linkthink re: hip-hop, reggae, the US, jamaica, and anything else wayne wants to wax on


more from duke u

down in durham, the sun is shining, the BBQ is delicious, and the house that we've been "working on" (really, tearing apart) is truly a wreck to behold. (hope to have some pics soon.) just had coffee with prof. deborah thomas, which was delightful and edifying.

since i have little time to write more right now, i thought i'd attach another review i wrote for another book on duke university press which might be of interest for some of y'all in the musico-critical blogosphere. the review is forthcoming in an issue of the world of music. because i was allotted a much higher wordcount, the piece is much longer than the review of thomas's book i wrote for interventions. moreover, the editor encouraged me to indulge my critical/self-reflective side, so you'll probably perceive some differences in style. i approached the review as an opportunity to weigh in on the contemporary state of ethnomusicology more generally. at any rate, the book that i review, louise meintjes's sound of africa! is, like modern blackness, an amazing work and a rich read, and something that scholars, observers, enthusiasts, and critics of world-popular music will definitely want to check out.

anyhoo, here you go:

Louise Meintjes, Sound of Africa!: Making Music Zulu in a South African Studio. Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2003. xv + 335 pp., photographs (black and white and colour plates), musical examples, notes, glossary, bibliography, discography, index. ISBN 0-8223-3027-X (cloth) $64.95; ISBN 0-8223-3014-8 (paper) $21.95

Since publishing her groundbreaking essay, “Paul Simon’s Graceland, South Africa, and the Mediation of Musical Meaning” in 1990, Louise Meintjes has emerged as one of the more thoughtful and sophisticated scholars working on issues of “world music” production. As an ethnomusicologist concerned with the intersection of music, language, ideology, and social context, Meintjes explores the ways that music--and speech about music--reflect as they shape ideas about ethnicity, race, nation and selfhood. As demonstrated in “Graceland,” Meintjes has a talent for perceptive analysis of musicians’ discourse. Her sensitive readings of conversations and interactions tease out the complex ways that musical poetics and the poetics used to describe music articulate such things as asymmetrical power relations, negotiations of stereotypes and the legacies of colonialism. Meintjes’s first monograph, Sound of Africa!: Making Music Zulu in a South African Studio, carries forward her ethnographic, interpretive and reflective approach by focusing on the studio recording of an mbaqanga album in the early 1990s. The context of the story is a rather remarkable moment in South African (musical) history, considering the recent end of apartheid, the intensification of inter-ethnic politics, and the post-Graceland world music bubble. Rather than shying away from the studio as a mystified or marginal site of music production, Meintjes acknowledges its central role in the creation of meaningful sound. She not only represents the vast range of techniques and technologies employed in the recording studio but also interrogates the way that its expensive equipment and division of labour creates “structural parallels between colonial and studio relations” that musicians, producers, and engineers all must negotiate (p. 104). Meintjes’s insightful interpretations of arguments, exchanges and general studio banter help to illuminate the shifting, contingent positions people take, and her reflective analyses--often employing the repetition of the studio experience as a formal strategy--connect the meanings of these interactions to particular musical gestures. Sound of Africa! will be of interest to scholars of African, South African, and world/popular music as well as to scholars interested in studio production, technological mediation more generally, and the ways that music mediates social categories.

Although studies by scholars such as Paul Théberge (1997), Tom Porcello (1998) and Tim Taylor (2001) have begun to bring the recording studio into the realm of ethnomusicology, studios remain a poorly understood and conspicuously overlooked site for the production of music and musical meaning. In a moment when the vast majority of music--even “traditional” music--is mediated by studio technology and techniques, it is curious that music scholars so rarely delve into the world of recording studios. Studios continue to lose out to the performance venue, the practice room and other familiar settings of musical ethnographies despite their ordinariness as sites of musical production, their profound--though often subtle--effects on sound recordings and their increasingly integrated role in the compositional process. By emphasizing its social, cultural and political--as well as technological--dimensions, Meintjes makes a strong case for the recording studio as an important, even integral, context for music production. As Sound of Africa! demonstrates, studios are sites where musical meanings are vigorously and crucially disputed, affirmed, reshaped and projected. In the studio, musicians, engineers and other actors are involved in both musical production and reception—often simultaneously, or dialectically. As spaces of such intense and often transparent, aesthetic debate, recording studios constitute rich sites for ethnomusicological inquiry.

Meintjes explores the world of the recording studio, in part, through an extensive catalogue of its technologies and practices. Studio production involves a great deal of technical knowledge and specialized skill and imparting this body of knowledge--or at least an appreciation for it--to non-engineers is indeed a formidable task. Meintjes’s explanations of technical processes such as equalization, compression, phase shifting and delay are quite lucid, and the glossary at the end of the book is helpful for clarification. Rather than a dry presentation of all the techniques and technologies involved in studio recording, however, Sound of Africa! introduces and demystifies various practices as they emerge in significant moments of the narrative. A series of related and sometimes reconsidered ethnographic vignettes drives Meintjes’s explication of studio workings and the production process. As musicians and producers argue over musical details and their potential significations, studio engineers synthesize and sample, turn knobs and slide faders, apply effects, and, with the help of state-of-the-art equipment and specialized ears, tweak the sound into desirable form. They also join in the banter, the power struggles, and the conversations about authenticity, aesthetics and the opposing pulls of the local and global marketplace. Meintjes’s exploration of the studio’s role in musical production fits seamlessly into the larger story of making music sound Zulu in post-apartheid Johannesburg.

When the reader first encounters the exclamation from which Meintjes draws her title, the “sound of Africa!” turns out, rather provocatively, to be a mechanical bass line programmed by a white engineer into a MIDI keyboard. This is, of course, a rather deliberate emphasis on the irony of such a moment. As in the rest of the book, she examines the studio discourse during this moment in order to explore the themes that arise and the positions people take. The irony, or at least intrigue, increases as the musicians connect the “sound of Africa” to things that seem perhaps as far removed from commonplace notions of Africanness as a white man. Several agree that, “It sounds like a bulldozer!” (p.110). Another exclaims, “It sounds like all machines do!” (ibid). Caught in the moment, the musicians appear as impressed by the enabling technology--“These are white people’s things!” (ibid)--as by the engineer’s skill, an appreciation of which also registers in the discourse: “This is one of the few times during the production that a musician refers to Peter by his name” (p.109). Here Meintjes shows her skill at re-creating a poignant moment from which to read quite a bit of musically-mediated meaning. She uses the seemingly absurd conferral of the “sound of Africa” on a computerized riff to ask how any sound could come to accrue such power in the imagination of these musicians:

“How does Africanness come to be located in a single sound? While the idea of an Africanness is essentializing, ahistorical, and a gloss of a diverse geopolitical region, it takes on a particular form in the local context and performs in ways specific to its music-makers’ personal and social investments, ideas, and ambitions. Africanness emerges as an utterance out of a stylistic and social history and from a locally constituted consciousness concerned with race, national citizenship, and ethnicity” (p.110).

Meintjes’s definition of Africanness here--emergent, performative, historically and locally contingent--resonates with the irony of the book’s title. This is tricky, complex terrain and Meintjes navigates it carefully and adroitly. She acknowledges the obvious, anti-essentialist critique but she also makes an effort to get beyond simple, entrenched dichotomies. Instead of seeking a core or the absence of one, Meintjes recognizes that people think about and feel Africanness in a variety of ways, often depending on context. As “constructed”--a term that Meintjes tellingly does not use--a thing as Africanness might be, it is also very real, for it works powerfully to mediate social relations, market transactions, the imagination of community and the phenomenology of selfhood. She attends to the problem sympathetically and pragmatically, seeking to forward the most complete and productive understanding of how the notion operates--in this case, in recording studios in early 1990s South Africa.

For all its resonance as something quite real, quite definable in a local, historical context, Africanness or Zuluness (an ethnic identity tied to but distinct from broader identification as African), necessarily remains a shifting, slippery, decentred thing in Sound of Africa! Throughout the text, Meintjes’s language takes a strong position, in a subtle and effective way, on the longstanding debate about essence and identity. For one, she often dispenses with the well worn and perhaps misleading term, identity, preferring instead less stable descriptions. Rather than someone having an essentialist Zulu identity, for example, “the suggestion of Zuluness is available to be retrieved by those who say they are Zulus, in moments in which a sense of ethnic identification is salient to them” (p.185, my emphasis). So identities become suggestive and salient, while meanings--of Africanness, related “subtropes” and the like--are “always emergent, always negotiable, and variously invested” (p.144). Subjectivity is “irreducible and multiply contoured” (p.161) for musicians who achieve a nuanced sense of self by reclaiming stereotyped, essentialized musical gestures, “manipulating socially marked sounds, and shaping subjectivity in the process of making music” (p.148). Meintjes is careful to demonstrate music’s role in shaping and popularizing Zuluness and other (often politically charged) subjectivities, and she brings a similarly sophisticated approach to her discussion of music and the way it signifies in particular contexts. She tells how South African musicians often select toward stereotype (noting, for example, the persistence and pervasiveness of “discourses of African music as drumming, dance, and rhythm, and African performance as embodied and intuitive”) but argues that these are “not fixed or closed discourses” (p.121). Instead, “Their stability is undermined in rendering them into practice” (ibid). Music becomes an activity of decentred image-making and fluid figuring. Race and ethnicity are “self-consciously styled” (p.11), genre and reputation “co-constructed, emergent categories” (p.69), style “a site of hegemonic contestation” (p. 9). Just as studio technologies enable one to manipulate layers of sound and radically reorient a piece of music, the “nuanced imaging, at once affirming Africanness and particularizing it” of the mbqanga musicians Meintjes observes also causes “figure and ground [to] shift” (p.173). By using the same slippery language to describe musical and social meanings, Meintjes develops a theoretical framework that aspires to the level of nuance she observes in these musicians’ everyday negotiations and performances.

