Editor’s Note: Sound Studies is often accused of being a presentist enterprise, too fascinated with digital technologies and altogether too wed to the history of sound recording. Sounding Out!‘s last forum of 2013, “Sound in the Nineteenth Century,” addresses this critique by showcasing the cutting edge work of three scholars whose diverse, interdisciplinary research is located soundly in the era just before the advent of sound recording: Mary Caton Lingold (Duke), Caitlin Marshall (Berkeley), and Daniel Caviacchi (Rhode Island School of Design). In examining nineteenth century America’s musical practices, listening habits, and auditory desires through SO!‘s digital platform, Lingold, Marshall, and Caviacchi perfom the rare task of showcasing how history’s sonics had a striking resonance long past their contemporary vibrations while performing the power of the digital medium as a tool through which to, as Early Modern scholar Bruce R. Smith dubs it, “unair” past auditory phenomena –all the while sharing unique methodologies that neither rely on recording nor bemoan their lack. Today, the series kicks off with Mary Caton Lingold‘s exploration of the materialities of Solomon Northrup’s fiddling as represented through sheet music embedded in his 1853 narrative, amplifying a sound that was key to both his freedom and his enslavement.–Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman, Editor-in-Chief
Steve McQueen’s recent film Twelve Years a Slave has renewed interest in the original 1853 narrative, which has long been a valued resource for historians of nineteenth-century slavery, literature, and music. Because Solomon Northup was a highly-skilled fiddler and a keen observer of plantation culture, his autobiography is one of the most substantive accounts of musical life during slavery and, to my knowledge, the only slave narrative that includes sheet music in its text. As such, it preserves in audible form a precious record of Northup’s musical artistry and facilitates a sound-based study of nineteenth-century black fiddling, a tradition that was flourishing during Northup’s lifetime.
Uncovering the sounds of vernacular music of the pre-recorded era can be incredibly challenging. For this reason, Northup’s descriptions, when coupled with musical notation, make it possible for us to hear something historically significant. Although “slave music” was all the rage in the 1850s due to the widespread popularity of blackface minstrelsy, print-based compositions by enslaved (or free) musicians are difficult to come by and even more challenging to verify. The tune presented in Northup’s memoir has its own complex relationship to the minstrelsy genre, but it remains a unique sample of African-American music that warrants close-listening.
I use performance as a research method for exploring historical vernacular music, offering here my interpretation of “Roaring River: A Refrain of the Red River Plantation.” As I discuss in an essay titled “Listening to the Past,” the process of performance illuminates the subtleties of musical expression. (Do I play it like this or like that? At what tempo?) The aim of such exercises is not historical accuracy, but rather, an attunement to the sonic possibilities of a given piece. These possibilities cannot tell me how Northup would have played the song or what it meant to him, but they allow me to consider the kinds of choices that he would have had to make as a performer, thus illustrating the intellectual and sensorial richness of his music-making. Rather than simply presenting and describing the sheet music, I aim to make it possible for people to hear what would otherwise sit silently on the page.
In the first recording I play Northup’s melody solo to give you a sense of the tune.
In the second, I am joined by guitar.
The use of guitar accompaniment would have been highly unlikely during the period, but it helps to support my amateur playing by providing a livelier, fuller feeling. Northup connected with banjoists, percussionists and dancers as an enslaved and free musician and it’s interesting to imagine how a single song like this would have been transformed according to the talents, desires, and constraints of the performers assembled. It is unclear from the narrative whether or not the tune is an original composition or something Northup learned while living along the Red River, where he was enslaved in Louisiana. One also wonders how many nineteenth-century readers would have plucked the melody at a keyboard or bowed it on a family fiddle. What might their motivations have been?
Though Northup does not discuss the fiddle tune in the text, he does describe the lyrics below it, remarking that they were accompanied by a percussion technique called “patting” among his fellow slaves. He describes this widely documented practice as follows: “The patting is performed by striking the hands on the knees, then striking the hands together, then striking the right shoulder with one hand, the left with the other—all the while keeping time with the feet, and singing” (219). According to Northup, the lyrics that accompanied patting were often nonsensical because they were made to conform to the tonal and rhythmic pattern being patted. He offers “Harper’s Creek” as suitable for the practice but it’s worth noting that the lyrics voice a presumably white man’s desires to own a piece of land and a slave. Though presented below the sheet music at the end of the book, the lyrics are ill-fitting for the fiddle tune provided, which seems more likely to have been played without vocal accompaniment. In light of Northup’s descriptions, the sheet music creates an interesting blend of various performance modes, from popular folksy vocal diddy (with possible origins in minstrelsy), to patting, and fiddling. Here you can see a wonderful example of patting accompanying a nineteenth-century fiddle tune as performed by the Carolina Chocolate Drops and guest Danny Barber (Intricate patting begins at 1:22).
In addition to serving as auditory artifact, the presence of sheet music in the narrative relates to the way Northup’s musicality was commodified within the aesthetic economy of slavery during and after his captivity. After regaining freedom, his talents are presented for sale in the book presumably to appeal to the sort of audiences who would also have coveted the sheet music of minstrelsy, which caricatured and lampooned black performances. Popular appetites for representations of plantation culture left an imprint on Northup’s autobiography as well as other abolitionist publications, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Music-making was both labor and leisure for Solomon Northup and it profoundly influenced his experiences as a slave. His narrative also illuminates the far-reaching impact that he and other black musicians had on their communities as well as nineteenth century music.
