The Only Music Worth Knowing

I initially accepted my university teaching role to push myself into more organized presentation and as a way to connect myself with the music community in San Jose. 

It was not the first time I'd accepted a university position, and was certainly less overwhelming than my first - directing an applied research program in a war zone. Eastern Congo was an instructional trial by fire; I was conducting research and directing a program in English and French. Rebel activity, kidnapping, and mandatory evacuation were real concerns. It prepared me for anything. 

Accepting an instructional role at SJSU felt simple and direct, a joy and a pleasant expansion on my abilities. Yet, would it be a step in my life if it didn't come with some surprising twist? 

I have found myself obsessing recently about what we consider worthwhile sound. 


As I began to dig into organizing a semester's worth of lectures, I found myself struggling with balance and emphasis. Of course I want to cover all of Western music in all its complexity and beauty, but how relevant, really, is that? What do I miss if I ignore every other region, genre, and influence? 

Furthermore, when I consider today's globalized world of music and increasingly diverse classroom, it becomes almost comical to ignore every other tradition. Even the task of introducing and discussing recent composers like Le Monte Young (influenced by Buddhist philosophy), Lou Harrison (composed for gamelan), and Tan Dun (often uses traditional Chinese instruments) becomes nearly impossible without a basic understanding of non-Western traditions. 

Finally, and most significantly, I find myself asking how the curriculum as it generally stands reinscribes colonial attitudes about Western superiority and refinement over other cultures. If we discuss Western art music at length, we naturally elevate it. Time devoted implies importance. So how do we justify 25 class meetings on Western art music and not a single one to Indian classical, Central American cumbia, or Peking opera outside of nakedly racist conceptions of Western primacy? 

There is no easy answer

Of course I recognize that every instructor attempting to cover music in a lower division class is in a hard place. How on earth does one summarize music over the course of a semester, let alone give adequate information on a number of traditions? 

I admit I don't have the answer at all, but I do wonder if there are ways to begin from more universal starting points. Start with types of instruments and move out, or perhaps begin on topical issues like music and religion and music and celebration. 

Whatever the answer will be, it certainly cannot be found without taking a long, hard look at our curriculum as it stands and questioning what values went into its formation and focus and being honest about what needs to change. 

Growing into Guiding

*Crossposted with the Bay Area Outsiders blog*



Snap, clink... snap, clink... snap, clink... snap, clink... 

The sounds are meditation to me by now, the slow, methodical jingle of cams and nuts and quickdraws racked piece by piece onto my harness, arranged meticulously the way I like them.
Gates out
Nuts to the left with draws behind
Cams to the right, smallest first
Big boys on the back loop, out of the way

It is a quiet motion that has become familiar, that brings my mind into focus around the task ahead of me, the route in front of me, my own path up. It also brings back memories of every other route and the myriad reasons I prepare the way I do. 

Shoes on, harness tight, tied in... It's all the same warm-up, but this time, a hint of something new. 

I have never been the most experienced person on a route until now. 

It is a peculiar mix of familiarity and the unknown. I, like most bay area climbers, spend most of my time in the gym, pulling on plastic and swinging in relative safety from bolted draws. The times I have made it outside - which by the way is where I would rather be climbing 100% of the time - have been with more experienced climbers. Breaking into outdoor climbing is difficult. There is gear to buy, in huge amounts if it's trad climbing rather than sport. There is local knowledge and small online forums to know about. There are particulars to know about gear placement, rope work, and anchors that are subtle, and if done incorrectly could mean the end of your life. It makes sense in a very self-preservation sort of way to be the least experienced person for a while. It is how you learn. 

But this time, I find myself on the other side. It wasn't on purpose, planned out, like a debutante ball when I break out into leadership society, though that does sound fun. A grand ball on top of an alpine spire to celebrate! No, I'm just running up a short route in Joshua Tree, but have brought alone a climber friend who doesn't climb outdoors. 

