Tag Archives: transnational

building research

A multimodal musical analysis: visualizing diaspora

Since I work in the CDLR, I get to raise all kinds of wild questions that don’t fall into the purview of traditional, disciplinary bound scholarship. To prepare for my presentation at the Pop Conference (instituted by Experience Music Project in Seattle), this year combined with IASPM-US (International Association for the Study of Popular Music), I became preoccupied with the question: “How do I visualize a music analysis about space and place?”

My paper extends my dissertation work on The Kominas, a South Asian American punk band tied to the alternative Muslim subculture self-labeled as Taqwacore. In this paper, I chose to focus on the band’s music. Through a couple of song readings, I investigate the form and content of diasporic spaces as articulated by the band’s music. I argue that this unique geo-musical formation discursively moves seamlessly between a conventional notion of diaspora—migration of people away from an ancestral homeland—and a minority-centered, multi-diasporic space. Through a recent engagement with multimodal scholarship, I challenged myself to think beyond writing, a mode that conventionally represents academic work. I already use the concepts such as cartography and mapping as metaphors. Why should I limit the expression of my ideas to text only? Why not create a map of my music analysis especially since it’s about space and place?

Visualizing a musical analysis is nothing new. Music theorists have used music notations to represent sonic patterns key in their interpretation. More recently, theorists and information scientists used computational means to process sonic materials for patterns. Visualization became a way to explore patterns, bringing sounds into a (visual) domain that were previously inaccessible with the human senses.

My paper, however, does not engage with the use of the computational technologies to process sonic materials. It does something rather old-school. It simply draws several points on a map and then links them. It does not overlay demographic or musical data. It displays a couple of different geographical formations that illustrate the changing contour of a musical diaspora, a geographical space comprised of lyrical, sonic, and choreographic references. [I deployed Josh Kun’s concept of “audiotopia” to argue for the social and cultural effects of this geo-musical space.]

I began with a hand-drawn map. I used the Penultimate app on my iPad.

I quickly realized that my hand drawn diagram is not only messy but almost illegible. Through searching and playing, I settled with the web-based mapping program Scribble Maps to map this unique diasporic spaces. Using features such as vector graphics, media imports, and baselayer settings, I created a couple of maps that best approximate the geo-musical entities for which I argue in my analysis.

This map articulates The Kominas’ worldview. I positioned South Asia in a visually central spot, with the cultural region of Punjab and the city of Lahore highlighted. The song “Par Desi” articulates this geographical formation:

The song’s title explicitly figures the South Asian diaspora. Vocally and lyrically, the song evokes an ethnic and geographical quandary. The singer and bassist Basim’s voice shivers as he sings the chorus line, ‘In Lahore it’s raining water, in Boston it rains boots.’ The subject in the song defines his physical home in Boston, where he experienced an assault by skinhead punks. He sings, ‘They tried to stomp me out, but they only fueled the flame.’ The song narrates a history of migration and the emotions of displacement. It raises the questions, ‘Where do I point to blame, when men scatter like moths? /…  how’d I get here, from a land with long monsoons?’

The song’s references to traditional bhangra, a dance music genre that originated in Punjab, further complicates this geo-musical formation. In my analysis, I argue that the band projects a transnational bhangra-punk sound:

An 8-second analog sample of live bhangra percussion comes into the musical present. Immediately, this sample transports me, the listener, away from the emotional space of the lament. Continuing the triplet pattern of the bhangra sample, the band transforms the bhangra rhythm into a collective punk-style chanting of ‘la-la-la’ in the final section of the song. This chant rejoices in the form of a Clash-like punk choir, roughly in unison with a distorted guitar.

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This bhangra-punk aesthetic is projected from a South-Asian- or desi-identified ethnic space: imagined somewhere between Punjab, 1970s punk England, and present-day home in the northeastern United States. The Kominas, I contend, elides its physical home in Boston and the U.S.; at the same time, the band self-consciously embeds itself into historical punk England to reclaim a new musical home.

I discovered a different but related diasporic configuration in “Tunnnnnn.” This song articulates a minoritarian, multi-diasporic space.

The Kominas alludes to the original roots reggae version of the song (“Armagideon Time” Jamaican artist by Willi Williams). In doing so, the band resituates their version of the song into a Rastafari time-space. The Kominas locates its own battleground, while borrowing from the Rastafari visions of Armageddon.

