Sam Byrd on his new book, The Sounds of Latinidad

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https://nyupress.org/books/9781479860425/

Interview by Ilana Gershon

If you found yourself at a party explaining that you recently published a book on the music playing in the background, how would you describe The Sounds of Latinidad?

bWhen I explain my research, folks often express surprise that the genres of Latin American and Latino music I studied have such a vibrant scene in Charlotte, North Carolina.  Most often their question is, “Why Charlotte?”  The Sounds of Latinidad is a book not just about Latino immigration, but about how the city influences musical production and consumption and how musicians and their audiences position themselves as urban subjects.  In the case of Charlotte, you have a globalizing financial center whose banks were key players in the 2008 financial crisis.  Latino immigrants were recruited to build the bank towers and continue to fill many of the low wage service sector jobs that support the finance industry.  Latino immigrants are still a very invisible population culturally– they are very visible politically in the sense that Mexican and Central American migrants are the target of much anti-immigrant vitriol– but musically most people still tend to think of the South as a black and white place: birthplace of the blues, country, gospel, or more recently, indie rock, southern rap, etc.  Latino musicians are changing that by bridging U.S. and Latin American genres, becoming southern and Latino.  The sounds of latinidad, and the contributions of other recent newcomers- Asian immigrants, Irish immigrants, northern transplants- are transforming the music of the region to a more globally engaged, diverse field.  But there still remains that feeling, that soul that makes the music southern.

When you describe Latino musicians as workers, you point out that the different bands you studied did not all choose the same paths towards being a band.  Some focused on appearing as professional as possible by showing up on time sober, others on seeming to have as good a time as possible, which can involve considerable amounts of alcohol.  Some spent hours and hours rehearsing, others met only to perform.  I was wondering if you could explain some of the working dilemmas that Latino musicians face in particular that allow for such a wide range of strategies?

In chapter 4 of The Sounds of Latinidad, I thought it vital to consider the working conditions of Latino musicians as work.  Far too often, we tend to conflate the extroverted performance styles that many musicians have and the casual way musical performance permeates our leisure time with play, as in musicians are just playing and not really doing difficult labor.  But my research showed how Latino musicians embody the precarious nature of work that is affecting nearly everybody it seems in a globalized neoliberal capitalist economy: they work gig to gig, receive low pay, are non-union, work irregular and sometime unpredictable hours, at times suffer from wage theft or work for “exposure”, and are subject to the vagaries of the consumption economy.  Their experiences are representative of the larger Latino immigrant population.  Their varying performance styles serve as a way for Latino musicians to define themselves and be defined by their audiences, in a way to “brand” themselves, but also to be part of the musical communities that are renegotiating what it means to be Latino in the face of stiff cultural opposition and misunderstanding on the part of non-Latinos in Charlotte.  In other words, for Banda TecnoCaliente, being professional and sober is part of their desire to present a positive image of Mexican immigrants in the face of negative stereotypes of their compatriots in the mainstream media and even from within the local Latino community.  For bands such as Bakalao Stars, having “as good a time as possible” is part of a strategy to use the consumption of Latino culture to bridge genres and connect to audience members of diverse Latin American origins and to non-Latino audiences.  In terms of working dilemmas, Banda TecnoCaliente has to differentiate themselves from other local bands of regional mexicano music to get hired by festival promoters who see bands as interchangeable parts.  Bands that play in bars and restaurants often employ a strategy of drinking and socializing with their audience to make them feel at home, this can lead to the dilemmas of substance abuse and marital infidelity, but also the further casualization of musicians’ labor as they break down the “fourth wall” of performance.

Given that genres for Latino musicians can so significantly signal race and class, how do these interpretations of what different genres index shape the songs of other artists they choose to cover?

 Musicians play what they know.  One striking aspect about Charlotte’s Latino musicians was their wide-ranging tastes. I subscribe to Pierre Bourdieu’s idea that taste is a socially-constructed facet of a person’s class background and habitus. Genres rules can often limit through their rhythm and sound, and through their association with a class identity.  While there is much of this constriction in Charlotte, there also is much borrowing from the diverse streams of culture that immigrants from across Latin America bring to the city.  Because there is no one dominant nationality (and thus genre) that takes precedence, I sense musicians’ openness to trying new ideas.  This is also reflective of  the cosmopolitan nature of popular music genres in Latin America– where Colombian cumbia reinvents itself in Argentina and Mexico, bachata travels outside Santo Domingo,  reggaetón welds together Puerto Rican and Panamian ingredients, or Latin American rock fans grow up idolizing Gustavo Cerati (Soda Stereo) and Slash (Guns N’ Roses). Musicians in Charlotte, I argue, have tried to compile a canon of important songs that they consider vital to cover regardless of genre through an informal process of debate and experimentation during performances. They also engage with their perceptions of what southern music is, integrating blues, jazz, and other American genres into their styles as they interact with local non-Latino musicians.

