Research

Update on Current Research: Topics, Trajectories, and Obstacles

I just blinked my eyes a couple of times and realized it’s been over a month since I’ve posted here. I know, I know – you’ve been utterly distraught about it and just couldn’t imagine your virtual life without me in it, right? ;)  Well – you’re in luck. Here I go:

Flag of New Orleans

Image via Wikipedia

It’s odd how ethnomusicological projects seem to grow organically – they very quickly consume everything in their way. It can be exhilarating! It’s been a while since I’ve stepped back and taken inventory of my projects in progress, so I’m going to save us all some time and give you a list of bullets rather than a narrative. In order of current importance and time consumption:

  1. Street Musicians in New Orleans. My thesis topic. Through the lens of R. Murray Schafer‘s 1977 concept of the soundmark, I’m mapping street musicians in two New Orleans neighborhoods and simultaneously telling the story of their experiences. If I were to tag this project with key words it would be: street musicians, migrant street kids, NOLA, urban studies, tourist mapping, ethnography, oral history, and French Quarter fixtures. Where am I now? Fieldwork is done. Prospectus is done. Writing in progress.
  2. Black, Queer, and Bouncing in New Orleans. I’m researching the phenomenon of Sissy Bounce, which refers to a group of queer-identified hip-hop artists in New Orleans (notably most of them hate the term so I will not use it to define the genre which should just be under the umbrella of ‘Bounce’, simply the artists themselves and their identities).  I’ve been officially doing fieldwork for this project for about fifteen months, however it will be ongoing for quite a while. Issues of access and identity continue to arise. A couple of months ago, I presented a paper called, ““Is that thug wearing heels?” The Negotation of Identity in Sissy Bounce” at the 2011 Southern Graduate Music Research Symposium as part of a panel on liminality (what the hell does it mean to “negotiate identity” anyway?! I’ve since slapped myself for using this title per my advisor who made me [and others] realize it was an idiotic and empty phrase). I recently submitted an abstract to the Society of Ethnomusicology‘s Southeast and Caribbean regional chapter (SEMSEC) called “Big Freedia “the Queer Diva”: Black, Queer, and Bouncing out of New Orleans”. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it gets accepted so I can present the paper at SEMSEC’s annual meeting, which is being held this year in the Dominican Republic (kudos to whomever had that brilliant idea!).  The first presentation was my attempt to introduce the Sissy Bounce phenomenon to the musicological community, and also my first attempt at a conference presentation! I was happy with both my paper and my presentation of it, though of course looking back there are a few things I would have added/modified. In this second presentation, I’ll be narrowing my topic to a case study of one particular artist, Big Freedia “the Queen Diva.” There are obstacles here as well. Once a local artist performing in dive clubs around town, Freedia’s popularity has shot through the roof and she’s now on an international touring circuit with looming rumors of a reality TV show. Access, access, access.  As a whole, I’m not sure what the trajectory of this project will be.  If there were tags for this one, they would be: gender, bounce, new orleans, black and queer, sexuality studies, Judith Butler, queer hip-hop, and reflexivity.
  3. THE MUHS PROJECT. And now for something completely different, sort of –  I’ve been working on a biographical archiving project since early this past summer. My subject is Marietta Muhs, an opera diva that grew up and out of New Orleans who landed in the NYC opera scene in the early-20th century. Obviously, this project leans towards the historical realm. I’m expecting this to take up quite a bit of time over the next several years. It’s a side project, but one that is allowing me to utilize the skills and resources I’m learning in my historical coursework. Tags here would include: New Orleans, New Orleans opera scene, Loyola U., NYC opera scene, and women in the 1950′s.
  4. Global hip-hop. Also a side project, it seems like for every regional topic class I take which requires a massive term paper/presentation at the end, I’m drawn not just to popular music, but to hip-hop. I’m currently researching hip-hop in South Africa and will be presenting on it sometime in the next few weeks in class. I’ve also delved into Indonesian and Indian hip-hop, and guest lectured a few times on Indonesian hip-hop over the past year. I’m also interested in hip-hop artist refugees coming out of various African war zones (e.g. Emmanual Jal). These things are constantly evolving, so I’m finding that social networking allows me to stay up-to-date with artists and genres without having to actively search them out after I’ve done the initial research.  Anyway, I just added this bullet because it seems to be a recurring theme in my life at the moment, and  I have a feeling that something will come out of it eventually. Of course it also links to the research I’m doing on hip-hop in NOLA.

Next year’s SEM/AMS/SMT mega conference is in New Orleans and I have a few pertinent topics, above, that I could attempt a paper submission for (though acceptance of the younger grad student papers is rare). I think that even though my thesis research is on street musicians, I’m eyeing NOLA Bounce as the topic I’d like to present on at SEM (though my abstract would likely be trashed at first sight).  Anyway – my thesis includes sonic mapping of street musicians, and I could come up with a great “field trip”  handout for people to go and see these soundmarks live since the presentation would be in New Orleans… much to think about. Not a lot of time to do it in.

Lastly, if you’ve followed this blog at all in the past few years, you probably know that my eventual dissertation topic will be  music in the Tibetan community of Dharamsala, India. Most folks who study Tibetan music tend to lean towards music for Buddhist ritual and traditional genres. My goal (big shock here) will be popular music – perhaps working with Lobsang Wangyal who organizes the Tibetan music awards from McLeod Ganj. With that said, I’ve also been peeking at the music of Bhutan and Nepal. Obstacles = language, money, accessibility, government regulations. Working on that.

Prayer Wheels at Tsuglagkhang Temple, McLeod Ganj.

Anyway – that’s my list of current projects and their potential trajectories. As for the day-to-day, it currently involves a giant stack of grading, 2-3 books to read per week, and as usual, hanging with the most fabulous musicologist-friends on the planet.  By Saturday, I hope to make another post  that illustrates how absolutely awesome the SEM conference was in Philadelphia last week.

Til then, Cheers!

The Eightfold Path of Academia

     Yesterday I was thrown into a conversation about my heritage. It’s an interesting conversation, because I spend so much time in classes (both my own and those I assist) discussing the identity of others, and yet I have barely thought about my own or how I identify. I don’t identify with any specific heritage – perhaps because I grew up “a mutt” notwithstanding the strong links to various cultures. I grew up in a town with a large Buddhist community – one of the largest (probably the largest per capita) in the nation. Consequently, I was exposed to the teachings from an early age despite half my family calling the local practitioners “freaky” – they assumed that these people were leftovers from the 70’s age of cults and communal living. There were certainly leftover hippies. People always fear what they don’t understand.

One of my favorite hometown experiences happened when I was very young, though I don’t remember my age. It must have been past the age of ten because I was already performing in the local community band. After a Sunday evening concert one summer, I was sitting on the common eating an ice cream cone, and I met my first Buddhist nun. She had finished a walking meditation and was walking around the center of town softening clay beads in her hand to make a mala. I don’t remember the details of the conversation, but I know that’s what cemented my relationship to the dharma.  I walked away with the mala she had created and kept it until Hurricane Katrina destroyed it in 2005 (ironically, after I returned to New Orleans I found it in the mud where it had settled inside a singing bowl as the water levels dropped).

My relationship with Buddhism has always been love-hate. The teachings are there, but I haven’t always followed them, even when they bubble up from the subconscious to play the angel on my shoulder. I’ve had wavering months of devout practice, and months lost in the land of capitalist-driven hedonism where my inner child considered the world to be its sandbox. All I can do is smile because of course the entire premise behind Buddhist teachings is an espousal of ‘the Middle Way”, commonly known as moderation. I’m a horrible example of this. Now, in the land of academics, the corners of my mouth turn into a smile once more because once again the teachings, this moderation, should be paramount to my existence… and once again it’s not. An example? I work exceedingly hard 6 days a week to the point where I feel like I’ll collapse and on the 7th day, I’ll sleep late and do nothing but watch ridiculous TV and play with my dogs. Wouldn’t my life be better served if for those 6 days, I practiced moderation, so that by the 7th, I won’t feel the need to laze around? Sure it would. Knowing and doing are two different things. If my life becomes an example for anything, it’s that.

The noble 8-fold path should be recodified for academics, and applied to our interactions with research, colleagues, and students: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.  I think I’ll post the list on my office wall. Meanwhile… identity – I’m still working on that.

 

 

“Sidewalk Saints” by Jim Flynn

(sorry for the post bombardment today, y’all!)

This weekend I finally picked up a copy of Sidewalk Saints, a newly published book by Jim Flynn that paints the life portraits of street performers in New Orleans.  Otis had a few copies. The author, a Manhattan native, spent a year documenting the performers’ lives, eventually taking to the streets himself on guitar.

The book itself comes with a companion website (click on the link above) which allows you to make your own New Orleans street performer compilation and view high resolution versions of the photos in the book. If you’re reading this, you’re probably aware that I’m in the throes of a similar project which concentrates on different aspects, and takes quite a different angle. Jim’s book gives us exactly what the cover states – life portraits of the performers… not only musicians, but magicians, balloon artists, human statues, card readers, puppeteers, and more.

I’m looking forward to reading the text, and writing questions/comments in the margins. We’re working with several of the same “fixture” musicians (at first glance of his text, many of the performers Jim covered have since “moved on” – so many of them are migrant, so this is expected). Anyway – more to come soon…stay tuned. 

fall fieldwork weekend in nola

I’m just returning from a productive weekend of fieldwork in New Orleans. I have several of these short weekends planned in the next few months – an unfortunate necessity that would be much better served if I could just spend a week straight on the streets. Shocker here – I can’t.  The ten years I did spend walking them is certainly an advantage, and I’m now realizing how much access and information I have that’s allowing me to complete this project – I’m grateful.

Saturday was highly productive. My partner and I systematically roamed throughout the quarter for several hours so I could make recordings, take photos, and note locations on my map.  I won’t write too much here (you’ll have to read the thesis to find out more), but suffice it to say that I’m surprised at how stationary these musicians are. The busking locations never deviate. It’s as if there are fifteen designated spots for these musicians to plant their feet and they come back to these spots, day after day (often switching between them) – of course, a lot of it is based on foot traffic.

Sunday was less productive, but I learned a lesson. It’s an odd thing to return to the city you call home and think of it as a research project. I never noticed before that during a Saints [football] game, the streets are empty – probably because I was always on a bar stool during the games. A game started at noon yesterday, so by eleven the streets were clearing out. For street musicians this means less foot traffic, less money, and less overall exposure. There’s no reason for them to be out there. As I was seeking them out, they were packing up to find a bar stool in front of a TV. The musicians that were out and about (such as Doreen’s band) were plastered in Saints regalia. My lesson? For future fieldwork trips, I need to consider game times (or at least talk about the game time phenomenon in my work).

In place of hanging with the musicians, I went down to the Louisiana Music Factory and Beckham’s bookshop on Decatur and spent a stupid amount of money on books and albums related to my work. I was slightly disappointed at the response from LA Music Factory when I asked “Do y’all carry any Bounce titles?” (The answer was no)…

Below are some photos from the weekend. I spent the majority of my time with two specific groups of musicians, as is evident in the photos:

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