Charles Mingus, Rotary Perception, and the “Fables of Faubus”

In his autobiography, Beneath the Underdog, jazz musician Charles Mingus recounts his hatred of being ignored during his bass solos. When it was finally his turn to enter the foreground, suddenly musicians and audience members alike found drinks, food, conversations, and everything else more important. However, this small, and somewhat ironic, anecdote of Mingus’s relationship with the jazz community has now become a foreshadowing of his current status in sound studies–but no longer! This series–featuring myself (Earl Brooks), Brittnay Proctor, Jessica Teague, and Nichole Rustin-Paschal— re/hears, re/sounds and re/mixes the contributions of Mingus for his ingenious approach to jazz performance and composition as well as his far-reaching theorizations of sound in relation to liberation and social equality, all in honor of the 60th anniversary of Mingus’s sublimely idiosyncratic album Mingus Ah Um this month. In the first piece of this series, I offer a meditation on the audible imagery of The Little Rock Nine and the potency of Mingus’s ideas for sound studies and beyond. — Guest Editor Earl Brooks


Jazz composer and bassist Charles Mingus’s infamous protest song “Fables of Faubus,” (1959) channeled the anger and frustration of the Black community in response to the staunch racism of Orval Faubus, Governor of Arkansas, who refused to acknowledge the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to support school integration in the 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education. Faubus infamously used the Arkansas National Guard to prevent Black students from attending Little Rock Central High School. The visual imagery of “The Little Rock Nine” walking to school, bombarded by riotous mobs and surrounded by cameras and military escorts, remains permanently seared into the American collective memory of the Civil Rights Movement.

What makes the imagery of “The Little Rock Nine” so sonically distinctive is the contrast between the silent procession of the students and the loud and intimidating screams from the white racist protestors. When images contain explicit visual references to particular sounds, there is an inescapable cognitive referent that allows one to experience that sound through the vehicle of one’s “sonic imagination”–or the mechanism that allows us to “hear” a song in our heads even when there is only silence. Listening involves an active–not passive–engagement with sounds real and imagined. In the same vein as comic books, which rely on visual sound-cues to enhance the experience of the text, the optical power of “The Little Rock Nine” invites viewers to process both the visual and aural data presented by the image. In other words, the image is empowered by its multimodality. When combined with related source material, such as “Fables,” we stand to gain a greater sense of its meanings and an awareness of why sound, especially music, is critical to the recording, or archiving of the kinds of lived experiences that exceed easy translation.

“Fables,” as well as the album on which it appears, Mingus Ah Um, invites questions about the sonics of racism in public and private spheres. Racism oscillates between modes of silence and silencing (unjust systemic processes, othering, isolation), subtle vibrations (micro-aggressions), as well as piercing, cacophonous noise that is as disorienting as it is terrifying. In many ways, this moment made audible (and public) the noise of racism so often confined to the personal encounters of African Americans with white institutions and Jim Crow segregation.

“Fables” ridicules the defense of segregation through its caustic, satiric edge. Listeners hear an early articulation of Terrence T. Tucker’s notion of comic rage, a mixture of pain, frustration, and fear encapsulated by humor and a burgeoning militancy and articulated by comedians such as Richard Pryor. Black musicians, such as Mingus, were not only in tune with the magnitude of the historical moment they were witnessing but also attuned to its sonic dimensions.

Positioning Mingus within the evolving discussion of sonic studies opens productive inquiry into what it means to center musicians of color in relation to critical historical moments in the American soundscape. Mingus’s concept of “rotary perception,” mentioned in his autobiography Beneath the Underdog (1971), suggests one way this positioning can occur. Here’s how Mingus defines “rotary perception” and uses it to describe his musical evolution:

There once was a word used–swing. Swing went in one direction, it was linear, and everything had to be played with an obvious pulse and that’s very restrictive. If you get a mental picture of the beat existing within a circle, you’re more free to improvise. People used to think the notes had to fall on the center of the beats in the bar at intervals like a metronome, with three or four men in the rhythm section accenting the same pulse. That’s like parade music or dance music. But imagine a circle surrounding each beat–each guy can play his notes anywhere in that circle and it gives him a feeling he has more space. The notes fall anywhere inside the circle but the original feeling for the beat isn’t changed. (350)

The value of this “rotary”– or “circular”–orientation exceeds the technical, musical application discussed in the book. Mingus offered this explanation in response to claims that the music created by younger musicians was more innovative or distinctive than his generational counterparts. What the media and industry insiders were seeking to characterize as the “new” wave in jazz wasn’t all that new. In fact, as Mingus argued, one could hear the “avant garde” major sevenths over minor sevenths from Charlie Parker and free forms in Duke Ellington if they were paying attention.

