Ifeona Fulani, ed. Archipelagos of Sound: Transnational Caribbeanities, Women and Music.
Archipelagos of Sound: Transnational Caribbeanities, Women and Music
Kingston, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 2012, vi + 343 pp.
Detailed book-length cultural and historical examination of women's creative roles in Caribbean music remains a literary rarity. Despite the wave of gender studies publications in recent years, Caribbean music's marginal role has often been focused on women's overt sexualization at the hegemonic hands of male patriarchy. This 14-essay anthology aims to valorize the female Caribbean musical presence on the global stage in more empowering ways, and it is subdivided into three thematic segments: "From the Postcolonial to the Transnational," "Performing/Contesting Identities," and "At the Diasporic Crossroads." It identifies its multiple intercultural and national identities and the intersecting representations of race and feminism, with the subjects as active rather than passive participants. The book also integrates work on multicultural Caribbean and Latin American female performers of both the foundational past and the pop-centred present, navigating beyond the region's many linguistic divisions that sometimes shape critique as fragmented as the islands at the anthology's analytical centre. This review specifically references nine of the contributions (though not necessarily following the anthology's sequence) to portray the overall character and diversity of the text.
Archipelagos of Sound largely succeeds in productively consolidating the trans-regional breadth and depth of gender-based popular music analysis, although, fundamentally, music (i.e., the soundscape of the subject recordings/performances versus clinical musicological deconstruction) is only a supplementary concern amongst the essays, a conduit through which matters of identity and gender reality become foregrounded as the collection's central thematic elements. In some instances, the authorial enthusiasm that propels the writing may have also narrowed the scope of the musical evaluation.
The introduction by editor Ifeona Fulani discusses the cultural geography of the region and its diaspora, outlining a book structure that integrates the local and the global as interactive elements in shaping female Caribbean musical identity. Beyond the editor's standard summary of the included works and rationalization of the anthology's content, some of the introduction's references to recording industry specifics may require minor amendment. In highlighting the international success of Caribbean artists, the editor notes (2) the particular success of Bob Marley & The Wailers' 1977 album Exodus, acclaimed by Time magazine as the Album of the Century in 2000, but the included assertion that Rolling Stone magazine gave the record the same accolade does not appear to be accurate. There's also the statement (6) that reggae emerged from Jamaica in the 1970s. Although that decade represented a crucial golden age for reggae, the genre had clearly announced its presence by 1968, and firmly consolidated it with Desmond Dekker's transatlantic hit single "Israelites" in 1969, accompanied in that year by "Liquidator" from the Harry J All-Stars, The Pioneers' "Long Shot Kick De Bucket" and Jimmy Cliff's "Wonderful World, Beautiful People," all of which broke into the British pop charts. Given the inexorable difficulties associated with assembling data on reggae history and the many conflicting narratives, these apparent discrepancies do not, however, undermine Fulani's incisive conceptual focus.
The presence of two essays on Cuban singer Celia Cruz underlines her vital role in musically projecting and defining aspects of the black Caribbean female aura from the late 1940s through to her death in Fort Lee, New Jersey, as an exile from her homeland in 2003. Though not the only artist representing the Hispanic branch of the diaspora within the anthology, Cruz's career--filled with issues of race, class, gender, and the varied politics of nationhood--allows Frances R. Aparicio and Frances Negron-Muntaner considerable analytical latitude in their respective contributions. Aparicio's essay, "The Blackness of Sugar: Celia Cruz and the Performance of (Trans) nationalism," and Negron-Muntaner's "Celia's Shoes" delineate the cultural crossroads that meet as a result of Cruz's centralized consciousness of Cuba in her life and work. The latter work imbues the singer's abundant footwear with a profound transformative cultural power, situating her shoes as animated prisms through which audiences witnessed Cruz's affirmations of herself and her native country. For readers less familiar with the singer's chronology and career complications, both writings are highly expository while also accessibly foregrounding the paradoxes of place and displacement in both geographical and spiritual senses.
