Forum on “Listening for History”

Forum on “Listening for History”

Curated by Sean Mannion, Duke University

Scholars of Latin America have long been concerned with sound. In their forum organized for HAHR 96.2, Alejandra Bronfman and Christine Ehrick invited numerous scholars (Gala Porras-Kim, Elizabeth Dore, and Marc A. Hertzman) to interrogate this concern, opening up critical conversations that deploy sound as a principal category of analysis. The forum pieces not only compellingly suggest what sound studies can contribute to Latin American history–and vice versa–but also incorporate sound itself within their arguments by allowing online readers access to the aural artifacts discussed–a historic first for HAHR. Please explore this freely accessible forum–and listen to the sounds discussed within–at

This open online forum expands the discussion by inviting leading scholars of history and sound studies to reflect upon the issues raised by the forum. We invite all readers to provide their own reflections to the forum as part of a rigorous interdisciplinary dialogue and debate on the implications of the sonic for the study of Latin American history.

4 comentarios sobre “Forum on “Listening for History”

  1. Archival Ears

    Long unheard, various archives from the Americas have become subject to close listening as historians and anthropologists, among other scholars in the social sciences and humanities, seek to understand both the past and the present through what the ear can tell us. It turns out that the ear has a lot to say. The essays collected here contribute to this project, demonstrating both the wealth of possibilities and the challenges of this aural turn. The authors show particular sensitivity to the productive capacities of these sonorous archives, as Alejandra Bronfman remarks. What is heard, what demands to be listened to is not there simply in wait of the better historical or anthropological explanation; it is equally an active force in the production of those explanations.

    At heart lies a fundamental question of what constitutes historical evidence. For a discipline such as history long beholden to the notion of evidence—incidentally, a word that openly declares its visual biases—this coproduction of explanation and what we may call an aural methodology confronts us with an inquiry into the nature of listening and into knowledge of the world via sound and the ear, what Steven Feld famously named “acoustemology.”[1] The ear, hearing, and listening, however, are not merely givens in these acoustemological transactions, for they are too susceptible to being shaped and transformed by the very things that they seek to understand. In this sense, the ear is of history and open to participate in the archive. Ears are archival ears.

    However much it promises to reveal a world as-of-yet not fully heard, the ear seems to have privileges that warrant interrogation. “Ojos que no ven, Corazón que no siente” (Out of sight, out of mind), says a Spanish-language proverb often associated with the betrayal of personal fidelity. Stanley Cavell might have well been listening in when he once proposed that “our access to belief is fundamentally through the ear.”[2] With Cavell, we might say that when ears don’t hear, we do not believe. This suggests that when we hear we are compelled to believe, even if the locus of our belief in is “out of sight.” Jonathan Sterne makes a related point in tracing the links between orality and political theology.[3] Indeed, although Sterne critiques the Christian and Hebraic underpinnings of these links, one might argue that listening, as the essays here broadly illustrate, requires a modicum of fidelity, just as listening demands attention and sensory immersion. Like belief, fidelity thrives in the acousmatic. But so does skepticism. When we do not see but only hear, doubt creeps in. And yet, because of this we are compelled to believe. This constitutive tension lies at the heart of aurality.

    This all came to mind when reading Elizabeth Dore’s account of Juan Guillard, a Cuban man interviewed as part of an oral history project. Hearing the fieldwork recording raises doubts about the truthfulness of what he says, amplifying the skepticism that may accompany constative utterances. Nonetheless, only in the creation of that sonorous archive of the ethnographic recording could the field of knowledge about Cuban society that Guillard speaks to and for be constituted. With Dore, we are compelled to believe and doubt. Acoustemology offers a simultaneously overdetermined and underdetermined field of signifying possibilities, making it irrevocably ambiguous, unless, that is, we make a wager to believe. The historian becomes an active participant in persuading readers to make that wager.

