IASPM-US Interview Series: Roll With It, by Matt Sakakeeny

by Jessica Dilday on August 18, 2014

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Roll With It is a firsthand account of the precarious lives of brass band musicians in New Orleans. These young men are celebrated as cultural icons for upholding the proud traditions of the jazz funeral and the second line parade, yet they remain subject to the perils of poverty, racial marginalization, and urban violence that characterize life for many black Americans. The gripping narrative follows members of the Rebirth, Soul Rebels, and Hot 8 brass bands from back street to backstage, before and after Hurricane Katrina, always in step with the tap of the snare drum, the thud of the bass drum, and the boom of the tuba.

Steven Feld: Let’s start where you end the book, in conversation with Willie Birch about words and images, representation and evocation, about working together to create a rhythm from ostinatos to riffs, from grooves to surprise accents. So: there have been several photographic accounts and responses to the world of brass bands in New Orleans, and there have been literary, documentary, and historical writings. But nothing like what the two of you do here: combine a layered multiplicity of academic and local voices with the angularity of modernist art registers that distinctly place us in the now, with nods to the visual genealogy of Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, and others. This is a bold move, particularly in the way it locates a very contemporary story of the streets, the struggles, the sounds, in the longer and larger historical duree of race and place, of reputation and memory. Tell us more about the kind of representational work you hoped to do through your collaboration with Willie Birch, and about how it has been received now by New Orleans locals and aficionados, as well as an audience of newcomers and passersby.

Matt Sakakeeny: Collaborating with Willie Birch was a dream I had, a creative germ of an idea that nestled in my imagination after first seeing a painting of his in 2006. It was a life size rendering of a brass band parade, and because of the scale of the work and the specific techniques he used I felt swept up in the image. Willie can erase the boundary between art and spectator, which is also what happens when you attend one of these parades and there is no separation between musicians and club members and everyone else. I was writing my dissertation and trying to figure out how to do that with another two-dimensional medium, words on a page, and it wasn’t working. I remember presenting on a panel at the ethnomusicology conference with our friend Andy Eisenberg, and I was explaining afterwards how I was trying to model my presentation on the rhythm of the parade, and he casually responded that I wasn’t there yet. When I saw Willie’s painting something clicked: He’s not just representing or depicting a multisensory experience, he’s using it as a model, a method. How can I do with words what he did with visuals?

For the dissertation I could only begin to play with narrative and poetics and pacing, but after starting at Tulane I decided to rewrite everything top-to-bottom for the book, and while I was working on it I brought Robin Kelley in for a campus lecture and Willie was there. We began a relationship that is paternal, fraternal, and professional, meaning he is my friend and he is also one of the most insightful critics of my work. When I told him my dream of collaboration, he said only if he read my manuscript and approved, so I gave him a printout of the first draft and he brought it back to me with the margins filled with suggestions in red ink, and said let’s get to work. The full story is in the afterword of the book, which we wrote together, but essentially we created an ethnographic monograph that is also an “art book,” as Willie calls it. (He compares it to The Sweet Flypaper of Life by Langston Hughes and photographer Roy Decarava, which of course I would never do, and he teases me that years from now our names will have to be reversed on the cover so his is first, which is more plausible.)

Willie and I are almost 30 years apart in age, and he is a black New Orleanian with an established international career while I am a white northerner who moved to New Orleans 17 years ago and just wrote my first book. We come from different social locations, but each of us is attempting to model our work off of local cultural formations and we both do so explicitly from our relative subject positions. Maybe most importantly we assess ourselves as both cultural critics and creative artists, the latter of which continues to be marginalized as “radical” or “experimental” in academia decades after Foucault, the reflexive turn in anthropology, and the system wide deconstruction of objective research. Trying to model writing or visual art after another cultural formation takes creativity in translating methods from one medium to another, and then combining words and visuals was a thrilling artistic process hashed out in Willie’s studio using photocopies, scissors and tape to create a syncopated rhythm. The painting technique (grisaille) is literally layers of paint and enamel that creates the depth that draws the viewer in, and the text is a purposeful layering of musicians’ voices, scholars’ voices, and my voice, and they work together to replicate the dense layering of polyphony and polyrhythm that is the hallmark of the New Orleans style, especially in the street parades where audience participation and environmental resonance create added layers.