The crossroads of Caribbean culture are given further high profile in "The Rhetoric of Hips: Shakira's Embodiment and the Quest for Caribbean Identity" by Nadia Celis. Through the artist's vivacious hips and their signification of her aesthetic relationships to her music, Colombian singer Shakira is represented as symbolically and materially interfacing the hybrid Latin and Caribbean worlds and challenging linguistic and other cultural perimeters to achieve broad commercial success. As Shakira herself centres her body as a focal point in the international 2006 hit collaboration with Haitian artist Wyclef Jean, "Hips Don't Lie," Celis elaborately explores manifestations of identity through Shakira's corporeal medium.
The French Caribbean is examined in "Guadeloupean Women Performing Gwo Ka: Island Presences and Transnational Connections" by Kathe Managan. As one of the introductory components in her anthropological accounts of Guadeloupe's musical, political, and gender cultural histories, Managan interestingly cites singer Jocelyne Beroard as the leader of the internationally renowned zouk group Kassav'. It may simply be that in stating that Kassav' is "led by" Beroard, the author is referring to her central stage presence. However, though Beroard is probably the group's most distinctive vocal presence and certainly in the visual forefront on several of the Kassav' album covers that feature band members, she has never undertaken the principal songwriting or production duties. Given that the essay focuses on the relationship between the music and the designation of women as central figures in Guadeloupean society, the foregrounding of Beroard's group role is certainly appropriate (and the author points out that the singer is from the neighboring French Caribbean island of Martinique), but in this instance its centrality may have been unduly magnified. Perhaps an adapted descriptive phraseology may be necessary.
Lyndon Gill's essay, "Calypso Rose's Phallic 'Palet' and the Sweet Treat of Erotic Aurality," is centred on a single 1968 recording by the female performer from Trinidad and Tobago. Following its conceptual mission, the essay raises questions surrounding gender politics, perceptions, and (mis)interpretations of lyrically articulated sexuality in calypso contexts. However, it is arguable that the gender counter-positionality that Gill attaches to the singer's lyrics divorces Calypso Rose's vocal performance from the overall sonic dynamics of the song, setting aside the embedded male participation in the recording and ways in which that aural interaction impacts the musical totality and gender projection. It would also have been intriguing to learn the extent to which Calypso Rose's multifaceted gender constructions have impacted the contemporary female presence in the calypso realm.
Lisa Amanda Palmer makes a case for a critical re-evaluation of the lovers rock subgenre of reggae in its British context. She argues that lovers rock has been gender-centrically relegated to a lower league because of its apparent emphasis on romantic matters and the vocal performance centrality of women. Instead, echoing a stance iterated by black British cultural critic Paul Gilroy, the writer seeks to endow the music with a much larger significance usually ignored in scholarly (and mainstream media) analyses by linking "the intersection of the erotic and the political" (260). Palmer's intriguing assessment incorporates broad dimensions of the black female experience in the UK within and beyond popular music, and offers a theoretical reconceptualization of gender in reggae spaces. The extent to which this expansive discourse convinces the reader will undoubtedly rest upon adoption of this acute cultural perspective on music that is often reflexively rejected as overly sentimental and lacking social commentary credibility. It may well be that further engagement with the paradox of record production patriarchy characterizing lovers rock (about which many of its female singers have remarked) and its sonic distinctions from the male-centred roots reggae of the 1970s decade in which it flourished will enhance Palmer's premises.
While Fulani's essay "Who is Grace Jones?" foregrounds the complexities of the Jamaican singer's dramatic image constructions and performance personae, her analyses of the artist's recordings exclude the significant Slave to the Rhythm album (1985). That LP features an album cover that splices slices of a photo of Jones in a manner mirroring the digital character and clinical studio-centred dissection within the music's sound. More importantly, Slave to the Rhythm also signals a crucial redefinition of Jones' sonic presence in the digital era, thus providing opportunities for critical comparison and contrast with the aural fabric of her earlier releases. More than any other Grace Jones album, Slave to the Rhythm represents extreme manipulation of the music within the stereo spectrum (overseen by ace British producer Trevor Horn), creating a metaphoric soundscape for her own multiple dissolutions of norms. Moreover, that album's title track includes narrative segments voiced in part by Jones that emphatically articulate aspects of her self-realization philosophy, making the record intrinsic to the anthology's assessment of Caribbean female musical presence. Although significant segments of that album feature instrumentation rather than Jones' vocals, breaking the typical pop mold, the content of her vocal appearances carries major conceptual and artistic weight.