However, “rotary perception” also correlates with the central ethos of Black cultural production Amiri Baraka referred to as “the changing same,” a phrase describing the cyclical return to the roots of Black music and culture as a source of futurity, innovation, and regeneration. Rotary perception, as a way of engaging experiential source material, is a useful tool for sound studies as it relates to centering the work of musicians, theorists, and scholars of color whose work contains untapped, or, in this case, unheard critical vistas from which to expand the enterprise of defeating the scourge of racism. The poetic disconsolance and biting jocularity of Mingus’s oeuvre challenges us all to do some soul searching.

Image by Flickr User Connor Lawless (CC BY 2.0)

As thematic motif, rotary perception renders Mingus Ah Um as a presentation of the sonics of Black life. The “head” or main melody of “Fables” is buttressed by bluesy, bebop, instrumental solos that–quite literally–translate the racism of those such as Governor Faubus into a canvas of rebellious, free expression. The gospel inflections of “Better Get It in Your Soul” emerge from Mingus’s exposure to the reservoir of traditional Black worship and performance styles preserved by the “Holiness” or “Sanctified” denominations within the Black church. What questions would emerge if current discussions of racism and political power in white evangelical communities began with such songs as hermeneutic tools to explore the relationship between theology and race?

As Mingus traces his roots, the musical themes on the album look back as much as their execution points toward a new era of soul-infused jazz through a series of homages paid to Lester Young (“Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”), Charlie Parker (“Bird Calls“), Jelly Roll Morton (“Jelly Roll“), and Duke Ellington (“Open Letter To Duke“). Mingus delineates the kind of fictive kinship Eric Pritchard theorizes as a mode of constructing community and resisting social isolation and historical erasure as a byproduct of the Black experience. While Mingus’s allegiance to continuity is clear, rotary perception encourages us to consider the expansive scope of heretofore unexplored frontiers of African diasporic subjectivities.

Sound is a unique and worthwhile vehicle to recover the lived experiences of black communities often marginalized or completely ignored by the archives. The value of such experiences lies with their potential transgression of ontological and phenomenological investments in conceptions of time, space, and identity that ultimately undergird the sterilized normativity of white supremacist thought. The idea that people of color contributed nothing to history and the march of progress, or that the lands of indigenous peoples hold no value outside of capitalist ends, form the foundations of white supremacy. Questions such as: Who owns time? How much is time worth? and Who has the power to grant or retain space? form the structures beneath structural racism. Yet, through black music, black musicians reclaim that time, (Maxine Waters reference intended) as responsive to the needs of the community and the occasion and also something powerful enough to be distributed equally. Such music creates space–ideologically, spiritually, mentally–for a broader humanity that accompanies differences, like a swinging rhythm section, instead of fearing them.

“Raided the new vinyl inventory” by Flickr User Magic Trax (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Although large portions are fictional, the authenticity of Mingus’s experience of racism as described in Beneath the Underdog illuminates the sonic qualities of the album including its innovative fusions of musical traditions. For example, Mingus characterized his father as a parent who preached racial prejudice and forbade him and his siblings from engaging children from his neighborhood with darker skin complexions. Additionally, Mingus’s youth was fraught with discriminatory incidents heightened by the irony of his light skin color: too dark to pass as white and too light to take any solidarity with his darker companions for granted. Mingus Ah Um represents an important waypoint on Mingus’s journey to political consciousness and Black identity. This was a journey constantly freighted by what would become a lifelong quest to reconcile the self he saw as fractured, or the “two-ness” that W.E.B. Du Bois famously described as the psychic consequences of life behind the “veil” within racially oppressive social order. Responding to this veil (or mask according to Paul Laurence Dunbar) became particularly complicated for Mingus. For musicians such as Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington, the deference to white audiences belied a defensive posture and a recognition that the interiority of their lives would always remain—like Ralph Ellison’s proverbial protagonist–invisible.

However, the subversive “creative mockery,” that Mingus conjures in “Fables” coincided with the operationalization of Black Nationalist sentiment and discourse brewing within the Black community. What Mingus wanted more than money or fame from his music was to be taken seriously as an artist and for jazz to be seen as equal to classical music in terms of cultural stature. In many ways, Mingus’s music gave a sonority and texture to this tension.  This search for artistic authenticity dovetails with the racial solidarity showcased on the album, expanding the scope of its introspection.

One of the great misconceptions of post-Civil-Rights-Era America is the assumption that the decline of such public and audible displays of racism includes a decline of such phenomena in private spheres. However, the recent barrage of viral videos depicting the weaponization of police toward Black bodies quickly dispels any such assumption. Rotary perception, beyond its use in sound studies, offers a critical tool useful for grounding current analyses of liberatory struggle against racial and social oppression. It reminds us of the value of returning to, and listening again, to songs like “Fables.” It also urges us to continue fingering what Ellison called “the jagged grain” of the “painful details and episodes of a brutal experience …” in order to squeeze from it a “near-tragic, near-comic” transcendence.

