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Troubling Silence: Sonic and Affective Dispossessions of the African Slave Trade

The United States has a slavery problem. Just last week, President Trump name-checked the political right’s current favorite past-president Andrew Jackson, suggesting that as a “swashbuckler,” Jackson would have prevented the Civil War…unlike Lincoln. Buried in Trump’s admiration for Jackson’s supposed intellect and political prowess, is the very real belief that the Southern slaveholding class, including Jackson who owned 150 slaves at the time of his death, would have maintained sovereignty and continued to make their wealth from the institution. Trump’s vile public utterance, which is misguided for many reasons, including the detail that Jackson died in 1845 and, in fact, could not have expressed his disapproval of the conflict as Trump recalled, is par for the course in this recent period wherein inane white supremacist rhetoric is normalized as acceptable in American public discourse.

Normalization of white supremacist rhetoric via American news media

Often, I am reminded of a shocking moment that I witnessed from the field in Bahia, Brazil, back in 2007. As I watched the only American-based news channel available to me in my rental apartment, former-Fox News host Bill O’Reilly began explaining to Senator John McCain that supporters of so-called illegal immigrants were intent on dismantling “the white male, Christian power structure” of the United States.

In the ensuing years, similar expressions of racial anxiety have led to acts of domestic terrorism as well as increased deportations and the surveillance and harassment of Black and Latino communities, reinforcing the stakes of my research. What is the place of African-descended peoples in a nation full of such political hostility? With the racial rhetoric at base level and the fear-mongering at a peak, what do we make of the persistent contemporary contention that America needs to be made great again, effectively, though somewhat covertly, wishing for a return to an era in the purported idyllic American past wherein the racial order depended on and thrived off of literal and figurative forms of Black death? How do we trouble the intentional silence about our actual history and thwart foolish advancements toward replicating the great American past?’

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My book Afro-Atlantic Flight: Speculative Returns and the Black Fantastic (Duke UP, 2017) begins answering these questions. In Afro-Atlantic Flight, I trace the ways that post-civil rights Black American artists, intellectuals, and travelers envision literal and figurative flight back to Africa as a means by which to heal the dispossession caused by the slave trade and the ensuing forms of oppression and societal alienation that have continued in the aftermath.

Through ethnographic, historical, literary, and filmic analyses, I show how a range of cultural producers engage with speculative thought about slavery, the spiritual realm, and Africa, thereby structuring the imaginary that propels future return journeys. I go on to examine Black Americans’ cultural heritage tourism in and migration to Ghana, Bahia, Brazil, and various sites of slavery in the U.S. South to interrogate the ways that a cadre of actors produces “Africa” and refigures master narratives. What I found in my research is that while these material flights do not always satisfy Black Americans’ individualistic desires for homecoming and liberation, there is a corrective: the revolutionary possibilities inherent in psychic speculative returns open up the egalitarian opportunity for the development of a new and contemporary Pan-Africanist stance that works to more effectively address the contemporary resonances of slavery that exist across the Afro-Atlantic.

As I conducted research, I was interested in how narratives about slavery and Africa are crafted as well as how they travel in literature, film, and the cultural roots tourism industry. To be sure, I did not conceive of this project as a sound studies inquiry, but throughout my more than eight years of active research, I was struck often by the sonic and the affective as I examined states of dispossession. For example, if I close my eyes and still myself, I can hear that which emanated from the Black expatriate in Bahia, Brazil, who I asked to reflect on freedom – he began his answer with a solemn, gospel music-inflected improvisation of the word/concept.

I remember the crashing of waves at various points along the Atlantic Ocean; often, I stood somberly and marveled at its power and the seeming fury that reverberates, particularly along and across sites of the transatlantic slavetrade. The ways in which the articulation of narrative scripts at remnants of slavery vary – how tour guides’ oral pacing, tenors, and selected content differ according to the racial composition of the visiting groups struck me as intentional and profitable, though not necessarily contrived. And various interviewees and writers recalled and created, respectively, ghostly felt and heard encounters with their long-dead enslaved ancestors; I remain moved by their welcoming posture to exploring this sensory haunting.

European slave traders forced tens of thousands of African people onto slave ships through the “Door of No Return” at  Elmina Castle, Ghana; many died here before making the “middle passage.”  Built by the Portuguese in 1482, Elmina Castle was the center of the Dutch Slave Trade through 1814  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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The excerpt that follows is drawn from the fourth chapter of Afro-Atlantic Flight, “Crafting Symbolic Africas in a Geography of Silence: Return Travels to and the Renarrativization of the U.S. South.” In Chapter 4, I sought to listen to and think through the function of silence in master accounts and the subversive sounds of speculative counter-narratives about slavery in the U.S. South.


In the late 1990s, I took an evening walking tour called “The Ghosts of Charleston,” a guided encounter with the supernatural in Charleston, South Carolina. As we strolled around the city’s downtown area and through winding cobblestoned streets, admiring the horse-drawn carriages and rainbow-colored buildings, we paused often at cemeteries, centuries-old homes, hotels, a former jail, and markets to witness the locations of the occult. Our guide opined that a range of elements whereby widespread death occurred—hurricanes, floods, fires, and the Civil War—had rendered the city ripe for paranormal activity. The dead, he intimated, have unfinished business. What struck me about the tour and the numerous visits that I had made to plantations throughout the Lowcountry throughout my childhood in South Carolina during school field trips and family excursions, as well as a researcher in more recent years, is that other than in passing references, Charleston’s history as a major slave port is glossed over in the larger tourism industry to promote representations of the imagined antebellum South of the Lost Cause. In downtown Charleston, a former slave market sits quietly near a more recently constructed block called the Market, which is surrounded by expensive hotels, eateries, and boutiques that serve as background for a sort of souvenir bazaar at which Gullah women and their children weave and sell seagrass baskets crafted using what are believed to be West African techniques passed down from their ancestors [For more on these historical claims, see Gerald L. Davis’s “Afro-American Coil Basketry in Charleston County, South Carolina” in American Folklife.  Also of interest here is Patricia Jones Jackson’s When Roots Die: Endangered Traditions on the Sea Islands].  The silence about slavery betrays the trauma, dispossession, and death suffered to build and sustain the wealth that, if one looks at and listens critically (even to the silence), hovers over the area, mocking the evidence of the great injury that was the transatlantic slave trade.

Charleston 1837 Bed and Breakfast, Image by Flickr User Anthony (CC BY-SA 2.0)

“The Ghosts of Charleston” tour guide’s lone story that described the spirit of a slave was about a boy named George, a decidedly gentle spirit who is said to pester guests impishly at the 1837 Bed and Breakfast. George drowned in 1843 after he jumped into the harbor in pursuit of a ship that was transporting his parents to a Virginia plantation. Today, George taunts hotel patrons by shaking the bed in one room and by turning the lights on and off repeatedly in another. He is sometimes seen playing in the building or swaying in a rocking chair. George’s nuisance, the story goes, is remedied easily when one cracks a whip to frighten him. To relegate Charleston’s cruel history of slavery to the margins of the historical master narrative by repeating stories about slaves that make light of the institution while reinforcing its horrors—ships utilized to separate parent from child, the horrific struggle that ensued as the child fought drowning, and the whip’s lash—rewounds. Most disquieting is that 1837’s guests are encouraged to participate in the past, wherein it becomes a diversion to threaten the spirit of a slave with force, reenacting the role of the master. The lore identifies a playful ghost rather than a sad spirit who is frightened, crying, screaming, gurgling as he writhed in the ocean, or gasping for air. Why is it that the unsilenced ghostly specters of slaves in these Lowcountry master narratives are not enraged and vengeful?

