Prophets of a Noisy Heaven

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I STARTED LISTENING to country music with serious intent about a decade ago, when a friend showed me a video of S.E. Rogie’s “I Wish I Was a Cowboy.” Rogie was playing live on Dutch television and had first cut the song in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in the 1960s. The singer’s wish is to roam with guitar, surrounded by beautiful women, and by the song’s conclusion he has an offer to star on a cowboy show. No horses. No lassos. Where did this vision come from? In the television segment Rogie cites the records of country music legend Jimmie Rodgers, known as “The Singing Brakeman” for his time on the railroad, one of the many mixed-race places of labor and amusement where Rodgers developed his cracked and piercing blue yodel. It is easy now to hear his yodel’s strain as nostalgia, but it is better understood as the sonic trace of modernity’s fault lines — racial, industrial, spiritual — carved into the world as the tracks of the New Orleans & Northeastern or the grooves in a shellac 78.

So we shouldn’t be surprised by “Chemirocha,” a recording of young Kipsigis women singing in Kenya in the 1950s and named for Jimmie (“chemi”) Rodgers (“rocha”). Jonathan Ward, author of the Excavated Shellac blog, suggests that the British ethnographer who recorded the “Chemirocha” songs understood the singers to have an ambiguous relationship to Rodgers — they admired his vocal style and used it to criticize the presence of white outsiders. “These songs have continued to marvel,” writes Ward, “probably due to the fact that the two main elements, the Kipsigis and the American country star, seem incongruous to most. Their music in theory appears incompatible.”

And so it is that “Chemirocha” and S.E. Rogie’s music enter contemporary listening circles as “strange” or “weird,” even as these terms are meant as honorifics by the enthusiasts who transfer, digitize, and celebrate the music they fear is disappearing. Take, for example, a Pitchfork review of a Rogie rerelease, which uses the terms “raw,” “idiosyncratic,” and “otherworldly,” and suggests that Rogie’s songs are “the expressions of someone who never quite expected to be heard.” (Which, given the lyrical content of “I Wish I Was a Cowboy,” seems unlikely). Many very smart people have spent their lives detailing the epistemological constructs that allow us to judge sounds — or cultures, or people — along axes of traditional/modern, raw/processed, idiosyncratic/regulated. But was there an “other world” in the yodel? And could its reverberations across space and time be evidence of aural transformation, instead of the long creep of Americanization?

A full-throated “yes” is the answer in Michael Denning’s recent work, Noise Uprising: The Audiopolitics of a World Musical Revolution. The raw materials of the revolution were the rush of shellac 78 records made between 1925 and 1930, when the new rhythms and timbres hatched in port city streets and dancehalls burst into makeshift studios. This explosion of samba, jazz, marabi, rebetika, and tzigane records is, on the one hand, a story of the US and European commodification of subaltern musical traditions that maps onto the three oceanic arcs — Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Pacific — of three diasporic people — African, Roma, and Polynesian. Victor had phonographs to sell, and saw the peoples of colonial ports as both a new market and a new cultural labor force.

But the recording industry here is a catalyst and not a telos. In other words, if these records play capitalism on the first listen, the B side is the longue durée of decolonization. Denning makes the case that the political revolutions that produced at least one hundred new nations in the second half of the century were built on the “decolonization of the ear” achieved in the first half. That’s correct — a global revolution induced by music. There’s an occasional close relation between musicians and activists, as in the case of Tamil singer K.B. Sundarambal’s song honoring Gandhi’s release from prison, the explicitly political lyrics of hula chants, or Attila the Hun’s “The Commission’s Report” — “a peculiar thing of this Commission / in that ninety-two lines of dissertation / is there no talk of exploitation / of the worker or his tragic condition.” But the star player is sound. Specifically, it is sound understood by a young Karl Marx, appearing here as a polka fan convinced of the primacy of the senses in ordering (and thus reordering) the world. At the center of all this is a musical revolution more profound than The Rite of Spring, disruptive timbre, rhythm, instrumentation, harmonies, and improvisation that sounded like noise to a ruling elite — “imbecility gone wild,” according to Ernst Bloch — and heralded, as “prophets of a noisy heaven and a syncopated earth,” a new world.

