Music & the Art of Cartography

In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

Jorge Luis Borges, “On Exactitude in Science,” in Collected Fictions (trans. Andrew Hurley; New York: Viking, 1998), 325

I’ve long been ambivalent about interpreting the ethnomusicological enterprise as bound up with making a musical map of the world. In some sense, it seems like a pretty “old school” (read: colonialist) project. Moreover, it would seem more likely to produce lots of lacunae about the way the world works by privileging the integrity of discrete places (sometimes constructed as “cultures” — a word which I never use in the plural) rather than seeing the interpenetration of places and peoples and recognizing not only that people have been moving around for a long time now but that increasingly every place in the world is systemically linked to every other (read: thx to global capitalism).

At any rate, I don’t want to rehearse those debates right now (though I do recommend reading the spirited and germane “call and response” between Veit Erlmann and Mark Slobin in the Journal of Ethnomusicology from a few years back). I bring up the idea of mapping the world of music by way of pointing people to a few people&places doing such things (or resisting them) in interesting ways.

The first is a page c/o NYC’s dj.henri filled with deft/def mixes offering informed and informative profiles of a number of genres from around the world, from Arab pop to zouk, and focusing especially on localized, African versions of such global forms as hip-hop and house (e.g., bongo flava, kwaito, hiplife). This is a suggestive sort of musical mapping. There are no pretensions w/r/t authority. They help with comprehension but do not claim comprehensiveness. They offer a personal perspective on the genres and provide points of departure for listeners wanting to learn and hear more. I wish more ethnomusicologists made mixes like these. (dj.henri came to my attn, incidentally, b/c he’ll be presenting at the IASPM meeting in the spring for which I’ve been serving as program committee chair.)

The second is a relatively recently launched blog called Tunedown, administered by none other than frequent w&w commenter, Birdseed (aka Johan Palme, an omnivorous music-lover — and aspiring musicologist — operating out of Swedish). Birdseed has been offering such features as “genre of the week,” in which he offers his linkythinky take on such forms as takeu, eurocrunk, power pop, r&b, hi-NRG, and others. He’s quite the digital digger, finding plenty of worldly gems on YouTube but also some emerging NewTubes (e.g., EastAfricanTube). He also poses thoughtful, critical questions, as in his regular comments on this here humble blog, and I’m sorry to say that I haven’t yet had the time to return the favor and offer more comments of my own over there. I do hope that some readers here, however, will join Birdseed in his endeavor to make some sense of various musical-cultural practices and their global circulation.

As many readers here no doubt know, DJ /rupture prefers “maplessness” (which always reminds me of Vermont), so it’s a little odd to include him here, but I do so precisely for his provocative resistance to the kind of mapping that tends to reinforce the ol’ imperial gaze (and its neo-liberal lenses). Some people mistake /rupture’s worldly stance for a brainy strain of eclecticism, when it’s really a lot more pointy than that. His recently published reflection on 2007 for Frieze offers an idiosyncratic, but persuasive, way of hearing what /rupture calls the real “world music” (i.e., globally-distributed hip-hop) while also touching on, and in a deeper manner than a lot of downloading dilettantes, such putative “world music” as Berber pop and cumbia. He assails the exotic-as-anonymous approach that I’ve also critiqued here, and he underscores the equally “global” distribution of Arab pop by imploring folks who want to know more to “find an Arabic music shop and start asking questions.” Who needs a map for that?