I rack up, get ready, talk us through the plan, and realize in a moment of poignancy that I am the leader that I used to look up to. I am taking responsibility for us, taking those first steps out onto the rock, and guiding us up and back to safety.

It's sobering. Yet, it feels perfectly mundane. It makes sense. 

The climb itself goes easily, the anchor building is second nature, I belay up my follower, calling down encouragement as she goes. I know she is nervous, struggling with gear and the exposed route itself, and I remember being the same person, though a lot more dramatic, crying my way up an easy climb on my first trad follow, panicked and struggling too. 

She arrives, we hug, we celebrate, we take so many photos and laugh and prepare to rappel and I find that this, usually the bane of my climbing career, feels, dare I say... comfortable. I risk painting myself as a complete crybaby by talking about all the tears (please still climb with me!), but I have been known to break down into sobs at the prospect of rappelling into the cloudy unknown. I'll climb and climb and climb but take my hands off the rock and suddenly I am a complete gumby again, clutching to anything I can grab and saying my last goodbyes. 

Yet this time, as I talk through the rappel, say my words of encouragement, and begin to walk off the edge, I notice the harsh stab of fear is lessened. It's still there for sure, but this time, it is more about taking care of my second, bringing us both to the safety of the ground, and less about all of the what ifs that usually take over as I descend. My fears have become my experience. 

It's Abstract Time!

I had the great privilege of having a paper accepted to the CORD-SDHS annual conference on music and dance, and cherish the opportunity to present some of my more academic work to the world. 

To take a peek at what I'll be discussing, have a read through my abstract, and accept my apologies in advance for the academic speak. Code switching is real. 



"Erode You Mountains: Singing Citizenships in the Ikalahan Ancestral Domain"

In this paper, I draw on thesis research conducted in the village of Imugan, Nueva Vizcaya, Philippines, and focus on two improvisatory song types - ba-liw and dayomti - of the Ikalahan Indigenous People Group.

By investigating the roles that ba-liw and dayomti play in Ikalahan community life, I suggest that these songs offer a unique look into how citizenships are developed and mobilized in a minority indigenous people’s group, and more specifically how citizenships are understood through and built upon connections to place and land.

This research builds on ideas of flexible citizenships (Ong 1999), participation (Anderson 1994), and musicking (Small 1998) and examines where these concepts intersect. I suggest that these concepts are highly fluid and strategically utilized in the Ikalahan community’s interior life as well as in its representation of and advocacy for itself and its cultural and land rights to the larger Philippine nation.

Specifically, I discuss how these song traditions create a familiar historical-spatial narrative ground on which Ikalahan singers and listeners can engage with their connections to land, community, and nation, and negotiate expressions of citizenships related to each. I further discuss how as an intergenerational performance space, ba-liw and dayomti provide the younger, more mobile generation within the community a place to integrate, disentangle, and mobilize these citizenships toward continuing the community’s cultural and land rights and restoration work into the future." 


Transnationality, the Postnational Turn, and Indigenous Identity

Main street Imugan with barangay hall. Ground zero for some important conversations about belonging, identity, and nationality. 

Main street Imugan with barangay hall. Ground zero for some important conversations about belonging, identity, and nationality. 

Music research today has caught up some of the realities of the 21st century in that increasingly, researchers and writers attempt to recognize both the relative uselessness of talking about a person's nationality and the great deal of insight available through looking into digital communities and musical hybridity. We talk about the "Postnational Turn" today much like we talked about anthropology's "Reflexive Turn" in the 1970's. Finally we have shed some of the scales from our eyes and can see the a bit more truth. With the Reflexive Turn, of course, it was that our own emotions, reactions, and feelings can't but influence our interpretation of the world. We see that our frame of reference must fall short, can only fall short, and can never successfully achieve any sort of objectivity. 

We must be postnational. We have moved beyond and above.