Part of what makes Meintjes’s nuanced position possible is her deeply intertextual approach. She brings a host of perspectives to bear on each other, demonstrating a deep level of consideration and producing the kind of heteroglossic text that reflects upon itself, often to great effect. There are many texts interwoven in Sound of Africa! and they fall into a few major, sometimes overlapping categories--musical, social and discursive. Meintjes certainly pays attention to music as a text to be read, despite a marked absence of graphical representations. (A few transcriptions in staff notation appear in the book but they are barely remarked upon and are of little importance to Meintjes’s analysis.) Instead, she primarily employs prose descriptions when discussing “purely” musical matters. This is a sensible approach in a book that foregrounds musical details that defy graphical depiction--namely, issues of timbre (about which, more later). Meintjes proves adept at describing sound, whether in performance, playback or in the midst of studio-enabled transformations. She also reads the music-making in the studio against the larger texts of South African music history and an amalgamated representation of the contemporary music industry, both local and international. South African history, politics, society and cultural workings also serve as crucial (sub)texts. The politics and social text of the studio, however, is her primary document. Meintjes vividly recounts and reads into moments where musicians use clever language, musical gestures, and other strategies to negotiate tensions, where producers and engineers pull rank, call on others’ allegiances and attempt to increase their cachet, and where cultural authority trumps control-room authority only to have such relations reversed. She makes note of instances when roles and relations shift and demonstrates the significance of such moments, such as when relationships suddenly come to be defined by the strict, and sometimes demeaning, hierarchical labour relations of the studio. Taking the studio as an ethnographic site brings musicians’ discourse and engineers’ terminology into the picture as well. To these, Meintjes adds biographical texts for many of the actors in the book, enriching the reader’s understanding of their actions and words. Her focus on developing individuals as characters in her narrative brings a degree of specificity to her analysis that studies of popular music frequently lack. Meintjes also engages with a number of ethnomusicological texts and trends, from Africanist precedents (p.119) to anti-technology biases (pp.280-1). Finally, Meintjes deals with a number of her own texts as well, from journal entries, to memories, to recordings, to considerations and reconsiderations of the same scenes, impressions and encounters. Perhaps the most innovative aspect of Sound of Africa! is the way the text takes itself as a major text with which to reckon and foregrounds this self-reflective quality as its primary epistemological process.

This brings us to matters of form, and the peculiar form of Sound of Africa! may prove to be its most influential contribution to ethnomusicology--not as something to be adopted directly, but as a model of sympathy between content and form, of the experimental formal structure as hermeneutic tool. The most obvious and striking feature of the book’s form is its “chapter” structure, which borrows from the discourse and experience of the recording studio for its headings. Thus, where one might expect chapters and subchapters and sections and subsections, one finds instead cuts, tracks, takes, mixes, remixes, playbacks, rewinds, and rewind-agains, to name a few. This is not simply a matter of renaming chapters and subchapters with clever analogues, however: Meintjes employs these terms carefully and takes them seriously as interpretive strategies. It takes some time to get used to this structure and it is not always so perceptible during the reading process. (I frequently found myself wondering whether I was in a take or a mix, a remix or a rewind.) Nonetheless, sometimes it works to great effect. In evoking the intensely repetitive nature of studio experience, Meintjes also demonstrates the way that such repetition can generate new understandings of the materials at hand. Repetition becomes Meintjes’s primary analytical method and each time she revisits a scene, an instance, an exchange, her interpretation becomes richer, more saturated with meaning. Often a particular phrase will recur over several pages of explication, its verbatim repetition evoking recognition. Each time this happens, the phrase accrues greater significance as one sees it from a new perspective. Other features from studio experience that Meintjes employs effectively include various kinds of ruptures, shifts in voice and tone and a good deal of colouring and tweaking, often via repetition. She “pulls out” or foregrounds particular frequencies, if only temporarily, in order to hear them better, differently, more clearly, and then she inserts them back into the mix, where they assume new significance. Ultimately, the shifting prose style and theoretical framework in Sound of Africa! suggests the same kind of timbral variation and experimentation that makes up the bulk of studio production and in so doing represents an effective, evocative marriage of content and form.