First, some conceptual ground-clearing. This is a cultural studies book, which means that binaries are out and dialectics and antinomies are in. There is no folklorist’s search for purity, no vacuous celebration of multicultural hybridity, and no simple anticolonial victories that yielded discrete and homogenous states. Instead, the records emerged from the specific conjunctures that characterized the early 20th-century mode of production — colonial and settler-colonial states, mass production, and a highly mobile labor force — which resulted in aesthetic cross-pollination, bent genres, and confused aesthetic categories. The new styles were played for tourists and for locals, in brothels and in elite hotels, in the street and on the stage; they came out of slaughterhouses, mission school choirs, and brass bands; it was music you could dance, worship, battle, and parade to; it was two-faced, writes Denning, “intimate with both colonial and indigenous forms and instruments.” The advent of electrical recording yielded “twin Copernican revolutions,” so that the business of music now revolved around the record, and modern music found a new gravitational center in “vernacular musicking.” This last term, used instead of “popular” or “commercial,” allows Denning to analogize the decline of medieval Latin, via the movable-type printing press, to the eclipse of European notation-based concert practice. Like their linguistic counterparts, the musical languages enabled by the gramophone have both a grammar and a learned tradition; players are often bilingual in both vernacular and classical idioms; and the music has shared structures and elements — as do Spanish and Italian — without being identical.

Next, a sense of the geographical range of the records and a taste for their sound. Because this book was written in the last 10 years, Denning had access to digitized versions and invites readers to listen along with a Spotify playlist. You can also hunt them down yourself, a more time-consuming and pleasurable task that leads to record labels (Dust-to-Digital and Honest Jon’s), blogs, and the lo-fi video someone’s uncle made of his 1926 Brunswick Panatrope. The point is to hear “Nar-ı Nicrane Düşüp” (Hafiz Sadettin Kaynak, Istanbul), “Maldita timidez” (Sexteto Habanero, Havana), “Maomao yu” (Li Minghui, Shanghai), “Amponsah” (Kumasi Trio, Accra), “Arnautka” (Steva Nikolič, Belgrade), “Hilo March” (M.K. Moke, Honolulu) next to what has been Ken Burns-ed into oblivion — Louis Armstrong, the Carter Family, Django Reinhardt — and listen historically, an impossible task, for what made this sound alike in the first place.

A piece of the answer lies in the particularities of the port cities where the records were made. Neither the exclusive terrain of philharmonic traditions and working-class amusements nor the music of peasants and sharecroppers, they were incubators of “peripheral modernism,” cities recruited into the violent and exploitative system of global capitalism but with enough distance from and between colonial regimes to remain beholden to none. Jakarta, New Orleans, Accra, and Rio de Janeiro were densely populated by people in motion, and the port city’s musical life was a heady mixture of rural migrant musicians trained by ear and a “talented tenth” of colonial elites trained in reading musical notation. It was also easier to get a gig as a newcomer; in New York, for example, German-Americans had dominated the commercial orchestra pit since the Civil War. Trinidadian calypso, Afro-Cuban son, and Gold Coast highlife were each the products of fused elements of training, publics, venues, tones, and instrumentation. Indeed, Denning argues, while the metropole’s musical cultures had hardened into high and low, the port city’s hadn’t — hence, jazz in New Orleans and samba in Rio.

Then again, people have been mixing musical traditions forever. What matters here is the coincidence of a lively port music culture and the advent of electrical recording, which meant both a greater range and depth of recorded sound. Following the lead of independent labels like Black Swan, the first label dedicated to African-American recordings for African-American listeners, the major record companies quickly sought out new performers to corner new markets. Between 1925 and 1929, gramophone record exports from the United Kingdom grew by 75 percent, while in Germany exports grew from 1 to 14 million. While some of the records did satiate colonial tastes for “exotic” sounds, many returned to their port cities — the British recordings of Lisbon fado, for example, caused a fiftyfold increase in exports to Portugal. Record companies depended on a network of engineers, agents, merchants, and particularly musical directors, a transitional player who recruited the musicians and facilitated the transposition of vernacular music into a recording studio. They’d been hired by traveling recording engineers who set up shop for a couple weeks to record, shipping the masters back to be pressed, exported, and sold back to the port cities.

Once vernacular music became the record — an object in motion — things got really interesting. K.C. Dey’s bhajan records were played in Trinidad, calypso went to West Africa via London, Cuba’s “El Manisero” went everywhere, and Jimmie Rodgers’s yodel — ignored outside of the South in the United States — made it to Lagos, Kinshasa, and Durban. This movement provided new teachers for aspiring performers, as well as a new way to gain exposure and fans. The record review became thinkable. Records remade habits of training and listening for audiences and players; traveling for the first time apart from performers, they remade musical time and space, leaping from the bar into the parlor and accompanying everyday life with sounds once reserved for special occasion. Cut into three-minute segments, the record turned lyric commonplaces into verses and refrains, transformed dances into rhythms, and tweaked “popular song” into a platform for improvisation.