Alas! had it not been for my beloved violin, I scarcely can conceive how I could have endured the long years of bondage. It introduced me to great houses —relieved me of many days’ labor in the field—supplied me with conveniences for my cabin—with pipes and tobacco, and extra pairs of shoes, and oftentimes led me away from the presence of a hard master, to witness scenes of jollity and mirth. It was my companion—the friend of my bosom triumphing loudly when I was joyful, and uttering its soft, melodious consolations when I was sad. (217)
Solomon Northup’s biography is highly atypical of slave narratives because he is a free man who is sold into slavery. Some have criticized the popularization of his circumstances, arguing that because he conforms to modes of respectability as a literate, propertied black man, he serves as an ideal hero for white audiences while inadequately representing the experience of slavery. Though many aspects of Northup’s biography are unusual, his status as a highly sought-after musician is emblematic of a legion of black fiddlers who dominated music scenes North and South, from ballrooms to barns, beginning as early as the late seventeenth-century, as Dena Epstein explains in her indispensable study, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Music to the Civil War (1977).
Prior to enslavement, fiddling, “the passion of [his] youth,” provides Northup with supplemental income that helps to sustain his family during periods of insufficient employment in agriculture and carpentry. Music was an ideal side-career for someone in such circumstances, though, as Northup’s story shows, it did not protect him from the dangers of being black in the United States. He is captured and enslaved while touring as a circus musician. Ferrying South toward the Louisiana plantations that would become his deplorable home, Northup’s freedoms are violently stripped away. But his talent as a first-rate fiddler travels with him, becoming a defining element of his experience of slavery.
Fiddles were extraordinarily popular instruments during the era. Lightweight, portable, and increasing in mass production during the nineteenth-century, a single fiddle could service a large dance if need be. As such, slaves were encouraged (or forced) to take up the instrument and musical ability was considered a highly prized skill. Fiddling granted (primarily male) slaves an unusual degree of mobility as well as opportunities for economic advancement. The fact that numerous runaway slave ads note that the sought-after individuals were fiddlers or had in their possession a violin suggests that the increased mobility and access to income may have facilitated escape for some. For more information about these trends and their eighteenth-century origins, I highly recommend Richard Cullen Rath’s How Early America Sounded (2003), an excellent cultural history of sound.
Just before being sold at market to his first master, Northup encounters an enslaved young man in possession of a fiddle and sizes him up by asking if he could play the “Virginia Reel,” a popular dance. The young man cannot and so Northup takes the instrument from him, boldly showing off his more substantial repertoire and ability, much to the delight of those around him. Though about to be sold into an unknown and terrifying fate, this seemingly mundane interaction underscores how important musicianship is to Northup’s identity and also how significant it was to the societies through which he was forced to move. Whether in New York State, a New Orleans slave market, or a backwoods swamp plantation, fiddling was a thoroughly popular form of entertainment, widely enjoyed by Americans, slave and free, rich and poor, native and immigrant.
Northup expresses pride in the fame he earns in the Red River region, noting that he was known widely as the “Ole Bull of Bayou Boeuf.” Ole Bull was a famous Norwegian violinist, who was one of the first musicians to professionally tour the United States in the 1850s; he became a widely-known celebrity. Because of Northrup’s sought-after talents, his masters hired him out extensively to play at the fashionable balls of nearby plantations as well as the Christmas dances held yearly for slaves. At one ball, he was tipped seventeen dollars, an extraordinary amount that he used to furnish his cabin with bare necessities. In contrast to these more favorable gigs, Northup was also forced to perform during his savage Master Epps’ alcoholic binges. These events were held for hours on end in the middle of the night as Northup’s fellow slaves were commanded to dance. The violent, dreaded affairs interrupted precious sleep and were utterly humiliating for the participants. Depicted memorably in both the memoir and the recent film, the horrifying scenario shows the way slavery degrades Northup’s musicianship and his peers’ dancing, turning these arts into yet one more thing that the master possesses. For Master Epps, Northup is a mere musical device, a kind of proto-phonograph, full of tunes that can be made to play on command. Northup’s “passion” and economic livelihood are thus converted into a mechanized musical labor commodity under slavery.
Through Northup, we can see how before the eras of sound reproduction and broadcast, the circulation of music across North America was greatly facilitated by the forced migration of enslaved people. At the time of Northup’s capture, large numbers of mid-Atlantic slaves were being sold South to the booming plantations along the frontier of Louisiana and Texas. Northup brought a unique repertoire on his journey and he also learned new music that he transported back to the New York publishers of his autobiography. Afro-diasporic musicians began revolutionizing Western music centuries before Northup was born, and as we can see, continued to do so in profoundly significant ways in the Antebellum era both in spite of and due to the harsh conditions of their enslavement.
I’d like to thank the students in my course “Sounds of the South” for their lively discussion and excellent essays regarding music in Solomon Northup’s Narrative. I’m also deeply grateful to my musical collaborator, Eric Olsten.
Featured Image by Flickr User kubotake
Mary Caton Lingold is a doctoral candidate in English at Duke University researching early Afro-Atlantic literature, music, and sound. She leads a collaborative experiment called the Sonic Dictionary at Duke’s Audiovisualities Lab and co-directs Soundbox, a project dedicated to enhancing the practice of using sound in digital scholarship.
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“Como Now?: Marketing ‘Authentic’ Black Music,” –J. Stoever-Ackerman
- Hearing the Tenor of the Vendler/Dove Conversation: Race, Listening, and the “Noise” of Texts –Christina Sharpe
How Svengali Lost His Jewish Accent--Gayle Wald
Welcome back to our summer series on “Sound and Sport.” In today’s post, Kariann Goldschmitt discusses the gamechanging controversy over Brazilian musician Tom Ze’s commercial for Coca-Cola’s FIFA 2014. For an instant replay of July’s post click Josh Ottum‘s “Sounding Boards and Sonic Styles: The Music of the Skatepark” or of June’s post, click Tara Betts‘s “Pretty, Fast, and Loud: The Audible Ali.” For May’s post, click Melissa Helquist‘s “Goalball: Sport, Silence, and Spectatorship.” This Thursday’s grand finale will continue our discussion of Brazil, with a podcast by Andrea Medrado entitled “The Sounds of Rio’s Favelas: Echoes of Social Inequality in an Olympic City” AND keep you on the edge of your seat with a bonus Olympic doubleheader post excerpted from David Hendy‘s recent Noise broadcasts for BBC Radio 4 on the sounds of Olympic crowds. And now. . .the sounds of FIFA’s sponsors. –J. Stoever-Ackerman, Editor-in-Chief
Tensions in Brazil have been running high as the the country ramps up preparations for next year’s FIFA World Cup. Brazil’s economy is one of the world’s strongest, but its middle class has suffered as economic growth has stagnated amid rapidly rising costs of living. Yet, FIFA demands that Brazil’s government spend large amounts of money to renovate stadiums and further bolster tourism-based services at the expense of everything else. This last June, news of another hike in transit fees was the final straw for many citizens and they took to the streets to protest corruption and the routing of public funds to tournament preparations while basic services suffered. Protesters argue that the country is burnishing its international brand on the backs of its citizens. It is thus no surprise that much of the Brazilian public is fed up with FIFA and its multinational partners. As a consequence, musicians who participate in World Cup-related ad campaigns risk damaging their relationship with the public.
In Spring 2013, the Facebook page of one of Brazil’s most eccentric musical iconoclasts, Tom Zé, was bombarded by negative comments. Unforgivably to some of his most ardent fans, Zé had lent his vocal talents to a Coca-Cola commercial that sought to connect Brazil’s oft-mythologized cultural diversity to the universals of the World Cup and Coca-Cola’s alleged populism. Zé inflected his delivery of the ad copy with an especially musical speaking cadence and rhythm. It was a peculiar take that drew on his signature vocal eclecticism.
The ad opens with Zé stating,
Muita gente se pergunta como vai ser a copa
A coca-cola vai falar como ela não vai ser
[Many people are asking themselves what this cup will be like
Coca-Cola is going to tell you what it won’t be like]
as the shot features a group of people smoothing out a giant kite with the Brazilian flag. There is a strong syncopated rhythm to Zé’s voice that matches the carnival samba drums (especially the caixa) that accompany the ad throughout. As it continues, the imagery matches what Zé describes, in either stills or brief shots, often recalling the frenzy surrounding world cups of the past. In a rapid cadence, he says:
não vai ser só a copa de vuvuzela, do vidente, da celebridade
da menina bonita, do jogadores com cabelo da moda…”
[it won’t be the Cup of the vuvuzela, the psychic, nor of celebrity
of beautiful women, nor of players with fashionable hair]
The synchronization of Zé’s rapidly rhythmic delivery over archetypal images of Brazil’s tournament excitement is crucial to the ad’s message. This passage mentions two icons of the 2010 tournament, the vuvuzela and the psychic (vidente) octopus, with accompanying images. In under four seconds, the camera jumps from a man holding a celebrity magazine (celebridade), a woman cheering (menina bonita), some player figurines (jogadores) and a boy with an elaborate buzz cut. By aligning himself with an official sponsor of the upcoming tournament through ad copy that valorizes Brazil’s present, Zé also lent the sound of his voice to the sports-industrial complex, thereby opening himself up to accusations that he was a “sell-out” (vendido).
Zé is famous for taking part in the tropicália of the late 1960s – a cultural movement that was most effective through popular music. Tropicália musicians bucked Brazilian musical conventions by blending imported rock ‘n’ roll with national music protest songs during a period when musical taste often indicated one’s support or disapproval of the military dictatorship. While most involved in tropicália eventually became Brazilian musical mega-stars (Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, Os Mutantes, and Mara Bethânia), Zé drifted to obscurity by rejecting many of the machinations of the record industry. He only found an international audience when David Byrne’s Luaka Bop Records released some of his music in the 1990s, the most successful of which was Fabrication Defect [Com Defeito de Fabricação] (1998). Due to his peculiar status, Zé disrupted fan expectations and threatened his brand when he embraced a corporate power so intricately connected to an increasingly unpopular athletic tournament.
The controversy surrounding the Coca-Cola ad took a turn towards farce when, on April 22nd, 2013, Zé released a free 5-song EP on his website titled Tribunal do Feicebuque – a clear play on the way that Brazilians tend to pronounce “Facebook.” Accompanying the songs was a parody of tribunal orders listing the performing and collaboration credits along with lyrics to the songs. Zé’s actions exposed how the incident was a different kind of sonically-driven sports spectacle – this time it was played out over social media, in Brazil’s most influential newspaper, in Tribunal references and fights with fans during his shows at Rio’s famed Circo Voador, and in the ensuing blog reviews of his shows.
