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 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 third piece of this series, Jessica Teague grapples with Mingus’s 1957 Atlantic recording of “The Clown.” Her analysis reveals one of Mingus’s most critical questions: Is the only way to escape exploitation to exploit another, or worse yet, yourself? You can catch up with the full series by clicking here. –Guest Editor Earl Brooks
When jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus first set out to write his memoirs in the mid-1950s he told his wife Judy that he “wanted a chance to write about the true jazz scene that has made our masters millions and taken the most famed to their penniless graves as the only escape from the invisible chains on black jazz as an art” (Santoro 175). By the time Beneath the Underdog saw publication nearly two decades later in 1971, it was considerably slimmed down from the 800+ page manuscript Mingus had produced. Financially strained and evicted from his downtown loft, Mingus hoped that the book would be a best seller and offer economic freedom from the music industry.
But as many have noted, Beneath the Underdog is not your typical jazz autobiography (see Krin Gabbard, Nichole Rustin-Paschal, Gene Santoro, and Daniel Stein). Here, Mingus rejects standard notions of the self declaring in the first sentence of his book: “In other words, I am three.” By writing in a mode that wavers between the lurid world of popular pulp-heroes and psychological high-modernism, Mingus’s autobiography (like his music) treads a slender line between clowning and critique.
In one of the most infamous scenes from Beneath the Underdog, Mingus hyperbolically describes having intercourse with twenty-three prostitutes over the course of one night in Tijuana, Mexico. The incident follows the breakup of his marriage with his first wife Barbara and his affair with Nesa Morgan, the wife of a club owner. Recounting his superhuman exploits in the language of the comic book, Mingus turns what might have been a display of his sexual prowess into a clowning circus act, complete with zany sound effects and an off-kilter sense of rhythm. It’s a scene that simultaneously reinforces the stereotype of the African American male’s hypersexuality and deflates it with comedy:
“No! Me, sir!”
“You like fooke?”
“Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty!”
“Two dollars, sir!”
(Beneath the Underdog 176-177)
There is a certain ambiguity to the poolside scene. Mingus the narrator is notably absent and the action proceeds without any visual clues—he gives the reader only fragments of dialogue that alternate between the prostitutes selling their wares and the side conversation between Mingus and his friend Hickey, who comments upon his sexual performance. What is more, the onomatopoetic sound effects employed are demonstrably silly and absurd. There are no moans or sighs of ecstasy here—each act is punctuated by a “BLAM! BLAM!” (178). Sex is transactional and performative for Mingus, but not pleasurable.
The pulpy, comic book quality of the Tijuana scene makes Mingus a superhuman like a character from The Fantastic Four, but it also makes him into a two-dimensional cartoon. This undercutting of the self and the performative body characterizes Mingus’s concept of the fractured self of the black jazz musician—a theme he takes up in his music as well as his writing (e.g. “Self-Portrait in Three Colors” from Mingus Ah Um). Interestingly, Mingus’s affinity for comics would surface again and in 1966 he collaborated with African American illustrator Gene Bilbrew to create a comic strip-style advertisement for the Charles Mingus Record Club that appeared in the Village Voice.
Biographers have argued that Mingus included these likely fictionalized sex scenes as a way to sell more books and evade the exploitative economics of the music industry. However, the comic book sound effects that render Mingus’s sexuality humorously exaggerated comes at the expense of Latinx women. Despite having grown up in a multi-ethnic community in Los Angeles, his representation of the voices of the Mexican prostitutes flattens their identities and plays upon ethnic stereotypes. With each “Sí señor,” the women are presented as both sexually promiscuous and submissive. Mingus’s relationships with women were fraught, and his anxieties about his own sexuality were inevitably tied up with race. His tendency to treat women as sex-objects is similarly on display in the comic strip above, in which a suggestively-attired white female hipster acts as a narc, exposing a bootleg record dealer. “Uh, you got anything by Charlie Mingus? Uh-h, y’know, like uh… under the counter?” she asks, dripping innuendo.