The response locally has been beyond gratifying, with the highlight being the book release party, which we had at Sweet Lorraine’s bar near Willie’s studio with the Hot 8 Brass Band. And New Orleanians and fans of the music are SO invested in it, I’ve had some great exchanges with readers, but the text is very critical of structures of power in New Orleans so ideally there will be some backlash that inspires public dialog. It will also be interesting to see the response from my colleagues. The only scholarly review I’ve seen was very dismissive, and it sent me into spells of laughter because the reviewer just absolutely nailed what I was trying to do, except he hated it! “Adding to the vagueness is the absence of photos… Instead the book has only line drawings by artist Willie Birch.” That line is a keeper, but my favorite criticism was about the organization of the writing: “finding specific kinds of information [is] nearly impossible, requiring readers to immerse themselves in the players’ lives. In other words, one must read the book cover to cover.” So maybe we’re on to something.

SF: As engaged ethnography, Roll With It is one of the first books about music to deal deeply and consistently with what is now widely called “precarity,” surely one of the hottest buzzwords in contemporary anthropological discourse and debate. Much ink has been spilled to argue why “precarity” is so much about the current moment in histories of power and position, and is a concept that can take us well beyond other familiar analytics (like resistance and accommodation, structure and agency, labor and materialism, ethics and care, etc.) Tell us about the significance of “precarity” as a means for discussing the scene, the music, the musicians, the moment, the aspirations, the troubles, the post-Katrina anxiety-scape presented in Roll With It.

MS: The book is organized around the experiences of a handful of musicians from three brass bands in New Orleans. These bands propel the movements of large crowds in jazz funerals and neighborhood parades called second lines, and the musicians have marched off the streets and onto the stages of festivals, concert halls, and clubs. These young men are ambassadors of the city, and yet they remain vulnerable to the racial pathologization and curtailed citizenship facing many others in urban enclaves across the U.S. They are alternately celebrated as culture-bearers and marginalized as secondary citizens in richest and most powerful country in the world. So the term “precarity” is definitely applicable, just as it is in the many so-called third- and fourth-world sites that fill the anthropological record, and the most significant studies of post-Katrina New Orleans have taught us much about the vulnerabilities produced by market-based governance (Markets of Sorrow, Labors of Faith by Vincanne Adams, Driven from New Orleans by Jay Arena, and The Neoliberal Deluge edited by Cedric Johnson). The city has been restructured as a neoliberal laboratory for experiments in charter education, public housing, flexible service labor, and privatized health care, and poor black New Orleanians – Americans – are the primary lab rats.

But the allure of precarity as a shiny new analytical category can be blinding, obscuring longstanding patterns of marginalization that began during plain-old “capitalism” and have adapted extremely well of late. Precarity and neoliberalism are hawked as the cause and the effect of the new world order, whereby the borderless transnational expansion of capitalism and market-based strategies of governance (“neoliberalism”) produce unprecedented disparity and insecurity (“precarity”). Yet capitalism has been based on the transnational mobility and exploitation of labor, in the form of objectified and commodified bodies, for over 400 years. That’s some precarious shit right there. In the U.S., the slave system was replaced immediately by a police state of enforced segregation, ensuring disempowerment by legal means (Jim Crow rule) as well as within the supposedly free market (“redlining”). Were the people subject to these curtailments of citizenship not “precariats”? If the era of civil rights and Great Society were a fleeting attempt to legally redress these uninterrupted histories of peril, then the subsequent rise of market-based solutions is not so much a new ordering as a re-ordering, a flexible adaptation that allows for the retention of prior patterns of marginalization. I’m on board with calling this precarity if it helps readers relate these particular conditions of insecurity to others, but I situate contemporary conditions within what Benjamin called the “state of emergency.” Precarity is not the historical exception but the rule.

For me, the book is about power. The original title was “Instruments of Power,” and while our wonderful editor Ken Wissoker ultimately convinced me not to hitch my cart directly to Foucault’s horse, I do miss the bluntness of that pairing. Picking up a musical instrument is an assertion of power, a form of agency, and my primary goal was to contextualize that microlevel act within the macrolevel of an imbalanced power structure. That meant furthering “structure and agency” studies that defined the social sciences for decades, while attending to critiques of “resistance and accommodation” that recast all social relations as relations of power, moving beyond the false dichotomy of powerful/powerless and the false consciousness of “hegemony.” Can you imagine if I had organized my study around structure/agency, resistance/accommodation, or hegemony/complicity today? When precarity loses its luster like these concepts have, I hope the claims made in the book about the persistence of marginalization across historical epochs will remain relevant.