In the post‒civil rights moment, Black Americans are not only returning to the South to live permanently in a reverse migration that has befuddled onlookers, but Black American cultural producers are also working against the region’s geography of silence to illustrate how the ideologies that undergirded past social configurations in the South redound in the present, moving toward a broad Black fantastic frame. Through analyses of these points of return and revision, this chapter contends that Black Americans embrace speculative thought to recast cultural production about the South; challenge what is commemorated as significant in historical preservation; and create alternative “African” worlds in the purview of the racism and the often spurious narratives of progress that reign in the South, particularly at sites of slavery. Such fantastic reimaginings contest and thereby perform a democratization of contemporary master narratives and, for some, attend to the desires of those who are determined to realize Black social life in the American South despite its sordid histories.

Troubling the Silence in Southern Master Narratives

Growing up in Midway with the coloreds, I spent the night at Molly Montague’s house in the bed with five niggers—spent the night with them. In the same bed, eat from the same table, drink from the same thing, play with them every day. I mean, they were family. I mean, as far as I was concerned. They loved you.

Winston Silver’s curious memory of a colorblind childhood in North Carolina in the pre‒civil rights era reflects a disturbing disconnect that his cousin, the film critic and novice documentarian Godfrey Cheshire, explores in the film Moving Midway.

The film was conceived initially to chronicle the relocation of the home at Midway Plantation to a quieter tract of land away from the urban sprawl in Raleigh, North Carolina. Yet as Cheshire scoured historical records and interviewed members of his mother’s family, he found that most narratives about slavery at Midway went unspoken, though it once was a thriving tobacco plantation. During his search, Cheshire discovered that there existed a branch of Black people on his family tree who might be able to assist him in developing a more complete narrative about his familial history. The film, then, traces two interrelated stories. The first is a catalog of a white Southern family’s desire to preserve its plantation home, the “grand old lady” and “sacred center of the family” that sat on property that was settled by their ancestors in 1739. The second story is that of Cheshire’s chance encounter with Robert Hinton, a Black American history professor whose grandfather was owned by Cheshire’s great-great-grandfather. Hinton’s inclusion in the film acts to challenge the myths of purity that the majority of Cheshire’s maternal family members had embraced about their ancestral past.

Midway plantation house, post move, image by Flickr user Preservation North Carolina (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Perhaps the most compelling thread examined centers on Cheshire’s family’s holding steadfastly to memories that were imparted to them by their ancestor Mary Hilliard Hinton (Aunt Mimi), who was fascinated with the idea of pastoral pasts and constructing genealogical maps that connected the Hinton family to the British aristocracy, despite her certain knowledge that various indiscretions by the Hinton slaveholders had resulted in mixed-race Black American kin. What Cheshire reluctantly finds and attempts to rectify is how he is implicated in what he sets out to explore—the lengths to which crafters of genteel, idealistic Southern myths often go to extricate slavery, violence, and racism from how the past is articulated. While the slave plantation serves as a place for wistful Americans to recall the zenith of white superiority, these vestiges of slavery also haunt the region and negate narratives of progress. Black Americans have begun visiting plantation sites and often become vocal about how the lives of their ancestors are erased from the tourism scripts. The moments of rupture in Moving Midway are indicative of what happens when the Black and white branches of a Southern family attempt to come to terms with their ties to blue-blooded ancestors, whose wealth was accumulated through their continued participation in the violence and inhumanity that marked slavery.

Still from Moving Midway trailer, Robert Hinton talks with Godfrey Cheshire

Robert Hinton appears throughout the film as a historical expert and also as someone who Cheshire initially and naively believes holds an emotional stake in ensuring that the land upon which Midway sits and the home itself are preserved positively in the collective memory. Hinton tours the plantation site in search of evidence of slavery and his long-dead ancestors, seeking out slave quarters and grave sites and showing very little interest in Cheshire’s family’s romantic stories about Southern gentility. Early in the film, Hinton is asked to attend a Civil War reenactment with Cheshire and Cheshire’s mother, Elizabeth. This moment highlights the rifts that would arise later between Hinton and Cheshire, who had become friendly during the making of the film. At the reenactment, Elizabeth attempts to convince Hinton that the Civil War was about states’ rights unlike what the (liberal) media and historians suggest about slavery’s significance to the conflict. When Cheshire questions Hinton about his response to the reenactment, a tense moment occurs between him and Cheshire, whose film narration theretofore had been somewhat progressive in its historical analyses of race and slavery in the South:

Hinton: It looked like it was fun for the people involved, but it—it represents to me a misremembering of the war of Southern history and why all this stuff happened. I think the absence of Black people at a thing like this encourages people to think that the Civil War was not about slavery.

Cheshire: Right. But also, there was the argument that was of states’ rights. That that was—wasn’t that the argument? But I mean, don’t look at me like that. That was the argument that was put forward, right?

Hinton: I just think the whole argument about states’ rights is an avoidance, and if slavery had not been an issue, the issue of states’ rights would have never come up. My attitude about this is that I’m perfectly happy to have [the Civil War reenactors] keep fighting the war as long as they keep losing it.

[Both men laugh.]

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“Crafting Symbolic Africas in a Geography of Silence: Return Travels to and the Renarrativization of the U.S. South,” in Afro-Atlantic Flight, Michelle D. Commander, excerpted from pages 173-220. Copyright, 2017, Duke University Press. All rights reserved. Republished by permission of the copyright holder. http://www.dukeupress.edu

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Featured Image: The author  listening to the Atlantic from the Cape Coast Slavecastle in Ghana, courtesy of the author

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Michelle D. Commander is a native of the midlands of South Carolina. She is an associate professor of English and Africana Studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. In 2010, Commander received her Ph.D. in American Studies and Ethnicity from the University of Southern California. She spent the 2012-2013 school year in Accra, Ghana, as a Fulbright Lecturer/Researcher, where she taught at the University of Ghana-Legon. Commander’s research has been supported by numerous organizations including the Ford Foundation, the Fulbright Foundation, and the Irvine Foundation. She is currently working on three projects: a book manuscript on the function of speculative ideologies and science in contemporary African American cultural production; a book-length project on the production of Black counter-narratives of the U.S. South; and a creative nonfiction volume on African American mobility. She has also begun engaging in essay writing for public audiences, which has been cathartic. You can find her essays at The Guardian and The Los Angeles Review of Books.

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

Something’s Got a Hold on Me: ‘Lingering Whispers’ of the Atlantic Slave Trade in Ghana–Sionne Neely

Moonlight’s Orchestral Manoeuvers: A duet by Shakira Holt and Christopher Chien

SO! Reads: Shana Redmond’s Anthem: Social Movements and the Sound of Solidarity in the African Diaspora–Ashon Crawley

G.L.O.S.S., Hardcore, and the Righteous White Voice

PUNKSOUND

Image of Alice Bag used with her permission (thank you!)

For full intro and part one of the series click here. For part two, click here. For part three click here.

Our Punk Sound series implicitly argues that sound studies methodologies are better suited to understanding how punk works sonically than existing journalistic and academic conversations about musical genre, chord progressions, and/or genealogies of bands.  Alexandra Vasquez’s sound-oriented work on Cuban music, for example, in Listening in Detail (2014) opens up necessary conversations about the “flashes, moments, sounds” in music that bear its meanings and its colonial, raced, classed, and gendered histories in material ways people can hear and feel.  While retaining the specificity of Vasquez’s argument and the specific sonic archive bringing it forth, we too insist on “an ethical and intellectual obligation to the question: what do the musicians sound like” (12) and how do folks identifying with and through these musical sounds hear them?