Meintjes’s focus on timbre is another important contribution to contemporary music scholarship. “I work in sound,” she explains. “I listen principally at the level of timbre, taking my cue from recording studio participants” (p.12). Not only do studio techniques and technologies apply primarily to timbral dimensions, the discussions that Meintjes observes also revolve around timbre. Timbral matters are the most common issues in negotiation, the focus of studio work and they are essential to the production of musical meaning. As Meintjes notes in a thoughtful passage about the importance of timbre: “Timbre matters because it houses debates that are articulated as a feeling about things--a ‘Zulu’ guitar, a ‘ballsy’ drum sound. Because timbral qualities are about feeling, they are deeply invested but never fully defined or finally fixed. That is why timbre is so crucial to the contingent production of meaning” (p.254). Her emphasis on timbre moves beyond the more conventionally discussed dimensions of rhythm, melody and harmony, and perhaps provides a challenge for music scholars to invest more in developing adequate ways to discuss such meaningful musical matters. How infrequently do we take note of such things as reverb, stereo-field position and EQ (i.e., the primacy of particular frequency bands) when discussing music? And yet, how crucial are such matters to the musical experience? Over the course of my own autodidactic forays into studio production and audio engineering and through my experiences in studios from Kingston, Jamaica to Cambridge, Massachusetts, my attention has been increasingly drawn to timbre. I am struck by the amount of sonic detail that formerly seemed to reside so quietly in the background. My newfound ability to--or perhaps, proclivity for--noticing these details, rather than proving their insignificance, convinces me of their importance as subtle yet profound aspects of musical texture. The degree to which musicians, producers, engineers, and audiences also confirm the crucial role of timbre (as demonstrated again and again in Sound of Africa!) seems to issue an imperative to music scholars to grant such matters more consideration.

Likewise, as Meintjes’s study also puts forward, we would do better to pay more attention to the role of engineers, producers and other “non-traditional” music-makers in our analyses. Sound of Africa! places the skills, performances and contributions of engineers at the centre, or at least on an equal footing with musicians. One learns a great deal about the practices of several South African engineers, their aesthetic orientations (e.g., what constitutes a good performance?), their social relations with musicians and producers and the ways that they mediate and negotiate between local and international standards of musical quality. Still, as is made tantalizingly clear by Meintjes’s text, the role of the engineer calls for a more comprehensive, comparative treatment. Sound of Africa! represents an excellent case study of studio practices and politics, but it comes up short when seeking to generalize beyond Johannesburg. A prime example is Meintjes’s assertion that, “The gap between creative expert and studio laborer is an increasing one” (p.106). My own investigations into the (almost entirely studio-based) production of hip-hop and reggae have often illustrated just the opposite: the lines between musician and engineer are becoming increasingly blurred, with the term producer growing in currency as a way to describe an individual who creates as well as mixes and remixes music. Many Jamaican producers, such as dub-pioneers Lee “Scratch” Perry and King Tubby, got their start as engineers and carried these technical skills forward into the realm of music-making, bringing an ear for arrangement, timbre and sound separation and a familiarity with the potentials and possibilities of studio technologies to their creative engagement with other musicians’ contributions. Hip-hop producers, such as DJ Premier, describe learning how to become producers (i.e., the one responsible for creating the backing track, mixing the vocals, etc.) by gleaning tips from the studio engineers that facilitated their initial productions. In the realm of electronic music--from house to techno to drum ‘n’ bass--quite often a single performer is responsible for the soup-to-nuts production of a track, and digital technologies make state-of-the-art studio tools increasingly accessible to anyone with a personal computer.

