IASPM-US Interview Series: Steven Feld—Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra; Sound and Sentiment

by justindburton on December 19, 2012

This year marks thirty years since the initial publication of Steven Feld’s seminal work, Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics, and Song in Kaluli Expression (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982), as well as the release of his new book, Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra: Five Musical Years in Ghana (Duke University Press, 2012) and its companion CD and DVD. Here, Mark Pedelty talks with Feld about Jazz Cosmopolitanism, especially in comparison with Sound and Sentiment, which is being printed in its 3rd edition by Duke University Press.

Mark Pedelty: Throughout the book, references are made regarding your role in relation to the informants and audience, including explanations as to why you would rather the narrative evoke good questions and new interpretations than simply explain or conclude. Given your recognition that we are reading about “people you’ve now encountered through me” (243), you seem to take your role as interlocutor very seriously. Your methodology and writing voice have changed significantly since your work with the Bosavi. Has your perspective as an ethnographer changed over time?

Steven Feld: My ethical concerns with taking people’s subjectivities and voices seriously is no different than in the 25 years of work in Bosavi, Papua New Guinea (1975-2000) and in the 6 years of work in Accra (2005-2010). If my ethnographic practice has changed since 1975 it is only through expanding my theoretical interests and responding to the uniqueness of local and interpersonal conditions.

Sound and Sentiment (1982) reported my 1970s work, researched and written in a time of debate about structural, interpretive, and semiotic approaches in linguistics, music, and anthropology. I worked through these models and ended up proposing an anthropology of sound that more deeply embraced ecological and aesthetic coevolution through phenomenology, the senses, and affect. The 1990 2nd edition postscript brought Bakhtin’s dialogism, the Writing Culture movement, and gendered critique of ethnography/representation perspectives into the story. The 2012 3rd edition introduction extends the story through postcolonial history. Interlocking theoretical concerns are made audible on the CDs Voices of the Rainforest (1991/2011), Rainforest Soundwalks (2001), and the retrospective box set Bosavi: Rainforest Music from Papua New Guinea (2001). So the theoretical, methodological, and representational work in Bosavi explored a variety of ways to do critical multivocal and multispecies ethnography of and through sound.

The Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra project makes the same move through 10 CDs and 3 DVDs (www.voxlox.net) and the book. What is the same as the Papua New Guinea work is that I theorize sound and perform that theorization in text and sound. What is different is that I am now substantially adding film to the representational palette. Also in Ghana I am largely conversing with people in English, and encountering musical practices that are more deeply familiar or connected to me as a listener and performer of jazz. All of that opens additional space to theorize and write intervocally. That is why the book ended up a constant multi-mix of genres: biography, history, ethnography, memoir. But all of the Bosavi and Accra work involve similar methodological and theoretical issues: doing anthropology of/in sound; asking how culture, difference, history are audible; foregrounding acoustemology (acoustic epistemology) in the plural; and doing experimental writing to theorize ethnographic dialogism.  PS: Re: “informants,” I never use that term and find it inappropriate here to characterize my relationships in both Ghana and Papua New Guinea.

MP: On a related note, I found your wariness of more conclusive, explanatory, theoretical frameworks refreshing. However, it made me wonder where ethnography ends and journalism—in this case very nicely drawn, narrative journalism—begins. In the long form, it seems that journalism and ethnography do start to approximate each other when well rendered. If you were talking to a group of graduate students with more traditional understandings of what constitutes ethnography—an audience expecting more didactic theoretical framing—would you explain the work as a specific strain of (poststructural?) ethnographic text or is the taxonomic distinction between field methods and expository modes of representation not terribly important anymore? 

SF: Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra was written with a sense of accountability to multiple audiences. I start big. First with the constituency I call “Africa,” a mix of all sorts of audiences in Africa, the African diaspora, and the places where the kind of history I recount and the way I recount it really matters to productions of subjectivity. Then there’s an audience called “Music,” comprised of practicing musicians, musician-scholars, or scholars of music who are there to encounter musicians and musical imaginations with and through me.  And of course both of these audiences include people who learn differently with and through multiple media in text, sound, and film.

I am also aware of some smaller audiences. One is called “Ethnographic Writing,” an audience of readers and writers who care about writing culture, about writing contemporary realities and their historical roots/routes. Another is called “Jazz,” and it is made up of fans, promoters, performers, enthusiasts, critics, journalists, and some academics. I wanted the compelling stories that I encountered in Accra to reach beyond the standard US-centric provincialism of “Jazz”, beyond the “post-structural” provincialism of “Ethnographic Writing,” and to promote big thinking about “Africa” and “Music.”

As for “scholarly” obligations and “framing” for graduate students, well, there’s plenty there for anyone who loves academic references and high theory. It’s mostly in the section I call “Horn Backgrounds, Riffs Underneath.” That naming also performs what I want to say about how footnoted works sit in relation to the larger knowledge production.

Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra is, to a certain extent, the last product of your fieldwork in Ghana. It follows previously published audio recordings and video. Are these different media able to represent distinct aspects of your fieldwork and your interlocutors’ musical lives in Accra and/or is your goal more synthetic, to complement an aural representation with a visual one, and both with text? On a related note, few ethnographers have the basis for comparing the ways that different technologies mediate the fieldwork experience. What do you see as the benefits of each mode and medium?

I started with recording and film because that is what my interlocutors asked me to do. The book tells the story of how that came about. We all worked together in various ways on collaborative CD and DVD projects. But I raised the money, did the technical audio and film work in field and studio, and got the products out for distribution and review. And my interlocutors got what they most wanted: to have their creative work well documented, to get paid for it, to have a way to grow their reputations in and outside of Ghana, to have work to show that makes possible the acquisition of more work. So the CDs and DVDs are about my commitments to work collaboratively in media that are directly relevant in Ghana and also enjoyable across audiences and purposes.

I did not write until most of that work was done. And when I did write, my interlocutors read it (or I read it to them), and they commented, and we did the kind of work I’ve called “dialogic editing.” So no less than the CDs and DVDs, the book also involves collaborative process. Interestingly, the response to the book from my interlocutors was to request a compilation CD, one that could directly accompany the book, have tracks that are discussed in the book, stand as a sampler to the larger body of audio CDs. So the Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra-CD Compilation became their idea of an audio footnote to both the whole text and the collected media that came before it.

Of course there are inter-media interactions throughout the project, and not just because the book writes about the making and the content of the DVDs and CDs. For example: the one hour Hallelujah film gives you the full 30 minutes of Guy Warren/Ghanaba’s performance of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” and then 30 minutes of him unpacking the performance in conversation with me. The depth and complexity of this man as a performer and thinker comes through in some very immediate and visceral ways. Making that film stimulated me as a writer to explore every way I could to bring out many other interlocking dimensions of Guy’s depth and thoughtfulness, his complexities and contradictions, his playfulness and spirituality. Answers turn into questions, questions into answers. The privilege I had, of knowing this man with a certain closeness, as well as knowing his closest musical and personal associates, comes out multiply as you watch him perform, watch Nii Noi Nortey perform with him, and watch Nii Yemo Nunu photograph him. Then in addition to reading my interwoven conversations, biography, and memoir work about him, you can read his colleagues talking to me and to each other about him. And you can even read their footnotes to what I wrote, to disagree or expand or question it.  So the real benefit of the film-sound-book set is the making of ethnography in/as inter-media that are interactive and inter-animated for the listener-viewer-reader.

On a scale of participant observation—from sitting in an audience to autoethnographic performance—making music with interlocutors nudges close to the latter, in a good way. Yours was an extremely engaged, extremely participatory methodology. As readers, we learn a great deal thanks to your deeply intersubjective engagement playing music with interlocutors like Guy Warren, Nii Noi, Nii Otoo, and others. What is gained in making music with interlocutors? Given that you are often also an engaged listener, how does playing music with interlocutors differ from being a “professional listener”?

Nii Noi Nortey and Nii Otoo Annan asked me to join them as Accra Trane Station. That meant that I could conduct an inquiry into the Africa in Coltrane and Coltrane in Africa stories as a player as well as listener and scholar. On a deeply musical level it involved learning to play a local instrument, ashiwa box bass. I then could observe how Nii Noi and Nii Otoo responded when I used it very locally, playing bell or drum parts, as well as when I changed it, both further Africanizing it (making it into a two handed bass mbira) and further diasporizing it (playing Afro-Latin or jazz bass figures on it).

Beyond that, it also meant that I would labor with them –do gigs, tours, recordings, interviews- and get a deeper sense of their subjectivity as musical workers. It meant that I would learn more about how they are always positioned multiply, as Ga-speakers and Ghanaians who are not limited or contained by that; as players of “black world music” who are not limited to or by that either; as cosmopolitans who are simultaneously rooted locals and non-elite travelers; and as musicians subject to particular jealousies and difficulties at home because they happen to occasionally work with a white man and happen to get some international attention in the deal.