Some musicians were torn between identifying as Mexican or latinidad, what shaped those decisions and did those decisions change over time?

 “Latino,” “Hispanic” and now “Latinx” are almost entirely United States-specific terms. All the recent immigrants I met identified with their nationality first- Mexican, Venezuelan, Dominican, etc. (and sometimes even the region within the home country) and then begrudgingly Latino or Hispanic next.  I see identifying as Latino as a process that happens as immigrants become long-term residents of the United States and negotiate their new identities as immigrants by interacting with state bureaucracies where they check Latino/Hispanic on forms.  “Latino” also becomes a way to include other immigrants in a common group identity. “Latino” is much more acceptable to the second generation who grows up using the term as part of US identity politics, but increasingly are also the children of mixed-nationality or mixed-ethnicity marriages.  For musicians, the context is important; for certain genres retaining national identity is vital (regional mexicano, for example) while others allow for a more pan-Latino identity.

 You mention that musicians have to be seen to treat their audiences well by giving out a few copies of CDs and so on.  Could you talk a bit about how they use social media to manage this as well?  Are the social media expectations different for Latino musicians than they are for other types of musicians?

  This is a phenomenon to consider in the context of neoliberal economic shifts and the deep (and often devastating) changes technological innovation has wrought on the music industry.  It is now accepted practice for musicians to basically give away their recordings to audiences online (either directly, or though streaming services).  Bands make money through live shows and commercial royalties, if they make money at all. Charlotte’s Latino bands give away CDs to connect with their audience, to convince them to come to future shows, and share the music by word of mouth.  But they also want a tangible product that shows discerning listeners the quality of the music’s production and arrangement (sometimes done at a professional studio with great expense, often on a personal computer using recording software).

Social media is transforming the band-audience interaction.  Innovations like live videos on Facebook allow bands to post rehearsals and shows as they happen to encourage fans to attend, while event pages facilitate publicizing concerts, and band pages become places where people comment and make connections.  It can be a way for an up and coming band to rapidly build an audience.  But does social media presence just become a branding exercise that encourages slick imaging and promotion over musical quality?  Are musicians with less online technological expertise or financial resources, particularly recent, working-class immigrants, being left behind? We shall see.

Laura Bunting-Hudson’s The Art of the Hustle

While traditionally the neoliberal economic system has been characterized as one which militates against poor people and those that are oppressed, my research analyzes how ordinary people are using the political economy combined with resistance politics for their own advantages. This dissertation explores the political economy of rap music in Bogota, Colombia and how groups use diverse transnational business strategies in order to develop a new entertainment industry there. My work explores the social organizational strategies of multi-national rap polities, based in Bogota, as they utilize new forms of digital technology, and their street smart entrepreneurial skills to distribute popular music as well as to start horizontal business firms, in order to challenge the status quo within their communities.

On page 99, my dissertation is describing the ideology of many of the most successful rap groups in Bogota, Colombia. It illustrates the rappers counter-cultural system of values that comes from street codes one often finds in international street gangs. The rappers use these ideas in order to form a group of resistance artistic poets (rap) who believe in using the capitalistic system, forming a strong transnational network of Spanish rap elites and establishing businesses based on the groups ideology, in order to try to create societal change. In this section, I use FG Bailey’s concepts from political anthropology and Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory. Combining these theoretical frameworks allows for the ethnographic data to reveal the way that games are played by the rap polities, to demonstrate how the groups are organized, form networks, maintain those orders and the threats that rap polities encounter, in their aims at garnering fame, money and societal power. The stated goals of many of the rap polities are to challenge the current political and economic elites in Colombia whom they believe are an oligarchical regime, that unjustly take advantage of the people and resources of Colombia. The rap artists believe that by forming their own businesses, being able to create social and political solidarity around the dissemination of their messages contained within their music through mass communications networks and working hard for progressive change, Colombia can become a more equal and just nation. This dissertation showcases the rap artists quest for this kind of greater equity and justice in Bogota, Colombia.
Bunting-Hudson, Laura. 2017. The Art of the Hustle: A Study of the Rap Music Industry in Bogota, Colombia. Ph.d. diss. Teachers College, Columbia University.

