Welcome to the third and final installment of Unsettling the World Soundscape Project, a series in which we critically investigate the output of early acoustic ecology and assess its continuing value for today’s sound studies. In our first post, Mitchell Akiyama addressed the WSP’s ten-hour Soundscapes of Canada radio series from 1974 to situate the broadcast’s innovative work historically and explore how it attempted to represent a diverse nation by way of sound. In my follow-up post, I focused on the WSP’s Vancouver research, their only output since returning from Europe in 1975, assessing shifts in the ideologies and practices over its two official releases and arguing for the best path that future iterations of the project might follow.
In this final entry, Vincent Andrisani puts the “world” back into the World Soundscape Project by carrying his experience as the recordist for the WSP’s last archiving mission in Vancouver out into his solo doctoral research in Havana, Cuba. Andrisani lends an unsettled ear to one of the city’s most beloved sounds, the tune of the ice cream vendor, unpacking its social and historical significance to make an argument about the role that sound plays in local self-definitions of citizenship. Inspired by the WSP’s continuing quest to discover how people’s relationship to places can be defined through sound, Andrisani’s work offers an example of what contemporary soundscape research can be while demonstrating how to deal with many of the concerns raised about the WSP’s output over the course of this series.
It has been a great pleasure acting as editor for this series over the past few weeks and it is our hope that these posts will provide further fuel for celebrating, expanding, critiquing and rethinking the work of acoustic ecology in the broader context of contemporary sonic research.
— Guest Editor Randolph Jordan
To conceive of Havana in sound is to think not of the material spaces of the city, but rather, across them. From inside the home, residents participate in conversations taking place in the streets, while those in the streets often call for the attention of their friends or family indoors. Through windows, open doors, and porticoes, residents engage in interpersonal exchanges that bring neighbourhood communities to life. To listen across these spaces is to listen trans-liminally from the threshold through which sounds must pass as they animate the vibrant social life of the city. Such an act is made most apparent by the voices of vendedores ambulantes, or, mobile street vendors. “¡El buen paquete de galleta!” (“The good packs of cookies!”), “¡Se compran y se vendan libros!” (“I’m buying and selling books!”), and most famously, “¡Mani! ¡Mani!” (“Peanuts! Peanuts!”) are some of the pregones—the musical cries—heard through the streets and into the home.
But not all vendors are pregoneros. El heladero, the ice cream vendor, uses the jangly melodies of the electronic music box to make ears perk up, mouths water, and children’s shoes hit the ground running. The sound signals a respite from the sweltering Caribbean heat and is symbolic of a novelty food item for which Cubans have a strong cultural affinity. But most of all, the ice cream vendor’s melodic tunes bring people out of their homes and into the street, giving life to a moment that is as social, participatory, and convivial as it is savory.
For over a century, ice cream vendors have been heard on the streets of Havana. Throughout this time, the city’s spaces have been contested by external regimes of power that include the Spanish Crown, U.S. business interests, Cuba’s own socialist government, the Soviet Union, and since the 1990s, Cuba’s resurgent tourist economy. Yet, in spite of the exclusionary logic imposed by each of these systems of power, the sound of the ice cream vendor still remains. To listen to it is to listen to Havana according not to the agenda of outside interests, but rather, according to the collective interests of residents themselves.
Borrowing from the work of Saskia Sassen (2006) who maintains that “citizenship practices have to do with the production of ‘presence’ of those without power and a politics that claims rights to the city” (315), I regard the tacit, communicative, trans-liminal act of listening as a means through which residents assert their embodied presence amidst both the spatial and political landscapes of the city. Listening to the sound of the ice cream vendor, I argue, constitutes an act of citizenship—an act of sonic citizenship—that momentarily claims Havana’s spaces according to the aims, aspirations, and desires of those who live there.
Citizenship, in this sense, is conceived of not as an institution bound to the political-juridical architecture of the nation-state, but rather, as a place-based “practice and project” (Sassen, p281) that, over time, has the potential to condition changes in the formalized institution itself. It emerges in the everyday, rather ordinary moments during which the city’s spaces are produced and given meaning by those with unequal access to political power. Just as Jennifer Stoever (2011) and Michael Francis O’Toole (2014) have discussed elsewhere, I too contend that citizenship is articulated in sound, but in order to hear it, we must listen historically to—and through—the spaces of Havana’s built environment.