    The phonographic voice introduces other particularities. The voice, in the recording, inscribes for the ethnographer and for us readers an earlier inscription (the speaker’s) of a complex set of experiences, themselves lodged and transformed in memory and both uttered and performed during what is a second take of the interview (in the first take, the recorder malfunctioned). We wish to have a faithful record of a perspective that in turn offers us a faithful account (or evidence) of how a community or social group organizes itself vis-à-vis questions of race and sexuality, among other issues. Instead of the “second orality” of the phonographic voice we find ourselves before a sonorous palimpsest of layered-over inscriptions out of which we wish and desire to have a high-fidelity recording of a social worldview. Is this desire itself an effect of the possibility for endless repetition of a recording? That is, an effect of the fact that on repeated hearings we might get to the kernel of what the recording seems to capture—the perceivable nuances and tonal subtleties of vocal performance as they communicate meaning—or that instead every rehearing causes us to doubt what we thought we heard before? Of course, the fact that we cannot help but to wonder whether Juan Guillard (or is it “Juan Guillard”?) is telling something close to a social truth or not reveals what I’d like to call the plasticity of listening, the set of qualities felt and perceived in the aural that sustain the ambiguity of belief and skepticism and that also make possible the transformation of our ear. Plasticity too refers to the acuity with which the ear allows us to confront the world (social, cultural, natural): were we not able to inflect what we hear and listen to with such amount of detail, the tonal subtleties of “Guillard” would not be at stake.

    Perhaps in listening, and because sound is said to operate fast and without the neurocognitive mediation required by, say, light, we edge rapidly toward the affective, that recently fashionable region at the threshold of language, of representation, and of the conscious where we feel before we think. Affect operates as a precognitive mode of awareness, prior to “perception, cognition, signification, language, meaning, representation, self, and other.”[4] These demarcations, which advocates of affect vigilantly guard and maintain, grate against the historians’ tasks and responsibilities to the past and to questions of evidence. And while one shouldn’t categorically assert that affect is absent in the encounter with other archival forms, the by-now very long century of the phonographic age has created modes of audition that, no matter how obviously attached to all kinds of prosthetic technological mediations (microphones, audiphones, playback machines, etc.), invite a feeling of intimacy with the heard. We hear Guillard’s voice almost before we listen to “Guillard.” Nonetheless, these modes of audition are contingent and habitual dispositions of our perceptual practices and thus subject to change and transformation—the plasticity of listening too refers to this capacity.

    Still, the relative novelty of a sonorous archive, particularly with regards to what we may take as a kind of confessional document such as Guillard’s, could well be a reason why we engage it through habitual ears. If the sonorous archive is multiply inscribed (fieldwork recordings here, elsewhere a radio comedy show or traces of a whistling language, for example), so are the techniques (“audile techniques” is Sterne’s useful term) that we first approach it with.[5] Techniques can be adapted, transformed, abandoned, gained, and so on. Each essay in this volume encourages readers to first rehearse their habitual listening practices at the same time that it questions them. To the degree that each one may succeed in helping readers transform what and how they listen and thus what they may come to accept as valid evidence for particular historiographical or ethnographic arguments, they will have managed to do the difficult work of “redistributing the sensible,” in Rancière’s formulation: they will have managed to introduce to a community new values of what can and cannot be said, heard, etc. and new standards for the evaluation of the said, the heard, etc.[6]

    Of course, this all stands in relation to another disposition: to wish to see with our ears. If habitual modes of audition and phonographic inscriptions compel the sense of intimacy and absence of mediation by which affect insinuates itself, habitual modes of reading compel us to remediate the sonorous archive. This remediation is the passage from medium to medium, from inscription to transcription. The essays here render acoustic and vocal performances and their ephemeral sonorous materiality into documents to be held, seen, and read, scrutinized within the slowed-down time of the eye. Transcription thus constitutes not just a rendering-visual of a sonorous inscription but also a form of playback that affords a particular relation with the said, one in which the practice of remediation amplifies and diffuses the message as much as it sometimes clarifies it. At some point in this process of remediation, we confront as well the fact that the message becomes the medium, pace McLuhan. The point is not to worry about a need for remediation, rather it is to hear and see traces as we draw connections among different media and shifting significations emerging from our remedial work. Sound is powerful and we do not wish to invert the old visual biases in favor of the aural or to isolate sound from the intersensory field in which it does its work in the world and in our histories. In the end, it is undeniably the case that, as Christine Ehrick remarks, “as we proceed to compile, archive and analyze these and other kinds of sonic artifacts, we will arrive at a broader and richer ‘aural understanding’ of Latin America and its experience of modernity.”