The chaotic structure of the EP’s title track, while typical of Zé catalog, disrupts his fans’ claims of “selling out.” He employs a variety of sonically disjunct approaches, opening with the startup sound for Microsoft’s Vista OS before jumping into a psychedelic samba-rock tune with a staccato guitar and a brass section. Zé recorded his vocals over multiple tracks, at times simultaneously sung/spoken at a low pitch and sung at a high pitch. The first half is familiar – the voices trade between Zé and a female companion in something sounding like a duet over a samba-rock beat. The lyrics directly reference infamous moments when Brazilian audiences have turned on their musical icons thought to be too involved in international business influences.
Vendido, vendido, vendido!
A preço de banana
Já não olha mais pro samba
Tá estudando propaganda
[Sell-out, sell-out, sell-out!
The price of a banana
He no longer looks to samba
He’s studying advertising]
At the mid-point, rock gives way to a serious march and more voices enter (including famed São Paulo hip-hop artist Emicida) making the song’s structure more like a trial, complete with competing arguments, before returning to samba-rock under Emicida’s rapping. The song is creative and fun, but it is far from Brazil’s top-40 fare which often favors smoother genre blends and urban pop hits.
Given all of the attention paid to musicians’ efforts to supplement their meager income from digital sales and streaming royalties by forging partnerships with a variety of multinational corporations, it is a little surprising that Tom Zé’s participation in a Coca-Cola commercial would be this controversial. It is difficult to find a musician in Brazil that hasn’t benefitted from some kind of corporate sponsorship. Most artists accept funding from a granting arm of a national corporation (oil company Petrobras, major bank Itaú), license music to national ad campaigns, or embark on a more direct co-branding effort from the likes of mobile phone providers and skin care companies.
One of the hallmarks of the recent changes that have affected the music industry is that musicians rarely refuse opportunities for their music to be used as the soundtrack for mainstream audio/visual entertainment and advertisements. The practice is so common that one of the best-regarded music industry survival books explains possible changes to a musician’s brand when they participate in the advertising of other products. Instead of “don’t license your music,” musicians should license their music in a way that will benefit their brand. It is rare for a song’s success among World Cup spectators to harm musicians; anthems that reflect well on the host nation(s) and express the energy of cheering crowds are a central feature of the tournament. Shakira’s “Waka Waka” actually bolstered her credibility among music fans across the African continent because it sampled Golden Sounds’ hit “Zamina Mina,” a popular song among hip-hop artists in Camaroon and Senegal. In Zé’s case, he misjudged how the tournament and its corporate sponsors were being read by the Brazilian public just weeks before tensions exploded in protest. Indeed, as compared to other Brazilian artists who have recorded potential 2014 World Cup anthems, the reaction to Zé is unique.
As others have noted, television advertising played an important role in the June protest soundtrack. Protesters appropriated the song from a Fiat commercial (released just weeks after Zé’s Facebook episode) that explicitly connects cheering soccer crowds in the street to a new car.
The meaning of “torcer,” a common expression for “cheer” in both advertisements’ copy, is transformed back to its original meaning to wrench or twist thereby exposing the conflicts that have been exacerbated by Brazil’s preparations for the tournament and the sports industrial complex.
These crowds twisted an ad’s soundtrack to challenge the role of multinational agencies and corporations in Brazil’s skewed socio-economic priorities. Indeed, as Leo Cardoso wrote in Sounding Out! a year ago, some of these priorities include regulating sound in Brazil’s largest cities.
For both of these cases involving sonic responses to advertisements that explicitly seek to capitalize on excitement for the soccer tournament, their original intended meaning was twisted and wrenched, forcing musicians to re-evaluate their publics. In the current political climate, Zé found that musical sounds can be aligned with the FIFA World Cup, so long as they are about celebrating sport rather than its multinational sponsors.
Featured Image: Tom Zé in 2008 performing in front of a Petrobras sign, photo used by CC license, Neto Silveira
Kariann Goldschmitt is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at New College of Florida and Ringling College of Art and Design. She holds a Ph.D. in Musicology from UCLA (2009) and was the 2009-2011 Mellon Fellow of Non-Western Music at Colby College in Maine. Her scholarly work focuses on Brazilian music, modes of listening, and sonic branding in the global cultural industries. She has published in The Journal of Popular Music Studies, American Music, Yearbook for Traditional Music, and Luso-Brazilian Review and contributes to the South American cultural magazine, Sounds and Colours.
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“Sound-politics in São Paulo, Brazil”–Leonardo Cardoso
Quebec’s #casseroles: on participation, percussion and protest–Jonathan Sterne
Since the drug war began, the lives of approximately 95,000 people have been claimed, with an estimated total of 26,000 disappearances (“Continued Humanitarian Crisis at the Border” June 2013 Report). At the University of Texas, Pan American – an institution located 25 miles north of Reynosa, Mexico (a Mexican city that has been hard hit by drug violence in recent years) – I teach students who have been dramatically impacted by drug war violence. Many have close relatives affected or hear horrific stories of those who have been kidnapped by the cartels; many fear traveling to Mexico to visit loved ones as a result and, in some cases, they report having relatives involved in the drug cartel business. Dinorah Guerra, psychotherapist and head of the Red Cross in Reynosa, describes the devastating psychological and physical toll: “There is a huge risk for people’s self esteem. They cannot speak about what they have seen or what they have heard. [They] lose [themselves] and lose [their] identity” (qtd. in Pehhaul 2010).
I name the space of the drug war and its resulting terror in the U.S.-Mexico border the “soundscape of narco silence.” This soundscape includes death and intimidation, from the brutal killings of news reporters by cartel members to the decapitation of citizen-activists who use online media to alert communities of narco checkpoints. It also consists of those powerful acts that call attention to silence as a tactic of terror. The Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity, for instance, brought together tens of thousands of people in Mexico to speak out against drug violence through silent marches. Cultural productions, such as narcocorridos, or contemporary drug ballads that document the cross-border drug economy, also become part of the soundscape. The narcocorridos function as a powerful critical response to silence and fear because they enable those in Mexican society, as Jorge Castañeda, author of El Narco: La Guerra Falllida, explains, “to come to terms with the world around them, and drug violence is a big part of that world. The songs are born out of a traditional Mexican cynicism: This is our reality, we’ve gotten used to it” (Qtd. in Josh Kun 2010).
In this blog post, I focus on the role of U.S. Latina/o theater produced in the South Texas border region as it responds to the soundscape of narco silence. Building on David W. Samuels, Louis Meintjes, Ana Maria Ochoa, and Thomas Porcello’s definition of “soundscapes” in “Soundscapes: Towards a Sounded Anthropology” as “the material spaces of performance and ceremony that are used or constructed for the purpose of propagating sound” (330), I suggest that soundscapes of silence in theater function as material spaces of performance that focus the public’s attention on silence – with the intent of intervening in acts that propagate silence and fear. Soundscapes of narco silence are characterized not only by violence and terror, but by cultural productions that function as forms of critical resistance – those works that focus the publics’ attention on the economy of silence and fear that fuels the drug war, and in the process, enable communities to cope with narco violence.
To closely listen to the soundscape of narco silence, I engage with the play script and production of Tanya Saracho’s play El Nogalar at South Texas College Theatre (STC) under the direction of Joel Jason Rodriguez in McAllen, Texas in June 2013. The play was first produced at the Goodman Theater in Chicago in April 2011, with a West Coast premiere at the Fountain Theater in Los Angeles in January 2012. I critically analyze the STC Theatre production’s incorporation of a multi-genre soundtrack that included narcocorridos, rancheras, and nortec (norteño + techno). I argue that this soundtrack focused audiences’ attention not only on the devastating effects of silence, but also the function of silence as a form of capital for those most excluded in society. I also offer a brief critical listening of the script’s rendering of silence through character dialogue and stage directions.
El Nogalar tells the story of an upper-class Mexican family comprised of three generations of women (Maité, Valeria, and Anita) whose land and home in the fictionalized estate of Los Nogales in Nuevo Leon, Mexico, and its adjacent nogalar (pecan orchard), are under threat by the maña (drug cartels) moving into the region. The play focuses on the women’s responses to the drug war economy as a result of their different relationships to home (both their estate and the space of Mexico). It also centers the experiences of Dunia, their maid, and López, a former field worker who now works for the maña.
Cecilia Ballí, in her article “Calderón’s War: The Gruesome Legacy of Mexico’s Antidrug Campaign,” explains the particular circumstances of marginalized men in this society: “The worst casualties of this ‘civil war’ were the estimated 7 million young men to whom society had closed all doors, leaving them the options of joining a drug gang or of enlisting in the military, both of which assured imprisonment of death” (January 2012, 48). With the characters López and Dunia, the play asks audiences then to listen to the impact of the drug war on the most vulnerable populations in Mexico and the US-Mexico border region.
The play script conveys how “narco silence” can be used by those who either seek to preserve traditional class hierarchies (the story of the matriarch Maité) or to survive and profit in the new drug economy (the story of López). “Narco silence,” a term coined by reporter Jonathan Gibler in his book To Die in Mexico, refers to “not the mere absence of talking, but rather the practice of not saying anything. You may talk as much as you like, as long as you avoid the facts. Newspaper headlines announce the daily death toll, but the articles will not tell you anything about who the dead were, who might have killed them or why. No detailed descriptions based on witness testimony. No investigation” (2011, 23). In an early exchange between López and Dunia, López defends “narco silence” as a strategy of survival:
DUNIA: Why are you the only one they leave alone, Memo?
DUNIA: All the men your age. Killed. Why Memo? (Beat).
LÓPEZ: Because I know when to keep my mouth shut which is not something I can say for you….
DUNIA: So that’s all it takes to be best of friends with the Maña? That doesn’t seem so hard to do? (American Theatre Magazine July/August 2011, 74).
Later in the play, Dunia, heeding López’s advice, offers a powerful observation of how “narco silence” enables her community to cope with death: “We all just walk around like we’re a movie on mute. You can see people’s mouths moving but all you hear is the static (my italics)” (American Theatre Magazine July/August 2011, 73-74).
The STC Theatre production enhanced the script’s soundscape of narco silence through its sound design, with a soundtrack that included rancheras, narcocorridos, norteño and nortec. This music provided audiences with a connection to the world of Los Nogales and captured each character’s process of coping with narco violence. For example, Maité’s soundtrack consists of several rancheras, such as Lola Beltran singing “Los Laureles” and Chavela Vargas’s powerful rendition of “Que te vaya Bonito.” Beltran’s “Los Laureles” – a cancion ranchera that includes Beltran’s powerful female vocals and mariachi orchestra instrumentation – invites audiences to hear Maité’s nostalgia and desire for an idealized Mexican society and her wish to preserve traditional class hierarchies.