Now, as we swing round this Postnational Turn, we again feel scales fly from our eyes as we corner. Of course we can't talk about nationality with any sort of meaningfulness when increasingly the internet provides many of our communities, our spaces (to belabor that word just a bit more). Of course nationality can't speak for all of us sharing a passport cover, a birthplace, a dialect, a government. Of course nationality can't define the parameters of experience for immigrants, emigrants, nomads, refugees, and Third Culture Kids. We must be postnational. We have moved beyond and above. Map the transnational identities and communities and see the optimism of a global arena for creating ourselves and our tribes. 

I love it. I really do. But I also cringe at our shortsightedness. Postnationality is a step in the right direction, certainly. I would love for our criteria of belonging to have to do with something other than chance of birth. However, the hubris of the "post-" grates on me. Postnation, yes, but for how long, in the entire span of human existence, has the nation even meant what it means today? The nation as primary identifier and common reference point seems to be, generously, two millenia old out of dozens, if you point to the Roman Empire as the proto-nation, which is highly arguable. The nation as both signifier of an identity (as predefined, rigidly bounded, singular state of existence bestowed at birth) and locus of power, and with clear and carefully monitored borders, is far newer, perhaps only five centuries old, perhaps less. The nation as it exists in the collective imagination is more around five decades old, born out of the cold war and built on the foundations of a singular, unchallengeable military and economic system combined with a singular understanding of identity that is more defined by what it is against or opposite of (US vs. USSR, communism vs. capitalism, Christianity vs. secularism...). I believe it is this nation that we speak of when we talk about postnationality. Have we in five decades both built, enjoyed, critiqued, and finally moved beyond nationality? 

Have we in five decades both built, enjoyed, critiqued, and finally moved beyond nationality?

Let me step back for a moment. In my MA thesis research, I spent time with an Indigenous People's Group in the mountain region of the Philippines, doing research on music and identity, primarily focusing on the transmission of tradition between generations and the interplay of that with the Philippine national project. I came to believe, through those interactions, that we can't speak meaningfully about identity as a fixed reality, even at the very micro-level individual level, and that especially in Indigenous communities, to think of identity as singular is misleading. In fact, I believe that the term "identity" itself is overwrought to the point of near meaninglessness and that we would be better served as ethnologists to think in terms of multiple citizenships (credit where credit is due to Aihwa Ong's idea of flexible citizenships). 

One can have allegiances and common ground with any number of communities real or online. Travel for study, work, or more urgent pressures only expands the web of connections that one person has. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, I found that indigenous communities are very adept at mobilizing the various connections they have - citizenships, if you will allow me - to make their way through the world around them and advocate for the rights of themselves and their communities. As in my research, where being Filipino, Ifugao, Ilokano-speakers, Ikalahan, members of x family, and on and on and on, were variously highlighted or downplayed in order to open pathways for village advocacy or simply to make one's way through the world, these citizenships are not fixed, not singular, and certainly not imagined. They are a real multiplicity of connections and most importantly, are used creatively and powerfully. 

In historic terms, are we post- nationality or is nationality in fact an anomaly?

In light of this, I wonder how we can speak meaningfully of postnationality, and ultimately find my argument located at two points. First, the idea of "post-" being an adequate prefix is highly questionable, and not only for semantic reasons. The idea of nationality in its current form is so new, it is almost ironic that we are already talking about postnationality. But more importantly, nationality is what amounts to a blip along the long history of indigenous cultures. An often dangerous, even catastrophic blip, but a blip nonetheless. In historic terms, are we post- nationality or is nationality in fact an anomaly? 

And second, the idea of now moving beyond nationality to focus on communities located on other planes can be appealing, but it can also ignore the very real lived experiences of the violent policing of nationality for refugees, asylum seekers, and economic migrants. What I mean by this is that nationality is still very current for the subaltern. Beyond a wish for a postnational future where borders no longer separate life and death, to say that we have moved beyond concerns about nationality or that nationality no longer means what it did is in part true, but only for some, and is of primary importance for many in the world right now. As long as nationality is policed as it is today, I do not believe that postnationality can be seen as anything more than a trend in the social sciences or for the lucky few who either were born into or successfully achieved nationality in a place of relative peace and security, where we are relatively free to see and seek out communities that flourish outside of the nation. 