    This echoes Alejandra Bronfman’s observation that we consider phonography as a dispositive for the generation of knowledge rather than simply its reflection or capture. Indeed, Veit Erlmann argues that modern rationality and its reflective paradigm encounters in modern aurality and its resonance paradigm a counterpart and challenge.[7] As historians, we both reflect (reason) and resonate (voice our reasoning). Holding these in tension constitutes the main challenge of an acoustic and aural historiography. The resonant paradigm does not necessarily entail a loss of fidelity as the sound repeats and fades, as in an echo, it can equally entail an increase in its fidelity and staying resonance when we engage the speculative. On the one hand, our historical analyses become part of the modes in which the sonorous archive resonates. On the other, by speculative I do not mean the reflective as such, and neither do I mean either abstract mental or evidentially unanchored knowledge. Instead, I have in mind something like the willingness to engage provisional hypotheses as a result of having heard and listened to something. After all, one of the most important dimensions of the sonorous archive is the production of listening publics, contemporary and historical. And all too often we have little to go by concerning how things were heard, and not for a lack of record but rather because the inscription of what is heard is inseparable from how it is heard, and this inscription, which is always also a remedial transcription (remedial in both senses of remediation and of supplementing in inscription something that may be perceived as missing or as too excessive in listening), attempts the difficult task of sharing how and what one (someone, a group of people) has listened.[8] Whatever spacing there is between the heard and how it is heard, then, becomes apparent in our remedial relays as we share what and how we listen with readers.

    Latin America and the Caribbean have long been encountered through their heterogeneous multiply inscribed (i.e., across various media) sound worlds. These worlds, however, have had historically to be content with the power the “lettered city” had to organize and administer the “universe of signs” of which the sonorous necessarily partakes.[9] Although the explosion of audio (first) and audiovisual (second) during the twentieth century harnessed the sonorous and the audible in unprecedented ways, it is also the case that, given the strong sociopolitical organization made possible by the “lettered city,” the said and the unsaid, the heard and the unheard have been foci of disciplinary efforts since much before and have found in the written word their most powerful incarnation.[10] These efforts suffuse coloniality, postcoloniality, and imperialism, either, for instance, through forms of incorporation of local knowledge in colonial musical exchanges, modalities of failed communication that renders the sound of others as noise and as an impossibly unintelligible and irrational field, or a profound equivocation for the various parties involved in exchanges and failed communication.[11] These efforts inform governmentality during the postcolony, as in the case of the grammarians’ and philologists’ regulation of “proper speaking” (“el bien decir”), the formation of subjectivities incorporated or excluded from the state, the establishment of group identities (popular, lettered, black, white, indigenous, mestizo, etc.) anywhere from the locality to the region and nation and the continent, and the shaping of the public sphere.[12]

    Christine Ehrick’s essay on 1920s phonographic comedy listens to the public sphere at the intersection between audio recordings and the staging of everyday vocalities, where the mediated city and what Ángel Rama identified as the “real city” (i.e., the city of the vulgate) usurp the centrality of the lettered city to chronicle everyday life happenings of its denizens. I don’t know what the politics of radio and phonograph listening might have been in Buenos Aires at the time, but I imagine that radio could well have been heard as holding the promise of a horizontalization via sound and the ear of the more vertical order of the written word.[13] Phonography, in short, represents the conflation of technologies and audile techniques central to the constitution and representation of subjectivities in the social field of a peripheral modern such as Buenos Aires. Following Bronfman’s idea of a productive phonography, we may say that the archive she studies actively pursues the history of what Rosalia Winocur calls “ciudadanos mediaticos” (“media citizens”), subjects constituted in and through their interaction with radio.[14] Where else, apart from some unimaginable lettered costumbrista tableaux of urban interaction in, of all things, a bus, may we encounter the assembly of characters that Tomás Simari brings to life through his vocalizations? Costumbrismo (from costumbre or custom) may render social tensions as their own picaresque resolution, but it too is a “reconstruction that emerged from the . . . handling of their entire lexicon, its dialectal phonetic changes, and . . . the local syntactic constructions”; it was not simply a “phonetic register” of popular speech.[15] The point is that both characters and listeners become part of the production of social relations at a place and time, and it is the historian’s task to articulate that production. It warrants noting that this remarkable example makes a strong case for the rich intersensorial field afforded by aurality. One hears here as much as one sees, touches, and smells. And this is the work of a voice. But it also warrants noting that, as Thomas Bernhard wrote, if there is one voice that this vocal virtuoso cannot imitate it is his.[16] This archive retains vestiges of the vertical order of the lettered man, now rendered as a performance virtuoso who himself stands partially outside of the social relations he helps produce.