Vargas’s powerful rendition of “Que te vaya Bonito” captures Maite’s pain and suffering as she loses her home to the cartels. In Vargas’s version of “Que te Vaya Bonito” – a song about love and abandonment – audiences hear Vargas’s choking and sobbing voice, accompanied by a single guitar.
Vargas’s voice conveys, what Lorena Alvarado powerfully argues, is “the body’s dilemma between the hysteria of sobbing and the intelligibility of words, between resignation and retribution” (2010, 4). Vargas’s powerful singing also conveys, as Alvarado further describes, “un nudo en la garganta,” a common expression in Spanish that describes “the knot in the throat, when one cannot speak because words will not come out, but the desperate, or quiet, breath of tears” (Alvarado 2010, 5).
To sonically register the drug cartel economy and lifestyle underlying the “new” Los Nogales, the soundtrack also included narcocorridos. The first sounds we hear in the play are from the narcocorrido “El Carril Número Tres” – which includes two acoustic guitars and an electric bass – by Los Cuates de Sinaloa.
“El Carril Número Tres” – tells the story of a secret “lane number three” that allows a Mexican drug lord to freely go back and forth between the US and Mexico because he makes a deal with the CIA and DEA. With this focus on the US government’s involvement in the drug trade, the song centers how silences north of the US-Mexico border have perpetuated drug violence.
The music also included nortec, with songs by the Mexican Institute of Sound, particularly the track “Mexico,” which is a critique of the Mexican government’s complicity with the narcos.
With “Mexico,” audiences hear a fusion of norteño, electronic, and hip-hop with lyrics that use the symbols of Mexican national identity and culture to focus the public’s attention on violence and terror. With the lyrics “green like weed, white like cocaine, red your blood” (referencing the Mexican flag) and “at the sound of the roar of the cannon” (alluding to the national anthem), the song powerfully invokes the visual and sonic soundscape of violence that terrorize Mexican residents. With this charged critique of government corruption, “Mexico” momentarily interrupts the soundscape of narco silence rendered in the play script and rest of the soundtrack.
Ultimately, the production’s combination of rancheras, narcocorridos, and nortec captured the class tensions in Mexican society and emphasized the play’s critique of class structures that have enabled drug war violence to persist. With this range of music, the director explains he wanted to “maneuver between the [various] aspects of [the story]: the nostalgia, the corridos, the narcocorridos, and also this fusion of saying ‘we want something more,’ and so that was the whole aspect of it; the blending of the old, the new, and what the present is” (Interview with author July 2013).
The production also deliberately incorporated the sound of silence, particularly in the final scene. By the end, López buys the Los Nogales estate, thereby increasing his class status and social power. Saracho’s stage directions in this final moment indicate “an interpretive sound of trees falling. Now don’t go cueing chainsaws because it’s not literal. Just make me feel trees are falling. Along with the upper class” (87). The play’s reference to the staging of “an interpretive sound of trees falling” brings to mind the philosophical question: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” We might then interpret the final sounds of El Nogalar as inviting audiences to listen attentively to the soundscape of narco silence, implicating audiences as social actors in the politics of the drug war that continue to devastate Mexican society.
Featured Image: Journalists Protest against rising violence during march in Mexico, Courtesy of the Knight Foundation
Marci R. McMahon received her Ph.D. from the University of Southern California with affiliations in the Department of American Studies and Ethnicity. She is an assistant professor at the University of Texas, Pan American, where she teaches Chicana/o literature and cultural studies, gender studies, and theater and performance in the Departments of English and Mexican American Studies. She is the author of Domestic Negotiations: Gender, Nation, and Self-Fashioning in US Mexicana and Chicana Literature and Art published by Rutgers University Press’ Series Latinidad: Transnational Cultures in the United States (May 2013). Her essays on Chicana literature and cultural studies have been published in Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies; Chicana/Latina Studies: The Journal of MALCS; and Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies. Her second book project, Sounding Latina/o Studies: Staging Listening in US Latina/o Theater explores how contemporary Latina/o drama uses vocal bodies and sound to engage audiences with recurring debates about nationhood, immigration, and gender.
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And now, we interrupt this broadcast for a message from Guest Editor Neil Verma: At 9:00 pm on July 11, 1938, the Columbia Broadcasting System unfurled a plush Tchaikovsky concerto to welcome 23 year-old wunderkind Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater troupe to national airwaves for a show destined to become the most famous dramatic radio anthology ever aired.
The Mercury Theater on the Air came with hype. Welles was fresh off a streak of innovative stage adaptations of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” Shaw’s “Heartbreak House,” and Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus,” pledging in a New York Times article to “treat radio with the intelligence and respect such a beautiful and powerful medium deserves.” A jab at his rivals? Maybe. Legends tell of 17-hour writing sessions, of rows minutes before airtime between Welles, producer John Houseman and composer Bernard Herrmann, of sound men abusing baskets, watermelons, toilets, lawnmowers to make audio. Time described Mercury’s ambition as “bounded north and south by hope, east and west by nerve.”
Welles was by then a radio veteran, the hero of The Shadow and impersonator of newsmakers from Sigmund Freud to Fiorello laGuardia on The March of Time. Hundreds of extant recordings link Welles to rousing Norman Corwin pageants, Columbia Workshop experiments, strident war shows like Ceiling Unlimited, buffoon turns on the Jack Benny and Fred Allen Shows, picaresque Harry Lime adventures, dense thrillers on Suspense, romances on Lux Radio Theater, diplomacy on Hello Americans, and on and on. Welles gave radio new forms, as radio informed his filmmaking profoundly – the sound of Citizen Kane (1941) the characters in Mr. Arkadin (1955), the vocals in Touch of Evil (1958) the theme of F is for Fake (1974). Welles invented a cinema that is, among other things, a kind of radio play you can see.