SF: I was impressed, in Chapter 3, by your nuanced ways of wrestling with “tradition,” particularly how it signifies very differently to differently positioned actors, histories, generations, and narratives in New Orleans, and how it can discursively and practically operate simultaneously as a deep site/signifier of pride and a very moldy Trojan horse. How do you respond to the classic larger question provoked by this kind of analysis of “tradition?” Namely: Does modernity produce more difference than effaces? Always? Never? Sometimes? Often? Maybe? Is there something new this New Orleans brass band site and tale tells us about either/both the social productivity or potential paralysis of “nostalgia”?

MS: That chapter is absolutely the most resonant with classic topics of ethnomusicology and folklore, but I actually had no intention of contributing to that intellectual lineage; the discourse of “tradition” arose during my fieldwork among the musicians themselves, as a defining schism between older and younger musicians, and they led me into that area. I knew I wanted to focus on relatively young people, and I think that allowed me to stake out an underrepresented stance towards tradition, the study of which has historically been dominated by research on elders as tradition-bearers. I realized I could make a contribution to a much smaller and more contemporary body of literature on how new generations balance innovation with adherence to tradition, the weight of which can be a real burden for them. More than anything it was an ethnographic imperative: if it’s important to my subjects than it’s important period.

So you’re right that I only dealt in passing with folklore’s paradigmatic question of the preservation vs. transformation of tradition in relation to modernity, even if the entire chapter implicitly extends critiques of both the structuralist “tradition-as-inertia” school and the poststructuralist “invented tradition” school by Richard Bauman, Greg Urban, and others. My take is outlined a bit more explicitly in the historiographic essay “New Orleans Music as a Circulatory System,” which essentially builds off the productive friction between two intellectual lineages: the massive body of literature on African retentions of tradition that defined the field of African American studies, and recent research on circulation by Ronald Radano, Karl Hagstrom Miller and a cluster of scholars working on the blues. In this work, “tradition” is the glue that binds together a sprawling network of actors with diverse intentions, including cultural innovators who are attuned to a plethora of sounds and styles, and folklorists and industry professionals who are attempting to constrict their identities and performances to those that align with their expectations of what is “traditional.” One effect is that the feedback loop adds surplus value to tradition and bestows cultural capital on those deemed tradition bearers, and another is that boundaries of what is and what is not traditional are demarcated.

In the article, I went all the way back to the slave dances at Congo Square, the bedrock of New Orleans music if not African American music more broadly, and approached the ring shout not only as the source of tradition but also as a site of performance (of music, of bodily engagement, of race, of power), and sketched a genealogy of the circulating accounts of the dances that now provide our only documentation of them. The book, which is historically grounded but predominantly focused on the contemporary, is the other terminus: I am trying to account for all the dynamics that arise when tradition has been saturated by centuries of investment into the very idea of what constitutes tradition. As in many other cases, New Orleans traditions have become enhanced by recognition, especially through festivals and other staged cultural exhibitions for tourists, making them even more bulky and cumbersome for young people charged with upholding it in particular ways. And the short answer is, most of them don’t. They innovate, they express themselves, they mobilize rather than strictly preserve. This is what every generation going back to the slaves in Congo Square has done, and cultural vitality and longevity depends on it, because inertia and formulaic adherence is a recipe for mummification. Just compare the audiences for blues and jazz with those of brass band music in New Orleans, maybe the only place in the U.S. where young black people dancing to live music is completely routine.

SF: The words and images of Roll With It roll and rock, and are often visually evocative beyond the black and white artwork, and sonically evocative beyond voices edited into the printed word. Have you thought more since publication about ways to develop, extend, or connect the book project more to film and radio/recording or internet media? Did you think at all about making this a more image/sound enriched Ebook? As someone whose resume includes being a New Orleans resident, a journalist, a media producer, a performer, and a scholar, what are your current thoughts on bringing the project to the largest public audience through and across multiple media?

MS: I would have loved to create a more developed Ebook, but the demands of time and the path to tenure derailed that possibility, so I created a website with my photographs, videos, radio stories, and profiles of bands and musicians, including a reading guide with media relevant to each chapter. Willie and I are also planning a traveling gallery exhibition of his paintings paired with my audio recordings of brass band parades to create a kind of installation piece. The paintings are massive and really need to be experienced in person to get the full effect of his approach, which situates the subject in the artwork on the same plane as the viewer and sort of forces the spectator to enter into the space that the subject governs. The added context of the soundscape will create another dimension, so we’re fishing around for the resources of time and money to make it happen.

