I first met Canyon not via internets but thru my brother, a classmate and friend of Canyon’s at Boston College. My bro suspected we’d have a lot to talk about, and he was right. It’s been a real pleasure to conversate with Canyon over the last several years — not least because he sometimes sends actual letters, awesome layered objects which, in their pretty palimpsests, embody a zine-inspired, material-culture-meets-remix-culture-in-a-dark-corner-of-the-library aesthetic.
His projects take similar shapes (right down to customized, zine-like design). Most notably to date, back in 2008, Canyon received a Fulbright grant to support an ambitious attempt to represent / reanimate the past & present of Granada, Spain, using open-sourcey hip-hop collaboration as the form and method of his investigation. (You can guess why this sort of serious — but inherently playful — beat research would resonate with me.) Produced in partnership with talented beatsmith (and MC) Gnotes, and some sixteen other musicians based in Granada, the culmination of the work — if always in-progress (see here for stems, and here for remixes) — is a collection of songs called Granada Doaba, which continues to take shape as an album with hyperlinked, multimedia footnotes.
Canyon’s ethical and imaginative engagement with the musical signs and social history of a particular (but thickly networked) place strikes me as exemplary of what I’d like to think of as a certain sort of applied ethnomusicology, but it’s a form generally unrecognized by the gatekeepers of official ethnodom. To wit, here’s a quotation from one of ethnomusicology’s towering (and still looming) figures, Alan Merriam, from an email Canyon once sent to me, as it happens:
Ethnomusicology is not creative in the same sense that the artist is creative; it does not seek to communicate emotion or feeling, but rather knowledge.
I’m sure it’s clear that I profoundly disagree, but I’m not exactly in the mainstream either (nor am I seeking to position the field for Cold War-era funding, in Merriam’s defense). I see this as an enduring bias in my “discipline,” a myopia even. And obviously, I try to put alternative ideas into practice. Frankly, given the present academic market (in humanities/music) I’m not sure a PhD is the best bet for folks like Canyon, and I’ve had some fun quibbles with him over the years, telling him he shouldn’t describe himself as an “ethnomusicologist” — in part because he hasn’t really paid his dues like that, but mainly because I’m not sure it serves him so well, or best describes what he does. At any rate, it brings me no little pleasure — and lots of hope — that people like Canyon are finding funding for projects like this. (E.g., lots of Fulbright love for my peoples this spring: shouts to Tally and Greg!)
Elsewhere Canyon describes Granada Doaba as “an academic experiment in instrumental hip-hop rooted in flamenco and Middle Eastern music.” That works as well for me as anything, and while I don’t want to downplay the degree to which it’s rooted in a rigorous attempt to understand Granada’s cultural and social history, the sound of the results are anything but “academic.” In the end, I hear Canyon’s approach as more rooted in hip-hop than ethnomusicology, and that’s probably for the best. At least with regard to listenability.
If it’s a question of audience, I hope that Canyon and crew have found — and continue to find — the right ears. Dogwhistling through the din, Canyon’s poetics, so steeped in bloglandic, mirrors the playful blurring so central to creativity (and anathema to academia) as it enjoys a poetic license — dare I say a soul? — absent from so much academic work on music:
We wanted to make music that celebrated the convivencia of Al-Andalus. Spain’s Fulbright committee and the US Senate thought it not such a bad idea; they even offered to fund our experiment for 9 months. We built a simple studio and invited everyone in Granada to contribute their voices. We conducted our research with storytellers and learned how to listen from instrument makers. We borrowed ideas with library cards, gnawing on thoughts slow-cooked. We file-shared memories retold from grandparents, spinning creation myths in a cipher of youth. We dug for fossils at pawnshops, where we found hungry lectures on the cheap. … In practice we found diversity in contrast to be our greatest strength. We danced a lot in Granada.
It’s got an even better ring on paper, syneasthetically speaking —
Now, like any good hip-hop/ologist worth his salt (and pepa), Canyon keeps it moving, so there’s no telling what he’ll share with us in Cambridge this evening. With so many musicians involved, it promises to be lively. But I’d be downright remiss if in telling you about tonight, I didn’t finally give Granada Doaba the serious shine it deserves. So I hope I’ve finally acquitted myself on that count. (Next up lol: the two-year-old draft post bigging up Martin’s Margins Music!)
If you haven’t already, go download it — and find some time to gnaw on the extended entries for each track (try the amazing story of “El Manisero de Potemkin” for starts, especially if you dig the sort of wild genealogical posts that chiefs like Boima been putting up).
& if you’re in town tonight, come on thru and check El Canyonazo.
No predictions, but it might sound a little something like this: