Deciphering Culture

Archive for the ‘Scholarship’ Category

This is how to write about music! James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”

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After a minor medical emergency and a ridiculously busy week, I am back to my major endeavor for the month of March, rewriting the first chapter of my manuscript on Moroccan alternative music. It opens with a musical vignette that introduces the music, sets the scene and sets up the theoretical framework for the book. It’s a tricky section to write: writing about music is always tricky. Attempting to capture a primarily aural experience in print is an exercise in capturing lightning in a bottle, especially if you are writing for an academic audience. Too often “serious” writing on music loses the immediacy of the musical experience in overly careful prose designed to maintain some misguided allegiance to accurate representation — misguided because losing the truth of an experience is a high price to pay for obsequious fealty to maintaining the real. And is it a choice we have to make? This is one area where ethnographic fiction opens up possibilities that call out for exploration and new sources of inspiration.

Some the best writing on music is found in fiction and James Baldwin’s work abounds in striking descriptions of musical experience. The following excerpt is from his story “Sonny’s Blues” (an extended excerpt is featured in the Sun magazine this month).

James Baldwin

all i know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. and even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. but the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. what is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. and his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours. i just watched sonny’s face. his face was troubled, he was working hard, but he wasn’t with it. and i had the feeling that, in a way, everyone on the bandstand was waiting for him, both waiting for him and pushing him along. but as i began to watch creole, i realized that it was creole who held them all back. he had them on a short rein. up  there, keeping the beat with his whole body, wailing on the fiddle, with his eyes half closed, he was listening to everything, but he was listening to sonny. he was having a dialogue with sonny. he wanted sonny to leave the shoreline and strike out for the deep water. he was sonny’s witness that deep water and drowning were not the same thing-he had been there, and he knew. and he wanted sonny to know. he was waiting for sonny to do the things on the keys which would let creole know that sonny was in the water.

and, while creole listened, sonny moved, deep within, exactly like someone in torment. i had never before thought of how awful the relationship must be between the musician and his instrument. he has to fill it, this instrument, with the breath of life, his own. he has to make it do what he wants it to do. and a piano is just a piano. it’s made out of so much wood and wires and little hammers and big ones, and ivory. while there’s only so much you can do with it, the only way to find this out is to try; to try and make it do everything.

and sonny hadn’t been near a piano for over a year. and he wasn’t on much better terms with his life, not the life that stretched before him now. he and the piano stammered, started one way, got scared, stopped; started another way, panicked, marked time, started again; then seemed to have found a direction, panicked again, got stuck. and the face i saw on sonny i’d never seen before. everything had been burned out of it, and, at the same time, things usually hidden were being burned in, by the fire and fury of the battle which was occurring in him up there.

Written by Jeffrey Callen

March 12, 2011 at 7:57 pm

The Art of Agency 3 (Asian Improv aRts @ SF State)

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From March 2 through March 5, Asian Improv aRts (AIR) and SF State’s World Music and Dance Program are holding a “collaborative presentation of public dialogue, workshops and performances exploring the intersection of traditionality and hybridity in the formation of community.” It is an interesting mix of events, culminating with “Sounding Asian Improv aRts (AIR),” the keynote session of the Annual Meeting of the Northern California Chapter of the Society for Ethnomusicology.

ImprovisAsians 2011! – The Art of Agency 3

March 2nd – 5th, 2011

San Francisco State University College of Creative Arts

All events are free and will take place at San Francisco State University, 1600 Holloway Avenue

Wednesday, March 2nd

Diaspora Tales #2 – An interdisciplinary work featuring music by the Francis Wong Unit, spoken word by A.K. Black, dance by Lenora Lee and media design by Olivia Ting. “1969” reflects upon the Third World Strike at UC Berkeley and Wong’s family history from the period.
1:10 – 2pm Knuth Hall, Room 132, Creative Arts Building

Thursday, March 3rd

Asian Improv aRts Master Class with SF State Creative World Music Ensemble featuring composer Francis Wong
2:35 – 4:50pm Room 150, Creative Arts Building

The Artist as Public Intellectual Panel Discussion with Yutian Wong, Jeffrey Callen, Lenora Lee, Francis Wong, and Hafez Modirzadeh
6:10 – 8:50pm Room 147, Creative Arts Building

Friday, March 4th

The Creative World: A collaborative concert featuring Francis Wong, Hafez Modirzadeh, Bryan Bowman, John-Carlos Perea, and Jimmy Biala with members of the SF State Creative World Ensemble
1:10 – 2pm Knuth Hall, Room 132, Creative Arts Building

Saturday, March 5th

Asian Improv aRts in collaboration with the College of Ethnic Studies, College of Creative Arts, and the Northern California Chapter of the Society for Ethnomusicology (NCCSEM) are proud to present:

Sounding Asian Improv aRts (AIR) A lecture demonstration. This Keynote Roundtable Session is part of the NCCSEM 2011 annual meeting. Co-moderators: John-Carlos Perea, Francis Wong, and Hafez Modirzadeh. Participants include Melody Takata, Dohee Lee, Wayne Wallace, and Kat Parra.
1-2:30pm Knuth Hall, Room 132, Creative Arts Building

Program — Annual Meeting of the 
Northern California Chapter of the Society for Ethnomusicology

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The program needs a little fine tuning — adding some session titles and chairs — but the schedule for the meeting is set. Looking forward to seeing you at SFSU on March 5th!

Jeffrey Callen –  President, NCCSEM


Annual Meeting of the 
Northern California Chapter of the Society for Ethnomusicology

Creative Arts Building,

San Francisco State University

Saturday, March 5, 2011


8:00-9:00 Registration & Coffee

Annual Dues: $15 General, $10 Students/Low Income

Session I (Concurrent) – Knuth Hall

9:00-10:00   “The Salt Song Trail Map” (documentary film, lecture & discussion) – Philip M. Klasky (San Francisco State University)

Session II (Concurrent) – Choir Room

9:00-10:00    SESSION TITLE / Chair: TBA

9:00-9:30       “Psychedelia as National Project? From “Space to Environment” to EXPO ‘70” – Miki Kaneda (University of California, Berkeley)

9:30-10:00     “Modern Interpretation of a Greek Art Form” – Eli Harrison (San Francisco State University)

Session III (Concurrent) – Knuth Hall

10:15-11:45   Moroccan Popular Music / Chair: Jeffrey Callen

10:15-10:45  “The Voice of a Woman: Educating Moroccan Audiences in Hip Hop Literacy with Stage Talk” – Kendra Salois (University of California, Berkeley)

10:45-11:15   “’Nayda’ and the music festival in Morocco” (video presentation) – Tzvetomira Tocheva (University of Strasbourg, France)

11:15-11:45   Demonstration of Moroccan “fusion” (video presentation) – Adil Hanine (drummer for Hoba Hoba Spirit) and Sajid Ammor, (bassist and guitarist)

Session IV (Concurrent) – Choir Room

10:15-11:45   Latino/Latina Identity Moves – Chair: TBA

10:15-10:45   “Reasoning Sessions with Irie Vatos: Mexican-American Rastafari   Identity”— Monique Posadas (San Jose State University)

10:45-11:15   “Las Posadas in Los Angeles: Mexican Festival in the era of  Multiculturalism” – Luis Chavez (California State University, East Bay)

11:15-11:45   “From Yo Soy to Que Lo Soy: Agency, Amerindian Archetypes, and Androgenity in a Disney Song” – Robin Sacolick (University of California Santa Cruz)

11:45-1:00 Lunch

Keynote Session Knuth Hall — presented by Asian Improv aRts in collaboration with the SFSU College of Ethnic Studies, SFSU College of Creative Arts and NCCSEM.

1:00-2:30    “Sounding Asian Improv aRts at San Francisco State University” –  Francis Wong (Asian Improv aRts), Hafez Modirzadeh (San Francisco State University), John-Carlos Perea (San Francisco State University).

Session V (Concurrent) – Knuth Hall

2:45-4:15    SESSION TITLE / Chair: Miriam Dvorin-Spross

2:45-3:15    “Abstracting Iranian Classical Music” – Faraz Minooei (University Of California, Irvine)

3:15-3:45    “Piano Music From Around The World” – Julia Hansen (Skyline College)

3:45-4:15    “Connecting the Voices of the Philippine Magindanaon Kulintang and African American Jazz Ensemble” – Royal Hartigan (University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth)

Session VI (Concurrent) – Choir Room

2:45-4:15    SESSION TITLE – Chair: TBA

2:45-3:15    “Cultural Differentiation and the Rise of Professional Musicians in Odisha, India” – David Dennen (University of California, Davis)

3:15-3:45    Keeping up with the Times: Exemplification of Scottish Identity in the Wake of Hybridization – Ian Martyn (University of California, Davis)

3:45-4:15    “Something in the Way She Moves: Meaningful Gestures in Flamenco Interaction” – Tony Dumas (University of California, Davis)

4:30 – 5:00 Business Meeting (Knuth Hall)




Written by Jeffrey Callen

February 18, 2011 at 6:54 pm

Annual Meeting – 
Northern California Chapter of the Society for Ethnomusicology

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Annual Meeting of the 
Northern California Chapter of the Society for Ethnomusicology