SF: How do you simultaneously stay tuned, keep current, and move on from a project of the ethnographic and theoretical depth and scope of Roll With It?  What are you doing now to keep the local conversations going, as well as to develop new trajectories for your research? Have your interlocutors asked for any particular kind of follow-up? Once you’ve worked with such a compelling cast of characters what comes next?

MS: I have the incredible luxury of living in the place where I conduct my research, of doing anthropology at home. And it just happens to be New Orleans! I really couldn’t be more grateful. That relationship with the city and the people shaped my whole methodology for research and writing. I moved here in 1997, and worked in public radio for six years before going away to New York for grad school, and when I returned in 2006 to do my year of fieldwork a job came up at Tulane and I got it. So the whole time I was “in the field” I was also “at home,” and that really directed the way I approached people. It gave me lots of freedom to observe and interact with people on an informal level, to create friendships with the people I was drawn to the most, and to learn about them by just hanging out in addition to more formal interview settings. Assuming you consider Accra one of your “homes,” I would venture that you assess your relations with the musicians in your movies, recordings, and writings comparably. And as with your Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra, when I turned to writing my book I saw the potential in adopting a first-person narrative frame of storytelling, where a small group of people become the hub of the book and their experiences become the spokes that connect to larger structural patterns.

I would never suggest that I see myself as integral to these musicians’ lives, or that they are pillars of my social life. Musicians are public figures who navigate within a very rich public sphere, and I see myself as part of that sphere and my “data” is mostly derived from the informal interactions and observances I made out in this world. When I finished the book I shared relevant sections with the musicians, which brought about some “dialogic editing” at a much more modest level than what you detailed in your second revised edition of Sound and Sentiment. I was honored when Tyrus Chapman’s response was “it sounds like me,” and nothing could make me happier than having every musician in the book say that, but of course reality is more complicated. For instance, there are hundreds of brass band musicians who don’t appear in the book, and to those who don’t know me (and perhaps to others that do) I may be just an interloper profiting off of their cultural labor. Racial politics and histories of exploitation and appropriation run very deep, no one gets a free pass, and my response was to write openly from a reflexive narrative position about those sticky engagements.

But anthropology at home doesn’t end with publication. In the best instances, I curate public programs with the musicians. Locally, if someone asks me to lecture, I instead request a collaborative presentation with musicians, inviting them to speak and perform. Last year I traveled to Norway with the Hot 8 Brass Band and I had a conversation with Bennie Pete onstage before their performances, and I’m doing the same with Rebirth Brass Band for the 25th Anniversary of the Southern Folklife Connection at UNC. However, my future encounters with brass band musicians will not all be fueled by the spirit of collaboration; there will be other motivations, people will be wary of me or worse, and ideally that will lead to more dialog and more collaboration.

As for my future research, I am writing a theoretical essay on sounded communication in the jazz funeral, drawing upon the anthropology of the voice and linguistics to interpret the capacity of instruments to communicate to the dead and among the living. I have begun a new research project with the congregation of the Church of the Living God in Toccopola, Mississippi, charting the sounds of their services on a continuum of sounded communication ranging from the sermon to shouting to singing to the instrumental articulations of the steel guitar. Eventually I will bring together this research in a book about “voice,” broadly conceived, and interwoven together with reflexive analysis of my own multiple voices (musician, author, radio narrator, etc.). That’s where my publications are going to be directed. In my ongoing engagement with New Orleans, my intention is to enter more directly into cultural policy, to advocate for musicians with those in the public sector and the culture industry. That’s where the rubber hits the road.


Matt Sakakeeny is an ethnomusicologist and journalist, New Orleans resident and musician. An Associate Professor of Music at Tulane University, he initially moved to New Orleans to work as a co-producer of the public radio program American Routes. Sakakeeny has written for publications including The Oxford American, Mojo, and Wax Poetics. He plays guitar in the band Los Po-Boy-Citos.

Steven Feld is a musician, filmmaker, and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and Music at the University of New Mexico. His books include Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra: Five Musical Years in Ghana, also published by Duke University Press. He is a recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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