Mercury (and the Campbell Playhouse it became) undertook plays like “Dracula,” “Treasure Island,” “The 39 Steps,” “Rebecca,” “Jane Eyre,” and “The Magnificent Ambersons” and dozens of others. But none would be remembered were it not for the “War of the Worlds,” adapted from H.G. Wells’s novel by Howard Koch. In October of 1938, WOTW aired to six million listeners, hundreds of thousands of whom misheard it as news. The “Panic Broadcast” became a series of fables: listeners treated for shock in Newark; families on Boston rooftops watching the fires of New York in the distance; an Indianapolis church service interrupted by a parishioner telling congregants “you might as well go home to die;” bomb threats and a police raid on CBS headquarters. Three quarters of a century later many agree with the New York Tribune’s Dorothy Thompson, who declared the Invasion “one of the most fascinating and important events of all time,” but the meaning of that event also feels unclear, growing more ambiguous with time. Today, the alien invasion is itself increasingly alien.
To confront that issue and to open Mercury to new kinds of critical practices in sound studies, Sounding Out! is partnering with Antenna over the next six months to bring you a 12-part series entitled From Mercury to Mars: Orson Welles on Radio after 75 Years. I’m honored to serve as Sounding Out!‘s Guest Editor. We’ll be bringing you authors who engage aesthetic, historical and political aspects of Welles’ radio work with a depth and intensity unusual in Welles studies.
That’s especially true of this inaugural post by Cornell Comparative Literature Professor and SO! contributor Tom McEnaney, who has been working on a book project involving radio and the “neighborhood” of the Americas. I’m thrilled welcome Tom’s nuanced and provocative take on Welles’s adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and his Hello, Americans program, and I hope it will encourage you to stay with us as the series unfolds.
Like Welles, we’ve got a few tricks up our sleeve. Stay tuned. – nv
When WNYC’s Radiolab aired their live celebration of War of the Worlds five years ago, the odd laugh line was reserved for a moment at the start of the radio play when an announcer interjects “now we return to the music of Ramón Raquello and his orchestra.”
Raquello, as the Radiolab team makes clear, didn’t exist, and his “orchestra” was just an anonymous phonograph recording of the famous tango “La cumparsita.” Welles apparently chose the song for its “tedium,” hoping it would make believable the lunacy to come. That the music of the Southern Cone set up listeners in the United States for the greatest hoax in history might have been yet another of the inside jokes Welles left us to listen for.
The sounds of Ramón Raquello and the settings of some of Welles’s most famous films—The Lady From Shanghai (1947); Touch of Evil (1958)—remind us how Latin America, and its relationship to the United States, fascinated Welles in the late 30s and 40s. Five years after War of the Worlds, he began the final episode of his CBS program Hello Americans by recalling the show’s mission: “It is important for the people of this hemisphere to get better acquainted, and the Mercury [Theater] has been given the job of helping out with the introductions.”
An artful propagandist, Welles told Nelson A. Rockefeller, FDR’s head of Inter-American Affairs and Welles’s boss at RKO studios, that radio and film were the best way “to sell South America to North America.” Between 1938 and 1943 his technical innovations in film and radio, in addition to a 1942 stint as a “good will ambassador” to Latin America, created for him by Rockefeller, were meant to convince U.S. audiences of FDR’s claim in his first inaugural that the United States should follow the policy of the “Good Neighbor.” Whether listening, watching, or reading his work during World War II, Welles’s U.S. audiences were constantly reminded that they were residents of the Americas, rather than an exceptional and isolated America.
To assess the aesthetics and politics of Welles’s engagement with Latin America, it’s worth returning to the October 30, 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds. Presented as a live news report of an alien invasion on the East Coast of the United States, War of the Worlds sent its mass audience into hysterics, proving to Marshal McLuhan that radio was “a tribal drum,” capable of calling forth the “archaic forces” of “the resonating Africa within” (301). The primitivist and racist logic in McLuhan’s Understanding Media (1964) sought to explain away the irrationality he (and his Frankfurt School forebears) identified as the enlightenment’s dialectical twin by exiling it to Africa. In this, he might have merely followed Welles’s Mercury Theater, which aired a production of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness a week after War of the Worlds, thus linking an allegory about fascism (and radio’s dangerous complicity with irrational politics) to a Conrad adaptation that critic Michael Denning calls “a fascist parable” exalting “power for power’s sake” (376).
Yet these radio works concern themselves with fascism from very different narrative and social positions. While War of the Worlds depicts an alien invasion, his Heart of Darkness describes a journey towards the alien racial Other, presenting listeners with what had become by 1938 the more mundane miracle of radio—to bring them close enough to hear Kurtz’s haunting repetition: “the horror, the horror.”
Welles, who plays both Kurtz and Marlow in the conversation that leads up to these climactic lines, depicts here the seductive power of his own voice, able to encapsulate the story’s most important characters, and, as Kurtz, to impress even himself, as Marlow.
“Mr. Kurtz,” Marlow / Welles says with awe, “is a remarkable man.” Repeating a line heard throughout the play, Marlow’s words are slyly deflated when they are echoed, with a tone of critical distance, in the voice of one of the ivory company’s employees, a voice that stands in for the listening audience, and encourages their own distrust of Marlow’s naïve faith in Kurtz’s lust for power.