I hear The Kominas calling for its own ‘Armagideon,’ in the new lyrics written in Punjabi. According to Basim’s translation, the first verse states: ‘We will only drink that / That they are drinking in Iraq / We will only drink that / that they would drink in Karballah (sic).’ It is not a coincidence that both Iraq and Karbala are iconic battle sites both in the past and present. The War in Iraq after the events on September 11 has been a topical preoccupation by The Kominas since its first album (entitled Wild Nights in Guantanamo Bay). The band has made clear its stance of castigating the western world, in particular the United States, for waging a war motivated by Islamophobia, militarism, and imperialism. Following the Punjabi lyrics, Basim evokes the overthrow of 21st century Babylonians. In English, he sings the lines, ‘A lot of people won’t get justice tonight / A lot of people wont’ get no supper tonight / Just remember to / Kick it over / And praise Jehovah / And kick it out.’

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The Kominas’ musical alliance with roots reggae, the music of those in Jamaica as well as the Jamaican immigrants, rewrites the history of the racial dynamics in 1960s and 1970s England. Challenging the history of “paki-bashing” in England, The Kominas’ music prominently figures the South Asian subjectivity. This musical geography has discursively reorganized the racial relations between blackness, whiteness, and Asianness. It also forges a musical alliance between a South Asian American band and the Afro-Caribbeans in Jamaica and the U.K..

In its overlays, these maps bring into relief various sites of geopolitics related to postcolonial struggles. This spatial articulation, I contend, is a minority-centered project of reterritorialization. It points away from the band’s physical home in the United States to re-focus on geographical sites symbolic of resistance. Its identification with loci of anti-white-supremacy and anti-imperialism, I argue, is a response to the post-9/11 social alienation and melancholia. Through the creative adaptations of Punjabi musical roots and transnational routes via the U.K., Jamaica, and Lahore, the band has built a psycho-social home in its music.

Coda: These two maps are extensions of my work at UVa’s Scholars’ Lab where I made a series of Myspace friendship distribution maps of a handful of bands (including The Kominas) featured in my dissertation. I’m happy that I’m in the position to use experimental and digital methods to further my explorations of the relationship between pop music and postcolonial geography. This cluster of ideas and modes of inquiry truly excites me.

 

 

 

 

 

event performance

Astounding Success @ Love 4 Haiti

Love 4 Haiti was event that I organized with UVa students and Charlottesville community artists to raise funds and awareness for Haitians in need. The planning committee came together over social media. In 6 days, we organized a large-scale event that comprised of a silent art auction and live performance lineup of 15 acts representing Charlottesville’s kaleidoscopic music and dance talent. The first graders at Burnley Moran presented their artworks related to Haiti and sold them for $5 apiece. 6 speakers, ranging from UVa student with Haitian families to university faculty with special relations with Haiti, and representatives from non-profit organizations begin quake-relief efforts, contributed to the educational component of the event. We also sold food donated by local food vendors.

We raised $8,500 for 4 organizations behind quake-relief efforts. Families, friends, students, and artists across social boundaries all came together showing their love, concerns, and support for those affected by the earthquake in Haiti. It was beautiful night in Charlottesville.

Here Peter Traub, my partner-in-crime, and I give a recap of the event. This is part 1 of a 3-part, 30-minute video documentary shot and produced by David Eklund. [parts 2 + 3 also on youtube] This documentary is also aired on Charlottesville Comcast Channel 13 on Friday 8:30pm and Saturday 11pm for the entire month.

The rebuilding and recovery processes will take years and decades. We hope that the event set off a local awareness and commitment to Haiti.

pop culture & media research

Searching for a Hakka Sound – Wu Sheng-Zhi of the Sunshine Band

In the last few years, I’ve been on a quest for music by Hakka people in Taiwan. My dad’s family is of Hakka descent. The Hakka people are known as migrants living in diaspora in East and Southeast Asia, more specifically, in various parts of Taiwan and China. Growing up, I always sensed and was fascinated by the Hakka ethnicity coming from my paternal grandparents. Both my grandparents (my grandpa=Ah-gung and grandma=Ah-ma) grew up during the Japanese occupation in rural northern Taiwan (south of the capital city Taipei). They would speak Hakka to each other only when they needed to communicate in privacy or intimacy. My father speaks very little Hakka as his siblings. I speak next to nothing in Hakka – knowing only simple phrases like “eating” and “rice.” My grandparents’ Hakka identification seems to me private whereas their Japanese acculturation seemed more exterior and public. Perhaps they associate their Hakka identity with their past, their early childhood and family.

This summer I attended conference for the International Association for the Study of Popular (IASPM) Music in Liverpool, UK. Serendipitously, I met and befriends a number of dear and friendly scholars associated with the Inter-Asia group of IASPM. They invited me in treating me as a junior colleague or young cousin/sibling. It was a fortuitous meeting of wonderful people and scholars of incredible resources and knowledge.

Among these scholars was 何東洪, H0 Tung-Hong. Yet another serendipitous turn – Tung-Hong lives in the town where both my grandparents were born and raised in. His wife is related to my Ah-ma’s classmate who later became a well-known writer. He introduced me to a number of musicians and groups that I hadn’t heard of. I bugged him with questions about the roots and historical practices of Nakashi. With patience, he told me a brief account of the history and iconic figures of Nakashi in Taiwan. He even wrote down names for me (because writing in Chinese has become more challenging over the years).

I was especially intrigued by early Hakka musicians. The name 吳盛智, Wu Sheng-Zhi came up. He was the leader, singer, and guitarist of the well-known rock group Sunshine Band (陽光合唱團). His band performed lots of “Western” songs (from British and American records) all over the island of Taiwan. He was also hired as a session musician for one of the three television broadcast companies. Wearing his hair long while playing his electric guitar, “like a hippie Hakka,” W sang lots of Hakka tunes in the style of rock music, combining the Hakka mountain songs (Sheng ge) with rock music. Through his access to mainstream media, Hakka music was transmitted and distributed widely. He released the first Hakka album Not Fated in 1981. Wu passed at the age of 39 in a car accident in 1983.

Googling him, I found a short youtube video about Wu. The voice-over is in Hakka. Thankfully, this video has English and Mandarin Chinese subtitles. Zealously, I hereby announce the beginning for my discovery of Hakka music. [UPDATE: These videos have since been taken down from Youtube…] These are videos left:

Lyrical ballad:

late 70s pop-rock:

on the more disco side:

Short TV documentary about Wu, narrated in Hakka, with English subtitles]:

And I found a few resources articles on Wu:
http://www.hakka.gov.tw/ct.asp?xItem=26338&ctNode=1561&mp=278
http://www.hakkaonline.com/xspace/viewnews-2155.html

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This entry was originally posted on Yellowbuzz on December 7, 2009.

event performance

A New Taiwanese American Music Concept? My Nakashi Band Dzian!

HoChie Tsai of TaiwaneseAmerican.org posted about my new band Dzian! (贊!, “super-cool!” in Taiwanese) yesterday. It’s exciting to see that Dzian! is now recognized by the Taiwanese American community.

This band emerged from s few strands of inspiration. One is the discovery of the tremendous amount of exhilarating surf and garage music from in the non-UK-and-US parts of the world in 1960s-70s (pre-cassette age). Many bloggers and music lovers have digitized these old LPs and posted them as free downloads. In particular, we have been drawn to the excellent posts by Radiodiffusion.

The other strand of inspiration comes from my personal quest for Nakashi, a Taiwanese burlesque-like performance practice circa 1960s-1980s employed for social functions (weddings, new years parties, company parties, temple celebration, strip tease…). Over time Nakashi morphed into a semi-participatory karaoke format. Because it was always a local practice, not much of it has been documented. There are a few representations in Taiwanese films (mostly about rural life driven by nostalgia). Other than, I’m reconstructing this fascinating performance practice in part as an ethnomusiologist by talking to friends and family from Taiwan and internet research, in part as a musician who’s driven by the energy and performative efficacy of this practice. And I’m recreating a performance based on some of my childhood memories of Nakashi at company parties that my parents took me to.

The band Dzian! is my pet project right now. A few musician friends, most of whom I met through improvised experimental music, came together to play these great tunes. Our formation as a band solidified at the typhoon relief benefit show that I organized for last week. My intention was to recreate Nakashi performance in Virginia (perhaps the first maybe?) and to enliven Taiwanese local culture to an audience mixed between Taiwanese American students from UVa, local restaurant owners, friends, family, and the local music and Taiwanese-food lovers. With our friends The Nakashi Dancers, Dzian! played a selection selection of your favorite 1960s surf and garage rock songs from Taiwan, Japan, Indonesia, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, and US.

Here is a Taiwanese “A Go-Go” pop song “I Love You A Go-Go” originally by Wu Jin Lan, here sung by yours truly:

“Moon Over Ruined Castle” 荒城の月 – a Japanese pop classic arranged and performed by Dzian! [I heard and learned this song mostly from my Ah-Ma (grandma) my parents’ karaoke parties:

A Khmer folk pop medley consisting of “Blue Basket” and “Look at the Owl” [from the Cambodian Cassette Archive]:

Here’s a great video recap of the entire event by David Eklund:

Dzian! is Charlottesville/Virginia’s new, one and only Nakashi band. Following the tradition of Nakashi, we have now made ourselves available for fundraiser events, weddings, holiday parties, birthdays, graduations, frat parties, TV commercials, NASA launching ceremonies, etc.

Dzian! (贊!) – Please say our name with your thumbs up!!

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This entry was originally posted on November 6, 2009 on Yellowbuzz.
pop culture & media

Like an Ethic: What I Learned from Michael Jackson

During the first 12 years of my life in Taiwan, I was hooked to the practice of “keeping up” with the latest in pop culture in Taiwan and abroad. Through my connection to extended family in the U.S., I was able to obtain nifty cultural artifacts such as Ghostbusters model kit, Strawberry Shortcake blanket, Batman board game, Garfield puzzle set, and New Kids on the Block book covers (only then to find that American textbooks are much larger than their Taiwanese counterparts). The internationalization Toys “R” Us allowed me a more immediate access to American pop culture. I remember asking my parents to take me to the newly built Toys “R” Us in Taipei so I could pick out the items on my birthday wish list. The tremendous selection of made-in-U.S.A. toys in the store was both fascinating and overwhelming.

One day, my uncle, who’s only 12 years older than me, said that he had gotten tickets to see Michael Jackson’s concert in the largest indoor sports arena in Taipei. Well-versed in American pop music because of MTV (my parents were among the first people to install cable television once it became legal in Taiwan in the late 1980s), I learned of Michael Jackson’s high status within the American music industry. I was thrilled to experience the real Michael Jackson live. With our inexpensive tickets, we sat way up high in the stadium among not-so-hardcore international fans of Michael. Witnessing Michael moon-walking across the multicolored stage in his white outfit, although not understanding the lyrics of all his songs, bewildered me.

The King of Pop wielded magic that night. Without understanding the context of American society–racial dynamics, gender relations, etc–I was overtaken by the performance power of Michael Jackson at the age of 9. It was mesmerizing, not like a Disney-sque fairy tale but more like a documentarian snapshot of the American life. Maybe it was the spectacular stage production, the screaming fans, or the astronomical performance venue, or some combination of these things, I remember it as a quintessential “American” experience. Maybe it was then that I became obsessed with live music performances. Maybe it was my first ethnomusicological moment.

After I moved to the US with my family, one of the first things I learned about was the entrenched racial tension between the American blacks and whites. Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” suggested that there could be a middle ground, or least it was cool to celebrate social harmony across racial divide. Michael’s playful, anti-binary ambiguity in gendered and racial terms compelled me like an ethic. This was my secret identification with MJ.

Like the whole rest of the world, I am mourning the passing of Michael Jackson. I choose not to talk about his life as a celebrity and judge him based on the highly mediated information regarding his biography. Instead I focus on the effects of his music, dance, and artistry as they resonate with my experiences as an Asian American individual and a music lover. Rest in peace, Michael.

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This entry was originally posted on June 26, 2009 on Yellowbuzz.

pop culture & media

Afterquake Gives Voice to the Victims of Sichuan Earthquake

Afterquake is a musical collaboration led by Abigail Washburn and David Liang of the Shanghai Restoration Project, in cooperation with Sichuan Quake Relief. Washburn conceived of the project while performing American old time music in Sichuan after the devastating earthquake struck on May 12, 2008. She encountered children who were eager to share their songs with her during her performance trips. Together on a two-week trip in March 2009, they traveled to sites of earthquake destruction to record the music and ambient sounds of Wenchuan County in the Sichuan Province. Liang and Washuburn then joined forces to “remix voices and sounds from the China earthquake zone” with an aim “to raise awareness for victims still in need.”

Release on May 12, 2009, a year after the event, the Afterquake EP contains 7 tracks of electronica collages of field recordings artfully recombined. I especially recommend “Song for Mama”. Narrating the separation between youngster Chen Honglin and his family, this track features Chen’s heart wrenching vocal performance, his mother’s spoken lines, over a foundation rhythmically supported by the environmental sounds representing his family’s arduous work behind reconstructing their home. The entire track can be previewed as a slide show on the site.


Washburn, Liang, and the children (left front, Chen Honglin)

In particular, the ethnographic aspects of the project impress the ethnomusicologist in me. Afterquake’s ethics of representing the local participants departs from various cross-cultural collaborations under the genre label of “World Beat” or “World Music” (Micky Hart, Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, etc). The project’s multimedia website contextualizes the sources of the music in a descriptive narrative. Field recordings, credits, and interview transcripts of the local participants involved in the making of each of the tracks are posted on the page to help the listener imagine the process of creation. Liang and Washburn carefully documented their collecting and remxing processes, evidenced by their “The Making Of” and “Interview” videos and photo gallery on the website.

The Afterquake album can be purchased from various China, Taiwan, and US-based MP3 vendors making the tracks available to an international audience. Audiophiles and humanitarian enthusiasts can purchase the special physical editions of the album with artwork from the Afterquake online store directly to benefit Sichuan Quake Relief, boosting their efforts “to provide much needed resources to individuals, schools and communities recovering from the earthquake.”

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This entry was originally posted on May 27, 2009 on Yellowbuzz.