In this series, we invite you to amplify varied historicized “details” of punk sound–its chunk-chunk-chunk skapunk riffs, screams, growls, group chants, driving rhythms, honking saxophones–hearing/feeling/touching these sounds in richly varied locations, times, places, and perspectives: as a pulsing bead of condensation dripping down the wall of The Smell in Downtown LA (#savethesmell), a drummer making her own time on tour, a drunk sitting too near the amp at a backyard party, a queer teenager in their bedroom being yelled at to “turn it down” and “act like a lady[or a man]”. . .and on and on.  Today’s essay is by the amazing and prolific Chris Chien. Join Chris as he questions the the uneven intersection of racial and sexual vocalization in punk’s legacy.

SOUND!

NO, SOUND!

–Aaron SO! (Sounding Out!) + Jenny SO! (Sounding Out!)


Eddy is white, and we know he is because nobody says so. – Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark

We just celebrated the 4th of July, which is really just national Fuck the Police Day… I bet that during the Revolutionary War, there were songs similar to mine. — Ice-T, interview in Rolling Stone, August 1992

I think it’s real important that us as Americans recognize the fact that we have a lot of violence inherent in us, you know, it’s like part of our culture; it’s part of our art, you know, the 1950s, the great artists, like [Jackson] Pollock and [Willem] de Kooning, and we should work now, now that wars are over to not be ashamed to put violence in our art; I have a lot of violence in my art — Patti Smith, interview from Rock My Religion

 

INTRO 

In a 2015 interview with Terry Gross on NPR, Toni Morrison recounts the time her father threw a drunken white man down the stairs because he thought the man was coming for his daughters. She concluded that it made her feel protected. Gross circuitously questions this rationale, implying that her father’s act, his black violence, must have been terrifying for Morrison and her sister to see. Morrison responds, “Well, if it was you and a black man was coming up the stairs after a little white girl and the white father threw the black man down, that wouldn’t disturb you.” Chastised, Gross adds, “I think it’s a product of being in this, like, not-very-violent, working-class, middle-class family where I didn’t see a lot of violence when I was growing up, so any violent act would probably have been very unnerving to me.” Gross’ response to Morrison’s childhood memory of black fatherly love and protection, coded to elevate her white, middle-class upbringing, left me wondering: whose violence is acceptable, and whose is not?

An example of the “punch a nazi” meme. Image reproduced for purposes of critique.

This question remains pressing in today’s climate. In the past year, state-sanctioned violence against indigenous, black, brown, queer and trans people, which has run like rich, nourishing marrow through the backbone of this country, is once again being openly and actively fomented throughout the public sphere by the figures at the apex of state power. In reaction, antifa anarchist groups, responsible for the much-publicized #PunchANazi meme have revived the use of black bloc tactics; along with the rise of “left-leaning” gun clubs, these responses have given renewed currency to the notion of arming up to fight back out of fear, disgust, and rage.

Olympia queer and trans hardcore band G.L.O.S.S. embodies many of these impulses, especially in their most recent (and now final) EP, Trans Day of Revenge. Through calls to direct action and explicit violence, the band rages against every oppressor that has ever crossed its path. On the whole, popular and critical reception to the EP has been positive, even celebratory, due in part to the preceding lineage of music criticism in which the violence of hardcore music is neutralized or intellectualized because of the implicit whiteness of the genre. And, in mirroring both critical and popular reactions to the work of Black Lives Matter and other black social movements, the calls to direct action in rap and hip hop are either discredited or disavowed. In other words, certain white genres of music, and the violence therein, appear to require intellectual analysis or even possess an inherent rationalization. (Dan Graham’s seminal video essay Rock my Religion is an early example of this foundational project in the history of intellectualizing rock.) The mutation into either incredibility or physical threat, on the other hand, accompanies music produced by certain racialized subjects—in America, almost always the black musician. By looking at the critical reception to G.L.O.S.S.’ Trans Day of Revenge, I will examine the dynamic that celebrates the white voice, especially when it calls for violence, as righteous and “metaphysical,” exemplified by the Patti Smith interview in the epigraph (note the use of the uninterrogated second person), and condemns the voice of black rage in rap and hip hop, for its “thuggery.” To question this dynamic is not specific to G.L.O.S.S. but is meant to denaturalize the uneven musical imaginary that supports the white ‘voice’ and smothers the black, as symptomatic of the way in which the political horizons of black political action are foreclosed in favor of righteous white action.

While there may be a seeming disconnect between music criticism and the politics of activism, radical hip hop’s roots in Black Power movements and hardcore and punk’s roots in the politics of white disaffection of the 1970s have both been well-documented. These political-sonic genealogies bind these respective genres to their racialized origins and mark the political stakes of G.L.O.S.S.’ message and its critical reception. The primary difference between the two genres is that the former genre was racialized from the start while the latter remains “unmarked” to this day, despite its early, close connection to white supremacy as documented by, among others, influential rock critic Lester Bangs. Even fascinating work that links and critiques American machismo and hardcore violence completely occludes the valence of race in discussions of masculinity. A closer look at the critical reception to Trans Day of Revenge will help to tease out the ongoing influence of the racialized origins of these two genres on contemporary music and political movements.

To be clear, it is not my intent to moralize the use of violence in leftist social movements. It would be foolish to deny the trans and queer rage that permeates Trans Day of Revenge, and which G.L.O.S.S. literally embody as an apt and poignant expression of a life lived under state-sponsored brutality and domestic abuse. No where is it more poignant than the opening, which is inaugurated with squealing feedback, dense, chugging guitar, and then a strained scream from lead singer Sadie Switchblade: “When peace is just another word for death, it’s our time to give violence a chance!” The four songs that follow, totaling a mere 7 minutes, all tap into the well-established tradition of nihilistic vengeance in G.G. Allin’s “Violence Now—Assassinate the President,” direct aggression in antifa punk in Oi Polloi’s seminal “Pigs for Slaughter” and “Bash the Fash,” and hardcore staples such as Black Flag’s “Police Story” and The Dicks’ “Hate the Police,” which center on booting (or shooting) oppressors in the face. More than that, however, G.L.O.S.S. is intent on smashing the culture of respectability and pacifism of LGBT politics, singing, “Your calls for peace are ignorant and basic / Self-appointed leaders / Who put you in charge?”

In a glowing review that invokes Jose Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia, Brad Nelson of Pitchfork insists that, “At its best, hardcore is personal; it tends to erase the spatial distinctions between performer and audience, until there is a primordial flow of bodies, ideas, and energy.” Putting aside the cognitive dissonance of quoting Muñoz in a review of an album that urges the use of outright violence, Nelson espouses the grounding liberal, “post-racial” ideology that informs many contemporary conceptions of punk and hardcore. And in doing so, Nelson papers over the racialized history of hardcore while quickly conflating the specificity of state-sanctioned anti-black violence, which G.L.O.S.S. is explicit about, with generalized notions of state oppression. Other reviewers have similarly intellectualized the band’s explicit incitements to violence. Embedded within these glowing reviews, all of which fail to mention the white racial position from which the band speaks and celebrate their calls to violent action, then, is the assumption that white violence is inherently justified because it’s so rare. Put simply, if it’s happening, it’s happening for a good reason. Contrast this with perception that direct action and (self-defensive) violence in both black activism and music reveal some corruption of being, such as an essential “violent character” or the well-worn notion of a savage nature.

Image by mtarvainen @Flickr CC BY-ND

It is certainly possible to argue for trans and queer ways of knowing and creating art that evade these hetero-masculinist histories but this does not seem to be the case here: many reviewers cite the band’s positive influence on hardcore as both genre and scene, work that the band themselves seem invested in. Such interventions in the scene, then, compel us to recognize that the band’s message is channeled through the generic conventions of hardcore, which prime listeners to appreciate the role of violence as a necessary outcome of and antidote to oppression. The main progenitor of this narrative is Black Flag’s Damaged, which invokes the chaotic, uncontrollable violence of white male angst in songs such as “Damaged I.” (Golden Age country music provides an apt analogue with its generic figure of the violent, romantic white outlaw.) Though G.L.O.S.S. rails against murderous gender and sexual violence, they do so by asserting their position in the tradition of white rage that made Black Flag and Minor Threat the deified figureheads of hardcore—though admirable of gender-nonconforming and transfolk to do this work, this tension of lineage is neither addressed nor resolved. In this way, the violent implications of the genre, along with the issue of a privileged white voice, are absorbed and normalized—just a part of the scene.

Indeed, not a single review so much as gestures towards the band’s race, which, as Toni Morrison suggests, codes the neutral as white (whether this is true to their “actual race” or not is not the point—it’s a matter of perception). This is all the more glaring as multiple songs encourage fighting racist police violence against black trans women; yet this message inhabits a continuum of hardcore and punk that has long held an equivocal relationship with white supremacy, which has often been positioned as either a simple matter of white male disillusionment or edgy nihilism. And while there has certainly been anti-racist music in hardcore, the message becomes mixed by veneration of and apologias for songs such as Minor Threat’s “Guilty of Being White” and Black Flag’s “White Minority.” This muddled message appears in G.L.O.S.S.’ work as well. During the opening track, Switchblade screams: “anti-racist doesn’t mean non-racist!” The lyric may be a riff on a Guardian video by Marlon James in which he insists that “non-racist doesn’t mean anti-racist.” He asserts that non-racism (non-action, moral statement of belief) is inadequate since it does not prevent racial violence. Instead, one must go further and adopt an anti-racist (active) stance. G.L.O.S.S.’ inversion of James’ formulation in the context of hardcore and punk, however, reads with an added bit of irony: if even active anti-racist action does not preclude one from holding racist views, then this highlights the submerged racial dynamics of voice that hold up G.L.O.S.S.’ violent aesthetic and that elude the onslaught of sloganeering that shape their lyrics.

Certainly G.L.O.S.S. screaming the refrain “black lives don’t matter in the eyes of the law!” is critical work being done to highlight anti-black violence and their commitment to addressing oppression of all kinds. But it does not preclude them from criticism for benefiting from structural racism, which includes enjoying the unquestioned privilege of being feted for advocating extreme violence rather than, say, being placed on an FBI watchlist. Simply put, the band has the option of espousing this violence from a position of relative safety, especially from state-sanctioned repercussion and harassment. These unnuanced lyrics make it all the more difficult to square some of their anti-racist lyrics with their intersectional politics. The generic bounds of hardcore dictate crafting lyrics like volleys of missiles, and here such pithy concision becomes an easy conflation of anti-black, anti-queer, anti-trans, and anti-femme oppressions that threatens, ironically, to erase the hard work and frequent clash of axes of oppression in the formation of transversal alliances rather than support it.

Still from “Style Wars” Hip Hop Documentary. Image reproduced for purposes of critique.

Still from “Style Wars” Hip Hop Documentary. Image reproduced for purposes of critique.

If the new hardcore that G.L.O.S.S. spearheaded intends to responsibly involve itself in social justice, the lyrics must move beyond sloganeering. The continued submersion of the multiple and complex intersections of race in white activism is an elision that performs its own form of silencing, a repression of a black voice that has long and often erupted into righteous anger and violence. Scholar Tricia Rose provides an extensive history and analysis of this dynamic in in Hip Hop Wars. In addition to Rose, many scholars from Houston A. Baker to Nelson George, have noted the deep indebtedness of early gangsta rap and radical hip hop (Public Enemy and dead prez, for example) to the tradition of anti-passive philosophies of Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, and earlier pre-Civil Rights movement radicals. Due to these genre’s callback and conscious inhabitation of the genealogy of the black resistance in order to address the historical nature of their continued material oppression, critical responses to this music focus largely on the music’s racial aspects (unlike G.L.O.S.S., or hardcore music in general). Consequently, the condemnation of violent action against oppression rather than celebratory accreditation is always couched in the fear of the black voice and active body.

This dynamic is nowhere clearer than the press’ reaction to Ice-T’s side project Body Count, which featured the controversial song “Cop Killer.” Ice-T has stated that the album as a whole was meant to actively invoke the sonic cues of not only hardcore but metal (also known for its troubled relationship to white supremacist politics) the mainstream media applied the label of “rap” to it in order to identify the violence as both gendered and racialized, that is, more closely with a black, male genre of music, with all that that entails to American society. Ice-T’s transgressive identification of black genres of music in the epigraph, “music like mine,” with the originary, rebellious violence of the Revolutionary War speaks to the divide within the American imaginary between “justified” revolutionary, white violence, and corrupted black violence. He observed:

There is absolutely no way to listen to the song “Cop Killer” and call it a rap record. It’s so far from rap. But, politically, they know by saying the word rap they can get a lot of people who think, “Rap-black-rap-black-ghetto,” and don’t like it…They don’t want to use the word rock & roll to describe this song. (qtd. in Rose 130)

In contrast to criticism of heavy metal, Rose, in Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America, explains, “The terms of the assault on rap music are part of a long-standing sociologically based discourse that considers black influences a cultural threat to American society” (130). She explains, young fans of rap are themselves in concert with the music, ready agents of destruction whereas heavy metal is a threat to the fans, young white males, inherently innocent but in danger of corruption. Put simply, the dynamics of racialized music criticism reflect the attitudes of society writ large: the dismissal of the righteousness of violence in black genres of music mirror the same in black social movements or personal survival.

Across the spectrum of black musical genres, we see the same dynamic. Beyoncé, a master of combining maximalist visuals, nuanced political messages, and hyper-popular culture, was greeted with boycotts and protests after her performance at Super Bowl 50, which invoked a Black Panther aesthetic and, presumably, the group’s promotion of anti-passive and self-defense ideologies. Similarly, she faced a backlash to her music video for Formation, which was perceived as “anti-police” and resulted in an attempted nationwide police boycott of her Formation World Tour. Outside the strict confines of the music industry, black folks, especially black transwomen of color, are held to a different standard in eschewing the avenues of violent protest and activism—or even self-defense (see the tragic case of CeCe McDonald). In a seven-minute EP, G.L.O.S.S. highlights the continued violence against black transwomen in their work, which is positive, critical work. But the uneven reception of black political music by the American public proves just how fraught that project can be without full knowledge of one’s positions of privilege, or the history from which one speaks.

 

OUTRO

In the end, this issue of voice is about political horizons. G.L.O.S.S. is entirely future-oriented: Switchblade sings, “we break the cycle with revenge,” the band’s name stands for Girls Living Outside of Society’s Shit, and their first EP features a song called “G.L.O.S.S. (We’re from the Future).” But just how much do their actions refuse repetition?

Jose Muñoz was no stranger to witnessing and experiencing the horrors of anti-queer police brutality. In Cruising Utopia he recalls the brutality of riot police attacking a peaceful vigil after the murder of Matthew Shepard (while recognizing that “if Shepard had not been a pretty white boy, there would have been no such outcry”) (63). Muñoz fights against the violence of the “here and now,” the quagmire of political expediency, which is analogous to G.L.O.S.S.’ anger at the pragmatism of LGBT politics. Yet, in a very real way, violence at all costs can be considered a “political expediency” of its own for what occurs after violence? Is revenge and ultra-violence as sole response really “breaking the cycle”? In the rush to implement such violence, who is left by the wayside as we seize and assert our power? This is a question of effectivity, not morality.

For his part, Muñoz insists on breaking the cycle of the present by citing the use of “queer anger” through activism as public performance (64). This is the means toward utopian possibility, that imagines otherwise in a violent, repressive heteronormative present. But he stops short of arguing that queers must take up arms. The critique often levied against revolutionary utopian theorizing has been the obviation of the conditions of “the post-revolution” in favor of dreamy, uncritical rhetoric. Indeed, the same can be said here in the case of G.L.O.S.S. and all others who uncritically embrace not only outright violence but also intersectional politics blanched of much-needed nuance. As a vehicle to bringing trans and queer folk together, G.L.O.S.S.’ rage is a form of Muñoz’s ‘public performance’; they have poignantly invoked his “critical dissatisfaction.” But the generic bounds of hardcore preclude a nuanced conception of his “collective potentiality” (189), particularly one that is attentive to the racial hierarchies of voice. In short, there are yet songs to be sung. Though they have disbanded, we can thank G.L.O.S.S. for helping to set the stage.

Cover image is G.L.O.S.S. by Sid Sowder @Flickr CC BY-NC-ND.

Chris Chien is an American Studies and Ethnicity graduate student at the University of Southern California, and is doing research on early Asian gay and lesbian organizing in North America, and these social movements’ place within contemporary transpacific, diasporic narratives of a liberalizing Asia, particularly Hong Kong. He has previously written on Sounding Out! about the sonic materiality of diasporic feeling through the relic of the cassette tape, and has an upcoming article on righteous white violence in the music of trans-hardcore band G.L.O.S.S. He hadn’t seen Moonlight or even a trailer before this screening, but heard from many people he respects that it was magical.  When SO! ed-in-chief JS reached out after seeing him post about attending on FB, he immediately embraced the idea of a conversation with Shakira.

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Surf, Sun, and Smog: Audio-Visual Imagery + Performance in Mexico City’s Neo-Surf Music Scene

 Riding the Surf Wave in a City Without a Seashore

On April 24, 2005, at Zócalo square in downtown Mexico City, the Surf y Arena music festival gathered around 100,000 people and nine bands, ranging from local, barely known groups to big names in the new-wave surf music scene: Fenómeno Fuzz, Los Magníficos, Perversos Cetáceos, Espectroplasma, Los Elásticos, Yucatán A Go-Go, Sr. Bikini, Lost Acapulco, and Los Straitjackets, the latter being the only U.S. band in the festival. One year before, hardly more than a thousand people attended the event, organized in a smaller venue at Alameda del Sur, a few hundred yards south of Zócalo square. Perhaps not even the bands were prepared for the huge response in 2005. Interviewed by local newspaper La Jornada,  Fenómeno Fuzz lead guitarist stated, “It’s the first time we see something like this, with so many people. Surf is an instrumental rock genre that was played in the 50s and 60s. There is no sand or sun here as in Acapulco, but we’ve brought downtown a bit of the beach vibe. In Mexico City there must be some 40 bands playing to this rhythm.” In the same interview piece, Lost Acapulco lead guitarist El Reverendo considered, “this festival is a success, for you realize this music is going up. People are on the same pitch. This is not a movement, but a style with many followers. […] It doesn’t matter if there is no beach here—you have to imagine it.”

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Sr. Bikini at Rock and Road on 30 de Marzo 2013, Image by Flickr User José Miguel Rosas (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The bands who played at the 2005 Surf y Arena Festival wondered whether the success was transitory or would endure. More than a decade later, some are still active, most notably Lost Acapulco, whose singles and compilations have been released in countries like Spain, Italy, and Japan; they have toured around the world, and have released a new EP, Coral Riffs (2015). Los Straitjackets lead guitarist Danny Amis has collaborated with local surf bands like Lost Acapulco and Twin Tones; after surviving a hard battle against cancer, he moved to Mexico City’s Chinatown. Los Elásticos also released a new album, Death Calavera 2.2, the Espectroplasma members formed Twin Tones and have played, toured and participated in the short film inspired by their first record, Nación Apache. In 2016, the Wild’O Fest brought together old and new surf stars, starring The Fleshtones (U.S.) and Wau y los Arrrghs! (Spain), as well as local legends Los Esquizitos and Lost Acapulco. In February 2017, the Russian band Messer Chups toured across Mexico, playing with local bands in several cities. So it seems the scene is alive and kicking.

Lost Acapulco’s LP Acapulco Golden cover art by Dr. Alderete (2004). Masks became a famous trait of Mexican surf music. Danny Amys from Los Straitjackets and some Lost Acapulco members wear them on stage, as well as many other surf bands. This cover echoes films from the 50s and 60s featuring wrestlers like Santo and Blue Demon.

Lost Acapulco’s LP Acapulco Golden cover art by Dr. Alderete (2004). Masks became a famous trait of Mexican surf music. Danny Amys from Los Straitjackets and some Lost Acapulco members wear them on stage, as well as many other surf bands. This cover echoes films from the 50s and 60s featuring wrestlers like Santo and Blue Demon.

Today we can listen to how surf music shaped part of Mexico City’s underground music scene in the last decade of the 20th century and the early 21st. Being 235 miles away from Acapulco, one might wonder how wearing sandals, short pants, floral print shirts, plastic flower necklaces, and dark sunglasses became trendy in the country’s capital city. To this beach imagery, surf bands and fans added references to classic Mexican media icons, like wrestler Santo, comedian Mauricio Garcés, and black and white sci-fi movies. The work by visual artists like Dr. Alderete—who has designed covers and posters for many surf bands, such as Lost Acapulco, Fenómeno Fuzz, Telekrimen, The Cavernarios, Los Corona, among others—has been crucial for this imagery cross-reference process.

Lima-based visual art magazine Carboncito cover art by Dr. Alderete (2012). The cover features Kalimán, main character of an old Mexican comic strip, as well as other characters associated both with surf imagery (the Rapa Nui statue, oddly resembling a bamboo Tiki figure) and spy films like James Bond.

In this article I portray the neo-surf music scene in Mexico as a cultural-musical set of audiovisual and performative traits shared, modified, and transmitted by the scene’s partakers. It cannot be said there is a surf music “urban tribe” (a trendy concept for several years in Mexican youth studies), but rather shared “aesthetic” expressions of cultural syncretism, responding to the increase of atomization and alienation in Mexico City.

Just as in ska, punk, or hardcore rock, a number of surf concert attendees participate in typical genre-related rituals like moshing. Surf fans, however, are more “performatic” in the way Diana Taylor understands this term in The Archive and the Repertoire as “the adjectival form of the nondiscursive realm of performance” (6). Several surf concert goers wear masks, originally worn by notorious Mexican wrestlers like Santo, Blue Demon, and Rey Misterio (whose son would later become a WWE star). At the concert, when a song’s tempo suddenly stops or changes, masked dancers pose as if weightlifting, jump and crowd surf, stage fights, and mimic swimming movements. Surf music is the lyric-less soundtrack for the intertwined performance of different cultural traits, portraying a prolific tension between a hedonistic attitude associated with an invented nostalgia for West Coast surf culture, and the halo of exoticness surrounding Mexican culture in the U.S. imaginary, as portrayed by surf bands and artists (just to name a few, Herb Albert’s “Tijuana Taxi,” Link Wray’s “Tijuana,” and Los Straitjackets’ “Tijuana Boots”).

