The settlement of foreign-born ethnic migrants has to be the oldest source of urban vitality. It’s also a wellspring of musical innovation. Might the latter connection offer insights into the modern city? That’s always my hope when I read books like Migrating Music (Routledge, 2012). Edited by Jayson Toynbee and Byron Dueck, this volume addresses the cultural dynamics and social consequences of music that travels across borders. The most common scenario described within the volume is the diasporic one in which ethnic groups move to new countries and bring or rediscover their ‘homeland’ music. In other chapters, music migrates independently of a ‘native’ constituency. Hip hop takes hold of youth in countries with no basis in the African diaspora, this volume documents, while jazz performers and Brazilian genres might migrate at the behest of music industries and institutions.

listening to home, encountering the other book review of “Migrating Music”

I’ve written recently about the prohibitive costs associated with recent edited volumes of musical scholarship. Although this was an issue when Routledge originally published Migrating Music in 2011, the book has now been released at a (comparatively) more affordable paperback price. The writings here grew out of a 2009 conference sponsored by the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, and its contributors are predominantly based in European institutions. Accordingly, with a few exceptions the research gathered here was conducted in European settings, although the diasporic circuits that this volume charts extend into Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The omission of research on diasporic music in the Americas might irk readers looking for the latest thinking onbanda or reggaeton, yet as Toynbee and Dueck point out, “more than one-third of migration in recent years has been to Europe, making it the most important region of destination for migrants around the world” (pg. 13).

The book is organized into four sections. “Migrants” and “Translations” give respective emphasis to the listeners and forms/transformations of migrating music, while “Media” and “Cities” suggest the importance of material contexts for, respectively, disseminating and producing migrating music. As these edited volumes often go, Migrating Music is a bit of a mixed bag across the chapters. This is true perhaps more so in terms of its sections, which are otherwise well served by the various introductions prepared by the editors. While conceptually the importance of media and cities to the question of migrating music is inarguable, and (separately) the chapters within each section are generally quite interesting, these concepts’ development in the context of the volume’s organization isn’t as consistently up to snuff as the first two sections on “Migrants” and “Translations.”

Despite the title’s promise of entering new terrains, Migrating Music pays almost no attention to the digitally-circulated, club-focused fusions that sometimes get called World Music 2.0. (If this phenomenon doesn’t ring a bell, listen to music made by MIA, Diplo and Moombahton, or check out the writings of Wayne Marshall andLarissa Mann.) So, Pitchfork readers may find very little here to make their hearts skip a beat. A possible exception is Helen Kim’s chapter, “‘Keepin’ It Real’: Bombay Bronx, cultural producers and the Asian scene,” which examines the London Asian urban music scene in which a “post bhangra” sound incorporates fusions with hip hop, dancehall and R&B. However, her concerns in this chapter aren’t musicological but instead more reflective of a cultural studies agenda, e.g., how generic distinctions (here vis-à-vis the tasteful, drum-n-bass-flavored “Asian Underground” associated with Talvin Singh and Nitin Sawhney) reflect contested ideas about British Asian youth identity.

The opinion that the Asian Underground was not for Asians is a loud declaration that not all Asians are alike. It furthermore reclaims ‘Asian’ for a decidedly less highbrow audience, construing the Asian Underground not only as ‘middle-class’, but additionally as inauthentic insofar as it colludes with white middle-class tastes. By defining themselves in opposition to the Asian Underground, cultural producers [at London’s Bombay Bronx] assert that they are countering white, middle-class, hegemonic space (pg. 22).

This example highlights two defining features of Migrating Music. First, the intellectual undertaking here is typically rooted in the anthropology and cultural studies traditions. I confess a little disappointment that there’s almost no musicological analysis (much less music criticism) in Migrating Music, if only because as a sociologist I’m most familiar with the social scientific approaches. Who knows, maybe the musicologists and critics will find these approaches a valuable corrective to the scholarship they’re used to. But as cultural studies is especially prone to do, these approaches support a narrative that eventually abstracts out of the particularities of their subject matter—the historic/geographic contexts, collective dynamics, and cultural artifacts including the music itself—to arrive at a recurring set of social functions: the collective negotiation of identity, the restoration of community, national/ethnic reaction to change from without, etc.

