Learning from other scholars’ work on Haitian radio was, and still is, one of the greatest pleasures in the process of writing Isles of Noise: Sonic Media in the Caribbean (UNC 2016). People living in or from Haiti widely acknowledged and almost took for granted radio’s outsized role in public and political life. Edwidge Danticat and Jonathan Demme also understood this and paid tribute in Claire of the Sea Light and The Agronomist respectively, but historians remained largely fixated, understandably, on pivotal moments in Haiti’s rich history. Radio is different. Not pivotal, but witnessing the pivotal. Less dramatic and more long lasting and adhering to the same format for days, years, decades. It speaks to people who wouldn’t read newspapers or books. It floods private and public space with the sounds of music, talking, ruling, dissenting, explaining, satirizing, creating, crying, testifying, lying. But it leaves few archival traces. This is why the work of the five scholars in this series is so important. They allow us to hear a little and honor the listeners who make the medium what it is.
Liveness, and company: Ian Coss’s finely tuned account of a “day in the life” of a radio station follows the programming rhythm of days and nights, from rollicking to quiet and back again. Radio is a predictable presence, an intimate friend who anticipates your needs even before you do. Coss draws from his years of listening to the listeners as he marks radio time and space in Cap Haïtien. Guest Editor– Alejandra Bronfman
Fabrice Joseph is a mender, set up on a street corner in Cap Haïtien, Haiti’s second largest city. He shows me a red plastic toolbox filled with supplies — thread, wires, scraps of fabric—which he can use to fix a jammed zipper or stitch up a torn backpack strap. I stop because he’s cradling a radio set in his hands, tuned to the city’s most popular station: Radio Venus.
We meet on a quiet day; Fabrice has been sitting on the stoop for five hours already with no work. Another day he’s engrossed in assembling a large umbrella—the kind food vendors use for shade—but the radio is still on, now propped on a ledge just behind his head. He replaces the batteries almost weekly, because the radio is always on. In the morning Radio Venus plays news, Fabrice tells me, followed by music as the day heats up. Then in the afternoon he’ll hear sports or perhaps a religious program, before the station returns to music in the evening.
This arc Fabrice describes is designed to follow the arc of his day. In this post, I trace that link: between the rhythms of radio programming and the rhythms of daily life, to show how formatting choices create a heightened sense of ‘liveness’ on Haiti’s airwaves, with all content located in a specific moment: the present moment.
In a technical sense, terrestrial radio broadcasting has always been defined by real time or ‘live’ transmission (an dirèk in Creole), a characteristic that is often invoked in discussions of the medium’s capacity to create shared experiences or even ‘imagined communities.’ And yet where I live in the United States, the passage of time is barely discernible on most commercial stations. Where radio schedules once varied from hour to hour (often reflecting gendered and classed norms of listening), today market research has driven the rise of so-called “format stations” that target specific interest groups and demographics with an equally targeted form of programming: non-stop sports, news, top 40, easy listening, etc.
When I first visited Haiti in 2015, I was surprised to find a radio format unlike any I had grown up with, and not unlike those broadcast schedules of the 1920s and 1930s. While doing research in Cap Haïtien, I conducted a series of bandscans—systematic reviews of the entire radio dial—in order to identify the different types of programming heard on stations throughout the day there. I found the full range of talk and music-oriented shows you might expect, and yet of the 31 stations I picked up, only a handful carried the same type of programming all day. The vast majority carried every kind of program, including Fabrice’s favorite station, Radio Venus.
The Radio Venus studio sits on top of a three-story building, with a door leading straight out onto an open roof deck where the transmitter tower rises several more stories up in the air. That tower operates at 10 watts, just enough to relay the signal to a nearby mountain, where it’s then rebroadcast at roughly 450 watts, blanketing the country’s whole Northern Department. The person in charge of this whole system, as well as the overall flow of the day’s programs, is known as the opérateur. The station employs four operators—Molliere, Louis, Wilkonson and Simon—who work in shifts to cover the 24-hour schedule. This rotation provides stability as the hosts (or animateur) of different programs come and go—often showing up late, and sometimes not showing up at all. For long stretches of the day there is no host, so the operator just cues up a folder of songs in Windows Media Player, occasionally leaning over to trigger a station ID: a chesty voice that declares, “W’ap koute Radio Tele-Venus”—‘You are listening to Radio Tele-Venus.’
One day, while sitting behind the board of the cramped control room, Simon explains that the goal of the station’s format is to satisfy all of the listeners’ interests and to provide “stability” in their often unstable lives. That last descriptor, “estabilite,” strikes me as somewhat ironic, given that the station’s programming is constantly changing. But for Haitians like Fabrice, who listen all day while they work, the description fits: he never needs to touch the dial, and at the same time he knows exactly what he will hear. Indeed, most of the radio listeners I meet in Cap Haïtien praise the medium’s consistently variable nature; if they wanted to hear the same thing all day they could get a stereo that takes a kat memwa—a memory card—and load it up with their favorite mp3s. Radio should change with the hours of the day; that’s part of what makes it radio.
Many of the staff at Radio Venus describe the art of matching programming to the mood of the moment, in terms of ‘hotness’ (cho). For example, it’s important to have a lively host on the air between about 10am to noon, usually playing konpa music, so that the radio ‘heats up’ to give listeners more energy for their day. This shift takes place simultaneously across virtually every station on the dial, such that it’s literally audible on the street, from countless battery-powered radio sets. The timeliness of this ‘heating up’ is further emphasized by the host—at Venus, a local favorite named Don Lolo—who constantly reads the exact hour and minute off of a large analog clock on the studio wall. Lolo’s job is to make the music live in the moment; to make it ‘hot.’ By the same token, when I interview the overnight operator, Louis, he tells me that since many listeners keep the radio on all night, it’s important that he doesn’t play any music that’s ‘too hot,’ so as not to disturb their sleep. Everything in its right time.
The most dramatic shift in programming, however, begins on Friday evening. For the entire weekend, the station drops most of its talk-oriented shows and plays constant music—almost all of which is bootlegged recordings of live concerts. The idea is to convey the freewheeling mood of a night out on the town, even for those who won’t be at a bar or concert. To keep up this atmosphere, the station operators can choose from whole folders of “konpa live” tracks dating back decades—most of which run twelve to fifteen minutes long. Again, this programming convention of playing live recordings on weekends is ubiquitous across the dial, and indeed across Haiti. Turn on the radio on a Saturday night and you will be hard pressed to find any music that was recorded in a studio.
My first weekend at Radio Venus, I step out of the studio at dusk, and find the station’s signal is suddenly all around me—far more present than just a few hours earlier. Around the corner from the station, an electronics store has set up a row of folding chairs in the street, and is blasting Radio Venus for a small audience. At the end of the same block is a barbershop; there too the stereo is tuned to Venus, with one cabinet speaker set in its arched entryway.
At this hour, both the street and the shop are definitively male spaces—save for some market women packing goods and a mother overseeing her son’s haircut, those listening in public are men. A cell card vendor is perched on top of the stereo speaker itself; a man with two live chickens—their heads poking out of the bottom of plastic shopping bags—stops by and quickly exchanges some money with one of the barbers, who plays some air guitar as the next customer takes his seat. One of the other remaining barbers is perched sideways in his stool, feet in the air and a bottle of Barbancourt rum in one hand. The energy is loose, encouraged by the radio announcer.
Back at the station, the small studio is lit only by a single fluorescent bulb, whose harsh light spills through the glass pane into the neighboring control room. Don Lolo is on the air once again, but his style is different. No more telling the time or giving long monologues. Instead he sings along in a full-throated voice, occasionally adding personal shout-outs. We learn that Gerald is celebrating a birthday today, just as Claire and Alex are marking their anniversary. When his phone then rings, instead of picking it up Lolo silences the call and responds by radio: “Sorry, I can’t talk now!”
