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November 14, 2004

Lullabies From the Axis of Evil

The moment before I begin:
I find myself alone in the World Music section of the Virgin Megastore at Union Square. It�s 9:30pm and the main section of the store is full of people but so far none of them seem interested in world music. I am secretly relieved for this delay: I am not ready to see other people yet.

Although the feedback I�d gotten about the ethics of representing my subjects through racial / ethnic categories was helpful I still can�t decide on the best way to proceed. On one hand I feel a responsibility to address my own assumptions about race/ethnicity in my fieldnotes but on the other I�m drawn to the idea of not using these categories at all. The thought of producing work that perpetuates stereotypes is momentarily paralyzing. Earlier this week I shared this worry with Deborah (a fieldwork veteran) and she smiled and reminded me that in Middle Eastern cultures intention is very important. She said, "Your intentions are good, relax."


So in this long moment of anxious public privacy I decide to simply be curious about what I see and write everything down that I notice in the moment, omitting nothing.

Book in hand I start by mapping the space and capturing information about the ways that the music in this section is organized. This gives me an immediate focus and soothes my anxiety about representation. I note the category that music is organized under, the name of the artist and CD and the publisher�s suggestion for display. I write in my fieldnotes (excerpt):

Middle East
1) Khaled, Ya-Rayi, Middle East/North Africa
2) Soud Massi, Deb (heartbroken), ME/ N. Afr.
3) Lullabies From the Axis of Evil, various, World Collect
4) Arabia, the Essential Album, Various, ME/ N. Afr.

1. Depina Vandi, Gia, Greek
2. Choying Drolma & Steve Tibbetts, Selwa, World Fusion
3. 12 Girls Band, Eastern Energy, China
4. India, The Woman�s Voice: Bollywood and Beyond, the Greatest Female Vocalists, India/ Bhangra/ Pakistan

Global Transmission Music Without Borders
1. Paco De Luca, Cositas Buenas, Spain
2. 12 Girls Band, Freedom, China
3. Oriental Garden, the World of Oriental Grooves, Various, World Fusion
4. Christine Branco. Sensus, European & other collect

1. Bari, Ojos de Brujo, Spain
2. Radia Tarifa, Tiembre, Spain
3. Gipsy Kings, Roots, Spain
4. Sarita Montiel, La Viva Diva, Latin/pop-rock

1. Zap Mama, Ancestry in Progress, African
2. Rokia Traore, Bowmboi, African
3. Mary Kante, Sabou, African
4. Putumayo presents Music from the Chocolate Lands, World Collections

1. Emeline Michal, Rasin Kreyal, English Carribean
2. World Groove, Putumayo presents, World Fusion Collect
3. World beat Sessions, Various, World collect
4. Caf� Africa, Sun, Savannahs & Safaris, African

This resonates with what I�ve read about the history of the term "world music,� which was coined in the 1960�s as a more user-friendly term than the cumbersome "ethnomusicology. " Nevertheless, "world music" reproduced a tense division in the academy, where western and non-western music are imagined as completely separate areas of interest and study. The result is that musicology (literally the study of music) is configured as the study of western music while ethnomusicology is a catch all default study area for music that doesn�t fit in that category. Looking around the World music section confirms that these assumptions are also at work in the marketplace.

Latin music is playing overhead in this section, unlike the main atrium, which is playing a revolving selection of hip-hop and "alternative" selections, all in English. I try and listen to the song that is playing in the main section of the store "Punk Rock Girl" (A song by the Philadelphia punk band the Dead Milkmen that reminds me of my adolescence) I notice that my breathing changes and I curl slightly inward, trying to capture the sound in my ears over the salsa music that plays all around me. This posture, which makes a kind of social sense when I am wearing headphones at a listening station, seems odd when I�m not. I become self-conscious as I am flooded with nostalgia and homesickness. The music is simultaneously drawing me inward and making me aware of the distance between the main atrium and the world music section. The stores geography choreographs paths within and between its sections. And the music playing overhead reinforces the sense of separation.

I am suddenly very lonely.

I am at the listening station marked "Middle East" listening to a CD titled "Lullabies From the Axis of Evil," (which features selections from Iran, Iraq, North Korea and, strangely, Cuba and Palestine) when my first actual subject arrives. He begins listening to the station marked "Global Transmissions." He watches me writing furiously and, when I leave the Middle East station he takes my place, assuming a solemn posture, turning away and curving his back. His physical attitude generates a public privacy that I begin to note in the other listeners who approach, and in myself. All together there are four other listeners (besides myself) as well as five others who pass through this section of the store while I am observing.

Almost immediately representing my subjects in ethno-racial terms becomes a non-issue. Even if I wanted to I find it�s not so simple to stereotype people at random. The representations on the CD covers are much more clear-cut than the actual people who surround me, moving in and out of the space. I find myself paying more attention to their physical attitudes and manners than anything else. Then almost unconsciously I begin comparing the people I observe to musicians and other pop-culture figures that resonate for me.

I write in my fieldnotes:

"Hipsters/ They: Williamsburg/ She; thin pretty, young, bored, blonde, short hair, back pack/ skirt/ Nico/Francoise Hardy/ He: boy with pretty face, hair swept over one eye (also Nico?) / giant pants/ some kind of bag/ fitted wool overcoat/ Woman�s coat?

Hipster dialogue:
He: So I�m like, okay "Hi! Do you want to meet my friend?"
She: (referring to CD in "Europe") Oh, she has a new album�[unintelligible].
He: No, really wouldn�t you talk to my friend?
She: [Nods "yes"]
They move off, back into main store"

As a theoretical strategy this pleases me because it allows me to further develop the autobiographic thread of my inquiry. Also, without really trying I avoid the potential pitfalls of ethnographic representations. And, finally, it�s fun. I realize that I had completely forgotten to have fun.

I move away from the listening stations, beginning to explore the aisles of the world music section and I discover more listening stations along the wall, hidden by the stacks. These stations stand alone and aren�t marked ethnically or geographically like the others. I am drawn to a listening station on the far wall that has a row of CD�s marked in a curvy "Arabic� font. It seems like my preoccupations with ethno-racist representation and pop-culture reference have collided unexpectedly. I write in my notes:

""How to make Your Husband a Sultan, Belly Dance with Ozel Turkbas"

Booklet includes Ozel�s original bellydance instructions/ "A practice run-through with the record," she promised, " and tonight you can be bellydancing for that luckiest of men�your Husband." /
1960�s album that spawned "bellydancing and Turkish music craze"/ brought to US by Franco Zerferelli/ original record sold 150k in US & a million in Turkey/

Racist kitsch/ See Tavia article

Voluptuous 60�s type woman (Turkish Carol Doda) reclining in revealing costume/ spangly bra/ breasts toward camera/ dark hair sprayed up in complex swooping 60�s style/ smiling/ one leg behind the other/ scissored at the knee/ one leg behind the other/ bare legs/ filmy skirt caught between legs/ gold heels/ "I�ve fallen and I can�t get up""

I move back and forth between simple descriptions (spangly bra), theoretical constructs (racist kitsch), notes to myself about follow up literature (Tavia article) and my pop-culture methodology ("I�ve fallen and I can�t get up"). This recalls Emerson, Fretz and Shaw�s qualification that these ways of working aren�t always discrete but can become fluid and overlap. I find that this is my organic way of note taking and have no trouble identifying and separating these threads.

Tired and relieved I end the exercise and head home.

Process reflections:

On the way home in the subway I do my first level of coding. Using Ozel�s bellydancing record as a an example, I write:

[Orientalism and sexism intermingle, complicate each other/ this pose: when I used to read Playboys with my little brother we used to laugh at this pose/ I remember my mother taking belly dancing lessons in the 70�s and my parents joking about it/ And yet Toni would love this/ she has images like this all over her apt/ Lesbian Kitsch? / she has the most amazing ability to cherry pick these images out of quarter bins and display them reverentially/ "whipped cream and other delights"/ "Come up and see my velvet paintings"/ It is part of her swinging 60�s bachelor persona/]

I next transcribe my fieldnotes (including these codings, rendered red to make them distinct) into a word document. The transcription process is fruitful and gives me a chance to "paw" my notes, leading to a second, and third level of coding to render themes and sub themes. For example I follow the above note with these themes and subthemes:

[Theme: market place expansion]
[Sub theme; Marketing colonial identities, Music as a mirror of the past; Orientalism]
[Theme: Social identities/ globalization]
[Sub theme: marketing gender identities]
[Theme: musical globalization]

Following the reading I didn�t try to organize my ideas at this point but rather work within the dictum "the more themes, the better." I color coded my themes blue and subsequent sub themes light blue. Once I had my raw data coded I created a conceptual map using the Tinderbox software we discussed in class. Using this program I was able to organize the data by theme and graphically illustrate the relationship between my data points.

From this concept map I begin to see several directions I might explore, including several that were completely unanticipated. Because my observation included both texts, (The commercial copy and images on the CD cases) and people (my fellow music consumers), I utilize multiple strategies in capturing and organizing my data. For example, in processing this exercise I adapted the Key-Words-in-Context (KWIC) approach to "reading" commercial copy text. Since I was looking at texts and images that were created specifically for a commercial purpose I kept in mind Sut Jhally�s thesis about advertising as a system of education. The inconsistent representations even within the same geographic designation show how unstable these categories are. This proved a striking contrast to the live people in my study, who proved altogether too mundane and mysterious to be imagined in relationship with any of the ethnic representations suggested by the music they listened to.

Other sites for further inquiry suggested by this exercise include, Authenticity, Sonic Virtuality and Musical Globalization.

Posted by at November 14, 2004 12:53 AM