Mosh pit with masked participants. On stage, Lost Acapulco plays “Frenesick.” Multiforo Alicia, Mexico City, March 20 2009.

Tracing the Origins of Mexican Neo-Surf Music Scene

Although surf music bands suffered heavily with the arrival of the British Wave, not all of them disappeared. Bands such as The Ventures became famous for covering surf standards. Others, like The Beach Boys, eventually migrated to different music styles. Later in the 1970s and 80s, bands like The Cramps, The Stray Cats, and The Go-Go’s kept alive surf-related styles, so that by the time Pulp Fiction appeared, in 1994, there were some interesting bands we already can consider “neo-surf,” such as Man Or Astroman? and The Tantra Monsters; Los Straitjackets re-formed and Dick Dale began touring again. Quentin Tarantino’s soundtrack to Pulp Fiction  (including songs by Southern California surf rockers Dale, The Tornadoes, The Revels, The Centurians, and The Lively Ones) contributed to bringing surf music back to mainstream attention, now as a vintage sound commodity (Norandi, 2002).

We might call this “the Pulp Fiction effect,” a phenomenon recognized by stakeholders in the scene, like Los Esquizitos guitar and theremin player Güili:

One day Nacho came up with the idea that we should play surf, because it was the moment in which […] in Satélite [a northern Mexico City neighborhood ] all bands wanted to play funk like Red Hot Chili Peppers or Primus. It became a virtuoso slap competition, and precisely no one was playing surf […]. Shortly afterwards, Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction was released and surf exploded impressively with the movie’s theme. But we were already riding the surf wave.

Multiforo Alicia has been an important venue for the consolidation not only of a surf scene, but also of other emerging movements at the time. Founder and owner Ignacio Pineda remembers,

When we started Multiforo Alicia [in 1995], there was a generational shift. There were a lot of new bands that didn’t fit into what had been going on in the last 10 or 11 years, and they were the punk rock, ska, hip-hop, transmetal, emo, and nu metal movements, which nowadays are quite normal. […] Luckily for us, [Alicia] was like home for all of them.

Interview with Multiforo Alicia owner Ignacio Pineda, 2011

It is a common venue for surf bands (Norandi, 2002, Caballero, 2012), and through their recording label, Grabaxiones Alicia, they have produced albums for some of the most interesting instrumental rock projects in Mexico, among them Twin Tones/Espectroplasma/Sonido Gallo Negro (three groundbreaking bands with the same members), Los Esquizitos, Los Magníficos, Telekrimen, The Cavernarios, and Austin TV. Massive festivals and concerts, like Vive Latino or Surf y Arena, have also contributed to positioning neo-surf as an ongoing trend in alternative rock.

Masking Identity, Performing Difference

While the emergence of Mexican neo-surf was contingent upon local and international music trends in the mid-90s, its permanence has been due to processes of cultural syncretism and appropriation. Wrestler masks are a good example. Worn first by Danny Amis, and later on by Los Esquizitos and Lost Acapulco, masks quickly spread out as a neo-surf visual icon. Los Esquizitos drum player, Brisa, doesn’t remember there being an aesthetic justification behind the masked man using a chainsaw portrayed in their first album cover. Nacho complains, “Argh! We created a monster unawares! Ah, I sometimes regret that. I really regret having worn masks at a concert.”

Los Esquizitos greatly contributed to blend a Mexican surf flavor through their imagery on stage, as well as with their most emblematic song, “Santo y Lunave.”  One of the few songs with lyrics in the scene (and with spoken word rather than singing), it tells story of how Santo got lost in space, turning him into an important figure of Mexican neo-surf imagery. As Güili recognizes, “I think it was after the ‘Santo’ song when all the Tetris pieces fit perfectly into place—wrestling, masks, floral print shirts, surf— everything in the same box.”

Live version of “Santo y Lunave” by Los Esquizitos, Vive Latino Music Festival, Mexico City, May 17, 2009. The song was originally released in their first LP (1998)

“Performatic” moshing is another example of cultural appropriation. The apparently random movements of moshers in heavy metal concerts have been compared to the kinetics of gaseous particles (as in Silverberg, Bierbaum, Sethna & Cohen’s “Collective Motion of Moshers”) but in surf concerts their movements cannot be reduced to the categories of “self-propulsion,” “flocking” and “collision.” Here moshers interact in more complex ways, mimicking wrestling movements to the rhythm of the song in turn, enacting fights between masked and unmasked opponents, and helping other moshers to jump over the audience and crowd surf. They consciously perform the icons they associate with surf culture. They are aware of the differential traits existing between this and other rock sub-genres, and they externalize them through ritualized behaviors.  In other words, Mexican surf concert goers adopt moshing to participate in simulacra about stereotyped representations of Mexican culture and subjects.

Dancing Desires

In his book Popular Music: The Key Concepts (2nd ed), Roy Shuker describes surf as “Californian good time music, with references to sun, sand and (obliquely) sex” (2005,  262). This sexual suggestiveness is still present in Mexican neo-surf, as can be noticed in songs like Fenómeno Fuzz’s “El bikini de la chica popof” [“The Snob Girl’s Bikini”]:

Ella viene caminando en su bikini de color,

ella viene caminando y a todos nos da calor,

y sus piernas bien bronceadas me hacen suspirar.

Ella viene caminando y no ve a nadie más.

[She’s walking by, wearing her colorful bikini,

she’s walking by and everyone gets hot,

and her well-tanned legs make me sigh.

She’s walking by and doesn’t look at anyone else]

Other bands seem to reinforce this fetishization. Sr. Bikini have sometimes hired women dancers wearing masks and bikinis for their shows, and Los Elásticos have a permanent member, La Chica Elástica, who dances in every live show.

[Final part of a Los Elásticos concert in 2012, featuring La Chica Elástica. All-men and all-women mosh pits can be seen at 0:40 and 3:36.]

However, even though sometimes subject to hedonistic and stereotyped representations, women participate in every level of the scene, expressing agency as band members, scenemakers, and/or fans. Women play in the most representative bands, such as Fenómeno Fuzz’s former singer and bass player, Biani, or Los Esquizitos drummer, Brisa. There are also all-woman bands, such as Las Agresivas Hawaianas (whose brief existence is scarely documented on the internet), rockabilly trio Los Leopardos, and garage-oriented Ultrasónicas, whose members have continued playing solo, most notably Jessy Bulbo.

Offstage, both genders wear masks and enter the pit. Sometimes, when there are many moshers, men and women gather in separate pits. Dancing is much more prominent in the surf scene than in punk; participants appropriate a go-go, swing, rock ‘n’ roll, and ska dancing moves, mixing them with wrestling and weightlifting positions. The attendees accomplish their middle-class expectations of leisure and entertainment by showing off their outfits, feeling desire, desired and/or admired (even if ironically) through dancing and moshing—literally by performing such expectations in situ.