The above clip, which I captured while conducting fieldwork in Havana, represents a moment of everyday life in the municipality of Centro Habana. While speaking about it with friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, I came to realize that only recently had the ice cream vendor’s heralding music become part of the local soundscapes. “Where was it before that?”, I asked. “Before that,” they all said, “it was gone.” In 1990, the Soviet Union collapsed and brought Cuba’s economy along with it. Shortages of food, petrol, and material resources were so severe that satisfying basic needs took precedence over the delivery of frozen novelties. The result was the loss of the ice cream vendor—and its corresponding sound—which, for decades, was part of the ongoing, everyday life of the city.
Fittingly, the collective sentiment surrounding that loss is captured in song. “Helado Sobre Ruedas,” or “Ice Cream on Wheels” by Gema y Pavel was released in 1994, during the height of Cuba’s economic crisis. In it, the duo lament the disappearance of the ice cream vendor from the streets of Havana and reflect on what it meant not only to them, but to all residents of the city. They speak about the presence of the ice cream vendor as a ‘refreshing’ event on hot days; as a source of joy, pleasure, and happiness that offered much more than a simple respite from the heat, but as one that “made family problems disappear.” The “sweet melody” of the vendor was the cause for celebration in neighbourhoods across the city, and is a sound that the duo recalls with both warmth and affection.
Throughout most of the twentieth century, ice cream sales in Havana looked and sounded much like it did in the United States. Minnesota-based Nichols Electronics developed the technology of the electronic music box in the mid-1950s, and within a few years, its chime-y sounds were heard on the streets of Havana. The frozen novelty itself can be traced back to 1920 in Youngstown, Ohio. Harry Burt, the eventual founder of the Good Humor brand paired, first, the lollipop’s wooden stick with chocolate covered vanilla ice cream, and subsequently, ice cream sales and automobility. In Havana, brands such as Hatuey, Guarina, and El Gallito borrowed Burt’s developments, and by the time the city underwent its westward suburbanization in the 1940s and ’50s, mobile ice cream sales were booming.
But if we listen further still into Havana’s past, we can discern the ways in which the ice cream vendor’s music echoes the complex history of the city. During Cuba’s struggle for independence in the late 1800s, American traditions and customs such as baseball, Protestantism, and new habits of hygiene began emerging in Havana. At once a rejection of the perceived backwardness of Spanish culture and an appeal to modernizing the island, this cultural appropriation was, as both Louis A. Pérez Jr. (1999) and Marial Iglesias-Utset (2011) have carefully observed, a way for residents to perform acts of citizenship with the intent of defining the customs of the impending nation.
It is perhaps no coincidence, then, that the practice of street side ice cream vending arrived in Havana at this very moment following its proliferation in cities such as Barcelona, London, and notably New York. These vendors performed a series of decisive functions amidst the city’s political geography, the most discernible of which was that they offered an opportunity for the working class to indulge in what historically was a bourgeois delight. Of equal importance however, was that ice cream vendors were also participants in Havana’s project of cultural modernization, and their street side presence enabled locals to inhabit the acoustic spaces of the city on their own terms and not those of the Spanish Crown.
This photograph, taken in Havana some time between 1890 and 1910, can be read not only as a silent image, but as an audiovisual text. Without any visible technology with which to herald his presence, it’s likely that this vendor relied on his own voice in the form of a pregón. We might imagine the slow rumble of the cart’s wooden wheels as they rolled over the unpaved road, glass cups jangling as the cart bounced along, and enthusiastic voices congregating in the street to buy what was known as a “penny lick.” Each of these sounds moved across the liminal spaces of the built environment, each marking a moment of savory indulgence and neighborly dialogue in the life of the city—as they do again today.
Listening to, documenting, and as historian Bruce R. Smith (2004) terms it, “un-airing” the history of Havana’s ice cream vendors offers a means through which to cultivate unexplored encounters with the city. It animates a narrative grounded not in political rupture, but in historical continuity; it locates a geography characterized not by unequivocal exclusion, but one that, quite simply, belongs to those who live there; and in so doing, it develops an account of the city not from the top-down, but rather, from the bottom-up. Such an approach renders audible the enactment of citizenship by listening for the sounds that firmly ground citizens in the very spaces that, time and again, have been destabilized by forces imposed from above.
