Sonic Insurgency Research Group
Recently, we had the privilege to chat with Alex E. Chávez, whose book Sounds of Crossing: Music, Migration, and the Aural Poetics of Huapango Arribeño (2017) won the Alan Merriam Prize from the Society for Ethnomusicology, the Society for Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology’s Book Prize, and the Association for Latina and Latino Anthropologists Book Award. Additionally, it was short-listed for the prestigious Victor Turner Prize in Ethnographic Writing by the Society for Humanistic Anthropology.
Chávez’s anthropological and autoethnographic practices have been instrumental to our thinking regarding the relation between sound, power, and culture, especially in terms of how Latinx diasporic sonic traditions and experiments move through histories of migration. A new collection of essays edited by Alex E. Chávez and Gina Pérez, Ethnographic Refusals, Unruly Latinidades (2022), is currently available through New Mexico University Press as part of the School for Advanced Research Advanced Seminar Series. Ethnographic Refusals showcases the generative, contested, and complex relationships between ethnographer and interlocutor as it centers on self-reflection, criticality, and the importance of bearing witness.
SIRG: Since your work is so varied, maybe we can start with some general information about your practice. What are the concerns, themes, and topics animating your work?
Alex E. Chávez: Primarily, I’m an artist, academic, and musician, and I produce as well. Throughout my career, both creatively and in formal academic realms, I’ve tried to calibrate both scholarly and artistic projects into publicly engaged work with the aim of reaching broader audiences interested in questions around borders, Latinx culture, identity, and contemporary lived politics. As an artist, scholar, and producer, I’ve worked across a number of discrete domains – the academy, the stage, the studio – to integrate my experiences, perspectives, and talents into a creative practice that is anthropological or artistic in scope. All of that said, I am concerned primarily with sound and sonic practices. That includes an interest in numerous cultural forms: music, language, performance, and the voice (both figuratively and literally). My concern with the sonic is informed by the question of how sound provides an envelope within which to understand the dissonance of race and politics as key dimensions of the Latinx experience in the United States.
Regarding scholarly landscapes I’m engaged in, one is anthropological, which includes theoretical and methodological formulations around certain social-linguistic questions and discursive struggles over borders and immigration, specifically around Latinxs in the US. I’m concerned with how the logics of the US-Mexico border extend out into the continental US in both very material and figurative ways. Of course, the social-linguistic question is a broader political question, in terms of the production of inclusion and exclusion in daily life. This scholarly landscape provides a set of analytic tools for understanding more than just language or the linguistic. Linguistic anthropology is famously not strictly about language. Rather, it’s about communicative practices that can take the form of language, music, or any other form of expressive culture.
Another scholarly landscape that I’m engaged with is what we might call borderlands anthropology. This includes analysis of the border as a very real material place, as a historical theater of violence – a historical condition explored via ethnic studies, Latinx studies, Mexican-American studies, and Chicana/o studies. I’m concerned with the very real material conditions of the US-Mexico border as a concrete physical place, as well as the social and political dimensions of allegorical cultural divides. Gloria Anzaldúa makes that distinction: “A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition.”1 This sense of borderlands anthropology is another place where I live.
The third scholarly area is generally concerned with affect – the social aesthetic or the aesthetic in social life. Clearly, we can trace this far back in social theory. But I do think a lot of renewed formulations and concerns regarding affect find articulation in fields like sound studies or ethnomusicology. It’s akin to what David Howes calls an anthropology of the senses.2 This concern with affect – at least for me, in my scholarly background and training coming out of UT Austin – was a natural place to venture. In part, this concern is anticipated by performance-centered, ethnography-of-speaking approaches which find their beginnings at UT Austin. These perspectives uniquely integrate folklore, ethnomusicology, linguistic anthropology, and Mexican-American studies. And this performance-centered approach to cultural forms naturally leads to thinking about embodiment and the sensorial.
SIRG: In your book Sounds of Crossing: Music, Migration, and the Aural Poetics of Huapango Arribeño, we found your reading of Thomas Turino’s work on musical nationalism really generative for thinking about how music can be instrumentalized by state power.3 You complicate the commodification of regionalism by exposing the transnational aesthetic and material histories that produce certain sonic genres. In a sense, you’re writing about those genres as acts of opposition against their instrumentalization in the continually constructed, ongoing project of producing Mexican nationalism.