The scene overall, has been critiqued for being too retro and insulated from political critique.  As La Jornada‘s Mariela Norandi points out, “an element that the Mexican movement has inherited from the origins of surf is the lack of ideology. Curiously, surf is reborn in Mexico in a moment of political and social unrest [in the mid-90s], with the Zapatista uprising, the peso devaluation, Colosio’s murder, and Salinas’ escape” (2002, 6a). The fact that this scene has survived for over two decades, despite the many economic and political crises Mexico has faced ever since, suggests it works as an ideological outlet for scene partakers to elude their social reality. Just as it happened in the 60s with the Vietnam War, once again surfers stay away from social and political problems, and reclaim their right to have fun and dance. They wear their floral print shirts and dance a go-go style, remembering those wonderful 60s (6a).  For Norandi, the lack of lyrics in surf music may be partly responsible for most surf bands seemingly uncritical position.

Into the Surf Sound

Although half of Mexico’s states have a seashore, surf music in the capital is related to everything but actual surfing. The imagery built around it, considered “surrealistic” by Norandi (6a), is the most visible novelty in the new scene, since melodically and rhythmically speaking surf remains fairly simple, like garage or punk. However constrained, like other genres, to the 12-bar blues progression, it is in timbre where we appreciate how surf sound has been defined by several generations of music bands and players. A triple-level approach to surf music (timbral, melodic, and stylistic) can account for the creation and development of several genres or scenes associated to the rise of Mexican neo-surf, like chili western (Twin Tones, Los Twangers, The Sonoras), space surf (Espectroplasma, Telekrimen, Megatones), garage (Ultrasónicas, Las Pipas de la Paz) and rockabilly (Los Gatos, Eddie y Los Grasosos, Los Leopardos, among many others).

Appropriation, practiced through covering standards and imitating riffs and melodies, has been always crucial for shaping the surf sound, just as it was in preceding genres that  influenced rock ‘n’ roll, like blues, twist, and jazz. Although not exactly referred to as “surf standards,” there are some foundational songs that shaped the surf sound. Three pieces nowadays still debated as the first surf song—Duane Eddy’s “Rebel Rouser,”Link Wray’s “Slinky,” and Dick Dale’s “Miserlou”—influenced not only contemporary bands and their immediate successors, but also musicians in the ’90s wave.

These and other composers contributed collectively to establishing surf music’s standard traits: the 4/4 drum beat (whose earliest template may be Dale’s “Surf Beat”), the “wavy guitar” riff (perfectly illustrated in the beginning of The Chantay’s “Pipeline”), an extensive use of reverb, and the appropriation of “exotic” tunes (such as the Lebanese melody that inspired Dale’s tremolo style in “Miserlou”). Many surf songs contain, in particular, traits from “Slinky’s” guitar and “Surf Beat’s” drums. Both are simple and repetitive, but can be combined with other arrangements at will. This formula has been used in countless surf songs ever since.

a_taste_of_honey_-_herb_alperts_tijuana_brassCovering is a way of making connections with specific songs, and paying homage to (or deflating) admired bands and musicians. Links between a band and certain collaboration networks are thus established. Sr. Bikini covered Alpert’s instrumental version of The Beatles’ “A Taste of Honey,” setting up a dialogue with a musician that played a lot with Mexican stereotyped imagery and sounds (like the trumpets, substituted by electric guitars in Sr. Bikini’s version).

Lost Acapulco renamed The Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird” as “Surfin’ Band,” participating in a long chain of covers (including The Cramps and The Ramones) of a song that in turn was the result of mixing two pieces by The Rivingtons, “Bird’s The Word” and “Papa Oom Mow Mow.” Los Esquizitos have their own covers of The Cramps’ “Human Fly” (“El moscardón”) and Rory Erickson’s “I Walked With A Zombie.”

Los Magníficos’ “Píntalo de negro,” after The Rolling Stone’s “Paint It Black,” shows that, just as in punk, any piece can be turned into a surf song.

Sometimes it is just a trait (a riff, or a beat) that is referenced. Fenómeno Fuzz’s initial riff in “Tiki Twist” resembles Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” whereas two chili western songs (“Transgenic Surfers” by Los Twangers and “Skawboy” by The Bich Boys) echo The Ramrods’ harmonic and timbral arrangements for “Riders In The Sky,” another song with a long cover history, including Dale, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley. A surf version of this song was familiar to Mexican TV viewers in the 90s, since it was a regular soundtrack of furniture store Hermanos Vázquez spots.

Surf was born at a time when stand-alone effects units were just about to change the way music was made, taking audio manipulation off the studio and bringing it to the stage. For example, The Shadows are known for having used the tape-based Watkins Copicat, “the first repeat-echo machine manufactured as one compact unit” according to Steve Russell, responsible for the guitar delay effect in their 1960 rendition of Jerry Lordan’s “Apache,” since then a surf standard. In his book Echo and Reverb, for example, Peter Doyle examines how effects like echo/delay and reverb shaped sonic spatiality in 20th century popular music recording in the U.S., from hillbilly, country, blues, and jazz to rock ‘n’ roll.

Although Doyle only dedicates a few paragraphs to Dale, Wray, and surf instrumentals, acoustic effects greatly contributed to characterize their styles as well. Some traits are intricately related to genre specific manifestations, like the double bass in rockabilly, or the twang effect in chili western. Timbre, then, is the aural counterpart to the scene’s visual aspect, “invoking the rich semiotic traditions that wove through southern and West Coast popular music recording” (Doyle, 2005, 226). It has become a way both to continually define the genre and, in the Mexical neo-surf scene in particular, to overcome melodic and harmonic limitations. Thanks to timbral play, what used to be a blind alley in rock history became in the 1990s a mirror for young generations of Mexicanos to create and feel aligned with fashionable trends, and a sonic filter enabling them to examine their social situations and, sometimes, to willfully sidestep them.

Featured Image: Lost Acapulco in Estadio Azteca 2009, Image by Flickr User Stephany Garcia (CC BY-ND 2.0).

Aurelio Meza (Mexico City, 1985) is a PhD student in Humanities at Concordia University, Montreal. Co-organizer of the PoéticaSonora research group at UNAM, Mexico City, where he is in charge of designing and developing a digital audio repository for sound art and poetry in Mexico since 1960. Author of the books of essays Shuffle: poesía sonora (2011) and Sobre Vivir Tijuana (2015). Blog: http://aureliomexa.wordpress.com/

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Sounding Visibility in Anglo-Latin Prose

series co-editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman

series co-editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman

Here is a distilled introduction to the latest installment of Medieval Sound, Aural Ecology, by series co-editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman.  To read their previous introduction, click here.  To read the first run of the series in 2016, click here. To read the full introduction to “Aural Ecology” and to read last week’s post by Thomas Blake, click here.

Aural Ecology

What is considered music, noise, or harmony is historically and culturally contingent.  [. . .] The essays in “Aural Ecologies” address the issue of unharmonious sounds, sounds that often mark dissonant critical identities—related to race, religion, material—that reverberate across different soundscapes/landscapes. In this way, this group of essays begins to open up the stakes of Medieval Sound in relation to what contemporary sound studies has begun to address in relation to cultural studies, architectural and environmental soundscapes, and the marking of race through the vibrations of the body.  —Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman


While the raucous rancor of last year’s Super Tuesday was dominating network news and social networks—which, sadly, seems so long ago now—a quieter news story emerged from the tranquil fields of Lincolnshire: an Anglo-Saxon island has been discovered.  Its artifacts are some of the most remarkable to have been found in recent decades; among these finds are writing utensils, game pieces, butchered animal bones, and other indicators of a sustained trading community.

The Guardian reported that surveys and software enabled the archaeologists to model the island in its contemporary landscape and seascape, revealing that it had once rested “between a basin and a ditch.”

This placement, the lead archaeologist continued, suggests that the site  “was a focal point in the Lincolnshire area, connected to the outside world through water courses.” So if these reimagined waterways can show us how people saw the site, can they tell us how people heard it, as well?

I think so, especially because of the recent work on ancient acoustics in early churches. In February, The Atlantic published an article on the recent scholarly collaboration among an art historian-archaeologist, a music producer-engineer, and the founder of the USC Immersive Audio Laboratory (yes, it’s a real thing). This super-interdisciplinary team was able to “map the acoustic fingerprint of several [Byzantine] churches,” which were shown to have been deliberately “designed to shift a person’s sensory experience.” Now, the USC member explains, they can record a chant, “process it … and all of the sudden we have performances happening in medieval structures.” They can actually rebuild the sounds of our ancient past. [By the way, Allison Meier of hyperallergic reported on this story as well; her article provides links to the Escape Velocity podcast on Acoustic Museums, which is well worth a listen].

Interior of Lincoln Cathedral, Image by Flickr User Gary Ullah, (CC BY 2.0)

Interior of Lincoln Cathedral, Image by Flickr User Gary Ullah, (CC BY 2.0)

If they can recreate the lost sounds of ancient structures, and archaeologists can recreate early medieval topographies, then it stands to reason that the recreation of past landscapes, and even seascapes, might not be far behind.

But was sound different across the cooler, wetter climate of the early Middle Ages? Were the hearers’ auditory contexts drastically different in a pre-modern world? To what effect?

To me, what’s tantalizing about the Lincolnshire island is that it was on the border of the early medieval fenland—an area described by the 8th-century monk Felix as dense and undulating, “now consisting of marshes, now of bogs, sometimes of black waters overhung by fog, sometimes studded with wooded islands and traversed by the windings of tortuous streams” (Ch XXIV, trans Colgrave p 87). In such an aqueous environment, sound would have travelled well, staying close to the cool, dense air hovering over the waters.

Dark skies over fenlands, near Spilsby, Lincolnshire. Taken by Lutmans on Flickr

Dark skies over fenlands, near Spilsby, Lincolnshire. Taken by Lutmans on Flickr, (CC BY 2.0).

In his prose hagiography, the Life of St Guthlac, Felix enshrines certain sounds in the wetland ecology of Guthlac’s surroundings. He does so most explicitly at the landing-place, where visitors must “sound a signal” to alert the hermit that they’ve arrived. But what was this signal, and why would Felix bother to emphasize such a mundane practice of alerting your host when you’ve arrived?

In monastic communities bells were used to sound the Daily Office to calling each member together in prayer. As moderns, we should remember that these bells—frequent, sonic interventions of everyday life—were rung on the shore, or in a church, or on monastic grounds rather than from the larger towers of later belfries (an exception to this is the early Irish Round Tower). These small hand-held bells “of hammered sheets or cast metal” which “would presumably have clanged or tinkled, rather than tolled sonorously across a distance” (Resounding Community, 103).

Bell-shrine; bronze and silver parcel-gilt; made for the bell of St Conall Cael;

Bell-shrine; bronze and silver parcel-gilt; made for the bell of St Conall Cael.

Bells were spiritual and supernatural; they could cleanse or curse, and were kept by clerics and lay people alike. They were sometimes sworn on, as if they were relics. Sometimes, they were made into relics.  For more about early Irish bell traditions, click here and or/ here.

In Northwest Europe in the Early Middle Ages, Christopher Loveluck describes David Hinton’s work on a seventh-century smith found buried alone, “next to the marshland and waterways to the sea, with his tools, a bell, a fine seax and a silk-wrapped amulet” and therefore “emblematic of the transition from such ‘outsider’ itinerant artisan/merchants to the vibrant artisan and trading communities of the emporia ports.” Still, the“[p]erception of threat from itinerant ‘outsiders’ is emphasized in the late seventh-century Anglo-Saxon law code of Wihtred, by the obligation on non-local travellers and foreigners to announce themselves with bells or horns, prior to leaving principal roads or trackways to approach settlements.”

england-map

For seventh-and eighth century people, then, bells sounded time, community, and stillness as well as place, strangeness, and travel. In either instance, the aural intrusion always betokened a human presence. And of course, these were some of the only sounds that weren’t naturally occurring; this might have been as close as they got to manmade sound pollution.

For Guthlac, sound was especially important because he could not see far from his earthen hermitage. Not having any need for a bell to sound the Daily Office, he nevertheless depended on some kind of signal for approaching visitors.

In one episode, distraught parents bring their once-possessed, now very ill son to Crowland in the hope that he might be cured. This is quite different from an earlier visitation from Wilfrid and Æthelbald, whom Guthlac knew personally, and with whom he might have traded correspondence. To me, this is the real test of Guthlac’s grace: will he help the neediest? The stranger? The tired, desperate parents? Does the bell, or whatever the signal is, proclaim their sameness or difference?

We can sense the tension in the passage, during their sounding of the signal and speaking to Guthlac:

Then when the sun rose in its splendour, they approached the landing place of this said island, and having struck the signal they begged for a talk with the great man. But he, as was his custom, burning with the flame of most excellent charity, presented himself before them…[and after hearing their story] immediately seized the hand of the tormented boy and led him into his oratory, and there prayed on bended knees, fasting continually for three days…(XLI, Colgrave 131).

The parents had expected to wait; they expected to plead on their son’s behalf. They expected a struggle to be heard. But—and I do think that’s a rather crucial autem in the Latin—Guthlac is eager to listen; the sound on the shore was enough.

What’s more, his cure is a series of utterances. He prays (aloud) for three days straight, without pausing to eat. And after ritually rinsing and breathing the “breath of healing” on the boy, the child, “like one who is brought into port out of the billows and the boiling waves, heaved some deep sighs from the depth of his bosom and realized that he had been restored to health”(XLI, Colgrave 131).

Image from National Museum of Ireland

Image from National Museum of Ireland

I’m a mom to an asthmatic toddler, so I find myself quite moved by this scene. I can imagine ringing the bell—the thing I might have heard in church, or had in my home; the signal by which monks were called to prayer and children inside for curfew—to make a sound for myself. I can imagine traveling with my husband to a strange place far from home, not knowing what would happen. I can imagine using something everyday for something extraordinary, and having the sound of my arrival echo with anticipation. If I were this mother, I would hear it bounce off the marshes and off the low-lying islands. The dawn would be warming the air above us, amplifying our sound. And I would be standing there, with my child wrapped in my arms, hoping to see someone emerge from a barrow; a man of God whose isolation and entrenchment was supposed to be part of his holiness.

The sound travels outwards to the hermitage and back with the hermit—the echo of her hope, meeting them at the shore. This is a soundscape and a landscape in which time seems still on the shore, but sped through in the oratory. Felix joins both sites, and both temporalities, with the simile of the boy as one rescued from shipwreck catching his breath as he washes ashore. The image recalls the sound of their arrival, and that first bell still seems to ring through this narrative of hope against all odds.

Wouldn’t it be great to hear that again?

Featured Image: Guthlac sailing to Crowland with Tatwin. © British Library, Harley Roll, Y 6, roundel 4, from Medieval Histories.com

Rebecca Shores is a Ph.D. candidate in English Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her Dissertation is entitled “Bringing Saints to the Sea: Ships in Old English and Anglo-Latin Hagiography.”

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