To hear the ways in which citizens inhabit the city of Havana, we must simultaneously listen trans-liminally, across the open spaces of the built environment, and into the city’s history, which resonates through the sounds of neighbourhood communities, interpersonal dialogue, and social interaction. The heralding music of the ice cream vendor is one sound that does precisely that: for some, it offers a sense of childhood nostalgia, for others, it conjures the taste of a delicious frozen snack. But in every case, to listen to it is to enact a form of civic memory that orients residents according to both the spaces they inhabit, and the social and cultural history to which they belong. It comprises a moment, liminal as it may be, during which the city is lived, experienced, and imagined according to the interests of no one other than citizens themselves.
Acknowledgements: A sincere thanks to my extended family in Havana, to the academic community at Fundación Fernando Ortiz, and in particular, to Dr. Aurelio Francos Lauredo for his time, guidance, and for his attentive and compassionate ear.
Vincent Andrisani is a PhD Candidate and an instructor in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University. He has written and lectured on the topics of popular music, broadcast media, and the politics of audio documentation in the context of Soundscape Studies, and has presented his research in a number of artistic and academic venues; the most recent of which was at the Pan-American Mobilities Conference in Santiago, Chile in 2014. Intersecting the areas of Sound Studies, Urban Geography, and Cuban Studies, Vincent’s doctoral research explores the relationship between sound, space, and citizenship in the city of Havana. In addition to the ice cream vendor, the sounds of water pipes, international travelers, and street musicians performing “Guantanamera” and other likely tunes form the basis of the study. http://www.vincentandrisani.com.
Featured image:Ice cream vendor in Havana, courtesy of University of Miami Libraries, Cuban Heritage Collection.
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Welcome back to Unsettling the World Soundscape Project, a series edited by Randolph Jordan that looks critically and creatively at early acoustic ecology along with the writings and subsequent compositions of WSP members, assessing its continuing role for sound studies today. This series follows strongly in the spirit of “Sound Studies 2.0,” a running theme here on SO! this year that Editor-in-Chief Jennifer Stoever has described as “the movement of the field beyond the initial excitement for and indexing of sound toward new applications and challenges to the status quo.”
In the first article of the series, Mitchell Akiyama unpacked the WSP’s monumental ten-hour Soundscapes of Canada of 1974, situating the broadcast’s innovative work historically while also pointing out problems of diversity and representation that could inform how we might listen and create in the future. In this second article, Guest Editor Randolph Jordan offers some of his own highly innovative research, drawing on the notion of “unsettled listening” that he described so vividly here last summer, and focusing on how sound calls attention to territorial boundaries and contested land appropriation from Native peoples of Vancouver.
For a few months in 2013, an intense clanging sound emanated from Vancouver’s Burrard Bridge spanning False Creek. A pothole on the surface had opened up next to the metal connector sitting directly atop of the southwest concrete pillar on the shore, activated by passing traffic and intensified by the hollow concrete structures below.
By coincidence, the pothole’s acoustic profile, the “area over which it may be heard before it drops below the level of ambient noise,” was roughly equivalent to the east/west boundaries of Kitsilano Indian Reserve at its peak acreage established in 1877.
In the century to follow, the reserve would be carved up for a variety of uses and by 1965 it was gone. But in 2013, 100 years after the government – without securing official title to the land – paid the reserve’s residents to leave, the sound of the pothole set the past resonating as the rhythmic clanging reached out to draw the surrounding acoustic environments together while sounding out their roles in contesting indigenous claims to the area. Fitting, then, that the hole sounded loudest directly under the bridge on the south shore, site of newly restituted reserve lands awarded to the Squamish Nation in 2002 after the decommissioning of the railway passage that marked the original reserve’s first transgression in 1899.
