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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.

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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.

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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.

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SO! Reads: Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow’s Personal Stereo

In Personal Stereo, Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow’s eminently readable history of the Walkman and its kind, it is telling to learn that Sony founders Masaru Ibuka and Akio Morita were prone to conversing in ‘something akin to a private shared language’ or idioglossia. “They would sit there,” recounts Morita’s eldest son, “and we would listen but we had no idea what they were saying” (21).  In later life, following strokes, both lost the ability to speak; Ibuka’s son characterises their subsequent relationship as “communicating without words’.” Even the name Sony itself, notes Tuhus-Dubrow, with its origins in the Latin sonus and the English slang “sonny,” was ultimately “a word in no language’” (13).  It is as though aural perception, delivered on an intimate scale, is somehow revelatory in a way that transcends the typical organising principles of language. The incorporation of the sonic into everyday life forever approaches a kind of affective intensity.

Personal Stereo tunes into this frequency and – by virtue of its array of research and skilful marshalling of social and cultural history – offers a compelling map of its coordinates. If, as part of Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series, one of its central tasks is to apprehend the affective resonance of the inanimate, it is testament to Tuhus-Dubrow’s work that she is able to manage the breadth of her material into an adroit and concise narrative while at the same time allowing space for her writing to approach these contained moments of intensity. “When I think of [the Walkman] now, I think of joy,” she writes in the introduction (1). While acknowledging that undue celebration of the past can stymie the present, she offers a quietly persuasive case for an examination of nostalgia amid the anxiety of contemporary life, which almost serves as a rallying cry for a generation pinioned between the two: ‘The past, whatever its shortcomings, has the virtue of having already happened. And we survived it.’

As iTunes – like the glory of the world – passes into epilogue, it is again time to consider how we might frame obsolete technologies as echoes of a particular moment in our lives, anchored between progress and decay. As texts, they harbour a kind of degraded cartography: a summation of meaning and collapse.

The story of the Walkman begins in the bombed-out ruins of 1940s Tokyo, as Ibuka and Morita establish the foundations of the company that would become a consumer electronics giant as part of Japan’s ill-fated post-war boom. It is striking how much of the Walkman’s development was shaped by the ravages of warfare: Tuhus-Dubrow notes how its antecedent, the tape recorder, was first used in the German military, and early headphones were issued to fighter pilots. It is possible to read the subsequent commercial adoption of personal listening devices as an attempted refashioning of the domestic interior, transgressed so violently in acts of conflict. One of Ibuka’s founding principles for Sony was to “apply highly advanced technologies…developed in various sectors during the war to common households” (12).  Tuhus-Dubrow also recounts the case of Andreas Pavel, a native of post-war Berlin, who emigrated with his family to São Paulo and developed what we might term a “counter-prototype” to the Walkman, partly inspired by the internal acoustics of his mother’s home – “a mecca of sound” – in Cidade Jardim. Object lessons are formed through disintegration and salvaged materials. Morita compares his formative partnership with the older Ibuka to a newly-established familial unit: “It was almost as though an adoption were taking place” (13).

Akio Morita (left) and Masaru Ibuka (right), 1961. Courtesy of Sony

This elides neatly with Tuhus-Dubrow’s central chapter, which is also the strongest. Here, she discusses the reception of private listening within the public domain, and how existing societal norms apprehended this new sonic phenomenon. It is intriguing, and at times hilarious, how much of the reaction operates as moral critique: from a 1923 article comparing the very act of solo listening to alcohol abuse or a drug habit, to rather more recent takes that foreshadow the current intergenerational culture wars. “The personal stereo,” harrumphs A.N. Wilson, ‘became the archetypal accessory of the me-generation” (68).

Tuhus-Dubrow’s research is smart and on point, not least because it leads to a productive consideration of how the cathartic element of the private soundtrack becomes something that society struggles to assimilate. She takes to time to weave in personal testimonies and reminiscences that are effective and somehow touching: “the Walkman,” she admits, “was a source of elation and comfort” (85). A friend recalls how “[my] inner world was enriched by the freedom to explore music on my own” (84).  Pavel describes how the first use of his prototype, in the snows of St Moritz, evoked “a state of ecstasy,” in which life temporarily assumed a cinematic quality. “Suddenly,” he remembers, curiously switching to the present tense, “I’m inside a film” (27).

Darryl with a new Walkman, December 25, 1982, Image by Flickr User Kent Kanouse

Others speak of how musical accompaniment aids a more immersive interaction with the world around them, and it is here that perhaps the real strength of Tuhus-Dubrow’s work emerges: the generosity of an approach that permits mutual recognition; the summoning of an experiential quality that is elusive in its definition but vivid and immediate in its resonance. It is a mode of writing – and indeed a mode of listening – that is resolutely contemporary, formed in a firestorm of technological innovation that was both oppressive and liberatory, attuning us to new ways of being at the same time as it degrades and erodes old certainties.

It bears resemblance to what Tuhus-Dubrow recognises as “the logic of our own bodies, with organs and limbs whose motions are connected to their functions, and which are susceptible to injury and gradual breakdown” (102).  Earlier she writes, “as one song neared its end, I would begin to hear the opening chords of the next in my head.”

What is it, this sense of auditory anticipation?

It is the forming of new waves. We have blood in our ears.

Featured Image: “Walkman through the cassette” by Flicker User Narisa (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Lewis Jones is a writer and itinerant based in Brighton, UK. He received an MA in Literature, Culture and Theory from the University of Sussex, having previously graduated in English Literature from the University of Winchester. He is interested in how artistic and aesthetic mediums might be used to develop new theoretical approaches to culture and society. He particularly likes urban spaces, as visual and auditory environments, and the intersections between music, movement and the body. He thinks that dancing about architecture is a perfectly valid exercise.

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