Social science writing shouldn’t have to be a poetry contest, of course. At one level, the predictability of these scholarly ‘punchlines’ reminds us of the stability and durability in the organization of the social world, without which the social sciences would be lost. But it would be nice to hear these general facts of the social world within the music, wouldn’t it? In this regard, the most notable chapter is “Un Voyage via Barquinho: Global Circulation, Musical Hybridization, and Adult Modernity, 1961-9” by Keir Keightley. Reviewing the ‘migration’ (really, the diffusion by key composers, filmmakers, and media gatekeepers) of the Brazilian bossa nova via the Roberto Menescal/Rondaldo Bôscoli composition “O Barquinho,” Keightley describes the emergence of a very particular, indeed now quite retro, structure of musical feeling: that sense of pre-rock “adult modernity” associated with early-1960s signifiers of James Bond-cool and the jet-setting journey into the “now.” (Later groups like Stereolab, Portishead, and Broadcast mined this specific musical vein quite well.) Keightley’s critical analysis of a key track (from Francis Lai’s soundtrack to the the 1967 film “Live for Life”) makes the reader want to listen closely:

Consuming the adult good life, whether via jet or wine, appears as the imperative of a new sensibility; why else would the injunction “live for life” be necessary? The chord progression’s half-step drop occur and reoccur, creating an effect suggestive of lingering in one place and thn moving onto another. Presenting a montage of moments at both the lyrical and musical levels, the song’s harmonic instability and pleasurable pausing remind us of the restless mobility that characterizes the global consumption at issue (pg. 119).

In a second defining feature, Migrating Music isn’t especially preoccupied with the ‘newest and most exciting’ musical forms if the latter are understood to be whatever excites young people in diasporic communities (or popular music scholarship). To its credit, the volume is even-handed in covering music that resonates across the generations. It’s enlightening to learn of what older Afghanis who have fled their wartorn country are tuning into—the subject of “Music, Migration and War: the BBC’s Interactive Music Broadcasting to Afghanistan and the Afghan Diaspora,” a fascinating chapter by John Baily. It’s important to examine the circumstances by which young migrants find new relevance in ‘old-fashioned’ music from their homeland (as Carolyn Landau recounts for one Moroccan Londoner in “‘My Own Little Morocco at Home’: A Biographical Account of Migration, Mediation and Music Consumption”). An ethnographically rich chapter by Laura Steils, “‘Realness’: Authenticity, Innovation and Prestige among Young Danseurs Afros in Paris,” documents the unexpected appropriation of ‘old world’ Congolese/Ivoirian styles of music, dance, fashion, speech and display by French-African youth caught up in themusique afro movement of the last decade.

This attention to the ‘old-fashioned’ extends to the “Media” section. While elsewhere the book establishes the importance of the Internet and social media to disseminating music across borders, all four chapters in this section primarily address radio. Even more curiously, half of these chapters pertain specifically toBritish broadcasters. In “Migrating Music and Good-Enough Cosmoplitanism,” Kevin Roberts interviews Robin Denselow and Charlie Gillett, the latter a storied music writer whose work as a radio DJ exposed untold numbers of British music fans to “world music” (a generic designation that has been partly attributed to Gillett). In “Ports of Call: An Ethnographic Analysis of Music Programmes about the Migration of People, Musicians, Genres and Instruments, BBC World Service, 1994-5,” Jan Fairley recalls her programming work on the titular show, which was recorded in English for global broadcast. (I’ll not count Baily’s chapter in this category, as the two Afghani radio programs for the BBC World Service he describes were broadcast in the Pashto language.)