The sound of bridge traffic calling attention to contested land use challenges stereotypical notions about indigeneity in the modern city by upending biases against urban noise pollution typical in early acoustic ecology and exemplified by the work of the World Soundscape Project (WSP). The pothole sound became the locus of my investigation into the value of thinking longitudinally across the Vancouver archive of the WSP, the first assignment given to me by original member Barry Truax as supervisor of my postdoc at Simon Fraser University from 2012-14. I argue that if we use urban noise as a tool for mapping out uncomfortable and subordinated histories, we can rethink the effects of such urban noise on the articulation of cultural space across the WSP archive and imagine new possibilities for future iterations of the project’s Vancouver research.
First question: what documentation of traffic noise around Burrard Bridge exists in the WSP’s three major sets of documentation in Vancouver from the ‘70s, ‘90s and 2010s? Using the Google Map I created to plot recording locations across the archive, I listened to those from which bridge traffic might have been audible. Sure enough, the sound of bridge traffic is present on the original ’73 tapes recorded nearby. In fact, the ‘73 release of The Vancouver Soundscape LP addresses these bridge recordings in a conversation between project director R. Murray Schafer and the recordists, who describe this traffic noise as a source of frustration while attempting to capture the sound of tinkling masts from the boats in the marina beneath.
Here the message seems clear: traffic noise is blight upon more valued sounds in and around the city. This position is corroborated by the very cover of the LP that features a graphic representation of a soundwave from a recording of chirping frogs interrupted by a passing car, the example of urban imbalance with which Schafer concludes the final side of the album.
A few years after the ’73 release, however, Hildegard Westerkamp and Bruce Davis wrote the catalog page for the original set of tapes in which they refer to the traffic sounds as a “noisy, broad wash” that “frames the delicate rigging tinkle of the moored boats.” This is a more aesthetically motivated take on urban din that Westerkamp explores to creative effect in her 1986 piece Kits Beach Soundwalk. A decade after that, Robert MacNevin wrote in the catalog notes for his recording under the bridge that the rhythm of the traffic was part of the “very beautiful” fabric of this sonic tapestry that included the masts swaying in the breeze. This shift in attitude also played into the presentation of the archive on the ’96 Soundscape Vancouver CD. Now under the direction of Barry Truax, this second release featured a selection of soundscape compositions that celebrated all manner of urban sounds as interesting in their own right.
It was very difficult to ascertain whether or not the traffic sounds in these recordings were in any way connected to potholes on the surface. Yet hearing Vancouver’s urban sound through the shifting perspectives of the WSP’s contributing members provided a framework for assessing the value of their work. So I turned to the next question: how might hearing urban noise like bridge traffic, as “staged” by the WSP, contribute to listening to the area in a way that can unsettle its appearance of stability and reveal the tense histories of contestation that have defined it since the time of first contact through to the present day?
On the issue of cultural politics we find less progress across the two official Vancouver releases. Both make some mention of indigenous presence in the land and tie these references to their concerns over urban noise pollution. The ’73 LP opens with the sound of the ocean primordial, lapping against the shore, with wind and birds following in short order. Amidst these, the voice of a Squamish man begins speaking in his native tongue, soon interrupted by an emerging seaplane flying low overhead, ushering in the era of Vancouver’s incorporation as a city and the ensuing industrial development. Only someone who understands the spoken language here will know if the WSP’s narrative runs counter to the story being told by the Squamish man, for no translation is offered either in the grooves or within the jacket.
Well-intentioned though they were, the WSP’s problematic construction of machine noise as despoiler of the wilderness is made worse by putting the only voice given to indigenous peoples in the service of this didactic construction. In so doing they contribute to relegating urban indigenous presence to a thing of the past rather than accounting for the consistent and continuing presence of First Nations communities in the city – a luxury they afford to the Greek and Chinese communities later on the disc when these are presented as vibrant and living parts of Vancouver’s modern fabric in a track entitled “The Music of Various City Quarters” (a multicultural gesture they would move away from on the trip across Canada that Mitchell Akiyama unpacked in the previous post in this series).
Similarly, in a brief documentary about Vancouver’s changing sounds on the ’96 release, Westerkamp comments on the intrusive presence of the air conditioning system in the Museum of Anthropology on the U.B.C. campus, marring visitors’ experience of “some of B.C.’s most fascinating Native artifacts.” Westerkamp’s respect for indigenous culture comes through clearly enough. Yet the WSP’s presentation of local indigeneity takes a step backward here as the living voice speaking a dying language heard in ’73 has given way to just plain old dead people in ’96, best contemplated in the quietude of Arthur Erikson’s high modernist design for the building.