    Communications work such as Jesús Martín-Barbero’s De los medios a las mediaciones stands as a vivid testimony to the complex dynamic of mediation in the continent, how, in ways not dissimilar to what Brecht and others imagined, new media could challenge traditional notions of unidirectional communication, popular audiences bringing to the perception of what they heard and saw unique and nuanced interpretations and indeed uses that were not anticipated by producers. What I have called techniques, the plasticity of listening, and archival ears all partakes of processes of mediation. Perhaps then, in light of the aural archives the authors here present, we may well begin to understand Latin American modernity, broadly conceived to encompass the present, as an event in the history of mediation, to borrow a recent redefinition of the European Enlightenment.[17] To close, two caveats. First, where there is sound, there is silence, of course, a point that Bronfman reminds us of. Indeed, given the remarkable productivity of and with the sonorous in the Caribbean and of the kinds of archival practice carried out by figures like Laura Boulton, there is a risk that this resonance may mute other archival forms. The discovery of a previously unheard sound world ought to be part of an assemblage constituted by multiple and coexisting modalities of inscription, avoiding the potential that some forms (music, for example) have to render silent other materialities. Second, we should be remiss not to point out that the sonorous archive before us is founded on the apparent absence of a similar record before phonography. The question of the archive gains renewed urgency today in part because there is an archival explosion as an effect of globalization and digitization, of the rise of social movements and new polities with archives of their own, of recuperative efforts in the social sciences and the humanities, all of which realize now both that the sensorium is part of history and has a history and that this sensorium cannot be pushed aside from other modes of rationality and human engagement. In view of this archival excess, we are confronted with the very redefinition of the archive (the archive concept cannot be archived, remarked Derrida), trying to think new orders and organization, and as the set of papers here reveals, grappling with fundamental questions of method—historiographic and otherwise—and with the very notion of evidence. (The visual etymology of evidence begs the need for coining an aural equivalent.) Similarly, the essays here amply reveal the demands for confronting the shifting and ambiguous character of the archival ear. Perhaps we may not fully circumvent the effect of belief, which for better or worse inflects audile techniques and practices. The call then is for an active production of the ear so that the archival ear, like the archive, cannot itself be archived.


    [1] Steven Feld, “Waterfalls of Song: An Acoustemology of Place Resounding in Bosavi, Papua New Guinea,” in Senses of Place, ed. Steven Feld and Keith Basso (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996), 91–135.

    [2] Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 391.

    [3] Jonathan Sterne, “The Theology of Sound: A Critique of Orality,” Canadian Journal of Communication 36, no. 2 (2011): 207–25.

    [4] Todd Cronan, “The Aesthetic Politics of Affect,” Radical Philosophy, no. 172 (2012): 51–53, 51.

    [5] See chapter 2 of Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003).

    [6] Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, trans. Gabriel Rockhill (London: Continuum, 2004).

    [7] Veit Erlmann, Reason and Resonance: A History of Modern Aurality (New York: Verso, 2010).

    [8] This is redolent of Peter Szendy’s proposal that a key means to share what one listens is the form of the musical arrangement. Aural historiography may be, in a sense, a modality of arranging what one hears of and in the past. See Peter Szendy, Listening: A History of Our Ears, trans. Charlotte Mandell (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008).

    [9] Ángel Rama, The Lettered City, trans. and ed. John Charles Chasteen (1984; Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996).

    [10] Ana María Ochoa Gautier, Aurality: Knowledge and Listening in Nineteenth-Century Colombia (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).

    [11] On musical exchanges, see Geoffrey Baker, Imposing Harmony: Music and Society in Colonial Cuzco (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008); on failed communication, see Olivia Bloechl, Native American Song at the Frontiers of Early Modern Music (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008); Gary Tomlinson, Singing of the New World: Indigenous Voice in the Era of European Contact (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

    [12] Julio Ramos, Divergent Modernities: Culture and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Latin America, trans. John D. Blanco (1989; Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001); Ochoa Gautier, Aurality.

    [13] Classical examples of the positive evaluation of the democratizating capacities of radio were Benjamin, Brecht, and Enzensberger.