Featured Image: By Flicker user Matthew Venn, (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Earl H. Brooks is a saxophonist and Assistant Professor of English at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. His research interests include jazz, rhetoric and composition, black popular culture, and media studies.

REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

SO! Reads: Nicole Brittingham Furlonge’s Race Sounds: The Art of Listening in African American Literature

SO! Amplifies: The Blues and Jazz Dance Book Club–Chelsea Adams

SO! Reads: Tsitsi Jaji’s Africa in Stereo: Modernism, Music, and Pan-African Solidarity–Celeste Day Moore

Living with Noise–Osvaldo Oyola

“Music More Ancient than Words”: W.E.B. Du Bois’s Theories on Africana Aurality — Aaron Carter-Ényì

 

SO! Reads: Tsitsi Jaji’s Africa in Stereo: Modernism, Music, and Pan-African Solidarity

While most books are confined to the pages held within them, Tsitsi Jaji’s Africa in Stereo (2014) begins with a link to an aural space: the book’s companion site, hosted by Oxford University Press. There, readers find a range of images and recordings referenced in the text: an excerpt from Bob Marley’s 1979 “Zimbabwe,”  a recording of Léopold Sedar Senghor’s speech on métissage, and scenes from John Akomfrah’s 1995 Last Angel of History, which was produced through Black Audio History Collective. This collection of primary sources signals Jaji’s commitment to not only foregrounding the sensory–and in particular the act of listening–but also to creating a sonic archive of the twentieth-century Black Atlantic.

The site’s own characteristics mirror the theoretical ambition and methodological innovation of the book itself, which, in simplest terms, considers how Africans heard (and “read”) African-American music in the twentieth century. While the focus on listeners, audiences, and consumers might–in different hands–tend toward a kind of passivity, for Jaji it becomes a rich heuristic for understanding how Africans navigated modern media. By centering Africans as listeners and consumers, Jaji not only challenges the “originary” or “native” status of Africans in the diaspora but moreover uncovers new strategies for understanding the dialogic and intermedial processes through pan-African politics and culture were formed. She does so through a wide range of sources–including recordings, transcriptions, film, literature, websites, and magazines–which become an unprecedented archive of what Jaji terms “stereomodernism,” a “heuristic for analyzing texts and cultural practices that are both political and expressive, activated by black music and operative within the logic of pan-African solidarity” (14). Located largely in Senegal, Ghana, and South Africa, the book thus explores how music in particular helped to define real (and imagined) relationships across the Black diaspora.

After detailing her scope and methodology in the first chapter, Jaji then moves into  substantive analysis in the following five chapters, which are organized around different modes of listening and reading, but are nevertheless chronological. She begins with the early twentieth century and in particular the work of transcription, which describes the act of creating musical notations for a recording or a piece of music.  Looking at a group of South African writers, including Solomon Plaatje, John and Nokutela Dube, and Charlotte Maxeke, Jaji argues that the medium of transcription was in fact a way of finding (and sharing) oppositional strategies from the African-American musical tradition. As this chapter suggests, the liberatory potential in the musical form was amplified by the act of transcription, which created new linkages among South African and African American writers.

Jaji next turns to what she terms Négritude musicology, which serves as a rubric for reassessing Léopold Sédar Senghor’s theorization of black culture from the 1930s through the 1960s, a period that encompassed the explosion of interest in African-American music in the Francophone world. Influenced by both African-American writers and French jazz critics, Senghor found in jazz (and blues) a potent metaphor for the essential beauty and power of Black cultural traditions. Reminding us of the extraordinary gift of this poet-statesman, Jaji’s analysis clarifies the sonic dimensions in his poetry and prose–the “fricative phonemes” (77) and “rhythmic tension” (77)–and connects it to African-American aural traditions, like Stephen Henderson’s “worrying the line” (76) or Samuel Floyd’s “repetition with a difference” (75). She ends this chapter by returning to the culmination of Senghorian négritude–the 1966 World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar–and how it became a critical forum for debating the meaning of Black Atlantic music.

Image by Flickr User Jean-Pierre Dalbéra, Documents présentés dans l’exposition Dakar 1966, 1er festival mondial des Arts Nègres du 1er au 24 avril 1966, Site de l’exposition du Musée du quai Branly (CC BY 2.0).

In one of the most exciting chapters, Jaji focuses on two magazines–Zonk! (South Africa) and Bingo (Senegal and France)–not so much to mine evidence of authorial intention but instead as a means to consider African women envisioned their realities and futures. In these magazines, Jaji finds evidence for how women would have navigated the emergence of new media forms, including magazines, radio sets, LPs, and film. While the advertisements suggested that modernity needed to be “ratified through consumption” (111), Jaji instead argues that women engaged in what she terms “sheen reading,” which enabled them to read these new forms critically and to, in effect, become modern through their critical engagement of consumerism and the new “audiotechnological landscape.” While specific in many respects to postwar Africa, Jaji’s careful and clear analysis of gender, media, and sound could (and should) be a heuristic for scholars in other domains.

While focused on distinct media forms, the last two chapters together help clarify the work of memory and futurity in the late twentieth century Black Atlantic. Jaji first examines the recording and reproduction of narratives of the Middle Passage, moving from Ghanaian poetry  to the 1971 documentary Soul to Soul to many diasporic memoirs set in Ghana. Building from this corpus, Jaji considers the possibilites and limits in these varied acts of memorialization, particularly in response to the immense loss of transatlantic slavery.

The final chapter begins by looking at the memorialization of older technology (or “technonostalgia”) in two Senegalese films, Ousmane Sembene’s Camp de Thiaroye and Moussa Sene Absa’s Ça Twiste à Popenguine. Both films include scenes of somewhat furtive, or secretive, listening to African-American music on record players, which thus takes on a new kind of political meaning not simply because of the sounds themselves but in fact because of the “sonic world” that each has disrupted by introducing the literal and metaphorical record scratch.

Building from this analysis, Jaji considers how piracy figures into Black Atlantic musical formations in the digital age, using a film, novel, and the internet radio project, the Pan-African Space Station, which creates a future claim to pan-African solidarity not only by rejecting the logic of colonial and apartheid radio, but also the disingenuous claims to openness peddled by multinational corporations. The site doesn’t feature “podcasts”—and their barely disguised endorsements of “pod” products—but instead shares its own “passcasts” to open up the truly liberatory potential in music.

This last illustration exemplifies the broader impact of Jaji’s work, which clarifies the centrality of Africa (and African people) to global flows of media and culture and provides a powerful model for placing race, pan-africanism, and Black cultural production at the center of sound studies.

Studio One, set up by Rita Marley, Bob Marley’s widow, between Accra and Kumasi, Image by Flickr User Carsten ten Brink, April 2012 (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In this, Jaji joins an exciting conversation among scholars who have challenged the ways in which the history of sound and technology have, as Alexander Weheliye has described, been heretofore been read as a white, Western project. This intervention is audible in a range of recent scholarship, including recent work on sound and empire by Ronald Radano, Tejumola Olaniyan, Hisham Aidi, J. Griffith Rollefson, and Michael Denning; in analyses of race and sound by Josh Kun, Dolores Inés Casillas, Jennifer Stoever, and Nina Eidsheim; in studies of sound in Africa by David F. Garcia, Robin D.G. Kelley, and Eric Charry; and finally, in recent interdisciplinary work that has explored the varied soundscapes of the African diaspora, including work by Shana Redmond, Tina Campt, Louis Chude-Sokei, Vanessa Valdés, Ingrid Monson, Njelle Hamilton, and Edwin Hill. What distinguishes Jaji’s work is her profound re-reading of the act of listening, which becomes in her analysis a critical means of challenging the racist logic of consumerism and empire. Indeed, she ends her book by asking the reader to “Come, listen with me.” After reading Africa in Stereo, it becomes clear that this request—and admonition—to simply listen is neither passive nor deferential, but instead a liberatory act, and one that has the potential to change the field.

Featured Image: Screen capture from Moussa Sene Absa’s Ça Twiste à Popenguine.

Celeste Day Moore is assistant professor in the Department of History at Hamilton College and is a historian of African-American culture, media, and technology in the twentieth century. She is currently completing first book, Soundscapes of Liberation, which traces the history of African-American music across the Francophone world, wherein it took on new meaning, value, and political power alongside the decolonization of the French empire. Most recently, her work has appeared in American Quarterly and in the first edited volume of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS). Follow her on twitter at @celestedaymoore.

tape reelREWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

SO! Reads: Hiromu Nagahara’s Tokyo Boogie-Woogie: Japan’s Pop Era and Its Discontents–Shawn Higgins

SO! Reads: Susan Schmidt Horning’s Chasing Sound: Technology, Culture and the Art of Studio Recording from Edison to the LP— Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo

SO! Reads: Steph Ceraso’s Sounding Composition: Multimodal Pedagogies for Embodied Listening–Airek Beauchamp

SO! Reads: Roshanak Khesti’s Modernity’s Ear–Shayna Silverstein

Soundwalking on the Edges: Sound, Safety and Privilege in São Paulo, Brazil

Since its inception at the World Soundscape Project in the 1970s, soundwalking has emerged as a critical method for sound studies research and artistic practice. Although “soundwalking” now describes a diversity of activities and purposes, critical discussions and reading lists still rarely represent or consider the experiences of people of color (POC). As Locatora Radio hosts Diosa and Mala have argued in their 2018 podcast about womxn of color and the sound of sexual harassment in their everyday lives and neighborhoods, sound in public space is weaponized to create “sonic landscapes of unwelcome” for POC.

While we often think of soundwalks as engines of knowledge production, we must also consider that they may simultaneously silence divergent worldviews and perspectives of space and place.  In “Black Joy: African Diasporic Religious Expression in Popular Culture,” Vanessa Valdés explored alternate conceptions of space held by practicioners of Regla de Ocha, epistemologies rarely, if ever, addressed via soundwalks. “Within African diasporic religions . . . including Palo Monte, Vodou, Obeah, Macumba, Candomblé – there is respect for the seemingly inexplicable,” Valdés remarks, “there is room for the miraculous, for that which can be found outside the realms of what has been deemed reasonable by systems of European thought. There is room for faith.”  Does current soundwalk praxis—either as research method, public intervention, artistic medium, field recording subject, or pop culture phenomenon—impose dominant ideas about space and knowledge production as much as—if not more–they offer access to alternatives? Are there alternate historiographies for soundwalking that predate the 1970s? Can soundwalks provide such openings, disruptions, and opportunities without a radical rethinking? What would a decolonial/decolonizing soundwalk praxis look and sound like?

Soundwalking While POC explores these questions through the work of Allie Martin, Amanda Gutierrez, and Paola Cossermelli Messina. To read the series from the beginning click here. Today, Paola Cossermelli Messina revisits the São Paolo of her youth.  —JS


When at home in São Paulo, Brazil, I rarely walk to where I’m going. In a city plagued by mobility issues, a private car is the most efficient way of getting around. Other factors in opting out of public transportation include the limited reach of the subway system, overcrowdedness on buses, sexual harassment of women on public transport going unpunished, and price hikes that lead to no infrastructural improvements. The 2013 protests in Brazil, the largest demonstration in two decades, were initially set off by increased ticket prices for the bus, train, and metro, and later encompassed additional concerns such as corruption and police brutality.

Having spent most of my childhood and all of my high school years (between 1987 and 2005) in São Paulo, I find myself looking back at my sensory experience of the city as one mediated by fear, segregation, and vigilance. I have become interested in Vincent Adrisani’s (2015) idea of sonic citizenship—ordinary, everyday auditory interactions and experiences through which presence in and claim over public spaces is asserted. Consequently, I recorded the following soundwalks on two specific routes to engage with what were once-familiar surroundings as a “sonic citizen.” These soundwalks made me revisit fears and privileges from my life as a queer, white/POC, expatriate/immigrant on the edges of color, as I walked through a microcosm of São Paulo, recording the urban soundscapes that enveloped my day-to-day.

Looking up Rua Juquiá on December 29th, 2018. Images by author

The audio clips included in this essay were sampled from a morning walk between my former high school and home in the Zona Oeste (Western Region), and also from a brief walk on Avenida Paulista. This is a bustling, iconic avenue at the top of one of the steepest hills in the city, located at the crux of the Western, Central and Southern regions of São Paulo. Where one soundwalk ends is merely a ten minute walk from where the other begins. These are physically close, but sonically contrasting, public spaces, both of which are significant to my experiences in the city. 

Rua Juquiá is a tree-lined street with walled-off houses and, in my memory, filled to the brim with cars as early as seven in the morning. My school was the only non-residential building on that street. During the day, personal security guards and drivers would find a place to park and nap until the final school bell rang. I recall making a bee line from my mother’s car to the school gate, motivated by word-of-mouth tales of “sequestros relâmpagos” (literally translated to “lightning kidnappings”). Young people going to private schools were said to be the focus of these kidnappings, in which they would be picked off the street by kidnappers and held for ransom. There was one occurrence of this while I was a student at that school. 

With these stories in mind (and sometimes also in my dreams), a sensory engagement with my surroundings was often limited in time and scope, as I moved cautiously between interiors –  private vehicles, school, thirty-story buildings towering high above the streets, and shopping centers patrolled by armed guards. At night as I laid down to sleep, the sounds of trucks straining to make their way up the steep slope of my street and motorcycle exhaust pipes blasting echoed in lively conversation with each other.

The relationship between my privilege and racial identity were, at that time, quite different from how it would come to be in the United States. Being of mixed Middle Eastern and European descent in Brazil is an identifier of whiteness and, more often than not, an indicator of a comfortable living situation. My school uniform with its red blazer and dark grey skirt, the uncommonly green neighborhood where most of my daily routines took place, and the double-gated apartment building I lived in, were all indicators of my status.

Identifying as queer is the only aspect that overlaps the boundaries between Brazil and the United States, where I currently reside. In both nations, the expression of this identifier is mediated by different levels of fear of violence—not of violence like the one I feared in Brazil, but violence nonetheless. Throughout my youth, it lurked beneath the surface of my consciousness, compounding the fear I already carried in my body. In the U.S., the compounding factors are my mixed racial features and immigration status (or as the USCIS dubs us ‘aliens’). In the eyes of all major institutions of this country, I am a person of color. As such, the soundwalk in São Paulo also became an experiment in juxtaposing these varying experiences at the intersection of privilege, queerness, and race. 

In listening to the soundwalk clips below, I find that the absence of people’s voices and sounds, rather than the presence of supposed ‘dangerous people’, per se, is the most disconcerting thing. Though nature sounds predominate in the clips from this walk, they seem to exist in a cement vacuum.

The front entrance to my middle school and high school on Rua Juquiá.

On the morning of December 29th, 2018, there were only a few parked cars and hardly any people on the street. I looked up at the wall obstructing my school from view. These were initially put up at some point during my senior year in 2005, but have been given added height recently, with cameras like bulbous black eyes surveilling the streets from every one of its angles. On Rua Jacupiranga, perpendicular to Rua Juquiá, there is a new addition – a set of ‘city cameras’, curiously placed at eye level. This is hardly what Jane Jacobs meant by “eyes on the street” and their contribution to a feeling of safety in public spaces. In this case, the eyes are cameras and the listening experiences within these spaces are subsequently fractured into the reassured and criminalized. As Robin Sheriff (2000) observed, “silence demands collaboration” and is “both a consequence and an index of an unequal distribution of power.” Although Sheriff was referencing the silence around the discussion of racism in Brazil, I can see a connection with the street level silence.

The silence that this incredibly visible form of surveillance imposes, and the replacement of human bodies with vehicles warrants the question: who and where are the “sonic citizens” of these streets? The only other people outside, besides me, were a few construction workers, shoveling bits of cement into a bin and security guards standing outside walled-off houses. They watched me for a brief moment, concluding soon enough that I was no threat to the houses they were employed to protect. The heightened level of security on the street made me wonder if I was going to be questioned by them, but sure enough, I was deemed unthreatening. 

City cameras at eye level on Rua Jacupiranga, perpendicular to Rua Juquiá

On Rua Juquiá and in the neighborhood of my childhood home, about a seven-minute drive away, the bem-te-vi is heard above everything else. The surrounding neighborhood, known as Jardins (‘gardens’), is one of the greenest in the city, yet only the birds seem to be voicing their presence and delight. The name of this species of bird (which translates to “I see you well”) is an onomatopoeia for what their cries sound like. I can’t help but think of them as true sonic citizens of these streets. That citizenship practices have to do with the less powerful establishing their presence in a public space is an idea echoed by Saskia Sassen (2006) and others quoted by Vincent Adrisani (2015). The bem-te-vi, the construction workers and I, as a listener, were momentarily engaged in this practice, though questions such as, “Why are you here?” and “Do you want to know why I am here?” remained between the human participants.



As I ventured further away from my school, the baseline hum of traffic slowly shifted into the background. Up until this point, I had my recording equipment – a Zoom H6 and Rode NTG 2 shotgun microphone – hidden in my bag in order to draw less attention to myself. This is certainly a decision informed by the same fear that would make me hurry from the car to the school gate. As a consequence of this, in the audio clips there may be a light, rhythmic thudding from the microphone hitting the inside of my tote bag. 

(A map of my two soundwalk routes – in green, the path from my former school and home; in red, a brief walk on Avenida Paulista.


I decided to record a second soundwalk roughly twenty minutes from my school to present dichotomous soundscapes and ways of living, in proximity. Avenida Paulista is a nearly two mile long avenue with ample sidewalks, modelled on those in Manhattan. It used to be more of a dividing line between different sides of São Paulo. When I was growing up and even now, I know that if I take Rua Augusta towards Baixo Augusta (‘low’ Augusta), I’ll find LGBTQ friendly bars and clubs. I remember driving by them with my parents when I was a teenager; there was an implied danger there, too, though it was never uttered out loud like the kidnapping stories.

Though during the day it is a hub for office workers, on the night I recorded this soundwalk the air was buzzing with voices, live music, skateboard decks grating on cement, and street vendors announcing their wares. The abundance of human sounds is clearly in stark contrast to Rua Juquiá, but there is an increase in the sheer number and variety of sounds, too. The surveillance that before stood out like a sore thumb – at eye level and identified with signs – is quite inconspicuous on this soundwalk. Generally, police presence is high on Avenida Paulista – in contrast to the privately hired security on Rua Juquiá’s and that of other wealthy, residential streets. 

As a walker and listener, it is clear that the second soundwalk presented a wealth of opportunities to engage as a sonic citizen, while the first – as it was in the past – remained complicated by fear, vigilance, and a vacuum of human activity. I contend that when sonic citizenship is articulated it is, in turn, reflected back to the listener. This exchange is what makes it so valuable on both the level of the community and individual. It made me wonder if having walked Avenida Paulista and its offshoots more often in my youth would have lessened fears and brought me closer to embracing certain aspects of my identity sooner. 

Instead, I find parts of myself are sonically engaged in one part of the world and others someplace else. If future soundwalks bridge those gaps in the future, I will be able to listen back to these recordings as the first steps I took in that direction. 

Featured image: “são paolo” by Flickr user Samuel Loo, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Paola Cossermelli Messina is a sound designer and audio engineer with research interests that fall in the intersections between music, politics and gender. As Project Manager of Sound Thinking NYC, a program of the CUNY-Creative Arts Team, she has recently gained interest in ties between her work in music and technology to initiatives in education. She holds a B.A. in Music and Writing from Sarah Lawrence College and an M.A. in Media Studies from The New School, with a specialization in sound. Her Master’s thesis on the oral histories of Iranian women musicians received an award from the Middle East Studies Association and was later presented and published by Yale University. For the past 5 years, she has also worked as a Producer and Editor of the Arab Studies Institute podcast Status Hour.

REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

El Caracol: A Stroll through Space and Time in Mexico City–Anthony Rasmussen

Learning to Listen Beyond Our Ears: Reflecting Upon World Listening Day–Owen Marshall

How Many Latinos are in this Motherfucking House?”: DJ Irene, Sonic Interpellations of Dissent and Queer Latinidad in ’90s Los Angeles—Eddy Francisco Alvarez Jr.

Kawa: Rediscovering Indigeneity in China via Reggae

Kawa is a reggae group from Yunnan’s Ximeng, an autonomous county for the Wa people in the southwest of China, bordering Myanmar. When I learned about Kawa’s story in 2016, I was first intrigued by the geographical similarities between Yunnan and Jamaica: both regions are characterized by tropical climates, lush vegetations, and perhaps most prominently, proximities to marijuana plantations. Outsiders often associate the musical style of reggae with a stereotypical “laidback” lifestyle projected onto these locales. Known as “Yunnan Reggae,” Kawa’s music indeed exhibits some of the most characteristic elements of reggae music—slower tempos, remixed vocals, and repetitive chords falling on the offbeat.

“Yunnan Reggae”–Kawa

Recently I realized this climate connection was simplistic and reductive, and what I failed to grasp in Kawa’s music was far more important—a notion of indigeneity manifested through reggae’s generic elements. In Steven Feld’s “From Schizophonia to Schismogenesis: The Discourses and Practices of World Music and World Beat” in 1995, he noted the affinity of many indigenous cultures for reggae music. “Its [reggae] perception by indigenous peoples outside the Caribbean as an oppositional roots ethnopop form has led to its local adoption by migrants and indigenes in places as diverse as Europe, Hawaii, Native North America, Aboriginal Australia, Papua New Guinea, South Africa, and Southeast Asia” (110). In the 1970s, “roots” reggae translated the everyday lives of Jamaicans as well as their Rastafarian spirituality into a stark resistance to racial oppression, economic inequality, and colonial capitalism that they had experienced in history. The music was deeply embedded in the Jamaican culture. Around the same time, however, engineers and producers in Jamaica–many of them Chinese and Chinese-Jamaican–began to experiment with remixing reggae songs, contributing to an adaptive style of pop music as well as its international popularity.  Therefore, against the global market force for “a world music,” reggae was quickly adopted to preserve indigenous cultures, remixing a wide range of ethnomusical elements.

But note that Feld’s list did not include East Asia. In fact, indigeneity as a discourse has been largely absent in this region. Taiwan is perhaps the only exception, where the Austronesian peoples have claimed their indigenous status and political rights. Japan and the Koreas are often considered as the most ethnically homogeneous countries in the world. And China, while officially acknowledging its ethnic diversity, never thought its internal migration of the Han majority as a potential threat to its ethnic minorities and indigenous cultures. I grew up in the southwest of China in the 1990s, when the internal migration of ethnic groups was already a norm. I could not remember if “indigeneity” meant anything even remotely political. I could not remember if the cultural traditions of ethnic minorities were meant to be tied up to the land on which they are/were practiced. What I do remember is that there are regions where the ethnic minorities concentrate and in which they integrate.

This post examines how the Chinese reggae group Kawa introduces an indigenous discourse through the sonic elements of reggae. In their performances, Lao Han often opens with a statement about being an indigenous ethnic minority. Most members of the group have non-Han Chinese backgrounds—Wa, Hani, Aini, and Hui. And even the name Kawa refers to the Wa people in their own language.

Kawa always find the most innovative ways to incorporate ethnic elements into their interpretations of the genre. In “Yunnan Reggae,” for example, sampled vocals from Wa people, lyrics written in Wa language, and traditional Wa instrumentation all work together to portray living cultural traditions closely associated with the Wa ethnic identity. However, it is the intimacy with the land Kawa expresses in their music that foregrounds their indigenous sentiments.

Although the entirety of the lyrics consists of two lines, the song “Red Hair Tree” reveals an indigenous life dwelling on the land—in its neighborhood, locality, and proximity.

Such a huge red hair tree

Hitting the wooden drum sounding dong dong

“Red Hair Tree” resembles a labor song narrating the mundane activities of logging and drum crafting. The first line describes the tree’s size, invoking a reverence for its sublimity. The glistening red color contributes to the plant’s vibrant animacies. As Ai Yong explains, “If you have chatted with the elders on the A Wa Mountains about this land, you will see an extraordinary beam of light glistening in their eyes, carrying endless assurance and reverence” (translated by Meng Ren). The second line translates that reverence into a more intimate whispering. Due to the Wa people’s animist beliefs, the red hair tree’s spirit is reincarnated in the wooden drum. The “dong dong” sound then embodies an invocation of the natural spirits. “The Wa ancestors believe, where there is the red hair tree, there is god’s blessing. In the past, the tall and robust red hair trees surrounded all Wa villages.” As Ai Yong continues to explain, the natural spirits are called for protection in exchange for the people’s worship.

“Red Hair Tree” is not the first time when reggae prompted the Han Chinese to confront questions about migration and indigeneity, however. It is often forgotten that the Chinese diaspora in Jamaica contributed to the development of reggae. Stephen Cheng’s “Always Together (A Chinese Love Song)” in 1967 is a rare yet symptomatic example of how the Chinese imagined indigeneity through remixing reggae.

Despite its obvious rocksteady overtone, the song combines a wide range of Chinese elements. It opens with a pronounced bass line coupled by the guitar and then the accented drum beat. Although this rhythmic beat is reminiscent of typical reggae songs, the music flow is somehow disrupted by the sudden appearance of the male vocal. Stephen Cheng sings in Mandarin. His chest voice meanders across a wide range, registering a sonority that is more often heard in Chinese opera than in reggae songs (or pop music in general). His delivery accentuates on the extended vowels, exaggerating the dramatic ups and downs of the tonal language—Mandarin Chinese. In fact, the music is adapted from a well-known Taiwanese folk song “Green is the Mountain (Gao Shan Qing).” On the surface, it is a romantic love story. It depicts the scenic landscape of the mountains and waters of Alishan, which the Taiwanese indigenous Tsou people traditionally inhabit. Through a metaphorical parallel, the romantic love between a young Tsou couple is embodied in the companionship between the mountain and the water, which resonates with its English title “Always Together.”

Indeed, “Green is the Mountain” was written by the Han Chinese who fled to Taiwan during the Chinese Civil War, and it is often criticized for romanticizing the experience of the indigenous peoples who were forced to move into the mountain. When the song is rendered into reggae by Cheng, however, it re-contextualizes this imagined indigeneity as a diasporic yearning to restore the lost connections between land and culture. “Always Together” was produced by Byron Lee, a Chinese-Jamaican who founded the renowned ska band Byron Lee and the Dragonaires. As record producers, sound system owners, or band managers, numerous Chinese-Jamaicans like Lee contributed “Chinese elements” to reggae during its formative years. In return, reggae carries on the tradition of cultural remix, always opening itself up to local adaptions.

Reggae has always been an eclectic music form. As we have seen, both examples combine a wide range of musical elements from different cultures—from ethnic minorities in China to Chinese and African diaspora in Jamaica. Despite almost a half century apart, the two reggae songs foreground a discourse on indigeneity that is shaped by the migration of people and the mixing of culture. Despite the most generic “pop” elements, the local adoption of reggae reveals an attempt to comprehend the relationship between ethnic identity, cultural practice, and the land. Understood in this way, Kawa’s reggae music becomes an important voice in understanding ethnic differences and indigeneity in today’s China.

Featured Image: Screen Shot from “Kawa: Chinese Yunnan Reggae Band”

Junting Huang is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Comparative Literature at Cornell University. His research areas include literary studies, film/media studies, and sound studies. His dissertation project “The Noise Decade: Intermedial Impulse in Chinese Sound Recording” examines the figure of noise in contemporary Chinese literature and new media art. It analyzes how noise is conceptualized through the recorded sound as a materializing force that indexes the shifting social relations in the 1990s.

tape reelREWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

Decolonizing the Radio: Africa Abroad in the Age of Independence– Samantha Pinto

“Everyone I listen to, fake patois…”– Osvaldo Oyola

Radio de Acción: Violent Circuits, Contentious Voices: Caribbean Radio Histories–Alejandra Bronfman

%d bloggers like this: