulations, all!

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My Intimately Unknown Friend: DJ Khaled and the Indistinction Between Online and Real Selves (Conner Singh VanderBeek)

Centering on the publicly-aired birth of record mogul DJ Khaled’s son, Asahd Tuck Khaled, in 2016, this paper considers what, in the age of social media, constitutes the ethnographic field. Millions watched as Khaled soundtracked his wife’s labor on his Snapchat account, cycling between Rastafarian reggae and his own music, and at one point playing a Muslim call to prayer. It is in conversation with this remarkably intimate moment that I propose a series of questions for ethnomusicologists to consider: how has social media, in both its integrations in our daily lives and in how we present ourselves, rewritten the landscapes of field research? Beyond YouTube – a treasure trove of archival material for scholars and people alike – are the frontiers of Instagram and Snapchat: spaces in which we can get to know someone without ever having to meet them. As ethnographers, what is our relationship to these private and intimate, yet distant, spaces that we can view remotely? Drawing on Ellis Cashmore’s work on celebrity (2006) and on ‘i’ek’s writings on capitalism as the production of desire (2001), this paper posits that social media produces new potentials for fieldwork. Through an examination of the modes of self-presentation and curation that are inherent to social media, I will analyze the interstitial space occupied by social media and music between augmented reality technology and a Baudrillardian sense of hyperreality. The result is the potential for a new reality, full of music and theatricality and celebrity, capable of permeating the mundane.


“Now Sing It with “Chutzpah”: Glocalized Tel Avivi Music, YouTube, and State-Sponsored Queer Identity (Richard Smith)

Dubbed “The Gay Capital of the Middle East,” Tel Aviv, Israel is home physically and virtually to a thriving queer music scene functioning both as a local representation of queerness and state-sponsored touristic advertising. The internet allows music depicting notions of a global queer to be imbued with local flavor and vice-versa, via YouTube-mediation, rendering distinction between the two ineffective. Yet, by making ethnographic room for the very medium by which “glocalization” occurs, I argue that we are afforded unique insight into the ethnomusicological issues of music and reception, fandom, and identity expression in the digital age. I center on queerness in this paper as it is a unique process of self-reflection and critique that innately rejects, but is in part birthed by hegemony (Foucault, 1975). The decolonization of queer enquiry on the part of American scholarship (Knopp 2003; Oswin 2006; Puar 2002, 2003) has routinely situated “global” queer subjectivities as diffusions of American sensibility merely purporting misguided conceptions of cultural hegemonies and flow. Although glocalization depends almost entirely on the circulation of offline expressions via the internet, current analytical models do not allow for disparities between online and offline performances, further complicating how they function. My paper treats YouTube neither as an ending point of research, nor one that is purely archival, documenting the entirety of its users’ thoughts. Rather, in identifying YouTube’s functional role in the case of Tel Avivi queer music, I reveal one evolution of how individual, collective, and national communities actively construct queer, musical identities.


Internet Memes but Explained by Ethnomusicology?: Decoding Music-Making in the YouTube Meme Subculture (Casper Chan)

The current Internet meme subculture (2015 onwards), beneath its surface value of absurdist humor and witty commentary on recent events, entails much more. An ethnomusicological approach to interpreting musical memes brings to light the collective innovations in modes of music-making and appreciation, musical aesthetics, and even “musical instruments,” all of which are made possible by Internet culture and technology. This paper examines the YouTube ‘But’ memes that took shape in 2016 – a large group of humorous videos that involve song covers and video editing, and investigates how music-videos are painstakingly reworked by following arbitrary rules, how songs are reduced to rhythmic/melodic semblances and performed with a coffee stirrer on a table edge, how musical exchanges between “producer” and “consumer” warrant at once technical competence and incompetence, and how memetic “canons” are collectively constructed and reinforced. Memes are symbols, ideas, or practices that primarily carry humor, sarcasm, and reference to daily life. They are apt to be transmitted, re-used, appropriated, combined, and meta-commented, and they have surfaced as a significant mode of entertainment and cultural exchange on the Internet over the past decade. While music has played important, even indispensable roles in memes, the YouTube ‘But’ memes re-define it entirely. Such remixes on the Smash Mouth song “All Star” as “All Star but Every Word Is in Alphabetical Order” and “All Star but It’s Played on Two Calculators’ exemplify not only Internet creativity/absurdity, but the under-theorized mechanism in which musical values and practices are negotiated collectively in meme-subcultural spheres.