    [14] Rosalia Winocur, Ciudadanos mediáticos. La construcción de lo público en la radio (Barcelona: Gedisa, 2002).

    [15] Ángel Rama, Writing across Cultures: Narrative Transculturation in Latin America, ed. and trans. David Frye (1982; Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012). In Argentina costumbrismo takes hold in the 1910s, shortly before Simari’s radio sketches were produced.

    [16] Thomas Bernhard, The Voice Imitator, trans. Kenneth J. Northcott (1978; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).

    [17] Clifford Siskin and William Warner, eds., This is Enlightenment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).

  2. Christine Ehrick’s meditation on historical recordings presents the classic double bind of the historian. Like all documents, historical recordings are present to us but not for us. She hears things that she wouldn’t be able to see in the written transcript of the routine. The format matters: as a time-based medium, subtleties of performance practice are readily apparent in a way unavailable on the page. At the same time, the apparent presence of the voice is more a promise than a fact. There is a whole world that remains unavailable to the senses, one she fills in through her own interpretive practice, just as with any archival document. In this way, recordings seem to stage the general condition of historical material more forcefully: we are confronted with fragments that we construct into coherent accounts of the past.

    Alejandra Bronfman’s contribution aims to show how the recordist’s work is itself an epistemic task. The status of recordings in ethnographic knowledge is an especially vexed issue because so often recording was treated instrumentally by the recordist—which is to say that as knowledge producers, ethnographic recordists may have done as much as possible to erase the specific role of recording in their work. The denigrated status of recording versus writing in some schools of ethnography for long periods of time also doesn’t help. And yet, as Bronfman deftly argues, one could argue that sonic knowledge of the Caribbean may be considerably greater than other kinds, especially as we get out of the academic realm into the world of popular music. This raises some interesting questions about knowledge of difference and the registers at which it can be acknowledged, and how those knowledges might in turn reappear as “preconstructed” (to use Bourdieu’s term) points of departure for scholarly analysis. We are really only at the beginning of this story. Apart from Erika Brady’s book and Kay Shelemay’s wonderful essay in Comparative Musicology and Anthropology of Music, there’s a lot of work left to be done.[1]

    Gala Porras-Kim’s contribution on whistling is, first of all, cool. The WaLT recording brings to life the political transformation of a language and enacts a very different orientation toward translation than is usually discussed in the literature. Whistling, like many sonic practices of the colonized, was at once a technology of concealment and revelation, a way of hiding in plain earshot (if I can twist a visual metaphor around). Although one approach, which appears to be Porras-Kim’s, is to think through the performance as linguistic preservation, it might also be fruitful to imagine this work as animating and giving life to a practice of resistance that otherwise might not be as well-documented, remembered, or understood.

    Elizabeth Dore’s account of her oral historical fieldwork begins with a telling metaphor. She compares the transcript of an interview to the score of a recording, which is a shadow of a more primary and full sonic experience. The irony here is that for generations of academic musicologists and historians, the score has been the thing and the performance a mere instantiation. Beginning in the romantic tradition of oral history, Dore undoes this old hierarchy, instead repeating the standard oral historical line that audio gives us deeper access to the past. That is, of course, immediately and wonderfully undone when we get to the conflicts around interpretation that she describes. It turns out the recording is neither transparent nor present, and in fact Juan’s words may not even be transparent to him (since he’s probably understanding the oral historical situation a little differently than his interlocutors). Thus, recordings rely just as much upon interpretation as any other source, only they offer a different set of clues and prompts to listeners.

    Finally, Marc Hertzman issues a wonderfully cautionary note about the difference between working in sound and with sound. I agree wholeheartedly that recordings alone can never give a full account, any more than a single written document could. Rather, they are best used in relation with other modes of historical analysis and description. He also laments the relatively low status of music history in history departments, which itself has a long intellectual history. Partly, the conservatory tradition isolated the study of music from other liberal arts and, combined with the emphasis on Western art musics, with their highly formalized codes, and performance practices in ethnomusicology, worked to perpetuate excessive differences between those who “know about music” and those who don’t.