If the rationale (never made explicit) behind operationally defining ‘media’ as radio include the fact that the latter remains the chief medium of musical distribution around the world, for native-born residents and transnational migrants alike, then the point is well taken. So too is the editors’ reminder that radio is indeed interactive (increasingly via real-time telephone calls and e-mails with listeners) and can now be heard on a variety of Internet-ready devices. Still, the Roberts and Fairley chapters address quite Anglo-centric topics, and in a breezy, analytically undeveloped manner no less, which gives off an unfortunate whiff of academic laziness. In principle their British views into “world music” is interesting, insofar as they hail from a classic setting of the colonial gaze that these authors wrestle with —well, at least Robins does—from a contemporary context. But I also noted that the contributors to the “Media” section were among the most senior and august scholars in this volume (e.g., Fairley is a past International Chairperson of the IASPM). Did these selections originate as informal “conversations” in the 2009 conference? Do they merit inclusion in Migrating Music alongside the empirical research of the other chapters?

To return to a familiar point of reference for most readers, let me address the issue of youth-based pop culture once again. Were the assembled authors given a vote, I think it’s likely they would nominate hip hop as the most widely practiced lingua franca among youth cultures around the world. In all its artistic (and contested) diversity, hip hop is central to Laudan Nooshin’s chapter on “Hip-Hop Tehran: Migrating Styles, Musical Meanings, Marginalized Voices”) and Antti-Ville Kärjä’s chapter, “Ridiculing Rap, Funlandizing Finns? Humour and Parody as Strategies of Securing the Ethnic Other in Popular Music.” Elsewhere, hip hop gets alchemized along R&B and dancehall in Helen Kim’s chapter on London’s “Bombay Bronx” club, while the danseurs afros in Laura Steils’ chapter reject hip hop’s earlier grip on Afro-French youth to embrace Congolese and Ivoirian flavors.

This spectrum of local responses to the global spread of hip hop highlights Toynbee and Dueck’s chief theoretical contribution to the scholarship on migrating music, which elaborates anthropologist Michael Taussig’s ideas of mimesis and alterity (also the title of his 1993 book). Taussig’s concepts offer a different, more relativistic framework for understanding the encounter with a dominant culture’s influences than simplistic ideas of “Westernization” or “cultural homogenization.” Mimesis (or imitation, what the assimilation of outside influences evidently results in) can occur when two cultures encounter each other, as a way of containing their misunderstood or threatening cultural differences (or alterity). Taussig asserts that this process is rarely unidirectional, as both cultures are transformed in some significant way when appropriating the other’s elements; in this way, homogenization isn’t a foregone conclusion of mimesis. But the editors point out that Taussig’s framework still supposes the binary of the colonial encounter, whereas migrating music can reveal responses to more local, less hierarchicalized orders.

None of the assembled authors in Migrating Music takes up Taussig’s framework or the editors’ elaboration explicitly, but the eclipse of hip-hop by musique afro among the Afro-French youth Steils studies offers a good illustration of what Toynbee and Dueck are getting at. Whereas hip hop was assimilated as a means of addressing the racism of French whites, it became less relevant once assimilation of Congolese/Ivoirian influences gave Afro-French youth a way to renegotiate more subcultural (e.g., banlieue-specific) meanings of “realness.” This is a potentially productive framework, I think, for understanding the often complex semiotic innovations of diasporic cultural production. Certainly it’s an alternative to “glocalization,” an unlovely piece of academic jargon that the all the authors thankfully neglect. More to the point, mimesis and alterity highlight the signifying politics at work in diasporic cultural production, far more than the broad, ambiguous notion of glocalization does. However, the latter evokes a spatial framework that is intuitively salient to urbanists. The absence of such a spatial framework in this book underscores the limits of Migrating Music‘s contributions to cultural urban studies, as well as the insights that a more active urbanist reading of this volume can yield.