AC: I’ll preface my response with an explanation of the regional music tradition you are referring to, which is at the center of the book. Huapango arribeño is a form of Mexican music that comes from three states in North-Central Mexico, specifically where they come together: San Luis Potosi, Guanajuato, and Querétaro.4 It’s fundamentally string music. The ensemble has four musicians. One of the primary figures in the ensemble is the poet/troubadour, who engages in improvised poetry in the classic décima, ten-line stanza, a common poetic form throughout Latin America. To situate it further, the landscape of Mexican music is vast. One of the musical super genres in Mexican music is what people call son, which has many variants. Typically, it’s string music and uses certain poetic forms. A lot of it is played in triple meter, like huapango. Most people globally, even if you’re just a lay listener or appreciator of Mexican music, can recognize mariachi music, which is a very stylized version of Mexican son that comes from Son de la Tierra Caliente in western Mexico. I say it’s stylized because now it has trumpets and all manner of things. But that might be a musical signifier that is somewhat similar and relates to huapango arribeño as part of the son genre.
The term itself – huapango – has been tethered, precisely as you mentioned, to all this work around Mexican cultural nationalism. In the book, I had to deal with that. You can’t just toss that term out as a style, genre, space of performance, or ritual practice. You have to recognize that this term invokes and is tethered to the much broader project of producing Mexican nationalism. For me, it was important to disarticulate that. In my ethnographic rendering, I was trying to trace what this particular community of practice was doing and what huapango accomplished for them on its own terms. When they invoked that term, huapango, it meant something quite specific as a community of practice. So, there was a disjunct between that and huapango as this idealized nationalist signifier. I had to step into that gap and say, well, this is how huapango circulates in the popular imaginary, which has a lot to do with the broader state project of Mexican cultural nationalism in the wake of the Mexican Revolution, vis-à-vis what huapango is to this community of practice.
Now, at the same time that we witness the emergence of certain sonic cultural forms in the early twentieth century, we also have the emergence of a powerful media industry in Mexico. There’s a moment in which Mexican film rivals Hollywood. We can think about the advent of radio as well. There is a soundedness to Mexican cultural nationalism and, in this way, the sounds of this emergent nation are taken up by a new, powerful media industry that inculcates certain ideas in the national imagination. It is a question of what have these sounds been sedimented with and how do they participate in producing certain kinds of alterity? For example, the gender component is quite fraught when we think about Mexican cultural and musical nationalism. Also, class dynamics are undergirded by a sense of primitivism when we think about the rancho and a pastoral Mexico. Huapango holds all of that as well. I had to pull that apart.
As another register of the sonic metaphor, we can think about Claudio Lomnitz’s idea of a silent Mexico.5 This is the Mexico that gets romanticized, that Roger Bartra talks about in his writing on post-Mexico.6 This is folklore 101; the peasant of the countryside exists as an inheritor of former poetic legacies while at the same time they’re imaged as perpetually backward. Not only is that happening, as Lomnitz points out, but this idealized Mexico is also the most destitute. It’s the Indigenous; it’s the Afro-Mexican. And to extend the sonic metaphor, it is that silent Mexico that migrates to the US. If we understand all of that, then how is the music of huapango arribeño specifically used by migrants as their own chosen form of expression to lend meaning to their own migration? That was the task for me.
SIRG: Can you say more about sonic practices that exist in opposition to that kind of national essentialism? Are there other musicians, artists, or cultural practices that you consider to be resistant to regional and national inscription and its instrumentalization, whether intentionally or not?
AC: For me, it’s always about context and place. I would throw that question back and say I don’t think there is an a priori politics of resistance or refusal when it comes to sound or cultural forms, but rather it’s the context in which they sound out that makes them politicized. So, I’d be more interested in a question around context. Then, anything can have something to say, and some of it can acquire a politics of refusal. For me, huapango arribeño does that.
To go back to this larger struggle over immigration in terms of discursive and very real violence: What stories do migrants have to tell within a political climate that justifies all manner of punitive approaches to dealing with the undocumented? Migrants, who are moms, dads, sisters, and brothers, craft a sonic poetic filigree through improvised poetry that tells those stories. And to continue thinking about and with embodiment and affect, I make the argument that we should imagine poetics, the music, and everything I’m describing as an instantiation or recuperation of a certain intimacy. One centerpiece of our policy around immigrants is a denial of intimacy. You’re not allowed to go back and forth; you’re not allowed to make certain connections, or, to conjure up a visceral example, children are locked up in cages or ripped from their mothers at the border. That is the supreme visceral example of a denial of intimacy. So, what are the ways that communities of practice recuperate a certain intimacy otherwise denied?