Finally, I propose that we consider extranationality as a better term. Where postnationality sees the move as linear and progressive, extranationality both recognizes the reality of the still current issue of nationality and nods to the fact that nationality itself is that "blip" on the screen of human existence. It reflects the possibility for a huge realm of citizenships and affiliations outside of the nation - a reality for many Indigenous Peoples, nomadic groups, and refugees. It is a both/and of terms, encompassing both the optimistic view of a future without policed nationality and of free movement and also the harsher realist's view of the possible future of deepening divisions along national lines and across borders. Through the lens of extranationality, we can account for a wider range of experiences, a broader interpretation of realities, and a more creative imagination of futures. 


* Required reading: 

Corona I and Madrid A, Postnational Musical Identities (Lexington Books 2008)

Knudsen, Jan Sverre, "Music of the Multiethnic Minority: A Postnational Perspective" Music & Arts in Action, Vol. 3 No. 3. 77-91, 2011. 

Ong A, Flexible Citizenship (Duke University Press 1999) 

Another Abstract for the Books - SEM annual conference 2016

One of the odd things about writing a dissertation is the silence after dropping its heft into the world. 

Hours upon hours of time, months of a life, tears and sweat and fear and passion all meet in this massive undertaking and finally, its done, submitted, and... silence. A breath of air and a stillness. Grades come back for it, there is graduation, but usually, the world remains undisturbed by the magnitude of the work, and life goes on. 

Not to say that writing isn't worth it, nor to say that a dissertation isn't a worthwhile pursuit, but just to say that often, they languish. Thankfully, I had a proposal accepted by the Society for Ethnomusicology's annual conference, based on my dissertation work, so I'll be breathing some new life into my writing and presenting! Light, air, conversation... it's alive again! 

My abstract is here, and if you are interested in reading the whole paper, let me know. As always, apologies for the academic speak. Code switching once more! 

"Sarimanok and the iPhone Camera

Performance of “folkloric” dance and music can be viewed through a number of lenses - nostalgic, fetishistic, canonical, preservative, appropriative - but rarely does our understanding of it step beyond those boundaries.

Specifically, how are we to understand folkloric performance one or more generations removed from their “source” and yet both evolving and deeply linked to its country and cultures of origin? How do we decenter our understanding of “authenticity” of movement in light of both diaspora and electronic media?

Through research with a Filipino folkloric music and dance troupe based in San Francisco, I challenge the boundaries of understanding folkloric performance and move beyond an appropriative or preservative framework to one rooted in collaborative, de-centered exchange. I investigate specifically the video-based exchange between the San Francisco-based FilipinoAmerican dance/music troupe and its indigenous Filipino interlocutors still living in the Philippines and the role these video exchanges play as site for communication, permission- and right-granting, and verification.

Using Arjun Appadurai’s theory of rupture and resultant exploration of the “work of the imagination” as a key feature of modern subjectivity, I explore the role of catalyst this transpacific media exchange plays in the development of an embodied visual repertoire of Filipino-ness imbued with a recognition of the diversity, multiplicity, and un-bordered nature of the Filipino diaspora’s identities as well as indigenous Filipino performers’ desires for authenticity and understanding.

I argue that through an examination of the troupe’s video-based interactive-creative process, we see dance and music at work as a mediative ground on which Filipino-Americans and their indigenous Filipino interlocutors/instructors can co-create a new canon of dance and music that is at once resonant and “true” within indigenous Filipino communities and the FilipinoAmerican diaspora, resulting in performance based on mutuality and recognition of heritage and resisting the often strict boundaries placed around tradition and authenticity." 

And if you find me at SEM 2016, pour me a glass of wine post-presentation. I'll need it!