The WSP might just as easily have critiqued this space as an example what Schafer has called the “glazed soundscape” in which sound is cut off from the world visible through large windows, an architectural situation that emphasizes the disconnection between the indigenous culture on display within and the living Native presence in the city outside the museum walls. The fact that the building’s design heightens the perception of the ventilation sound is, like the pothole on the bridge, an example of how urban noise can be heard to mark out indigenous displacement in the city.
Standing under the bridge on the 40th anniversary of the 1973 recordings, and the 100th anniversary of the reserve payouts of 1913, I imagined the pothole as a recasting of the church bell as marker of territorial boundaries, sounding out the colonial encroachment of municipal infrastructure upon 19th Century reserve lands well into the 21st. And so in a multimedia work on the site, I dub the bridge the “Bell Tower of False Creek” for its power to unsettle ideas about the role of urban noise in articulating culture in the modern city, and I wonder what shape the next WSP release might take.
The key lies in deeper consideration of the intersection of soundscape composition and the WSP archive as mutually enriching sites of practice. The positive move on the ’96 release came in actively putting the ‘90s archival recordings in dialogue with the ‘70s material, creatively exploring longitudinal relationships in ways that move in the direction of the post-Foucauldian thrust for artists and researchers to “use archives in a more self-conscious way” as Jaimie Baron puts it (3). Yet they stopped short of “actively promot[ing] a critical attitude towards [the materials] and their uses within the institutions” from which they originate, a key characteristic of archival collage identified by William Wees (47).
The time is right for a critical investigation of the ways in which the WSP’s own construction of the archive itself has delimited its possible uses and how they have controlled the staging of its content these past four decades. In so doing, they might also become more culturally astute in assessing how their biases against certain kinds of urban sound have shaped their presentation of the cultures that live within earshot.
Randolph Jordan wanted to be a rock star. Now he teaches cinema and the humanities at Champlain College and Concordia University in Montreal. Draw your own conclusions. After completing his Ph.D. in the interdisciplinary Humanities program at Concordia in 2010 he took up a two-year postdoctoral research fellowship in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University. There he investigated geographical specificity in Vancouver-based film and media by way of sound studies and critical geography, research that will inform the last chapter of his book An Acoustic Ecology of the Cinema (now under contract at Oxford University Press). If you can’t find him hammering away at his manuscript, or recording his three young children hammering away at their Mason & Risch, look for him under Vancouver’s Burrard Bridge where he spends his “spare time” gathering and shaping film and sound material for his multimedia project Bell Tower of False Creek. Or visit him online here: http://www.randolphjordan.com
All images provided by the author, unless otherwise noted.
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Sounding Race in Rap Songs explores the production of musical identity in hip hop’s first two decades as a commercial genre. Although I don’t ignore lyrics or visual imagery, my main purpose is to analyze rap music as music, to understand how specific artistic decisions contribute to racial meaning in particular songs. My methods revolve around the study of how producers manipulate breakbeats, also commonly known as “breaks.” Initially understood as short, percussion-heavy passages that appear in many songs recorded in the 1960s and 1970s, breaks have been central to hip hop from the music’s earliest days in the South Bronx when DJs began isolating and looping them on their turntables to the delight of dancers. Since then, producers have tried out new approaches to working with breakbeats: hiring studio musicians to re-record them; programming drum machines to imitate them; and using sampling-sequencing technology to capture and rearrange them.
Throughout the book, I describe how producers use breaks and give rise to musical-racial codes that can be manipulated to project a variety of identities and attitudes. The following excerpt from the third chapter of Sounding Race, explains how the style of beat making popularized by the New York-based Bomb Squad (Public Enemy’s production team) provided a blueprint for pioneering west coast gangsta rap group N.W.A’s depiction of Compton, California. By layering multiple loops into a dense, cacophonous mix, N.W.A transposed Public Enemy’s “too black, too strong” sound onto the world of Los Angeles’s postindustrial streets.