And yet, these cringe-inducing scenes are often complicated by Mingus’s use of pimping and prostitution as metaphors for exploitation throughout his Beneath the Underdog. At various points he portrays himself as both prostitute and pimp, both masculine and feminine. When his friend Hickey seems to question Mingus’s extreme behavior, he responds: “In this white man’s society what else have I got” (178). Even in moments that indulge in humor, such as the Tijuana scene, Beneath the Underdog darkly implies a pimp or be pimped world.
Mingus would become known for writing music with a political edge—one might think of “Fables of Faubus” from Mingus Ah Um (1959)—but perhaps the closest musical relative to the satirical Tijuana scene is Mingus’s 1957 Atlantic recording of “The Clown.” In the liner notes for the album, penned by Nat Hentoff, Mingus describes that as he wrote the tune, he realized that it had two parts, and started to imagine it as the story of the clown. He then told the story to radio celebrity Jean Shepherd and allowed Shepherd to improvise the telling of the story during the recording. As Mingus described it to Hentoff, the story was
…about a clown, who tried to please people like most jazz musicians do, but whom nobody liked until he was dead. My version of the story ended with his blowing his brains out with the people laughing and finally being pleased because they thought it was part of the act. I liked the way Jean changed the ending; leaves more up to the listener.
Like the Tijuana story, “The Clown” also incorporates sound effects, and it opens with the hollow laughter of men and women in a nightclub. As auditory phenomena, sound effects are especially interesting because of their artificiality—they are performances of sound. In a cinematic or radio context, sound effects typically amplify an action. Even when sounded, rather than written, they seem to act onomatopoetically. Thus, the addition of the laugh track on “The Clown” is both performance and commentary.
But part of the genius of Mingus’s composition is the way he incorporates the logic of the sound effect into the music itself. The vocal quality of his bass, the wah-wahs of the horns, and the rim shots on the drums are but one piece of this totalizing sonic landscape. “The Clown” borrows stylistic elements from other recognizable genres (like, circus music) to evoke the playfully comedic and absurd, but a second, more serious and ironic story of exploitation runs concurrently and undercuts the first narrative’s simplicity. On the one hand, we hear the more jaunty, carnivalesque melody of the trombone (Jimmy Knepper) and the tenor saxophone (Shafi Hadi) that lilts in 6/8, but that melody is punctuated by moments of dissonance and free playing under the narration—stretching the space between comedy and tragedy. The question he seems to ask in both the Tijuana story from Beneath the Underdog and in “The Clown” is essentially the same: Is the only way to escape exploitation to exploit another, or worse yet, yourself?
Black musicians who pushed back were often called “angry,” even as music didn’t always sound that way. One might think of the contrast between seemingly jaunty, upbeat rhythm of Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” and its devastating lyrics. It is the sound of political and existential crisis. Both “The Clown,” and the Tijuana scene indicate Mingus’s heightened awareness that, as much as he was known for his music, he was also known for his explosive behavior at performances—the “angry man of jazz.” As Eric Porter has pointed out, Mingus’s “irrational behavior appealed to audiences at a moment when many members of American society (of whom Beat writers were emblematic) were looking to the oppositional aspects of black culture for solutions to their dissatisfaction with consumerism, conservative politics, repressed sexuality, constrictive gender roles, and other social ills” (130-131). 1957, the year Mingus recorded The Clown, was the same year that Norman Mailer published his infamous essay “The White Negro” and Jack Kerouac published On the Road. It was also the year that Governor Faubus of Arkansas attempted to halt the integration of Central High School in Little Rock.
Subtle they may be, but the use of comic sound effects in works like Beneath the Underdog and “The Clown” highlight the absurdity of the roles black jazz musicians had come to play within American culture. In worrying the line between the comic and the tragic, the explosive and the reflective, Charles Mingus refused to concede to the identity that had been shaped by the music industry, by the press, and by institutionalized racism.