    Today those boundaries are breaking down as musicology and ethnomusicology have—at least in some quarters—made huge strides toward being in dialogue with a broader range of human sciences while maintaining their specific contributions. Sound studies, at its best, is a facilitator for these boundary crossings and has a small advantage since none of the liberal arts has ever been able to claim to “own” sound, and its relative prestige or lack thereof is perhaps a little more slippery among tradition-minded practitioners of older disciplines like history. Historians like Emily Thompson, Susan Douglas, and Michele Hilmes (the last two, importantly, not from history departments) have done much to advance this discussion, though much of that work has focused on Western Europe and Anglophone North America. This forum shows that there is much more that can and will be done in the coming years as we do more to internationalize sound studies and bring sonic imagination to historiography.


    [1] Erika Brady, A Spiral Way: How the Phonograph Changed Ethnography (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999); Kay Kaufman Shelemay, “Recording Technology, the Record Industry, and Ethnomusicological Scholarship,” in Comparative Musicology and Anthropology of Music: Essays on the History of Ethnomusicology, ed. Bruno Nettl and Philip V. Bohlman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 277–92.

  3. This forum is a great example of how the scholarly consideration of sound—like sound itself—is so adept at crossing boundaries. The physical nature of sound compels it to expand, to reach out and connect, and historians who follow its path can count on journeys that lead in new directions, generate new questions (or new answers to old questions), and invite collaboration with new kinds of colleagues. As Jonathan Sterne has noted, the emphasis of much sonic or aural history to date has been on Western Europe and Anglo-America. But the authors gathered here—as well as others at work within Hispanic American Studies—demonstrate well how both the subjects and the methodologies of sound history can connect scholars across time periods, geographic space, and disciplinary divides.

    From the start, Sound Studies has been defined by its interdisciplinary nature. Sociologists, musicologists, linguists, and literary scholars as well as historians have brought their particular questions, skills, and tools to bear on an equally diverse range of topics. While the essays here all consider the modern, postphonographic period and connect most explicitly to work in media studies and ethnography, I’d like to emphasize up front that sonic or aural history is equally viable and relevant for understanding earlier eras. Richard Rath, a historian of colonial North America, for example, has similarly charted and analyzed the ways that Native Americans, European colonists, and enslaved Africans interacted through sound. In some cases the results speak to power relations not fully evident in other cultural forms, including pockets of perseverance for cultures otherwise under attack or repression.[1] Rath’s work is highly attentive to the paralingual aspects of Native American nonliterate languages, and Gala Porras-Kim’s work here is a great modern-day complement to this kind of study. The auditory camouflage of Zapotec whistling—the hiding in plain “sight” that it affords her subjects—is much richer than James Scott’s notion of “hidden transcripts.” It suggests that we, as textually oriented thinkers and learners, may need to think in new ways to understand fully the historical traditions of primarily oral cultures. Christine Ehrick’s careful examination of “The Bus Journey” record/radio play similarly points to the sonic aspects of language that evade the transcript. As listeners, we all know that “delivery” matters in a comedic performance, but as historians we have neglected such delivery as a source of historical content requiring analysis. By redressing this neglect, Ehrick demonstrates the rich ways that gender and nationality construct each other and shows how, in this particular instance, the former carried more weight than the latter. Ethnographers have been deploying sound recordings since the 1890s to capture, preserve, and analyze cultures different from their own. Scholars like Erika Brady have done superb work to understand such early sonic ethnography in North America and Europe,[2] and Alejandra Bronfman’s essay on Laura Boulton’s work in Haiti also demonstrates the potential and payoff of a history of ethnographic sound in the Caribbean. Ethnographers who focused on sound recording in the early twentieth century were pushing the boundaries of their practice and were themselves often outliers—women, amateurs, or both—from the academic discipline to which they contributed. This makes their work particularly useful for understanding how cultures interact and mediate during such encounters, and such knowledge is necessary in order to understand what we can and cannot learn from the records.

    Elizabeth Dore’s essay pointedly highlights the fact that sonic sources conceal as much as they reveal and must always be “read” as critically as any text or image. The failure of her group in Cuba to achieve consensus in understanding the recorded interview with Juan Guillard may seem discouraging, but I would suggest that it offers a timely reminder of the contested nature of all historical interpretation. We may have normalized the ways we read texts and images to a degree that it seems straightforward, but the same challenges that her group encountered when they listened together are really just what every historian faces every time they turn to any kind of record of the past. Working with sound may seem harder, but this is only because it is less familiar. In fact, this unfamiliarity may be useful. By unsettling our old habits, we call attention to the challenge that all historical inquiry entails.

    In order to interrogate the record of Juan Guillard’s voice, Dore returned to the source, to Guillard himself, to attempt to determine what his voice was really saying. Few historians who work with recordings will enjoy this opportunity, but sounds can be contextualized in other ways, and Marc Hertzman’s essay highlights this requirement of sonic history. Just as sound cannot be heard in a physical vacuum, sonic history cannot be carried out in isolation from all the other aspects that characterize a place and time. Hertzman can only understand what his records have to say when he considers them alongside the histories of the musicians who made them, as well as the society, economy, and polity in which they worked. I’d also add the technological context of sound recording here, for in my own listening to the 1936 and 1968 versions of “Rei vagabundo,” I was struck by the selective deployment in the later version of artificial reverberation or echo on certain aspects of the sound—an aesthetic choice made possible by the postwar development of multitrack recording. It created a sense of melancholy and nostalgia via the female background vocals that would certainly reward further analysis. Bronfman similarly raised the question of how certain kinds of sound come to embody attitudes and emotions within a culture—in her case the sound of “Island culture.” This kind of inquiry invites historians to follow the trajectory of the sound recordings themselves, as they travel across space and time to speak within new and very different contexts. A record in such a new context constitutes a completely different historical entity with entirely new things to teach us, even though its actual sound is unchanged. As Bronfman notes, the sonic aspects of tourism—in her case, the deployment of an “Island sound” as an advertisement for a particularly exportable notion of “Caribbean”—constitute a rich field of inquiry that awaits exploration.[3] While each of the essays connects to and builds upon different aspects of work in Sound Studies, the collection as a whole makes clear that the best sound history is also just good history. The danger of Sound Studies is that it might be considered a separate discipline to its own detriment, a kind of intellectual ghetto where only those specifically interested in sound take turns singing to the choir. Sound history is much more than a sound track to a previously silent understanding of the past. At its best, as in the essays offered here, it speaks to the questions that have long engaged historical inquiry and it highlights the rewards and challenges that motivate every scholar interested in understanding the past.


    [1] Richard Cullen Rath, How Early America Sounded (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003).

    [2] Erika Brady, A Spiral Way: How the Phonograph Changed Ethnography (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999).

    [3] The work of musicologist Timothy D. Taylor is a valuable resource for understanding popular Western notions of music from other cultures. See Timothy D. Taylor, Global Pop: World Music, World Markets (New York: Routledge, 1997); and Timothy D. Taylor, Beyond Exoticism: Western Music and the World (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007).

  4. These papers leave no doubt about the richness of recorded sound as a historical source or document. As entrée into a hidden “geneaology” of race and knowledge, as a “hidden transcript,” as an opportunity to study the construction of and relationship between gender and ethnicity, and as a contested, fuzzy space in which taboo discussions of race are vocalized and which, in turn, produce new questions and contestations, recorded sound, writ large, offers a plethora of exciting avenues for the historian. And yet I wonder for all that we have here, what exactly do we have, and what exactly are we arguing or advocating? Are we saying that historians should use and engage with sonic material more? Are we developing a new methodology?

    I wonder—and maybe would like to challenge us to answer—whether “listening” fundamentally changes what we (should) do as historians. And, since this a region-specific forum, I think that it is also worth asking what, if anything, distinguishes Latin American sound. I have strong feelings about the first question and ambivalence about the second. I would argue that listening does not and should not fundamentally change the historian’s craft, and that to suggest otherwise runs the risk of fetishizing sound and music in a counterproductive way. On the question of Latin America’s distinctness, I am ambivalent for several reasons. First, I’m wary to emphasize difference. After researching and teaching about music for the last decade, connections between seemingly distant times and places stand out more than difference. But I’ll take a stab at making one point here. The tight relationship between music and nation in Latin America seems rather unique, at least in contrast to Europe and the United States. Anyone who has witnessed perfect strangers simultaneously burst into song in a bar or on the street and effortlessly conjure lyrics from a Carnival song written decades earlier knows that samba, for example, can project at least the appearance of a shared sense of national belonging—whatever the realities behind that projection—unlike any genre in the United States. That being said, the slope from here to racial and national essentialisms is short, steep, and covered with the same grease that courses through the kind of colonial and imperial encounters described by Alejandra Bronfman. On both counts, then, I think that we stand on much more solid ground if we begin by emphasizing sameness rather than difference.

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