N.W.A and its former members have been in the news recently thanks to the biopic Straight Outta Compton. Yet one aspect of the group’s development downplayed in the film is the way that its members formulated their identities in relation to east coast rap. In the mid-1980s, New York was the undisputed center of the industry, and its influence on L.A.-based acts is easy to see and hear. Ice Cube’s first group C.I.A. ( Cru’ In Action) used a nasal, hocket style approach to rapping cribbed directly from the Beastie Boys 1986 album License to Ill. And the cover of N.W.A’s first album N.W.A and the Posse, features numerous group members posing with the giant clock necklaces made famous by Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav. In similar fashion, the beat Dr. Dre produced for “Straight Outta Compton” (the title track to their breakout 1988 album) followed the Bomb Squad’s potent formula for signifying militant blackness. —Loren Kajikawa
The following is an excerpt from Chapter Three “‘Let Me Ride’: Gangsta Rap’s Drive Into The Popular Mainstream,” of Loren’s Kajikawa’s Sounding Race in Rap Songs, with thanks to The University of California Press. Any notes have been included in the text to conform to Sounding Out!‘s style sheet.
We [Public Enemy] were in Vegas and they [N.W.A.] were on tour with us, and I had just got the vinyl in. That’s what this is all about. Because Run-DMC and LL Cool J gave me energy. And if our energy happened to be transferred to N.W.A., then that’s what this whole thing is for.” Chuck D as quoted in Brian Coleman, Check The Technique: Liner Notes For Hip-Hop Junkies (New York: Villard Books, 2007), 354.
According to Chuck D, Public Enemy’s musical style directly influenced Dre, and he recalls giving the first two copies of It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back to Dr. Dre and Eazy-E prior to the album’s official release. The recorded evidence supports Chuck D’s recollection. For many of the tracks on Straight Outta Compton, Dr. Dre seems to have borrowed from the “loops on top of loops” style of Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad.
In fact, when Ice Cube left N.W.A. in 1989, he hoped that Dre would continue to make beats for his solo project. When this proved impossible due to Dre’s contractual obligations to N.W.A., Ice Cube began collaborating with the Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad, which served as the production unit for his album Amerikkka’s Most Wanted (1990). N.W.A.’s breakthrough was finding a way to put a distinctive spin on these influences, and the artistic strategy that they arrived at for their first Ruthless Records release was designed to put themselves on the map—both literally and figuratively.
Rather than shout out the multiplicity of neighborhoods where their members were actually from (as they had done in “Panic Zone”), N.W.A. chose to center their identity around Dr. Dre and Eazy-E’s hometown of Compton, California. The sound of Compton as Dr. Dre imagined it, however, drew on musical practices and artistic decisions similar to those found in Public Enemy’s “Rebel Without a Pause.” To construct the rhythmic foundation of “Straight Outta Compton,” Dre looped the breakbeat from The Winstons’ “Amen Brother” (1969), one of the most sampled beats in hip hop, that also served as the foundation for dozens of songs in the UK’s “jungle” (aka “drum and bass”) genre.
Like other heavily sampled breaks from this era, the one-measure loop features a syncopated interlocking of snare and bass hits that is reminiscent of James Brown’s “Funky Drummer (featuring Clyde Stubblefield’s famous beat). As if he were following the Bomb Squad’s exact formula, Dr. Dre layered a drum machine (Roland TR-808) over this break.
The 808 was programmed to add its characteristic bass boom to the first two drum kicks of the “Amen” loop, and to tick off a 16-count hi-hat pulse with a closing hi-hat clasp on the downbeat of every other measure. The “Amen” break and the two hi-hat parts, provide the rhythmic foundation around which Dr. Dre places numerous other repeating sounds. Two other ingredients stand out in this beat: a guitar ostinato and a low drone on what sounds like a baritone sax or trombone (or perhaps a downwardly pitched sample of another instrument). The guitar ostinato, which plays straight eighth-notes on E-flat except for a one step descent to D-flat on the “and” of every fourth beat, churns out tight 1-measure units of sound.
The horn drone (also on E-flat) has a raw, muddled quality, and casts an ominous cloud over the track.
By combining these layers with the dense percussion track, Dre created a tightly packed funk groove with many sonic similarities to Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad. Like “Rebel Without a Pause,” the track to “Straight Outta Compton” features tight 1-measure loops stacked on top of one another to create a thick and intense groove.