Meanwhile, the play tells a complimentary story of proximity and distance: as the boat moves back down the river, the music shifts from tribal drums to spiritual laments to a meandering jazz saxophone, tracing, in basic and exoticist fashion, a capsule history of African diasporic music.
One year later, Welles also attempted to adapt Heart of Darkness as his cinematic directorial debut for RKO, shifting the frame narrative to New York City, while planning to shoot on location in Panama, where expansion had begun that year on the Panama Canal to allow for the transportation of US warships. For this project, Welles planned a first-person camera technique, mimicking his radio work with first person address. The Mercury Theater’s program, originally named “First Person Singular,” placed listeners on the scene. In film the technique became even more immersive, plunging the audience into uneasy, inescapable identification with Marlow’s point of view.
The first person in Welles’s screenplay combines Heart of Darkness’ journey into alien territory with War of the Worlds’ alien invasion—the sense that the audience was under attack. Forced to look out through the eyes of the imperialist adventurer Marlow, the audience surprisingly became the object that everyone in the film watches. The technique could prove threatening to the predominantly white and male movie audiences in the United States of 1940, as Welles planned to enlist 3,000 African American actors to play the so-called natives on the shores of the river—2500 more black extras than worked in Hollywood at the time. When the audience fell under the black gaze in the Canal Zone, where African American men increasingly worked as part of the defense industries, the story’s imperialist theme would have pointed back to the United States’ own racist working conditions, revealing the nation’s complicity and subordination to the imperialist pursuit whose destiny is the primitivist conditions it creates.
RKO rejected Welles’s screenplay, as they did his later documentary project, It’s All True, which sought to transform his 1942 trip throughout Latin America into a tale that fused “the story of samba” with “the story of jazz” to situate African American and Afro-Brazilian musical cultures at the heart of Pan-American culture. Welles soon repurposed the material from It’s All True for a radio program entitled “Hello Americans” that attempted to complete the shift in representation towards a more lateral and dialogic notion of adjacency, positioning U.S. and Latin American culture on the same plane. The means to make these introductions included interviews with and recordings by musicians from Cuba, Brazil, and Mexico, historical tales about Montezuma, Toussaint L’Ouverture, Benito Juárez, Atahualpa and others.
In the show’s most experimental section, Welles simultaneously reinforces and mocks the idea that radio’s ability to collapse distances and transcend borders makes it the medium to communicate the idea of neighborliness.
Transporting his audience to “a clay hut somewhere in South America,” Welles introduces a small family in which the son, Juan, builds radios at a new factory, and his father, José, listens to the device. Once the broadcast begins, the listening audience within the frame—Juan, José and his mother—share the same space as the audience listening to “Hello Americans.” All listen together as a broadcast voice introduces Roosevelt’s inaugural address, then Roosevelt’s recorded voice announces his policy of the Good Neighbor, and finally static interrupts Roosevelt’s voice, and a German accented voice takes over to complain about “the republic of the Jew Franklin Roosevelt.” When José comments that the broadcast seems strange, his son Juan answers, “Oh no, they’re all like that. Señor Schmidt at the factory told us it’s uh, it’s because we’re closer to Germany.” Then, a musical curtain falls and Welles returns to reassure his audience that “Juan has learned. Today he works in another factory and he’s a member of the Latin American Confederation of Workers.”
The passage distinguishes between voices—José, Juan, the US broadcaster, Roosevelt, and the German propagandist—and reflects the imagined proximity implicit in Roosevelt’s idea of the Good Neighbor. But the technique also reveals how “Señor Schmidt” and his countrymen take advantage of the geographical confusion made possible by radio’s transcendence of borders to imply that Germany is actually more of a “neighbor” than the United States. These types of confusion between imagination and reality had once launched listeners into panic, but now Welles steps in to calmly and condescendingly reassure the audience that Juan “has learned.” Learned, that is, to join the left leaning Confederation: an untenable statement on US radio less than a decade later.
And yet, the unnamed obstacle impeding both foreign transmissions is language itself. Because everything filters through English, with accents marking the space between Spanish and German, Hello Americans imagines Pan-Americanism through one language alone. Radio’s monolingualism highlights one of the medium’s limitations. Whereas It’s All True could employ subtitles, and allow audiences to listen to a subject’s voice while reading what they said, radio faltered on its most medium-specific component – words.
Furthermore, while Welles imagines a “neighborhood” for all Americans, listeners lose the more radical racial politics he had once placed at the center of his Haitian Macbeth (1936), Heart of Darkness (1938), his theatrical production of Richard Wright’s Native Son (1941) and It’s All True (1942). Together these works place the African diaspora at the center of U.S., Pan-American, and world culture. They insist that the attack on fascism abroad must include a change in race relations at home. More ambivalently, they reveal Welles participating in acts of love and theft – a New Deal Kurtz, he draws the power to criticize fascist power from exoticized images of Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Brazilian, and African American cultures, supporting and appropriating the art and struggles of the African diaspora to bill himself as the cultural leader of, not just the ambassador for, Pan-Americanism.
Tom McEnaney is an Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at Cornell University. His work focuses on the connections between the novel and various sound recording and transmission technologies in Argentina, Cuba, and the United States. He is currently at work on a manuscript tentatively titled “Acoustic Properties: Radio, Narrative, and the New Neighborhood of the Americas.”
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