In "From Third Wave to Third World: Lauryn Hill, Educated and Unplugged," Cheryl Sterling's opening sentence is potentially problematic: "Like every other person who enjoys popular black music, I love the music of Lauryn Hill" (279). However unintentional, it unfortunately implies that one is wholly synonymous with the other and automatically marginalizes those who would interrogate and dissect Hill's works from other perspectives. Sterling's hagiographic critique of Hill's genre-amorphous work intends to underline the artist's feminist role as "an exemplar of the processes of re-diasporization" (280). The issues surrounding Hill's cryptic circular monologues between songs on her MTV Unplugged 2.0 are attributed by Sterling to a display of realistic human vulnerability as a philosophical juxtaposition with the larger-than-life portrayals of her R&B/hip-hop female contemporaries. The questionable clarity of those verbal interludes and the frequency with which they occur on the album seem to invite challenges to Hill's idiosyncratic use of her artistic license. Nonetheless, Sterling extracts a bounty of meaning within the essay's clearly identified feminist and racial contexts, proposing that Hill's spiritual and creative evolution embodies postcolonial diasporic discourses thoroughly at odds with hegemonic norms.
Heather Russell's "Whose Rihanna: Diasporic Citizenship and the Economies of Crossing Over" addresses the numerous contradictions surrounding Barbados' reception of its most famous and widely commodified pop artist, and the embedded commentaries on national identity emerging as a result of her commercial and cultural circumstances. Disassembling the components constituting contemporary nationhood in postcolonial Barbados and global media spaces, Russell insightfully targets the historical circumscription of black female sexuality and ontological presence, linking both spheres of subjection to national and diasporic attitudes to 21st-century pop superstar Rihanna. This performer's prolific output--a worthy essay topic by itself--has since generated three more studio albums (excluding remix compilations) beyond the 2009 release Rated R at which Russell's narrative ends. Loud (2010), Talk That Talk (2011), and Unapologetic (2012) have each sustained and advanced Rihanna's pop profile, magnifying the themes Russell highlights while also accelerating the singer's ongoing self-actualization process. The author succeeds in establishing key parameters for the cultural study of Rihanna's career, though the contextual issues raised in the essay's title do not completely encompass the international songwriters and record producers whose own work makes the Barbadian singer's seemingly nonstop recording activity possible. Indeed, it's well worth considering that little of her commercial success is due to her own non-image-related creative agency, and this too has a direct (though perhaps slightly more nuanced) bearing on the perceptions of national identity, crossover facilitation, and black female self-expression that are all conjoined within Rihanna's personae. The fact that the degree of artistic autonomy she is currently assumed to possess as a result of her continued success has not materialized in the form of new artistic directions or clear authorial participation in the production of her musical texts raises further questions for which Russell's critique lays intriguing foundations.
Other consolidating essay contributions incorporating dimensions of diasporic influence include advocacy of Jamaican dialect (Donna Aza WeirSoley's "Louise Bennett in Performance: Pedagogies of Nation and Gender"), the effects of Caribbean music in places such as Canada and Ireland (respective essays by Lisa Tomlinson and Adam John Waterman), and the national identity implications of preference for foreign brand-name clothing in Jamaica's dancehall culture ("'Born in Chanel, Christen in Gucci'" by Andrea Elizabeth Shaw). Ultimately, Archipelagos of Sound blurs the borders of Caribbean cultural geography, more closely linking the narratives of the region's island fragments to suggest that the whole is indeed greater than the sum of its already-powerful parts.
Mike Alleyne, Middle Tennessee State University
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|Publication:||Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2012|
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