SIRG: All of that is totally evident in the book, especially how you treat your own engagement with the practice of huapango arribeño, and how you write through it in a very intimate autoethnographic way: this is the home where this musical event happened, this is what the air smelled like, and this is the food that was being prepared.
You were kind enough to share some preliminary tracks from your forthcoming album, Sonorous Present. We enjoyed listening. The liner notes describe the album as a reimagining of your book, Sounds of Crossing, which we have been discussing. The preliminary liner notes also describe some of the approaches the album takes, which include progressive jazz, poetry, dance, and ethnographic songwriting. We’re curious to hear more about how the album is a response to the book and what you mean by ethnographic songwriting.
AC: My scholarly perspective has always been influenced and shaped by my own experiences as an artist and musician. I’ve consistently crossed this boundary between performer and ethnographer. I’ve been in the Chicago area for about a decade now, largely performing in the Latinx alternative music scene. Through that experience, I have gotten to collaborate with a number of artists affiliated with local record labels and local musicians from all manner of genres and walks of musical life. I’ve participated in different spaces as well, from rave-like cumbia dance parties in industrial warehouses to playing at the Old Town School of Folk Music and the Pritzker Pavilion. I mention all that because it is related to the Sonorous Present project, which in a way grew out of opportunities I had once the book was published. For about three years, I gave talks all over, in the US and internationally. In one iteration of the presentation, I would incorporate formal comments around the book, some reading of ethnographic passages, but also performance. I would share music to approach storytelling as a way of taking people inside the book in a different way. I really enjoyed doing that, and I felt like people responded to it.
That inspired me to recreate that experience with an ensemble. I selected material I had been performing and began adding other things – music and poetics – to further integrate music-making and storytelling. I then reached out to artists I’ve been connected to for a while in Chicago. I felt very fortunate because I was able to gather a wonderful group of people that I admire as musicians and fellow artists to collaborate with me. For instance, Laura Cambrón is a wonderful singer, largely in the world of son jarocho. She’s a dancer as well, so we had her incorporate those elements. From the world of jazz, my friend Matt Ulery contributed. He is an amazing upright bassist, multi-instrumentalist, but also a composer. And then a good friend of mine, poet Roger Reeves, whom I’ve collaborated with in the past, also contributed. I wanted to bring him in because I love his work and I love him, and we’ve always had wonderful creative exchanges. I know I’m leaving a lot of people out. Musically, I brought in pieces that tell certain stories related to the themes in the book. We performed once at the legendary Hungry Brain in Chicago. Then Covid happened, so we couldn’t do anything live thereafter.
Still, I knew that at some point I wanted to make a record, so that became the logical next step – to skip all of the live stuff out of necessity and just go straight to the studio. However, I was not interested in merely documenting what we had done live on that occasion, because ideally, if we were afforded the opportunity to keep growing the project, it would have naturally developed through the live process. But again, the Covid-19 pandemic did not allow for this. A way around this issue was to bring in somebody from the outside to produce the recording. That’s where Quetzal Flores comes into the picture. I’ve known him for almost two decades. He’s a Grammy award-winning producer and a lovely person, activist, artist, and a dear friend. I called him and explained everything, and he was like, yeah, let’s do it – right away. He said, “I’ve been waiting to do something with you!” So, we started making this record over the past couple of years.
One of the reasons why I reached out to Quetzal is because we come from similar worlds. I knew he would understand what I was trying to bring together. There is the well of Mexican or Latin American musical tradition that I reference and draw from and that he is a master of. And not only that, but he’s someone who could care less about expectations when it comes to dealing with these musical forms and the arc of these traditions – there is a freedom in that. If I’m like, I hear requinto jarocho on this, but not in a conventional sense, he’s like, “Cool, let’s plug it into an amp and distort it or run it through a Roland space echo.” There’s no hang-up around experimenting.
The ethnographic component draws on Kristina M. Jacobsen and others who work around this idea of ethnographic songwriting. The question is: How is songwriting informed by or collectively written with your interlocutors? Or, what might ethnography and fieldwork bring to songwriting and what might songwriting bring to ethnography? Both are narrative-based storytelling forms that pay very close attention to the senses and follow rules about form, structure, or genre.