Sampling the City: Field Recording as Resistant Creative Practice in São Paulo, Brazil

James McNally, University of Michigan

This paper investigates the ways in which individuals employ field recording as a means of interrogating and confronting urban experience, space, and sound. In order to address this phenomenon, I examine the work of the São Paulo-based sound artist Renata Roman. Roman uses field recording as a primary creative technique and is the founder of the collaborative online project São Paulo SoundMap, which solicits field recordings of the city’s different neighborhoods from individuals across the city. Incorporating data from participant-observation and interviews with Roman, the paper argues for understanding techniques such as field recording and sound mapping as critical means for individuals to respond to marginal urban experiences and reconfigure urban space and sound. As a case study, I examine Roman’s 2015 electronic music work “Sampa,” which incorporates collaborative field recordings made with recent immigrants to São Paulo from Bolivia and Haiti in order to comment on entrenched xenophobia and racism in the Brazilian public sphere. I theorize field recording as a form of everyday resistance (de Certeau 1984:97-98) with the potential to challenge the hegemony of the visual, highlight peripheral urban experiences, and provoke listeners to re-evaluate the way they conceptualize urban space and sound. I conclude with a discussion of the ramifications of this phenomenon in the personal sphere, focusing on how field recording enables individuals to mediate urban experience on their own terms and take control of an element of cities that many view as oppressive.

SMR Members at the SEM Annual Meeting

Recently, several ethnomusicologists from U-M traveled to Denver, CO for the Annual Meeting of the Society for Ethnomusicology (Oct 26–29). Two SMR members, James McNally and Ho Chak Law, presented papers at this conference. James’s paper explores vissungo songs from the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, and Ho Chak’s paper examines a musical arrangement by Tanya Tagaq, a Canadian Inuit throat singer. Please see below for their abstracts.


“You Don’t Have to Throw Away Tradition to Pursue Invention”: Tribute, Transformation, and Afro-Brazilian Historical Consciousness (James McNally) 

Jimmy presentation
James giving his presentation (credit: Megan Hill)

This paper investigates contemporary experimental reinterpretations of traditional vissungo songs from the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. Developed over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth century by slaves working in the region’s diamond mines, vissungos are traditionally sung in a call-and-response fashion with percussion accompaniment and lyrics derived from Portuguese, Umbundu, and Yoruba. Today, they are performed in congado festivals organized by the Catholic Church. In order to examine their present-day legacy, I discuss the album Anganga (2015), by vocalist Juçara Marçal and instrumentalist Cadu Tenório. Anganga situates reinterpretations of vissungos within an experimental instrumental arrangement incorporating elements of drone, electronica, and noise. Drawing from interviews with the two musicians, my analysis focuses on the ways in which the album acts as a site for reinventing traditional Brazilian song forms and reimagining the legacy of historic Afro-Brazilian musical practices. I argue that the musicians’ approach functions as “symbolic contestation,” in which individual actors transform established musical forms that occupy a symbolically dominant position within Brazilian culture (Bourdieu 1991:72). The paper further addresses how Marçal, a lifelong participant in Afro-Brazilian musical traditions such as congados, conceives of the album as a means of respecting the history of vissungo practice and capturing the experience of attending congado festivals, while at the same time reimagining the tradition within a novel musical-structural form with new creative possibilities. I situate this analysis within a consideration of how other experimental musicians in Brazil are transforming Brazilian genres and song traditions on a larger scale.

Conner and James with several veteran ethnomusicologists (credit: Richard Smith)

Tanya Tagaq’s Performative Counterpoint Against Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (Ho Chak Law)

In 2012, the Toronto International Film Festival commissioned Tanya Tagaq, a Canadian Inuit throat singer, to prepare and perform a new musical arrangement of Nanook of the North, a 1922 silent film oriented to a Northern Quebec Inuit family directed by American documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty, for the opening night of First Nations Cinema, an exhibition program curating a selection of “movies with an aboriginal perspective [but] share an unexpectedly commonality.” The premiere of this commission was a notable success. It led to a still-ongoing tour screening-cum-performance in North America and some European cities. It also evolved into Animism, a 2014 recording album that won Tagaq the Juno Award for Indigenous Music Album of the Year. Noting that Tagaq has expanded the original commission into a widely recognized cultural project that is concerned with issues of race and colonialism, this paper investigates how she actively engages with both the cinematic medium and Nanook of the North through creating temporal disjunction, manipulating vocal timbre and stage demeanor, and providing conceptual juxtaposition of sound and image in her musical arrangement, thereby conveying certain rhetorical ideas in a fashion in reminiscence of the politically-charged Soviet montage movement championed by Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov. Based on the ethnographic data collected from my participant observation of one of Tagaq’s recent renderings in Ann Arbor in February 2016, I argue that Tagaq endeavors to interrupt both the male gaze and the imperial gaze through de-naturalizing the film narrative with her performative counterpoint.

Conference participants enjoy a performance by the ensemble Kutandara (University of Colorado at Boulder) at the Mercury Café in Denver (credit: James McNally)


UMich at SEM

University of Michigan students and alumni spent a fruitful four days at the Society for Ethnomusicology annual conference this past week in Washington, D.C. In addition to presenting their research, the department also co-hosted a reception and enjoyed a free tour of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Four students and recent alumni gave papers: Ryan Bodiford (Chilean nueva canción), Megan Hill (soundscape in Tokyo’s Asakusa neighborhood), Ho-Chak Law (ethnomusicological approaches to film studies), and James McNally (independent experimental music in São Paulo, Brazil).

-James McNally

James McNally is a PhD Candidate in Ethnomusicology at the University of Michigan. His research discusses musical innovation and the dynamics of cultural production in the independent experimental music scene in São Paulo, Brazil.