Throughout the book, “cities” are on the whole conceptualized narrowly as material sites for cultural production. In Kristin McGee’s chapter “‘New York Comes to Grongingen’: Jazz Star Circuits in the Netherlands,” Grongingen is the location for a musical academy whose jazz program derives international repute from its connections to NYC. In Helen Kim’s chapter on Bombay Bronx, London is the site of a particularly influential weekly nightclub. In Sara Cohen’s chapter, “Cavern Journeys: Music, Migration and Urban Space,” Liverpool is the site of the Cavern Club, a performance venue that sustains musical communities as well as (in the neoliberal era, with tragic historical oversights) supports urban brands. This focus on cultural production means the city qua community—of ethnic/migrant groups, neighborhoods, music fans or otherwise—is largely undeveloped in Migrating Music.

However, elsewhere the volume highlights diasporic ‘publics’ that are constituted by migrating music. As various chapters show, these publics may have urban foundations, although the analysis typically emphasizes publics’ manifest content—e.g., the imagining of cross-border diasporic nations and ethnicities—over their geographic milieu. (As a reader from urban sociology, I was puzzled how frequently some authors downplayed the physical location of their human subjects, at least in comparison to the imaginary locations evoked by the music.) The volume’s relative neglect of urban milieux for diasporic publics, and of the prospect that settlement in concrete places can in fact transform and differentiate the scattered members of diasporic publics, puts it at odds with the thrust of much scholarship in urban studies. Then again, the latter might benefit from this volume’s insights into the signifying work that goes into imagining publics, a work that involves considerable agency on the parts of audiences and contingency in the materials available to construct publics. Just think of how the concept of publics might retorque the critical scholarship on urban branding and hipster enclaves, to name two recent topics in urban studies.

The migration of music and people also supports another feature of cities: cosmopolitanism. Indeed, Byron Dueck questions the conventional association of cosmopolitanism with cities: “Unacknowledged comopolitanisms are hidden everywhere, all the more easily ignored when they seem to be manifestations of the traditional, the rural or the sacred” (pg. 199). This is a valid way to understand what’s at stake when (as John Baily’s chapter describes) women from Afghanistan call into the BBC World Service program Zamzama and share their zamzama—Pashto for everyday humming and singing:

AMINA: Salaam. Where are you speaking from, Farahnaz Jan?
FARAHNAZ: I’m from—in the north…
AMINA: And are you married?
FARAHNAZ: Yes, I’m married.
AMINA: Farahnaz Jan, do you listen to music?
FARAHNAZ: Yes, I listen to music, especially to the BBC. When I go to the kitchen I take my radio [mobile telephone] with me and listen every minute I’m in there. This is the song I want to sing.
[Farahnaz sings]
AMINA: Farahnaz Jan, thank you very much. I thought I could hear someone in the background while you were singing. Is there anyone else with you who would like to sing?
FARAHNAZ: No, there’s no one around because my husband’s very strict. That’s why I came to the kitchen as soon as my phone rang.
AMINA: I hope your husband is not too strict.
FARAHNAZ: Because of the situation in this country and because we’re in a village, people feel they have to be strict, they’re so nervous about upsetting someone.
AMINA: Your husband won’t be upset if he hears you singing on the BBC?
FARAHNAZ: He doesn’t know my [singing] voice that well!
AMINA: Thank you very much (pp. 189-90).

Ultimately, I think it goes too far to suggest that such mass-mediated musical exchanges occur outside the auspices of urbanism (as social condition). My view on this isssue may be more philosophical than empirical, but it seems that what Georg Simmel and Max Weber would recognize as the techno-rational media for modernity—in this case its structured encounter with the ‘other,’ the abstract reflection such encounters facilitate, and (ideally) the civilizing effect that results—emerged in fundamental respects out of the historic cauldron of city life. To acknowledge that modernity has since escaped its original setting hardly means that indicated urbanism has lost its significance. On the contrary, giving a nod to Louis Wirth, urbanism is now a portable way of life. In this way, perhaps new encounters with urbanism are among the best of what migrating music offers its listeners.