Admittedly, anthropology has been in some ways preoccupied with the adjacent creative world of poetry, yet not so much with songwriting. Whether it’s a formal concern with poetry as an “object of study” or with the creative play of genres. I’m thinking of people like Zora Neale Hurston, Ruth Behar, Steven Feld, or Renato Rosaldo – particularly Rosaldo, who thinks about his work as anthropoesía. So, there is a connection between ethnography and poetry, but admittedly the connection to songwriting is far more recent. In some ways, ethnographic songwriting is poetry set to sound or to song.
In part, I was going back to music I was engaged with and writing at the time of doing research for the book years ago, exploring connections between my experiences in the field, my connections with people and friendships, and my own life. An example of this is a song on the record called “Refugios,” literally meaning sanctuaries. It’s named after a place I was living in San Luis Potosí where I was doing research for a year. Lyrically – and as a piece of poetry – the song explores the families and friendships I experienced at that time, and what it meant to be in community. In some ways, there is a deeper felt connection reflected there too because I have family from that region; so I was also thinking about that, particularly in the migrant context. I talk about this in the book. My folks migrated to the US when they were very young, and they were undocumented for part of my childhood. That is but one kind of connection I had with the people I spent time with in Refugio.
The other reason this song is called “Refugios,” and why it’s plural, is because my mother’s middle name was Refugio. You see, right when I returned from my fieldwork in Mexico and was finishing up the dissertation, she passed away suddenly. There is certainly a felt trauma around that. And one way I tried to understand that experience, to live and work through that loss, was through songwriting. This particular song is both a meditation on my experience of loss and the connectivity I felt to this place I was in for a year, just before my mother passed. There’s a literal attending to loss, connection, family, but it’s also a metaphor. One of the things I mention in the song is this allusion to orange blossoms, because El Refugio is surrounded by orange orchards. If you’ve ever been around an orange orchard, you are completely enveloped by the smell of orange blossoms – the azahar. They call that place tierra de los azahares, the land of orange blossoms, because at certain times of year that’s all you smell all day. So that sensorial reference and the sweet longing that it entails carries a certain sentiment with it.
Another ethnographic element – and from a studio production standpoint – was the use of field recordings. That was all Quetzal. On previous albums, he has used field recordings as segues between songs. In preparation for our work together, he asked, “Do you have any field recordings you might want to use or that are significant to you?” I have too many. I’ve been documenting huapango arribeño for years. I picked out snippets from interviews, found sounds, and performances. We spent some time going through this material and employed a hip-hop approach to production: we picked out sounds, chopped them up, set them to a particular bpm, tuned them if needed, and created loops. This became a foundational sonic element. It was really wonderful that “ethnographic data” could become part of the compositional process. So, for instance, you don’t talk about being in Xichú, Guanajuato, rather you bring Xichú sonically into the song.
The way I’ve been describing the record is as a meditation on border crossings, loss/memory, mournings/mornings. The arc of the stories on the album deals with all of that. They endeavor to bridge a range of engagements I’m involved in — scholarly, creatively, musically, etc. There’s an argument to be made potentially here about how this is an unconventional mode of knowledge production. It’s a reimagining, at least from my perspective, of what a studio album should sound like, what performing live should accomplish, or the forms scholarship should take.
SIRG: That’s an interesting set of conclusions. Thinking of songwriting as a form of knowledge production challenges epistemic imperialism or the scripto-centric with its focus on the written text, which necessarily erases existing forms of performed knowledge production associated with the colonized and the enslaved. That’s a really important pivot, especially in the context of Western epistemology.
This conversation continues in Part 2.
Sonic Insurgency Research Group (SIRG) is Josh Rios, Anthony Romero and Matt Joynt. SIRG’s research-based performance and exhibition practice examines normalized associations between criminality and sound, silencing as a form of social control, and voicing as a form of social resistance. SIRG’s group work has been exhibited and featured in M:ST 9 Biennial (Calgary, Canada), Counterpublic 2019 at The Luminary (St. Louis, MO), Acoustic Resonance at Institute of Contemporary Art at MECA (Portland, ME), State of the Art 2020 at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (Bentonville, AR), Pulitzer Arts Foundation (St. Louis, MO), and Work for the People (Or Forget about Fred Hampton) at Co-Prosperity (Chicago, IL). Upcoming work includes solo and group exhibitions at Locust Projects (Miami) and The Vincent Price Art Museum (Los Angeles). Writing has been featured in ON Journal’s Rules and The Design Studio for Social Intervention’s Spatial Justice.