Shane Greene on his new book, Punk and Revolution

https://www.dukeupress.edu/punk-and-revolutionhttps://www.dukeupress.edu/punk-and-revolution

Interview by Orin Starn

Can you tell us about Punk and Revolution: 7 More Interpretations of Peruvian Reality and what you set out to accomplish with the book?

 I hope the book goes down as a few things:  a novel take not just on Peru’s war with the Shining Path but, somewhat by extrapolation, the narratives that dominate understandings about “Cold War Latin America.” I’m invested in inserting some wacky anarchists into that otherwise standard tale of the “hard left” (that is, Marxist) and “hard right” alternatives that dominated the region from the 60s to the 90. I also want some sort of disruption into punk’s too comfortable location in the Anglo North Atlantic rock nexus, and all the debates about provocation, selling out, and being reborn that that typical story about punk has generated. And I guess it is something like a modest assault on academia to make it slightly less boring.  There’s also the distinct possibility I was just trying to live “rock subterráneo” vicariously and reopen old wounds about the politics of feeling out of place, something that started when I was about 13.

 

Punk is genre-busting music.  And this is a genre-busting ethnography.  Can you tell us about your ethnographic style here, including all that good nasty language?  Do you see your book as having lessons for other anthropologists in thinking about experimenting with our writing?

Not everyone thinks my nasty language is all that good, and some were in a position to question or kill it when they thought it too nasty, or, maybe just too “masculine” (oh, how they have overrated my masculinity). It was never really a project about challenging “political correctness” (a phrase that emerged on the radical left but has long been appropriated by the far right) and more about wondering what we can or can’t say with academic voices or how we are or are not allowed to juxtapose academic voices with other, um, less staid, voices.  The criticisms sometimes made me really rethink the nastiness (Interpretation #4) and, other times, I just snuck it back in elsewhere (because I’m sneaky). That said, even my kid knows I have a dirty mouth so probably a certain percentage of it is just how I talk anyway. But, really, the main thing was just that I wanted each of the 7 Interpretations to sound/read/look totally different. Eventually, that meant not even writing essays, which explains the Situationist-style art project (Interpretation #6) and the short story (Interpretation #7).  For that matter, there’s technically more than 7 Interpretations given all the supplemental side projects that the book is linked to on the companion website (www.punkandrevolution.com), the zine-stuff, a music video my band did, a tee shirt I made, and so on. The idiosyncratic aspect of “just interpreting shit” (like the punk Geertz or something) makes me not really know if there’s a teachable lesson.  But in general I’m all for encouraging people to go beyond or even explicitly against the standard and dry academese we love to subject ourselves to.

 

Anthropologists have long had Peru as a favorite stomping ground.   But much of that scholarship has been about the rural Andes.  Your focus is on the megalopolis of Lima.  How do you see your contribution to understanding urban experience in Peru and Latin America?   And to how we understand Peru and Latin America more broadly?

There’s definitely a thing with Peru and the Andes fetish. It goes deep and straight to the heart of nationalism.  It’s hard to even think of a handful of interesting books about Lima – on any topic – much less about other Peruvian cities (Arequipa? Piura? Trujillo?) written by anthropologist (oh, but Daniella Gandolfo’s book about Lima is amaaaaaazing).  I think this was honestly more of a side effect than my real intent, that is, I ended up creating a peculiar look into one segment of Lima, basically the middle-class and up (since rock as a genre is mostly middle-class and up).  There’s some good work on hip-hop out there in countries like Cuba, Brazil, and so on.  And there’s some STS types doing interesting stuff that at least crosses into urban spaces but isn’t necessarily about “the city” or necessarily “anthropology” (thinking of Anita Chan’s book Networking Peripheries). Either way, we are overdue for some anthropologists thinking more about the multiplicity and depth of urban subcultures throughout Latin America, as well as their global inspiration in, and creative divergence from, subcultures that emerged elsewhere.  Even when anthropologists finally come out of the countryside and go to the city they seem to end up focusing on the same subaltern populations or themes, like rural-to-urban migration or historically racialized groups, and so on.  But welcome to the history of anthropology, I guess.