Except for the drone, most of the elements in the track have a punchy feel, full of rhythmic stabs and staccato attacks, including the automatic gunfire that Dre samples to follow Ice Cube’s reference to an AK-47 assault rifle. Due to the “noisiness” of the beat, the way sonic space seems filled to maximum capacity, the members of N.W.A.—similar to Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Flavor Flav—practically yell their verses, as if they must raise their voices in order to be heard over the cacophony. Even before the actual words to “Straight Outta Compton” are digested, the sound of the track and the group’s vocals evoke the palpable tension of imminent conflict, which reinforces the theme of violent confrontation in the song’s lyrics. For the chorus of “Straight Outta Compton,” Dr. Dre strings together a series of samples with rapid-fire precision. The sound of screeching car tires from Davy DMX’s “One for the Treble” is followed by turntable scratching; the scratching leads directly to a choppy sample of the words “City of Compton” from Ronnie Hudson’s “Westcoast Poplock,” which is then followed by more scratching. The whole chain of musical events is deployed over the breakbeat from Funkadelic’s “You’ll Like It Too,” which Dr. Dre splices into the beat just for the chorus. The rapid cutting from one sample to the next exemplifies the “rupture” Tricia Rose identifies as fundamental to hip hop’s post-industrial aesthetic in Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (39).
Thus, the music and lyrics for “Straight Outta Compton” depict the city as a place of extremes, where things happen fast and change is sudden and complete. It is a place where one is either equipped to deal or left behind. In this way, Dr. Dre exploited the spatial characteristics encoded in Public Enemy’s music to depict Compton as place. The sonic characteristics that animated Public Enemy’s militant blackness were rerouted and effectively transposed onto N.W.A.’s depiction of Los Angeles gangstas.
Loren Kajikawa has served on the faculty at the University of Oregon’s School of Music and Dance since 2009. His main area of research and teaching is American music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and he offers a variety of courses in music history, ethnomusicology, and musicology. Kajikawa’s writings have appeared in American Music, Black Music Research Journal, ECHO: a music-centered journal, Journal of the Society for American Music,and Popular Music and Society, among others. His recent book Sounding Race in Rap Songs (University of California, 2015) explores the relationship between rap music’s backing tracks and racial representation.
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“I compare New York to Bangkok all the time,” a young activist told me, just moments before he joined a small, media-ready protest at the Thai consulate in midtown Manhattan. On a pleasant day this past July, along a quiet side street lined with the gold plaques of consulates general, his comparison felt strained—Thailand is currently governed by a free speech-averse military junta that seized power last year, and mourning a deadly terror attack. In Thailand, the tension and fear are acute; in New York, the local delivery driver was whistling.
The young activist, an ocean removed from Bangkok, sought ways of speaking politically, knowing well that he could and would be heard across that ocean When he returns, if he returns, he may be imprisoned, intimidated, or injured. In front of the consulate in New York, those problems were imperceptible to the uninitiated. But they weighed heavily on all of us. Whenever the group chanted or sang, their voices rose through the low ambience like heavy weights, and stopping they fell away without receiving a response. There was a perverse aural disjuncture between the easy rhythms of the day and the harrowing risk that we knew was present in every utterance.
I had come to participate in the event, to speak against the military junta’s recent arrest of fourteen university students for protesting peacefully. I had also come to make a sound recording, and as usual to consider the odd phenomenon of protests staged to create media artifacts rather than to influence people in the flesh. The purpose of the protest was not to negotiate risk but to invite it. It barely mattered that New York City didn’t hear the protest as it occurred. Where it needed to sound potent, it would. Recorded sound surely renders all protest multi-sited; protest sound is a speech-act spatially and temporally deferred.
However, for protests staged at great physical distance from what’s being protested, the specter of comparison and difference between sites and movements can be profound. New York is in certain ways friendly to protest; the city is liberal with permits, and even unpopular opinions are expressible. Relative to most of Thailand, this is a welcome distinction. Of course, such freedom can blunt the acuity of dissenting speech — protests limited to a specific place and time, accompanied by two polite cops indifferent to the issue at hand, are easy to tune out. The United States has its own instruments of containing dissenting speech.
Furthermore, as responses to both Occupy Wall Street and the Black Lives Matter movement have shown, organizational structure and subjectivity make some actions more vulnerable to state violence than others. There are moments when a single word can provoke repression here in no less crude a fashion than the Thai junta prefers. But the game has wholly different rules, and these rules engender different strategic responses. Protesting at a distance is both a way of threading multiple sites together and of reflecting on how protesters in different places and movements choose to speak. In the mind of a young activist accustomed to Thailand’s particular labyrinth of political expression, the contrast with his own country can become a source of ideas.
“When I first came here,” the activist continued with a note of awe in his voice, “Occupy Wall Street just started, so it’s like, there is this obvious difference that really intrigued me in how people organize or react to causes. In Thailand we still kind of are using older ways to organize, kind of like really centralized, some figures pretty much
To develop a political movement in the United States is a different challenge than doing the same in Thailand, to put it mildly. In the United States the left risks triviality; in Thailand, it literally risks death. Thai communists were hunted by soldiers in the jungle in the twentieth century, and left-wing political parties are still forbidden today. Republicanism is treason. And with the ascent of the military junta, many trials are now held in secret, and intimidation of political critics is routine. A movement cannot attempt to run headlong toward whatever it wants to topple; circuitous end-runs are necessary. This explains the increased appeal of decentralized protest tactics to Thai activists. The young man I met was far from the first in his country who has espoused such an approach.
The protest began with one woman playing an acoustic guitar, leading the twenty of us assembled in a folk-style singalong. The sincere, uneven rendition of “Song of the Common Man,” currently popular among anti-junta protesters in Thailand, was followed by nervous laughter, and the honk of a nearby taxi. The lyrics are mild and the structure formulaic, but the song has caught on among the junta’s most outspoken critics – notably, one recording available online was made by a band whose songs are strident enough that they were pursued by the military, and forced to flee to Laos. The song lasted less than two minutes, and an American, who worked for a freedom-of-speech NGO in Southeast Asia, ensured that the group moved on to the next part of the tight half-hour schedule. Every moment was brief but assiduously documented.
We took selfies wearing masks shaped like the faces of the fourteen students who were set to appear before a military court that day. The Thai consulate employees watched with bemusement, and briefly chatted with us in the low, serious hush filled with polite participles that characterizes formal conversation in Thailand. The event ended, and the quiet side street remained undisturbed.
One moment was particularly chilling. The American was leading the group in a series of “what-do-we-want-when-do-we-want-it” chants, which though adapted to concerns of the anti-junta movement felt pro forma and out of place. That cadence and call-and-response pattern is almost never heard at protests in Thailand, and the protesters were not accustomed to it. When someone suggested chanting in Thai rather than English, the group naturally fell into a different rhythm. The repetition of Prayuth aawk bpai, an insulting demand that coup leader General Prayuth Chan-Ocha go away, was much sharper. The chant hearkened to protests of recent years against illegitimate Thai governments. A recording of it would, without doubt, be very risky once heard by the wrong ears in Thailand. Its potency was not only in its direct semantics, but in the connection it formed between the current protest and protests of the recent past. Protest in an age of ubiquitous media tends to form such links across boundaries of time and space.
But a curious thing happens when protest movements can readily observe one another. Comparisons are made all the time, but so are convergences. Rhetoric and strategy become cosmopolitan, not native to any place, and protests increasingly echo other protests. Contemporary Thai dissidents have been influenced by Argentinian horizontalism, and they swap documentaries about the Arab Spring online, for example. The watertight conditions of a geopolitical place have more leaks than was thought. And as ideas travel, the places themselves can become fertile grounds for the growth of those ideas in practice.
Sound is vital to this process. Perhaps because it is often regarded as the most visceral expression of the body, sound has a special relationship to protest. Sound and self need not be romanticized as coterminous in order to appreciate that speech acts feel very close to the body. But listen again. Sound can both feel immediate and be radically disembodied. It can be a material for experimentation, for feeling out how to speak in the immediate present, and be by the same stroke a final product to be audited by the twitchy ears of the junta. The July protest was and will be both.
Benjamin Tausig is assistant professor of ethnomusicology at Stony Brook University, where he works on sound studies, music, and protest in Bangkok and other urban spaces. He is on Twitter @datageneral
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