It’s late when Don Lolo wraps up his show and we head out of the studio, leaving Louis alone to cool the music back down for the overnight shift. The evening operator, Simon, offers to walk me home. At this hour, we can stroll down the middle of the street side by side, the city’s elaborate facades cast in silhouette by the occasional streetlight. As we head up the hill towards my place, Simon cocks his head and gestures across the street. I turn just in time to catch the station ID—“W’ap koute Radio Tele Venus”—coming out of a barbershop. The radio is still on.
Tune into a livestream of Radio Tele-Venus via Tune In: https://tunein.com/radio/Radio-Tele-Venus-1043-s181945/
Featured Image: “An electronics vendor in Cap Haïtien, Haiti” by Ian Coss
Ian Coss is an audio producer, composer and sound designer whose work spans the worlds of podcasting and performance. He has produced several critically acclaimed series with the Radiotopia network, including Ways of Hearing, The Great God of Depression, and Over the Road. His audio work has been reviewed by the New Yorker and the Guardian; featured on NPR, Al Jazeera and the BBC; and recognized with an Edward R. Murrow Award for ‘excellence in sound.’ Additionally, Ian has premiered live sound works at the Boston Museum of Science and Harvard University, and collaborated on immersive audio tours for the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Richmond ICA, and other major art institutions. Ian holds a PhD in ethnomusicology from Boston University, where he conducted research on Haitian radio broadcasting and Indonesian shadow-puppetry. He continues this work as musical director for The Brothers Čampur, an international puppetry collaborative that has performed at major festivals in Indonesia, and at universities throughout the eastern United States. More on all these projects at iancoss.com.
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Listen to yourself!: Spotify, Ancestry DNA, and the Fortunes of Race Science in the Twenty-First Century
If you could listen to your DNA, what would it sound like? A few answers, at random: In 1986, the biologist and amateur musician Susumo Ohno assigned pitches to the nucleotides that make up the DNA sequence of the protein immunoglobulin, and played them in order. The gene, to his surprise, sounded like Chopin.
With the advent of personalized DNA sequencing, a British composition studio will do one better, offering a bespoke three-minute suite based on your DNA’s unique signature, recorded by professional soloists—for a 300GBP basic package; or 399GBP for a full orchestral arrangement.
But the most recent answer to this question comes from the genealogy website Ancestry.com, which in Fall 2018 partnered with Spotify to offer personalized playlists built from your DNA’s regional makeup. For a comparatively meager $99 (and a small bottle’s worth of saliva) you can now not only know your heritage, but, in the words of Ancestry executive Vineet Mehra, “experience” it. Music becomes you, and through music, you can become yourself.
As someone who researches for a living the history of connections between music and genetics I am perhaps not the target audience for this collaboration. My instinct is to look past the ways it might seem innocuous, or even comical—especially when cast against the troubling history of the use of music in the rhetoric of American eugenics, and the darker ways that the specter of debunked race science has recently returned to influence our contemporary politics.
During the launch window of the Spotify collaboration, the purchase of a DNA kit was not required, so in the spirit of due diligence I handed over to Spotify what I know of my background: English, Scottish, a little Swedish, a color chart of whites of various shade. (This trial period has since ended, so I have not been able to replicate these results—however, some sample “regional” playlists can be found on the collaboration homepage).
While I mentally prepared myself to experience the sounds of my own extreme whiteness, Ancestry and Spotify avoid the trap of overtly racialized categories. In my playlist, Grime artist Wiley is accorded the same Englishness as the Cure. And ‘Scottish-Irish’, still often a lazy shorthand for ‘White’, boasted more artists of color than any other category. Following how the genetic tests themselves work, geography, rather than ethnicity, guides the algorithm’s hand.
As might be expected, the playlists lean toward Spotify’s most popular sounds: “song machine” pop, and hip-hop. But in smaller regions with less music in Spotify’s catalog, the results were more eclectic—one of the few entries of Swedish music in my playlist was an album of Duke Ellington covers from a Stockholm-based big band, hardly a Swedish “national sound.” Instead, the music’s national identity is located outside of the sounding object, in the information surrounding it, namely the location tag associated with the recording. In other words: this is a nationalism of metadata.
