Kristina Jacobsen on her new book, The Sound of Navajo Country


Morgan Siewert: On its face, your project to analyze expressive culture among Navajo country music artists using both ethnomusicological and linguistic anthropological methods seems daunting. However, your final product is a nuanced but informative and approachable ethnography using both music and language to locate country music as a site where Navajo identity is navigated and negotiated. How would you describe your book to someone unfamiliar with how seemingly Western expressive forms are used to perform Navajo authenticity?

Kristina Jacobsen: My book is a situated story of one Anglo singing anthropologist’s journey into the rich, vivid and totalizing world that is Diné country western music and cowboy culture. Contrasting our stereotype of “cowboys and Indians,” Indian people, and Diné people in particular, have long identified as both “cowboy” and “country;” the affinity seems natural to many Diné people I know, so much so that it barely bears explaining. Country songs are often about dispossession, loss, nostalgia, tradition, relocation and the centrality of kinship and family: these same themes are themes that resonate very powerfully with my Diné interlocutors, both through the performance of country music and through participation in rodeo.

Morgan Siewert: On page 21, you write, “I understand the speaking voice as being equally central as the singing voice in illuminating the nuance of Diné politics of authenticity and belonging.” This is a succinct illustration of your use of ethnomusicology and linguistic anthropology to bridge disparate approaches to the concept of “voice.” Could you elaborate on the significance of complicating “voice” in your book?

Kristina Jacobsen:  In song and in the songwriting world, there is a heavy focus on lyrics and on the text; what does the song say, what is being signified through the lyrics, what can we infer about the identity of the singer through the performance and voicing of the song, how do we shape the listener’s experience through a tightly-crafted song? This is also true in ethnomusicology and in popular music studies, where often the focus is exclusively on the lyrics of a song and where the lyrics come to stand in for/represent “the song.” In linguistic anthropology, the emphasis is also often on text, or what has been transcribed in the form of discourse analysis or ethnographic writing in the text, where prosody, poetics, and line-by-line analysis often form the primary “meat” of analysis. In contrast to this, I wanted to focus in the book on the sound of the voice itself: what do different voices sound like, when they are speaking and singing? What is the timbre or tone color of a voice, its range, its speech style, dialectal and idiolectal inflections, and how is a voice affected by the body it inhabits? How do voices have their own agency, not just symbolically and politically, but also literally, when a voice is “thrown” into a room or sounds (and affects its listeners) in a particular way, and how are voices connected to Indigenous sovereignty? Also, how can we combine our analysis of both singing and speaking, and what productive and rich overlaps might we find by combining both uses of the vocal tract within the same frame? To me, sounds matter in the world. How someone else sounds—whether over the telephone, in person, in a radio interview or on television—affects me deeply and resonates in my ears and mind long afterwards. I wanted to capture some of this affective resonance not only through my ethnographic vignettes, but also through the analytic methods and tools used in the book.

Morgan Siewert: Important to your book’s discussion on the complexities of authenticity and voice is jaan, defined initially as “the culturally intimate […] term for a working-class rube from the ‘sticks’” (4). You define jaan several times and in diverse ways throughout the book, demonstrating what you describe as a malleability that reveals “the slippages, or cracks, between worlds” (42). As I read your book, I came to understand the jaan figure as an example of how people become metonyms for attitudes about imperfect Navajoness, for “matter out of place” (33). Through “betwixt and between” figures such as the jaan, innovation in language and the expressive arts is both stigmatized as inauthentic Navajoness as well as valorized as privileged local knowledge. I find this discussion—which ranges from the jaan to Miss Navajo to politicians—to be the most challenging aspect of your book. I came away with a sense that modalities framed as the most inauthentic are, in practice, among the most authentic icons of Navajo experience and identity. In other words, being “matter out of place” is what anchors country music as an authentic Navajo expressive art form. How would you supplement or challenge this reading?

Kristina Jacobsen: This is such a lovely and provocative question. I think your read that jaan becomes a refraction for how “imperfect Navajoness” circulates at the local level is spot-on; in my experience, these discussions of ideal Diné-ness occur almost constantly, in public and very performative spaces such as political campaigns and radio stations, but also at very intimate levels, among family members, over dinner, at the flea market, during family cattle roundups or even at the tribal veterinarian’s office. So yes, being “matter out of plaee” at some level makes something—songs or speech styles in this case—authentic in a way that is hard for others without this abjected cultural capital to touch. At the same time, the irony perhaps is that things deemed as “matter out of place,” such as country music dubbed as “rez” or “jaan,” are also profoundly in place and locally emplaced, so much so that even performing off-reservation is rarely an option for “rez bands.” So, rez country music is both matter out of place and completely sutured to place, at one and the same time. To add a bit more to this discussion: I also think that the whole idea of the jaan is a term that implies an outsider, non-Diné gaze looking in on Diné practices; in this way, jaan as a concept—in its stigmatizing and laudatory uses—sits in the crosshairs of settler colonialism, and perhaps could not even exist outside the setter colonial context and the ways in which Diné identity has been parsed, dissected, judged and quantified by Bureau of Indian Affairs Bureaucrats, anthropologists, missionaries and other entities. So, it’s the colonial gaze turned inward, with powerful repercussions. At the same time, there is innovation, both linguistic and musical, and this is one of the things I find so powerful: that even within a very narrowly constrained field of aesthetics and where the politics of authenticity almost always hold an upper hand, there are musicians, spoken word artists, poets and language users—among them Chucki Begay, Radmilla Cody, hip hop artist Def-I and improvisers like jazz trumpeter Delbert Anderson- who continue to carve their own path and express themselves assertively, gracefully, and with incredible power, through their chosen linguistic medium.

Morgan Siewert: What is your next project?

Kristina Jacobsen: My next ethnographic book project, Sing Me Back Home: Songwriting, Language Shift, and Italian Colonialism in Sardinia, focuses on country music, singer-songwriters and language shift on the island of Sardinia, Italy. As a touring country musician, singer songwriter and cultural anthropologist living in Sardinia for the past two summers, I have been captivated by the surprisingly rich Americana and country music scene. It struck me that the reasons were connected to Italian colonialism, and this led me to formulate my main question for this research: how do performances of American roots music by Sardinian musicians serve to secure a sense of connection to the island of Sardinia, and strengthen a sense of political and cultural separation from the Italian mainland on this semi-sovereign Mediterranean island?

So, in Sardinia, I have begun writing songs with Sardinian songwriters in Sardinian (“Sardo”), English and Italian as a form of participant-observation to get at questions of language, sovereignty, identity and relationships to the Italian mainland (the “Continente”). Here, the process of songwriting itself forms part of the core research methodology, where writing a song with one’s interlocutors forms a powerful point of connection as a way toward deeper intercultural knowing that is both artistic and ethnographic. The second part of this project, therefore, will focus on recording ten cowritten songs for an album that will accompany the book, where I ethnographically document how language politics play out in microcosm in the space of the recording studio, and where the music and the book text are two interdependent parts central to my analysis of both sound and politics. I will be spending my sabbatical year in Sardinia, doing twelve months of ethnographic fieldwork toward this project, and living in the mountain village of Santu Lussurgiu.

 You can listen to two early “demo” recordings and cowrites for this project, here: