After a number of years teaching music and ethnomusicology and being a source of energy, enthusiasm, and great ideas at the Latin American Studies program, professor Michael Birenbaum Quintero is leaving Bowdoin to move slightly south and join the Music Department at Boston University. He recently gave a talk entitled Loudness, Excess, and the Affect of Sovereignty and Abjection in a Neoliberal Frontier Zone (Buenaventura, Colombia). In this interview, he speaks about the topic of that talk and other issues.
Could you tell us on what occasion you presented this paper?
I presented the paper at a conference at SUNY – Stony Brook that was held jointly by the Music and Philosophy departments, called “Sound and Affect”. The idea was to explore the notion of affect and emotion and its relationship with sound and music. There were presentations on everything from how Baroque music was supposed to influence the balance of different fluids in the body in the 17th century to Ludacris and neoliberalism. All of these were set up to answer a theoretical question that has been posed by philosophers, using musical metaphors, and musicologists interested in philosophy: what can music tell us about affect, which philosophers have understood as a kind of emotional feeling that underlies and has yet to be categorized as specific emotions like anger or sadness.
You have chosen to do research on the Black communities of the Pacific side of Colombia. Could you introduce these communities to us and tell us why you are interested in highlighting their specificities through your research?
Many people don’t know that Colombia has the largest black population in the Spanish-speaking world, and the third largest in the hemisphere, after Brazil (#1) and the US (#2). Nonetheless, when people – including scholars – think about Black culture in the Americas, they usually mention the United States, of course, and maybe Brazil, Cuba, Haiti, or the English-speaking Caribbean. Colombia is not really on the map as far as Black culture goes, and yet, it is very important. In fact, there are Afro-Colombian communities in different parts of the country that are quite different from one another. The Caribbean coast of the country, for example, has a very important Black population, which has contributed to a kind of Caribbean culture that is very much mixed between Spanish, Native American, and African influences. It even has a town called San Basilio de Palenque, which was founded by runaway slaves who had managed to win their freedom and independence from the Spanish Crown after the Spanish were unable to conquer them. My research is about a very different Afro-Colombian population, on the Pacific coast. The Caribbean has always been very cosmopolitan, and for most of Colombia’s history was the point of entry into Colombia of foreign influences. The Pacific is a very isolated rainforest area, nestled between the vast Pacific Ocean and a mountain chain that cuts it off from the rest of the country. Afro-Colombian culture has remained very traditional because of this isolation, and it is only recently that Pacific Coast Afro-Colombians have begun to engage with the modern world, especially because of the arrival of Colombia’s civil war into this region in the 1990s (with genuinely apocalyptic affects for this previously very peaceful region) and the reorganization of the global economy toward Asia and the Pacific, which made Colombia’s Pacific ports more important geo-strategically. My research is about the traditional music of the Black inhabitants of the Pacific, which is very beautiful and very different from other kinds of music because it evolved under the very specific conditions of the Pacific, unlike more familiar kinds of Afro-Caribbean musics. But aside from its aesthetic and historical aspects, I’m particularly interested in how it has been mobilized politically in the context of a civil war that has essentially fueled a land grab, both by illegal groups like the guerrillas, and by national and multinational corporations. On the one hand, the Afro-Colombian social movement has sought to protect their land by showing that their unique culture grants them rights to collective territory, and in fact in 1993, the Colombian government recognized community land claims. On the other hand, these claims have been violated by both legal and illegal actors, and showcasing Afro-Colombian music and culture in festivals and so on has been one way the Colombian state has tried to demonstrate their interest in Afro-Colombians without necessarily answering their more fundamental political and territorial concerns.
Please, elaborate on the statement you made during your talk according to which, “The Colombian city of Buenaventura exemplifies a particularly dense interpenetration of the politics of irrational sovereignty and modern state rationality.”
The paper I just presented is actually not about traditional music at all – it’s about people listening to music really loud on home stereos. And when I say really loud I mean REALLY LOUD. What I’m trying to do is to show that loud music is a way in which people project themselves onto urban space – you can hear a person’s music through the neighborhood. The argument that I’m making r is that in the city of Buenaventura, this is one way for people to make creative identities for themselves in the squeeze between different kinds of political oppression. Buenaventura is both the most important port in the country, with access to the Panama Canal and Asia, and linked by highway to the Colombian heartland, and so the government has tried to make it run smoothly and efficiently. The city, however, is in the grips of the most horrific violence of Colombia’s civil war, with a tremendous homicide rate and grinding poverty and unemployment. Rational state power has offered a neoliberal plan to the city – it privatized the port, selling the rights to corporations that have excluded local populations from participating in or deriving tax revenue or jobs from the port, which is totally walled off from the city. At the same time, the state has turned a blind eye to other forms of power in the city, in which armed gangs intimidate local people in order to make them leave neighborhoods needed for expansion of the port. So people in their daily lives are subject both to the marginalization within state policies of “rational modernization” and the more irrational power of the armed men that control neighborhoods.
Can you describe the social and cultural situation of the Buenaventura community that brought you to say: “Traversing Buenaventura geographically is, aurally, the experience of cross-fading from one sound system into another.”
As with many cities in the global South, from Africa to South and Southeast Asia to Latin America, Buenaventura is a city characterized by noise, especially the noise of ordinary citizens with music playback technology: radios, stereos, and so on. Bars and dance clubs, of course, play music really loud, but so do stores, so do public buses. And so do regular people in their houses. So if you’re walking down the street, or riding a motorcycle, or moving in any way through urban space, you’re always in the range of some stereo blasting music, and before the one you’re listening can fade out, the stereo of the person next store, or of a passing bus, or whatever, fades in.
What is the part played by music or sound in the notions of sovereignty, power and violence in Buenaventura?
To answer the question completely, I’d have to have to reproduce the whole paper! I look at different case studies to answer that question: regular stereo systems in neighborhoods (including the significant use of loud sound by evangelical Christian groups), at gold mines, and in the so-called “cutting-houses” where the armed groups torture and kill their victims. In all of these cases, in different ways, music works as a kind of way to project their personality (or to establish a radius of influence) into space, and to dominate others. This kind of projection – of prestige, of musical taste, of fear, of religious beliefs – outward into space is one of the few things left to people that have no real way to project themselves in a political system that is essentially closed to them.
By Hanétha Vété-Congolo