Featured Image: Charles Mingus 1976, Courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons, Colorized by SO!
Jessica Teague is an Assistant Professor of English at the University Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) and specializes in 20th and 21st-century American Literature and Sound Studies. The intersections between literature, sound, and technology are the focus of her research, and her book, Sound Recording Technology and American Literature: from the Phonograph to the Remix, is under contract with Cambridge University Press. Her work has been published in journals such as American Quarterly and Sound Studies, and she has also been the recipient of research fellowships from the ACLS and the Harrison Institute at the University of Virginia. (PhD, MA, Columbia University; BA, UCLA)
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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 second installment of this series, Brittnay Proctor challenges us to view Mingus through the discourse of ethical care. She argues that we have often “confused Mingus’s care for the future of jazz music and black jazz artists for an ornery and grouchy disposition.” You can catch up with the full series by clicking here.–Guest Editor Earl Brooks
One thing I’d like to clear up a little more in case I haven’t is the fact that all those eras in the history of jazz, like Dixieland, Chicago, Moten swing, all those styles, man, are the same and as important as classical music styles are. —Charles Mingus, “Avant-Garde and Tradition” in Mingus Speaks (2013)
My present working methods use very little written material. I ‘write’ compositions on mental score paper, then I lay out the composition part by part to the musicians. I play them the ‘framework’ on piano so that they are all familiar with my interpretation and feeling and with the scale and chord progressions to be used…I can keep my own compositional flavor in the pieces and yet allow the musicians more individual freedom in the creation of their group lines and solos. –Charles Mingus quoted by Diane Dorr-Dorynek, Original Liner Notes, Mingus Ah Um (1959)
Released in 1959 in the same orbit as Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue (August 1959) and Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come (October 1959), Charles Mingus’s Mingus Ah Um (September 1959) showcased Mingus’s range both as a composer and bassist. Intimate both in its sound and session composition (only seven sessions players worked on the album), the album provides a purview into Mingus’s commitment to the idiomatic (“interconnected”) and collaborative nature of the black jazz tradition and the stakes of/for black art and artists. His investment in jazz’s black idiomatic structure stood at odds with the increasing importance of the singular jazz man to the marketing of jazz music.
Works like Mingus Ah Um prompt listeners to listen attentively to collaboration and collaborative efforts, both in the setting of a jazz ensemble/collective and in the historicity of black (jazz) men caring for one another. While the imposition of white gender prerogatives sometimes foreclosed intimate, homosocial (same-gender, social) relationships between black jazz men that revolved around what Christina Sharpe terms in In the Wake: On Blackness and Being as an “ethics of care,” Mingus Ah Um is not only an ode to black jazz ancestors and elders, but performative of Mingus’s deep care about the black jazz tradition and its futurity. (131)
In histories of jazz, Charles Mingus is often characterized as volatile and dismissive of young black jazz artists. His purported critique of neo-jazz movements of the late 1950s and early 1960s, like the free jazz (“The New Thing”)/avant-garde jazz movement, narratively put him at odds with emerging jazz artists like Ornette Coleman and Miles Davis. But as demonstrated by Mingus Ah Um, Mingus profoundly cared about black jazz men and the future of black jazz music. Given these histories, what would it mean for listeners to not dismiss Mingus altogether, but hold in tension his anxieties, deemed dogmatic and peremptory, with his often careful and honorific sonic confabulation with black jazz men? How does re-listening to Mingus Ah Um make us empathetic to Mingus’s pursuit in preserving a waning black jazz tradition that was ever increasingly ridiculed and mocked (by way of anti-blackness) for its presumed anti-intellectualism and placation to whiteness? The undercurrent of Mingus’s care is not always expressed in histories or interviews, which begs the question: what is rooted in, yet exceeds the autobiographical, when we listen?