So playing with Nii Noi and Nii Otoo was revelatory on every level, sonic and musical, creative and collaborative, ethical and social. And it was their openness to a stranger, the stranger that is me, and my response to their embrace, that is audible in the  Accra Trane Station recordings and the way I attempt to render Nii Noi and Nii Otoo’s stories in Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra.

While reading Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra I was reminded that “fieldwork” and the assumption of an identifiable “field site” might also be wearing thin as useful methodological metaphors. Quite appropriately, you never lay claim to doing “fieldwork” in a particular space or place known as the “field site.” You are simultaneously in Accra, America, and somewhere in between, as are your interlocutors, as are we all. That is not to say that these are not particular sets of places made meaningful by music, ethnographic writing, and a host of other “machines for cohabitation” (127), but rather that you seem unfettered by the traditional anthropological focus on the “local” scale and the “ethnographic present” as typically conceived. I consider that a virtue and part of what makes the book a meaningful commentary on cosmopolitanisms. It is fairly clear “what” this book is about in terms of musical genre and very clear “who” it is about. However, it nicely calls into question the very idea of “where” you are writing about. I got the sense from reading Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra that it is a work defined by identifiable individuals and groups encountered in Accra, through whom you came to problematize notions of cultural space, identification, and difference. Is that accurate? If so, how do you conceive of the spatial object of the book? How do you explain the “where” to yourself and others, beyond deconstructing more reified notions of the local, transnational, global, etc.? Is there a “there there”?

Sun Ra said: “space is the place.” Right. But maybe only half-way. Place is the space. For where I’m coming from check out Edward Casey’s “How to Get from Space to Place in a Very Short Stretch of Time” in the book Senses of Place (1996) book I edited with Keith Basso. It’s all about how the physical becomes psychical. Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra starts with Nii Noi Nortey greeting me with “Where are you from?” And in the next moments, when I replied “Philadelphia” and he says “the city of John Coltrane!” you see how worlds radiate from the placed time-space of intersubjective conjunctures. That opening interchange with Nii Noi becomes a kind of indexical icon of the whole story, the ocean of acoustic history that connects the book’s specific “Call Home” and “Home Call” sites and locations across the Black Atlantic in Africa, the Caribbean, Europe, and North America.

Comparing the work in Accra with that with the Bosavi, I was particularly taken by the following sentence: “Bosavi songs are machines for cohabitation, an archive of ecological and aesthetic coevolution” (127). That is a fascinating insight, the sort of explanatory prose you seem to be going away from in Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra, a book propelled more by complex narrative with polysemic potential, intersubjective dialogue, dramaturgical turns to the audience (which increasingly becomes the main mode of the book toward the end), and a general desire not to wrap it up too neatly in an explanatory theoretical framework. Why the difference? Is it a matter of the audience having much less of a common reference for understanding the Bosavi? (more needed to be explained simply to make the interlocutors’ worlds at all intelligible)? Changes in your own orientations? The different nature of the musical genres being considered? Urban/rural distinctions? The two works are exemplars in ethnomusicology, but each representing a distinctly different mode of exposition and explanation.

I don’t see it the way you do. Sure, at some level Sound and Sentiment and Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra are very different kinds of works. Yes, they are thirty years apart; yes, what was on the edge thirty years ago surely is different right now. Yes, they deal with attempts to engage and understand something about very different local realities. Yes, the Bosavi story was locally researched, not very historical, and about realities very much geopolitically circumscribed, while the Accra project is multi-sited, multi-continental, and always historical.

But in both places I listen to histories of listening, and what I hear equally in the sonic sense of place that is Bosavi or Accra is an ethical assemblage of sociality in and through sound, and long in the making. For me that’s the real connection in ethnographic practice and writing. Both books are about the enormous way that sound excites the imagination and about the tremendous work people do to realize and circulate palpable and highly public signs of that excitement. Both books are experimental ethnographies of imagination and practice that theorize the social generativity of sound.

Let me turn it back another way, as a rhetorical question. Would Sound and Sentiment read as more 2012 if I wrote about about Bosavi’s interspecies cosmopolitanism –the acknowledgement that worlds produce worlds through imagination and practice of the human-avian embrace? Surely that story is there. And, B-side, would Jazz Cosmopolitanism read as more 1982 if I wrote about sound and sentiment in Accra, about how a tense intertwining of the political and spiritual is announced in everything from por por honking horns to highlife hits to the Hallelujah chorus to the blue “train” that connects Ghana to John Coltrane?  In Bosavi I heard an interspecies acoustemological triangle connecting sound, cosmology, and ecology and gendering it in women’s weeping and men’s song. In Accra I hear different acoustic signposts and stories linking sound, spirituality, and place. In Accra the acoustemological triangle is the sounding of older ancestral connections meeting newer diasporic intimacies. In Bosavi it is the sounding of birds as ane mama, “reflections” and “reverberations” of past-lived human songs and vocalities.

