On Site, In Sound, by Kirstie A. Dorr, and Experimentalisms in Practice, edited by Ana Alonso-Minutti, Eduardo Herrera, and Alejandro Madrid, seek new ways of thinking about Latin America as produced through transnational musical encounters. These include approaching Latin@ America and Latin America1 as a political geography and cultural imaginary, as well as decentering the musics that have “counted” as experimental and cosmopolitan (Alonso-Minutti et al.) or as world music (Dorr) in relation to the Anglo-European imagining of these geographies. Both works frame the borders of Latin America as extending beyond the normative geopolitical boundaries of the region to include diaspora networks within the U.S. Alonso-Minutti et al. also consider “Latin America” as a common, though not necessarily universally shared, conceptual frame for people living within the normative geopolitical area. Likewise, both works probe the formation of tensions between, to put it simply, the local and global, without reifying the local as static and previously isolated or the global as somehow “out there,” an entity that interpolates the local. In other words, both books frame Latin American musics as constantly emerging through transnational relations; these relations cannot be separated from the particular logics of race, gender, economy and exchange produced first through the colonial encounter and later transformed into late twentieth-century globalization. In one sense, by bringing to the fore histories of musics largely overlooked in world music and experimental music scholarship in the global north, both books seek to enact a decolonial politics—countering the tendency in the Anglo-American academy to exclude Latin American musics from transnational, often hemispheric histories of musical practice and thought.
The two books, however, pursue this common goal using different methodologies.
Dorr is largely concerned with what the musics she discusses can offer as a political critique of imaginaries of the geographical, as well as how the relevant texts, practices, and histories can be “read” as forms of resistance to (raced, gendered) capitalist hegemony. Dorr’s choice of subject matter aims at this reworking: she analyzes the “geohistory of three musical moments that... are most often discussed as politically discrete, geographically bounded, and aesthetically disparate: Música Andina, Nueva Canción, and Música Afrosudamericana” (p. 3). Although these musics are for the most part discussed in separate chapters, Dorr sets them together to critique “music in place” approaches, particularly those she sees within ethnomusicological work on the musics in question (p. 5). Against work emphasizing “local geographies,” which approaches social space as “static and unproblematic rather than unstable and contested” and “presumes that music’s capacity to express political designs or enact solidarity practices is arbitrated by its static entrenchment in bounded, circumscribed spatial typologies” (p. 5), Dorr seeks to understand the “crucial role of performance in sounding competing geographic imaginaries and arrangements” (p. 5). Performance geographies,” a term Dorr develops from Sonjah Stanely Niaah’s work DanceHall: From Slaveship to Ghetto (2010), encapsulates this framing. A performance geography “describes the range of situated and imagined places at and through which the collective cultural task of materialization—including embodiment, mobility, attachment, and speculation—collides with the physical and ideological constraints of context” (p. 17). Here, Dorr brings together work from human geography, particularly regarding matters of scale and the configuration of place, with performance studies, especially that elaborated by scholars of diaspora, race, and gender.
Each chapter is framed as the mapping of a particular performance geography. The first chapter details the circulation of the melody/ballad known as “El Cóndor Pasa” through three historical and artistic moments: its composition in 1913 by Peruvian composer and folklorist Daniel Amolía Robles; Paul Simon’s critically acclaimed version of 1969 (“If I Could”), which laid English vocal tracks over a recording by Argentine-Venezuelan band Los Inkas; and a 1971/72 version by Peruvian indigenous singer Yma Sumac. The second chapter discusses the “Andean Music Industry,” Dorr’s term for networks of Andean and indigenous musicians playing pan-Andean musics around Latin America, the U.S., and Europe at the time (1980s) when the world music industry started booming. This chapter ends with a short discussion of the indigenous Peruvian artist Wendy Sulca, who rose to fame in the late 2000s with a viral video about her love of breast milk. The next chapter treats several generations of mostly Afro-Peruvian women artists (plus U.S. dancer and anthropologist Katherine Dunham) at the helm of researching and institutionalizing Afro-Peruvian expressive practices in Peru. Dorr notes the connections these artists made to both the larger African diaspora, as well as how they figured in the northern music industry, most notably through David Byrne’s 1995 compilation Soul of Black Peru. The final full chapter discusses “La Peña del Sur,” a pan-Latin American arts and activism space in San Francisco’s Mission District, founded in 1991 by exiled Chilean poet Alejandro Stuart and run by him for another ten years. An epilogue introduces the readers to the language activism work of Renata Flores Rivera, who created a Quechua cover of Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel”; Dorr also revisits the case of “El Cóndor Pasa,” describing the successful copyright infringement suit by Amolía Robles’s son against Paul Simon in order to touch on the issue of cultural appropriation and sonic debts.
