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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Radio Ambulante: A Radio that Listens –Carolina Guerrero
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.
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.
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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