Creative Arts Building,

San Francisco State University

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Hosted by San Francisco State University College of Creative Arts, College of Ethnic Studies, Department of American Indian Studies, World Music & Dance Program

Keynote Session sponsored by Asian Improv aRts: “Sounding Asian Improv aRts at San Francisco State University”

(presented in conjunction with ImprovisAsians 2011! – The Art of Agency 3

March 2–5, 2011 at SFSU)


Written by Jeffrey Callen

February 18, 2011 at 2:54 pm

New book: Peter Gabriel, From Genesis to Growing Up

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Self promotion aside (although my chapter, “‘I need contact’ – rock ‘n’ roll ritual: Peter Gabriel’s Security tour, 1982–83” is quite good), this is an excellent collection on an influential figure in popular music. Out on Ashgate on December 23, 2010. From the publisher’s press release:

Ever since Peter Gabriel fronted progressive rock band Genesis, from the late 1960s until the mid 1970s, journalists and academics alike have noted the importance of Gabriel’s contribution to popular music. His influence became especially significant when he embarked on a solo career in the late 1970s. Gabriel secured his place in the annals of popular music history through his poignant recordings, innovative music videos, groundbreaking live performances, the establishment of WOMAD (the World of Music and Dance) and the Real World record label (as a forum for musicians from around the world to be heard, recorded and promoted) and for his political agenda (including links to a variety of political initiatives including the Artists Against Apartheid Project, Amnesty International and the Human Rights Now tour). In addition, Gabriel is known as a sensitive, articulate and critical performer whose music reflects an innate curiosity and deep intellectual commitment. This collection documents and critically explores the most central themes found in Gabriel’s work. These are divided into three important conceptual areas arising from Gabriel’s activity as a songwriter and recording artist, performer and activist: ‘Identity and Representation’, ‘Politics and Power’ and ‘Production and Performance’….

French Fries in the Tagine — Moroccan Alternative Music

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In 2002, I spent the year researching the emergence of an alternative music movement in Morocco. Made up of a collection of genres that lie on the periphery of mainstream culture — hip-hop, electronica, rock/metal, fusion — alternative music had yet to break through. 2002 was its year on the cusp. In 2003, it would make its move to center stage and, within a few years, hip-hop and fusion bands would become major players in Moroccan pop culture.

My dissertation, French Fries in the Tagine: Re-imagining Moroccan Popular Music (UCLA, Department of Ethnomusicology, 2006),  which focused on fusion, examined this change in the musical playing field, how it happened and what it meant. I’m posting this link to share the work and ask for feedback. I’m currently writing a book on Moroccan alternative music that will hopefully bring this fascinating story to a wider audience.

All the best,

Jeffrey Callen, Ph.D.

Now for a little music:

Review: Traveling Spirit Masters: Moroccan Gnawa Trance and Music in the Global Marketplace, by Deborah Kapchan (Middle Eastern Studies Association Bulletin)

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This review was published in the Winter 2008/2009 edition of the Middle Eastern Studies Association Bulletin

Traveling Spirit Masters: Moroccan Gnawa Trance and Music in the Global Marketplace, by Deborah Kapchan. 325 pages, 19 b/w illus., endnotes, bibliography, index. Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2007. $75.00 (unjacketed cloth) ISBN 0-8195-6851-1, $27.95 (paper) ISBN 0-8195-6852-X.

reviewed by Jeffrey Callen

The ritual practice of the Gnawa, a Moroccan Islamic order formed by descendants of slaves from sub-Saharan Africa, centers on the performance of healing rituals (lilat; sing. lila). During a lila, afflicted individuals enter into trance and communicate with and placate spirits that are causing disturbances of their physical or psychological well-being. Lilat and the experience of trance have been the predominant focus of scholarly attention on the Gnawa, most notably from Francophone scholars (most notably Viviana Pâcques and Bertrand Hell). Traveling Spirit Masters, the first English language book of scholarship on the Gnawa, extends that focus to examine the ways in which trance and the Gnawa themselves have become commodities in the international marketplace. In the “Introduction”, Kapchan asserts that Traveling Spirit Masters is  not a book about the Gnawa but an exploration of the “power of trance, the way it circulates globally, and its relation to music and gendered subjectivity” (1). To fulfill the broad scope of  this goal, the book is divided into two sections: “The Culture of Possession” (Chapters 1-5) and “Possessing Culture” (Chapters 6-11). The first section, set in Morocco, explores the ritual practice of the Gnawa with particular focus on the role and involvement of women, both as individuals who seek relief through trance, and as overseers of the rituals (mqaddemat, pl.). The second section, set in France and Morocco, examines the movement of the Gnawa and their musical practice into the global marketplace. (for the entire review click here)

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