Experimentalisms in Practice similarly covers a wide range of historical, geographic, and aesthetic practices but does so through detailed case studies circumscribed as individual chapters. There are eleven of these, which, in addition to the introduction and an afterword, are grouped into four sections: Centers and Institutions; Beyond the Limits of Hybridity; Anticolonial Practices; and Performance, Movements, and Scenes. For the sake of space I will limit my discussion to one chapter from each section.
Susan Thomas’s “Experimental Alternatives: Institutionalism, Avant-gardism, and Popular Music at the Margins of the Cuban Revolution” discusses the relationship between the Grupo de Experimentación Sonora (GES), founded in 1968, and the 1990s and early 2000s bands (Habana Abierta and Interactivo, respectively) that connect their musical aesthetics and working practices to the former group. Because the ideologies and managerial practices of Cuban state institutions sought to combat imperialist musics distributed through the market, musics which incorporated those very sounds could be understood as “avant-garde” and “experimental”.
“Peruvian Cumbia at the Theoretical Limits of Techno-Utopian Hybridity,” Joshua Tucker’s contribution to part two, analyzes distinct cases of the curation and global circulation of chicha to critique new discourses of technologically mediated cosmopolitan hybridity. Tucker connects these discourses to the importance of mestizaje (racial and cultural mixing), often highly mediated by music, in the formation of Latin American nationalisms. He shows how techno-utopian hybridity discourse, which glorifies experimentation and hybridity, “enforce[s] new modes of authenticity, reworking hierarchies of social and aesthetic distinction, rather than assuaging such inequalities” (p. 89).
In part three, Susan Campos Fonseca’s “Noise, Sonic Experimentation, and Interior Coloniality” discusses how Noise in Costa Rica evidences “processes of ‘interior coloniality’ that function on a micropolitical level” (p. 162). Campos Fonseca describes the debate generated when a young Noise musician won a composition award in 2014; previous winners had come from the academic and arts institutions that created the award. Through this case, Campos Fonseca interrogates the uses and framings of indigenous and folklorized sounds as uncritical repertoire for the Noise artists and academically situated experimental composers alike. In this sense, though “Noisers” imagine themselves as experimental alternatives to both Western canons and academically situated music institutions, they enact a micropolitics of coloniality in reproducing the ethnic as other, and the other as a Costa Rican past available for sonic experiments. This raises questions about experimentation and innovation being set in universal terms (defined by Europe and the U.S.), and thus raises the definition of music itself as “an ethnohistorical problem” (p. 173).
Finally, in part four, Marysol Quevedo contributes “Experimental Music and the Avant-Garde in Post-1959 Cuba,” which nicely complements Thomas’s chapter on avant-gardism in Cuba. Quevedo discusses the experimental, vanguard, and avant-garde leanings of art music composers, and how their pre-1959 commitment to leftist work laid the groundwork for their elevation to leaders in the new cultural institutions of the revolution. Similar to Thomas’s chapter, Quevedo’s shows how the definition of experimentation was shaped by political ideologies of making music “for the people” from within academic spaces, as well as how the aesthetically innovative had become coterminous with socialist political ideology and anti-imperialism.
An afterword by Benjamin Piekut, whose work is cited throughout the volume, places the chapters in the context of the postwar making of U.S. experimentalism, which excluded earlier pan-American experimental circulations and collaborations (cf. Hess 2013).
