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Voices of the Rainforest.

From the 'overlapping, dense, layered' world of the Bosavi rainforest has come a wealth of similar ethnography: multivocal, richly textured, and complex. This is partly due to the unusual and exemplary collaborative efforts of the ethnographers who have worked in the region over the last twenty-five years -- Edward Schieffelin, Bambi Schieffelin, and Steven Feld -- and partly due to the genius of the Bosavi people, whose interlocutors also include birds, waterfalls and crickets. Since the early 1980s this jungle of material has included not only texts, but sounds as well: the recordings Steven Feld has made, not just of music narrowly conceived, but of the Kaluli soundscape. The distinction is important for the ethnomusicological project, since it represents a critique of the implicit ethnocentrism of standard practice, but it also has important consequences for ordinary listeners, who are invited into these worlds of experience and debate most directly in this new recording.

Voices of the Rainforest, although it evokes something of the pristine world of rainforest ecology, is therefore not a pure product, nor does Feld pretend that it is one. Indeed, the project represents a self-conscious intensification of complexity in several ideological and practical arenas at once. Since part of the profits from the recording go to the Rainforest Action Network, Feld knew he was allying himself with a popular ecological/political movement that many academics would be highly suspicious of. By unabashedly using the phrase 'endangered musics' on the liner notes, he surely knew that he could be accused of the reification of tradition and might be triggering knee-jerk reiterations of the debates surrounding 'salvage' anthropology. Most of the profits from the CD are to be put in a trust fund for the Kaluli people, another sort of ethical involvement that is not without its critics. In addition, by making an overtly 'popular' recording of 'traditional' music, using the latest technology, Feld has challenged prevailing practice in ethnomusicology by calling into question the sorts of commodification which usually mark the difference between academia and the global consumer market.

On the liner notes for the cassette and the CD such issues remain largely implicit but, soon after the recording appeared, Feld discussed these problems in detail in a pair of journal articles (1991;1992). Therefore this review is just the latest voice in a complex, ongoing discourse, both in academia and the journalistic media, relating to the general areas of: authenticity, commodification, ethics, and authority, surrounding representations of, and interactions with, 'tribal' peoples. One aspect of this discourse, which might be seen as placing it in the arena of the 'postmodern' situation, is that it is increasingly difficult for academics or other 'experts' to control the terms within which the debates are constituted. Rather than resisting this trend, Feld welcomes it by opening up the field in a way which mirrors the esthetic of his Kaluli friends. Just as he invites Mickey Hart to play drums along with the recording (in a composed, rhetorical 'letter' in the liner notes), an interaction in the spirit of dulugu ganalan ('lift-up-over-sounding'), so he is inviting interested anthropologists, ethnomusicologists, journalists, ecologists, and concerned enthusiasts to densify, layer, and overlap their debates on the issues raised with the apearance of the disc.

In adding my voice to the circulation of these discources, I want to raise the issue which I see as central to many of the current theoretical discussions in the human sciences: the politics of representation. As I see it, the most telling critique Feld faces, and one he has indeed anticipated, comes from within the academy and might take something like the following form: 'In representing and commodifying Kaluli culture, you cannot separate yourself from your position of privilege within a neo-colonial world system which empowers you at the expense of them. Even the terms you use to describe them, the media you use to represent their music, are tainted with implicit inequalities of power which cause your voice to distort and devour their voices'

There are many things which could be (and have been) said about such a critique, starting with a recognition (which Feld acknowledges) that there is an element of truth to it. But such a critique rests on an epistemology (or a phenomenology) which is itself problematic in several ways, since it pretends to be radically relativistic but cannot avoid an implicit grounding in the very categories it seeks to undermine. One way to illustrate this difficult point is to confront the critique with a series of rhetorical questions, a discourse strategy Bambi Schieffelin identifies as central to Kaluli efforts to enculturate their children, to whit: 'How is it possible for power inequalities, once they are established, ever to change? Can one think of no cases in which counter-hegemonic voices have ever gained cultural ascendancy over "mainstream" forms or genres? What is the status of systems of representation: is there only one such system or are there many, related to distinct social/cultural worlds; if the latter is true, how is it possible to communicate across systems if all discourse is bounded by the constraints of a given one?' It seems to me that these sorts of questions undermine the position of those who valorize power differentials, especially in language, without providing any possibilities for modifying or escaping them.

By taking a positive political stance, Feld seems to me to be asserting that his position of power is ethically less problematic than those of multinational oil companies or nation states, for example; that his voice can combine with the voices of the Kaluli in a mediating discourse which can have counter-hegemonic effects in the world of these larger power interests, and beneficial consequences within the local Bosavi world. If this position is based on a sort of common-sense understanding shared with concerned citizens outside of academia, that should be seen not as a epistemological weakness but as a pragmatic strength (in both senses of the term). Some would see the very language in which much of the postmodern critique is cast to be a reproduction of elitism in the name of egalitarianism, an elitism Feld explicitly rejects.

As a contrast to such overblown language games, this recording is an enlivening alternative. I would urge listeners to play it and allow the crystalline quality of the sound to bring the Kaluli rainforest into their phenomenal experience, while letting that nagging, niggling, gabbling ego-self have a rest for a change. Later one can worry about whether to feel politically correct or guilty about buying the CD. Later one can reflect about whose sound world it 'really' is one has entered into. As I listen to the rain fall in Bosavi, even while writing this, I like to imagine that merely by entering into an embodied relation with those sounds I can, for a moment, gain a sory of purity, impossible in the discursive worlds academics are paid to spend too much time in.


Feld, S. 1991. Voices of the Rainforest. Public Culture 4:131-140.

1992. Voices of the Rainforest: Politics of Music. Arena 99/100:164-177.
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Author:Lewis, J. Lowell
Article Type:Sound Recording Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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