When listening to Mingus Ah Um the album’s ethics of care might be heard most explicitly on tracks like “Fables of Faubus,” a protest song in the most righteous sense, aimed at Orval Faubus, the former Arkansas governor who deployed the state’s national guard to barricade Central High School in Little Rock from the threat of integration (which is also to say the threat of miscegenation). A tune steeped in dissent and once with lyrics that made Columbia ask Mingus to re-record the tune: “Boo! Nazi Fascist supremists!/Boo! Ku Klux Klan (With your Jim Crow plan).” (“Original Faubus Fables,” Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, 1960)
Listening to the cluster of “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” “Open Letter to Duke,” and “Jelly Roll” (it has been written that “Bird Calls” was composed in honor of Charlie Parker, but Mingus composed the song to sound like birds) you realize these tracks are his oeuvre to the “eras in the history of jazz, like Dixieland, Chicago, Moten swing.” (See first epigraph) The tracks are less about mimicry and reproducing the exact sound of Lester Young, Jelly Roll Morton, or Duke Ellington, but are rooted in Mingus’s ethics of care. With these works, he demonstrates how black jazz men enabled him to invent and play his own idiom of jazz. But most importantly, Mingus uses these compositions to argue that Young, Morton, and Ellington should not be treated as disposable or as an obstruction to “harder” or more radical avant-garde jazz sounds and forms. For Mingus, without Duke, Jelly Roll, or Lester, there is no Mingus, or jazz for that matter.
“Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” a tribute to tenor saxophonist Lester Young, the oft cited creator of “cool jazz,” is somber in tone, but masterfully weds mournful playing by way of saxophonists Booker Ervin, Shafi Hadi, and John Handy with Young’s confident, melodic, and smooth style of play. A buoyant, bouncy encomium is forgone for a tranquil, cool, serenade. The song does not reference Young in name but is deeply personal; Young was slated to play on Mingus Ah Um but died shortly before recording sessions started. The song narrates the kinship between Mingus and Young, as well as, the devastating loss to Mingus and black jazz communitas. Sensually euphonious, listeners feel spatially close, nearly inside of the track. The physically intimate resonances of the song make it undoubtedly, a Lester Young track on a Mingus album.
“Jelly Roll” pays homage to Jelly Roll Morton, the founder of New Orleans Dixeland jazz. Embodying a slow drag emblematic of Jelly Roll Morton’s play and compositions, the song revolves around the bounce of the trombone and ragtime play of the piano. His version of “boogie-woogie” (“Boogie” = black rent parties of the twentieth century) is characterized by a lower register bassline (a left-hand bass figure) and leisurely tempo (appositional to hard bop). The dedication to Jelly Roll Morton is also honorific of jazz’s history as an “unacceptable” form of popular music; “Jelly Roll” both in name and sound alludes to the black sexual subcultures and vernacular that were once an integral part of jazz music.
“Open Letter to Duke” is a salute to Mingus’s greatest musical influence, Duke Ellington. The bounce and accelerated trot of the track reminds listeners that jazz music was once dance music. A piano solo that leads into woodwinds, marks flight and movement, while Mingus’s bass play resembles Ellington’s use of Afro-Latinx rhythm’s later in his career; an “ethnic” turn (“Spanish tinge”) in Ellington’s big band sound and an allusion to the diasporic connection between black music in the U.S. and the Caribbean. Similar to Duke Ellington’s body of work and composition, the sum of the track is greater than its parts.
We have often confused Mingus’s care for the future of jazz music and black jazz artists for an ornery and grouchy disposition. He was quite cognizant of the fraught relationship black jazz artists had with the financialization of black performance, writing in his autobiography Beneath the Underdog: His World as Composed by Mingus that the music industry was a “system those that own us use. They make us famous and give us names—the King of this, the Count of that, the Duke of what! We die broke anyhow—and sometimes I think I dig death more than I dig facing this white world.” (9)
Likewise, Mingus’s “working methods” for the album were deeply embedded in an ethics of care. As a bandleader, his compositions were structural, but tailored to each players style of play. What does it mean for the bandleader to care about the ensemble as much as, if not more, than himself? For example, John Handy “met Mingus in December  at a jam session at the Five Spot…the musicians on the stand thought he looked too square. Mingus asked them to give him a chance to play, and they did. A day later Mingus asked him to join his group.” (Original Liner Notes, Mingus Ah Um) How does care and assistance change how we understand Mingus and his relationship to young, black jazz men?