Of course, Meintjes readily concedes that mbaqanga style generally places her outside the realm of what she calls “technologically engaged popular-music producers” (p.136), whose existence she does acknowledge. Moreover, she uses mbaqanga’s particular location within the world of studio production to explore more broadly relevant issues: for example, the trope of “liveness” as it relates to fantasies of participation, critiques of alienation and “the First World preoccupation with authenticity--a spin-off from global commodity production” (p.143). As demonstrated by such parenthetical assertions, the ideologies of capital play an important, though often background, role in Sound of Africa! Meintjes exposes the way such ideologies operate in the studio, as labour and other power relations are structurally embedded in the studio’s architecture (e.g., the control room), its mystified and fetishized technologies, and the asymmetrical social relations that seem to arise “naturally” in such a space. In a related manner, Meintjes demonstrates the way that local and overseas markets, with their coercive powers and sometimes contradictory demands, emerge as constantly nagging concerns for musicians and producers. Her exploration of the “overseas” imaginary represents another way that the text relates to broader concerns, connecting to a current in ethnomusicology that seeks to make sense of music’s place within an increasingly connected modern world system, such as the “global imagination” of Veit Erlmann’s late 1990s work. Her discussion of mbaqanga musicians’ perceptions of the “world” market definitely resonates with my experiences in Jamaica where--despite an intense privileging of local dancehall aesthetics--the notion of an “international” sound (and therefore an economically successful one) remains a coveted goal for musicians, especially those of the cable TV generation. Additional studies like Meintjes’s could help music scholars to develop a more textured account of the various and related ways that individuals perceive and play to an imagined, extra-local audience and market—not to mention an imagined, local audience and market.

One thing that would undoubtedly enrich Meintjes’s analysis is some audio accompaniment, though I recognize there are some obstacles to overcome in producing a multimedia work. For one, it is difficult and awkward enough to get musicians and other actors to allow one to record their voices. Their music, especially as work-in-progress, is another question entirely. Nevertheless, without hearing the sonic transformations that Meintjes describes, it is rather difficult to appreciate the subtle but profound effects of such processes. Meintjes does a fine job given the limitations of the written word, and her lucid prose makes easily mystified terms and processes seem straightforward, as in the following passage:

“Most basically, a sound engineer takes the warmth out of the guitar sound by boosting the upper frequency range and cutting out the lower midrange. He produces a sharp attack by adding very little predelay and brightens the sound by exciting it with flanging, chorusing effects, and phrasing. He gives it presence by using little reverb” (p.158).

Despite the clarity here, some audio examples would undoubtedly help in cases such as this one. Even small samples of the music would be invaluable in illustrating timbral issues, which defy the best impressionistic or synaesthetic prose. Meintjes shies away from transcriptions, which often do little more--and sometimes less--to evoke music than prose, and her descriptions are often adequate to impart some sense of style. When one reads that a producer shifts the kick-drum to the off-beat to create an “East African” rhythm, for example, it is easy enough to imagine what this sounds like--though a tempo indication would make all the difference. From a more logistical standpoint: if licensing and packaging prevents the easy inclusion of CDs with books, then we need to begin exploring other avenues to make such “supplementary”--actually, it seems rather integral--material available. In many ways, the Internet provides an ideal space for the integration of multimedia content and I would hope to see more ethnomusicologists explore the world of cyberspace as an expressive resource. Song samples, especially if short, are generally protected by fair use, and in cases when they are not perhaps it is our task as scholars to challenge the intellectual property status quo rather than compromise our abilities to openly exchange information. Whether such media-rich websites are maintained or made possible by a publisher, an academic institution, or a scholars’ own wherewithal (which is perhaps often the most feasible option), it is my hope that such a medium will become a more common, if experimental, way to share ideas.

Overall, this is an excellent book, intended for the general field of ethnomusicology as well as the specialist. To be sure, those who spend their days pondering mbaqanga, post-apartheid South Africa, the local/global axis, studio recording and the politics of interpersonal and inter-group relations (as mediated by music) will find much of interest in Sound of Africa! The general ethnomusicological reader, however, will also have much to gain by reading Meintjes’s text, for despite the inherent limitations of a rather localized study of studio practice, there is no paucity of ideas or analysis here and no shortage of relevance outside the world of South African popular music. With its innovative formal features, its nuanced story-telling and its engagement with contemporary theoretical frameworks, Meintjes’s Sound of Africa! stands as a fine example of twenty-first century ethnomusicology. Indeed, it issues an imperative for everyone attempting today to synthesize critical, reflective statements from so many texts, subtexts, and contexts: remix!


Erlmann, Veit. 1999. Music, Modernity, and the Global Imagination: South Africa and the West. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Meintjes, Louise. 1990. “Paul Simon’s Graceland, South Africa, and the Mediation of Musical Meaning.” Ethnomusicology 34(1): 37-74.

Porcello, Tom. 1998. “‘Tails Out’: Social Phenomenology and the Ethnographic Representation of Technology in Music-Making.” Ethnomusicology 42(3): 485-510.

Taylor, Timothy D. 2001. Strange Sounds: Music, Culture, and Technology in the Post-war Era. New York & London: Routledge.

Théberge, Paul. 1997. Any Sound You Can Imagine: Making Music/Consuming Technology. Hanover, N.H.: Wesleyan University Press.


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