One of the strongest themes that emerges across these two books is the question of the public sphere: who shapes the cultural imaginaries of Latin America, and what technologies and institutions hold them together? How does music participate in the construction of these materialities and ideologies, both by rendering them sensible in the experience of listeners, and by contributing to what those imaginaries, technologies and institutions might sound like? Indeed, Dorr frames her musical cases as performance geographies to foreground “the realms, distances, and surfaces within, across and through which sound travels; the mechanisms of its production, amplification, and mediation; and sound’s contextual relationship with other modes of cultural production and signification” (pp. 18−19). In concert, the chapters in Alonso-Minutti et al. offer detailed historical and ethnographic analyses of partially shared yet differing modes of production, travel, and interpretation of experimental ideas and practices; this grouping grounds the larger question of how these practices intersect with historical ideas of Latin America.
Dorr’s methodology is to “read” particular performances for their staging of counterhegemonic politics, in order to suggest modes of being and connection not already dominant in the public sphere and larger cultural imagination. But it is not always clear how relevant this reading might be for the people making and listening to the music, nor for how such politics shape or reconstitute the public sphere through specific institutional, media, and discursive practices. Such limitations are perhaps expected, given the range of times and places Dorr tackles in the book. In some places, Dorr might have relied more on other authors to flesh out contextual information that explicitly shows how what she calls “musical transits” change such contexts and imaginations, or complicate certain political readings. For example, the author’s discussion of the Andean Music Industry might have been strengthened through conversation with both Bigenho’s (2012) work on Andean music touring in Japan, as well as Tucker’s (2013) detailing of the huayno music industries in Peru, which are encompassed within Dorr’s Andean Music Industry framing. This would have helped elucidate how the Andean Music Industry Dorr describes remakes, or does not remake, notions of “Andeanness” both in Peru and abroad. Likewise, Dorr’s positioning of Wendy Sulca, a huayno artist, as enacting counterhegemonic public discourse within Peru does not contend with Sulca’s rapid transformation into a pan-Latin American pop star with some multinational corporate sponsorship. While music scholars familiar especially with anthropological work on the mediation of place, music, media, and the public sphere may find this lack of precision as frustrating, they may find valuable Dorr’s incorporation of work from critical race and gender theorists and cultural geographers they might not otherwise know; I was especially happy to see a music scholar engage with the work of British cultural geographer Doreen Massey.
For their part, Alonso-Minutti et al. might have pushed the unifying experimental framing further in interrogating the sounding of Latin American modernity and public culture in global relation. What might the focus on experimentalisms in Latin America—tied to notions the western art histories, institutions, and notions of the public sphere—raise for theorizations of Latin American modernity itself? I was struck, for example, by the frequency with which the mid-twentieth-century Brazilian conceptualizations of cultural appropriation and mixture were historically important throughout the book, even though only one chapter, by Dan Sharp, deals directly with Brazilian music. Equally important, and unsurprising for anyone familiar with Latin America, was the framing of experimentalism as anti-imperial, particularly within the political contexts of left-wing revolutionary struggle and its typically brutal defeat by the empire to the north. Likewise, the book attested to the ongoing importance of these histories in steering both possibilities of exchange and circulation and modes of apprehending and valorizing musics within the region. The editors did a commendable job of leaving the definition of experimentalism open to the range of historical and theoretical understandings and practices described by the contributors. But perhaps, in the spirit of experimenting with new methods for conceptualizing musical groupings as a practice of decolonial scholarship, Alonso-Minutti et al. might have offered some directions toward a broader theoretical synthesis of Latin American geographic imaginations.
Together, these books offer rich historical and ethnographic materials on a variety of musical practices, asking how they work in shaping and reshaping ongoing unequal global politics. The way both books eschew normative framings of the geographical and cultural imagination of these musics under the banner of Latin/Latin@ America, and their approach to experimental conceptualization and methodology, offers much to popular music studies as a field.