I think you’re asking here and elsewhere if I am opposed to the possibility of explanation or of explanatory writing.  No, I only write against totalizing and finalizing, against the smugness of closure and the real or potential intellectual violence it does.  My version of postmodern practice here is simply about acknowledging the messiness of a question like: how is jazz related to Africa and Africa to jazz? Any “explanation” is less an ending than a beginning or a resituating of the problem, the human problem of seeking meanings in a world where things change too quickly for finalizability. Whatever you find me writing against, what I am surely writing for is the generativity of sound and the complexity of intervocality. “It’s stories ‘all the way down’ ” I say at the close. That’s really where I’m at.

Re: the sentence that intrigues you: “Bosavi songs are machines for cohabitation, an archive of ecological and aesthetic coevolution” (127). The context of that statement is a discussion of how listening to interactions of birds and song in the Papua New Guinea rainforest, and interactions of animal, town, and church bells in the Greek Macedonian countryside set me up to question the interactions of toads and bells and drum rhythms in Ghana. Where I am coming from here is a framework known in philosophy as “relational ontologies.” With it I fuse a post-humanist “thing phenomenology” with a Gary Larson “Far Side” upside-downism, with an ethnographic “perspectivalism” ala Eduardo Vivieros da Castro, and with coevolutionary theory from biology. I draw on this repertory simply to ask what cohabitation means to listening habitus and sounding capacity – how this listening and sounding might be an archive of long-lived attunements and antagonisms that humans come to naturalize with words like “place” or “community.”

You nicely represent the role of the questioning, non-totalizing, poststructural ethnographer in the book. However, I got the sense that your interlocutors have much more definite views about things. Their points are laid out mostly as statements rather than questions. Your points are laid out as questions more so than statements, including in the final writing of the ethnographic text. On musical and other matters there is this deep sense of connection between you and your interlocutors. However, you and your interlocutors seemed quite different in that regard. Is that accurate or am I misreading the work? Is that simply endemic to our work as ethnographers working with interlocutors, that we question and they state?

Storying is a sense-making activity and my conversations in Accra provided the people you meet in the book with opportunities to make connections, to put things together, to tie-up loose ends, to try things out on an intrigued listener. It is important to remember how much synthesis is reported in these stories, how much work to draw together life experiences is being related to me. Unquestionably this was an opportunity for people to make a case for this or that, to lay out their opinions and their claims to authority, to sound off about things that concerned them. Surely each person with whom I talked in detail saw me as a sounding board and, more critically, as an amplifier. But I don’t imagine my gig as restatement, to tell you what other people “really” mean. I see my role as a critical listener, as a questioning and querying reteller, the writer as something like the editor for a trailer of a very complicated multi-screen film.  Here the ethnographer is the one who, as Walter Benjamin put it in his essay on “The Storyteller,” hears in a tale the power of its “chaste compactness” and sets in motion the conditions for its circulation.

Now that the book has been published and has left your desk, is there anything that you wish you could insert or remove upon further reflection? Any writer’s remorse or post-partum pain? I can’t imagine what it would be, but that is all the more reason I have to ask. I’ve never published anything that I didn’t want to change later.

And I’ve never published anything that I wanted to change later! I prefer to work next from feedback. That’s how I began with Sound and Sentiment; receiving the book when I was in Bosavi in 1982 led to the 1987 essay on “Dialogic Editing” that was expanded into the book’s 2nd edition postscript in 1990. The new 3rd edition introduction also writes reflexively from feedback, taking on postcolonial history in Melanesia. It is an enormous privilege to have the book around this long, and to have had these opportunities to substantially expand the back and front matter.

The story is the same for Jazz Cosmopolitanism.  Nii Noi Nortey came to New Mexico and did a teaching and performance residency with me in April 2012 just after the book was published. It was great to shift onto the ground of having students equally discuss it with him. It also stimulated him to revise his thesis, “Pyrasonix” for publication. So I am content to let the book be, and happy with what else it generates in Ghana.

I do have one regret. Namely that Guy Warren/Ghanaba joined the ancestors before he had a chance to weigh in on the book. I suspect that he would have been one of its fiercest critics and strongest promoters—and in the same sentences!  If I miss anything now it is the warm hug and then the explosive sentences that would follow from putting the book directly into his hands.

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