 

What do you see as your contribution to understanding the global history of punk?  And to how we think about sound and the politics of sound?

The book doesn’t talk about sound per se but I got very interested in the geopolitics of music formats, hence all the stuff about production and circulation (and piracy) of demo cassettes in Interpretation #1.  Of course, format studies are now an offshoot of sound studies. There’s something mystically beautiful and marvelously awful about the sound of Peruvian punk from the 80s.  The conditions for production (or instruments available for recording for that matter) were so bad, it is just truly wonderful.  Some contemporary Peruvian punks and hardcore types wax nostalgic about the cassette format for that reason and so they buck the global digitalization trend by recording new albums on cassette now when it seems utterly anachronistic.  The global north has its own history with cassettes but it isn’t quite the same thing.  First off, it more often connotes some sort of social intimacy or friend networks (such as: the friend who recorded album X for me; or the girlfriend who gave me the mix tape Y).  In Lima, because of the dramatically unstable political context there was a curiously ambiguous dialogue taking place between the “underground rock” economy (cassettes, fliers, art pieces, and so on) and the other “underground political” sector of Shining Path organizers and militants who were also producing art, propaganda, newspapers and other genres for the “revolution.”  Both were happening outside, and against, mainstream media circuits (and, for that matter, the state).  So, it became really dangerous for Peruvian punks at the time and many of them found that out the hard way (hence Interpretation #6).  There was a deep political risk (of death, disappearance, imprisonment, exile) built into being a Peruvian punk and producing things that were punk-like in the Peru of the time.  That, as far as I can tell, is quite unique within punk experiences writ large.

 

What’s your next project?

I’ve been throwing around this term “misanthropology” for the last few years and threatening to write a book about how we, the human species, are all gonna die.  And probably should. Given November 2016, seems like maybe it’s a good time to get started on that.

Falina Enriquez’s Composing Cultura

“ . . . those who align with Pernambucan discourses of cultura [culture] [. . .]  are not simply elevating themselves by excluding massively popular, commercial genres like swingueira from the category of cultura, but their ability to evaluate and define cultura is a sign and source of power” (pg. 99).

My dissertation, “Composing Cultura: Musical Democracy and Multiculturalism in Recife, Brazil,” examines how a constellation of musicians, bureaucrats, and audiences objectify and commodify local culture in Pernambuco’s capital city, Recife. The dissertation contributes to anthropological and ethnomusicological studies that analyze how musical practices are interactionally embedded in debates over power and meaning. Specifically, the dissertation argues that while participants in Recife’s state-sponsored music scene were creating new multicultural and democratic understandings of ‘culture,’ they were simultaneously reconfiguring social stratification. Page ninety-nine is part of the second chapter’s introduction. The chapter is organized around the musical rivalry between Pernambuco and the neighboring state of Bahia. It examines how members of a state agency committee and other participants in the state-sponsored music scene invoke pop music from Bahia as the antithesis of Pernambucan “cultural” music. I show how these actors interpret Bahian pop music as kitschy and disposable, but more importantly, how they discursively employ these qualities to depict its performers/consumers as lower-class and (implicitly) racially marked.  As the quotation above suggests, these discourses are important because they are themselves a sign of power and a tool for (re)producing it. When I conducted the majority of my fieldwork research from 2009-2011, many of my consultants interpreted these problematic discourses as evidence that new policies and idioms centered on socio-political inclusion were not as effective as they seemed. Yet, while these were significant concerns, they existed within a broader understanding that Brazilian society was progressing. However, now in 2016, such hopes seem even more remote. Brazilian citizens are currently coping with instability caused by corruption scandals, economic decline, the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, and the new federal administration’s elimination of government ministries and programs focused on minimizing poverty, racism, and other forms of inequality. The issues I discuss on page ninety-nine and throughout the dissertation therefore seem more relevant now. Accordingly, as I develop my book project, I will focus on how musicians and other residents of Recife are negotiating the dramatic changes they have experienced during the past five years.

Falina Enriquez. “Composing Cultura: Musical Democracy and Multiculturalism in Recife, Brazil.” Phd diss, University of Chicago, 2014.