What Charles Mingus (maybe) understood most or at least more than his contemporaries, is that you cannot “think” or intellectualize away the conditions of black life, as Christina Sharpe reminds us, “all we have [is care]” (131). For each other, in the most intramural (situated or done within community.) Mingus’s compositions, especially on Mingus Ah Um, reflects this ethics. He composed pieces in a way that allowed young, passed over, and unacknowledged black jazz men to shine.
Featured Image: Still from Mingus 1959 by the BBC, colorized by SO!
Brittnay L. Proctor received her PhD in African American Studies from Northwestern University and is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of California—Irvine. Her research interests include: Black Studies, Gender and Sexuality Studies; black feminist theory, black popular music, sound studies, visual culture(s), and performance. Her work has been published in the Journal of Popular Music Studies, The Journal of Popular Culture, American Literature and is forthcoming in Feminist Formations.
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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.
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.
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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Eurovision—that televisual song pageant where pop, camp, and geopolitics annually collide—started last week. This year’s competition is hosted in Tel Aviv, and continues a recent trend in the competition in which geopolitical controversy threatens to overshadow pop spectacle. Activists accuse the Israeli government of exploiting Eurovision as part of a longstanding government PR strategy of “pinkwashing”: championing Israel as a bastion of LGBT+ tolerance in order to muddle perceptions of its violent and dehumanizing policies towards Palestinians. The BDS movement mobilized a campaign to boycott Eurovision. Reigning Eurovision champion Netta Barzilai, echoing many pro-Israel voices (as well as celebrities concerned about “subverting the spirit of the contest”), referred to the boycott efforts as “spreading darkness.”
While this year’s competition opened already mired in contention, I’m going to listen back to the controversial winning song of the 2016 contest, whose media frenzy peaked in its aftermath. That year’s champion, a pop singer of Crimean Tatar heritage who goes by the mononym Jamala, represented Ukraine with a song called “1944.” Just two years before, Crimea had been annexed from Ukraine by Russia following a dubious referendum. Some Crimean Tatars—the predominantly Sunni-Muslim Turkic-language minority group of Crimea—fled to mainland Ukraine following the Russian annexation, viewing the Ukrainian state as the lesser threat; many of those that stayed continue to endure a deteriorating human rights climate (though there are some Crimean Tatars who have bought into—and who reap benefits from—the new Russian administration of the peninsula.)
Jamala’s very presence in the contest inevitably evoked the hot geopolitics of the moment. Her victory angered many Russians, and the subject of Eurovision became fodder for conspiracy theories as well as a target of disinformation campaigns waged online and in Russian-influenced media in Ukraine. In much of the Western European and North American media, the song was breathlessly interpreted as an assertion of indigenous rights and a rebuke to the perceived cultural genocide enacted against Crimean Tatars by Russian state power.
In the wake of her victory, many commentators described Jamala as giving voice not only to the repressed group of Crimean Tatar indigenes living in the Russian-annexed territory of Crimea, but to threatened indigenous populations around the world (for better or worse). But indeed, it was not only her metaphorical voice but the sound of vocal anguish that intensified the song’s effectiveness in the contest and made it relevant well beyond the specific geopolitical bog shared by Crimean Tatars, Ukrainians, and Russians. Specifically, the timbre, breath, and dynamic force of Jamala’s voice communicated this anguish—particularly during the virtuosic non-lexical—wordless—bridge of the song. Despite her expertly controlled vocal performance during the dramatic bridge, Jamala’s voice muddies the boundaries of singing and crying, of wailing from despair and yelling in defiant anger. To pilfer from J.L. Austin’s famous formulation, what made Jamala’s performative utterance felicitous to some and infelicitous to others was as much the sound of her voice as the words that she uttered. Put simply, on the bridge of “1944,” Jamala offers a lesson in how to do things with sound.
Some background: the world’s longest-running televised spectacle of song competition, the Eurovision Song Contest began in 1956 with the peaceful mandate of bringing greater harmony (sorry not sorry) to post-war Europe. Competitors—singers elected to represent a country with a single, three-minute song each—and voters come from the member countries of the European Broadcasting Union. The EBU is not geographically restricted to Europe. Currently, some fifty countries send contestants, including states such as Israel (last year’s winner), Azerbaijan, and Australia. Many of the rules that govern Eurovision have changed in its 62-year history, including restrictions governing which language singers may use. Today, it is common to hear a majority of songs with at least some text sung in English, including verses of “1944.” Some rules, though, have been immutable, including the following: songs must have words (although the words need not be sensical). All vocal sounds must be performed live, including background vocals. Voters, be they professional juries or the public—who can vote today by telephone, SMS, or app—cannot vote for their own nation’s competitor (though unproven conspiracy theories about fans crossing national borders in order to vote in defiance of this rule have, at times, flourished.) Finally, reaching back to its founding mandate defining Eurovision as a “non-political event,” songs are not permitted to contain political (or commercial) messages.
Both the title and lyrics of Jamala’s “1944” refer to the year that Crimean Tatars were brutally deported from Crimea under Stalinist edict. Indicted wholesale as “enemies of the Soviet people,” the NKVD rounded up the entire population of Crimean Tatars—estimated to be some 200,000 people—packed them into cattle cars, and transported them thousands of miles away, mostly to Uzbekistan and other regions of Central Asia. The Soviet regime cast this as a “humanitarian resettlement” intended to bring Crimean Tatars closer to other Muslim, Turkic-language populations. However, Crimean Tatars, who estimate that up to two-thirds of their population perished before arriving in Central Asia, consider this a genocidal act. They were not given the right to return to Crimea until the late 1980s. So, through clear reference to a twentieth-century political trauma with consequences that stretch into the present, “1944” was not the feel-good fluff of classic Eurovision.
Jamala’s performance of “1944” at Eurovision was also atypical in that it largely eschewed pizzazz and bombast. Little skin was shown, there were no open flames, no smoke machines befogged the scene. Instead, Jamala stood, mostly still and center stage, encircled by spotlight. Large projections of flowers framed the stage for the first two minutes of the song, as she sang verses (in English) and a chorus in (Crimean Tartar) that utilized lyrics from a well-known twentieth-century Crimean Tatar protest song called Ey, Güzel Qirim (Oh, My Beautiful Crimea). The groove of the song is spare and rather slow, and the singer’s voice meanders within a fairly narrow range on both verse and chorus.
But then comes the vocalise on the bridge: two minutes and fifteen seconds into the Eurovision performance, the song’s chilled-out but propulsive motion stops, leaving only a faint synthesizer drone. In the sudden quiet, Jamala mimes the act of rocking an infant. Beginning in the middle of her range, she elaborates a melismatic wail that recalls the snaking modal melody of the traditional Crimean Tatar song Arafat Daği. The bridge consists of two phrases interrupted by a forceful and nervous inhalation of breath. Her breath is loud and intentional, calling attention to the complex ornaments that she has already executed, and preparing us for more ornaments to come.
Over the course of eight seconds, Jamala’s voice soars upwards, increasing steadily in volume and intensifying timbrally from a more relaxed vocal sound to an anguished belt. At the apex of the bridge, the Eurovision camera soars above the stage just as the singer looks into the camera’s eye. Meanwhile, the screens framing the stage explode into visuals that suggest a phoenix rising from the ash. The crowd erupts into applause.