One of the common responses to the Ancestry-Spotify partnership was, as, succinctly expressed by Sarah Zhang at The Atlantic: ‘Your DNA is not your culture’. But because of the muting of musical sound in favor of metadata, we might go further: in Spotify’s catalog, your culture is not even your culture. The collaboration works because of two abstractions—the first, from DNA, to a statistical expression of probable geographic origin; and second from musical sound and style characteristics, to metadata tags for a particular artist’s location. In both of these moves, traditional sites of social meaning—sounding music, and regional or familial cultural practice—are vacated.
There is a way in which this model could come across as subversive (which has not gone unnoticed by Ancestry’s advertising team). Hijacking the presumed whiteness of a Scotland or a Sweden to introduce new music by communities previously barred from the possibility of ‘Scotishness’ or ‘Swedishness’ could be a tremendously powerful way of building empathy. It could rebut the very possibility of an ethno-state. But the history of music and genetics suggests we might have less cause for optimism.
In the 1860s, Francis Galton, coiner of the word ‘eugenics’, turned to music to back up his nascent theory of ‘hereditary genius’—that artistic talent, alongside intelligence, madness, and other qualities were inherited, not acquired. In Galton’s view, musical ability was the surest proof that talents were inherited, not learned, for how else could child prodigies stir the soul in ways that seem beyond their years? The fact of music’s irreducibility, its romantic quality of transcendence, was for Galton what made it the surest form of scientific proof.
Galton’s ideas flourished in America in the first decades of the twentieth century. And while American eugenics is rightly remembered for its violence—from a sequence of forced sterilization laws beginning with Indiana in 1907, to ever-tightening restrictions on immigration, and scientific propaganda against “miscegenation” under Jim Crow—its impact was felt in every area of life, including music. The Eugenics Record Office, the country’s leading eugenic research institution, mounted multiple studies on the inheritance of musical talent, following Galton’s idea that musical ability offered an especially persuasive test-case for the broader theory of heritability. For 10 years the Eastman School of Music experimented on its newly admitted students using a newly-developed kind of “musical IQ test”, psychologist Carl Seashore’s “Measures of Musical Talent”, and Seashore himself presented results from his tests at the Second International Congress of Eugenics in New York in 1923, the largest gathering of the global eugenics movement ever to take place. His conclusion: that musical ability was innate and inherited—and if this was true for music, why not for criminality, or degeneracy, or any other social ill?
Next to the tragedy of the early twentieth century, Spotify and Ancestry teaming up seems more like a farce. But scientific racism is making a comeback. Bell Curve author Charles Murray’s career is enjoying a second wind. Border patrol agents hunt “fraudulent families” based on DNA swabs, and the FBI searches consumer DNA databases without customer’s knowledge. ‘Unite the Right’ rally organizer Jason Kessler ranked races by IQ, live on NPR.. And, while Ancestry sells itself on liberal values, many white supremacists have gone after ‘scientific’ confirmation for their sense of superiority, and consumer DNA testing has given them the answers they sought (though, often, not the answers they wanted.)
As consumer genetics gives new life to the assumptions of an earlier era of race science, the Spotify-Ancestry collaboration is at once a silly marketing trick, and a tie, whether witting or unwitting, to centuries of hereditarian thought. It reminds us that, where musical eugenics afforded a legitimizing glow to the violence of forced sterilization, the Immigration Acts, and Jim Crow, Spotify and Ancestry can be seen as sweeteners to modern-day race science: to DNA tests at the border, to algorithmic policing, and to “race realists” in political office. That the appeal of these abstractions—from music to metadata, from culture to geography, from human beings to genetic material—is also their danger. And finally, that if we really want to hear our heritage, listening, rather than spitting in a bottle, might be the best place to start.
Featured Image: “DNA MUSIC” Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International
Alexander Cowan is a PhD candidate in Historical Musicology at Harvard University. He holds an MMus from King’s College, London, and a BA in Music from the University of Oxford. His dissertation, “Unsound: A Cultural History of Music and Eugenics,” explores how ideas about music and musicality were weaponized in British and US-American eugenics movements in the first half of the twentieth century, and how ideas from this period survive in both modern music science, and the rhetoric of the contemporary far right.
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