Other renditions of “1944” deliver a similar emotional payoff at the climax of the bridge. In the dystopian narrative of Jamala’s official music video, a tornado whips free, setting a field of immobilized human figures into chaotic motion (minute 2:35). In a reality TV song contest called Holos Kraïny (the Ukrainian Voice), a young singer’s powerful elaboration of the bridge propels a coach out of her seat as she wipes tears from her eyes (minute 3:42). In other covers, the bridge is too difficult to attempt: one British busker leaves the “amazing vocal bit in the middle” to “the good people of Ukraine to sing along.”
Timbrally and gesturally, I also hear the resonance between the plangent sound of the duduk—a double-reed wind instrument associated most closely with Armenia, and often called upon to perform in commemorations of the 1915 Armenian genocide—and Jamala’s voice on the vocalise. According to Jamala (who generously responded to my questions via email through her PR person), this was not intentional. But the prominence of the instrument in the arrangement, the lightly nasal quality that her voice adopts in the bridge, and the glottalized movements she uses between pitches suggest that this connection might have been audible to listeners. After all, the opening melodic gesture of “1944” is sounded by a duduk, and it re-enters spectacularly just after the peak of the bridge, where it doubles Jamala’s vocal line as it cascades downwards from the high note. Through sonic entanglement with the duduk, Jamala here communicates anguish on another register, without translation into words.
The performance of sonic anguish through the voice might be understood, in Greg Urban’s terms, as a “meta-affect.” Jamala delivers the emotion of anguish but also fosters sociality by interpellating listeners into the shared emotional state of communal grieving. I paraphrase from Urban’s well-known analysis of “ritual wailing” to argue that Jamala, through this performance of vocal anguish, makes both intelligible and acceptable the public sentiment of grief. This utterance of grief is a statement of “separation and loss that is canonically associated with death” (392) that included the Eurovision audience as co-participants in the experience of grieving, of experiencing anguish over loss. A popular fan reaction video by “Jake’s Face Reacts,” posted to YouTube, and the hundreds of comments responding to it, attest to this experience of co-participation in the experience of grief. Furthermore, the power of this meta-affect is almost certainly heightened through normative gendered associations with performative anguish. Lauren Ninoshvili (2012) identifies this in the “expressive labor” of mourning mothers’ wailing in the Republic of Georgia, while Farzaneh Hemmasi (2017) has recently elucidated how the voice of the exiled Iranian diva Googoosh became iconic of the suffering, feminized, victimized nation of Iran.
The sociologist of music Simon Frith once wrote that “in songs, words are the sign of the voice” (97). To put it in slightly banal terms, songs, as we generally define them, include words uttered by human voices. (Or if they don’t have words uttered by voices, this becomes the notable feature of the song, c.f. Mendelssohn Songs Without Words, Pete Drake’s talking guitar, Georgian vocable polyphony). But non-lexical vocalities also function as a sign of the voice, and, as scholars such as Ana Maria Ochoa (2014) and Jennifer Stoever (2016) have argued, expand our capacity to recover more complex personhoods from the subjugated vocalities of the past. In fact, often the most communicative, feelingful parts of songs occur during un-texted vocalizations. As generations of scholars have argued, timbre means a lot—Nina Eidsheim’s The Race of Sound: Listening, Timbre, and Vocality in African American Music (Duke University Press: 2019) presents a very recent example—and it is often overlooked when we take the key attributes of Western Art Music as our sole formal parameters for analysis: melody, rhythm, harmony, form. So as we watch the parade of aspiring Eurovision champions duke it out in the pop pageant of geopolitics, let’s attune ourselves to the vocal colors, the timbral gestures, the ululations and the growls, to the panoply of visual and auditory stimuli demanding our attention and, more important (depending on where we live), our vote.
Featured Image: “Jamala” by Flickr User Andrei Maximov, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Maria Sonevytsky is Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology at the University of California, Berkeley. Her first book, Wild Music: Sound and Sovereignty in Ukraine, will be out in October 2019 with Wesleyan University Press.
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