The records shared several formal characteristics. They were usually played by a dance band of three to seven players divided into a front line playing the melody and a “rhythm section,” a term that first emerged in English in 1924 and that better captures the rhythmic distinction of this uprising than “syncopation,” a term derived from Western musical theory that presumes regularity. The records shared four elements: a clashing timbre (the result of mass-produced guitars), the universally despised harmonium, artisan-crafted fiddles, and the falsetto voice; the rhythm section, which housed a counterpoint of variation and regularity (think the interplay between bass, piano, and drum kit) in chord cycles and timelines; the “weird” harmonies and bent pitches — the blue note or the gypsy scale — produced by clashing systems of pitch; and the elevation of improvisation, the mark of a true insider, that emerged from the competitive virtuosity, lead sheets and “fakebooks,” and the chance to preserve improvisation in a record.

In addition to these shared elements, vernacular musics were linked because they sounded alike to the ruling orders. Béla Bartók found extemporization of tzigane “lacking in uniform character … [and] authenticity,” while Theodor Adorno claimed that jazz’s “much-invoked improvisations” were “merely ornamental in their significance, and never part of the overall construction or determinant of the form.” Drawing from Jacques Attali, Denning concludes that the records were labeled as noise because they were machine-like — they sounded like trains, and proudly bore the marks of technological interference — and because they were music of “primitive” peoples. Both of these characteristics made them unruly and troublesome, the violation of an imposed social and political harmony. Colonial regimes had often attempted to exert control through the management of popular musicking, but records were different. Their relative youth meant they were less enmeshed in colonial culture and less easily policed, both because they required no license to be played and their paths were more idiosyncratic than those of embodied performers.

This is what makes hula, beguine, kroncong, and chaabi not simply the background of political struggle but key causal agents. These genres vibrated “the pulse of a fresh stimulus,” Frantz Fanon wrote, with which “the colonized subject restructures his own perception.” Denning is quick to acknowledge that the line from sound to state is crooked. Cultural revolutions didn’t inevitably or immediately unfold into formal independence, and vernacular musics — creolized, and traveling fast — weren’t always an easy fit for nation-building projects. And yet, he argues, the elongated and mobile life of recorded vernacular music fits decolonization’s transcolonial and diasporic elements, as well as many movements’ sense of unfinished projects.

In less careful hands, a portrait this crowded would be advertising copy for the Putumayo World Music Hour, where a unified “world beat” stands apart from Western music rather than emerging, polyrhythmically, from within colonial modernity. Even here, internal complexities are largely out of view. Readers interested in fine-grained studies should turn to the scholars cited in Denning’s footnotes, such as Adria L. Imada, Robin Moore, Kofi Agawu, Veit Erlmann, or Karl Hagstrom Miller. It’s also quickly apparent that the musical uprising was built on a gendered division of labor. Record company engineers and agents, musical directors, and the majority of instrumental musicians were men, while many of the vocalists were women, trained in courtly or theatrical traditions. This means that “woman” is more often the face than the beating heart of the changes Denning describes, an observation that shouldn’t be sidelined in a narrative of state formation, particularly if we are interested in the collective identities and exclusions formed as part of postcolonial statehood.

I mentioned earlier that this is a cultural studies book. That’s like saying The Great Gatsby is a novel. Denning is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of American Studies at Yale, where he has taught since the late 1980s and advised a multitude of younger scholars. He’s widely cited as responsible for bringing the methods of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies to the American university and reinvigorating the field of American Studies. His first two books took up spy thrillers and pulp novels, but print wasn’t quite the right medium for Denning’s method. Many historians long for the archival goldmine of, “Today I felt [response] to [historical event/text] and as an [identity category] this makes me want to [social action],” but Denning was after the ideological syntax that makes such responses possible. As he wrote in a 1998 afterword to Mechanic Accents, no avalanche of “empirical data” on “bona fide workers” would alter his interest in how “audiences are organized and mobilized, how cultural movements, subcultures, and cultural institutions attempt to promote and shape readings.” This is absolutely the case in Noise Uprising, which prioritizes genre — its forms, its ripples, its fighting words — over unique players. Music proves firmer ground, probably because we’re already convinced it is a spontaneous, collective experience that is felt rather than thought. (When reflecting on a mediating form that replaces the analog needle and groove — what you might call a digital “structure of feeling” — Bernard Sumner doesn’t ask “how does it read” to have the synthesizer lay its hands upon you.)

But detailing genre conventions is only the first step, and it is Denning’s commitment to political consequences that makes Noise Uprising the historical study that best brings to life the project at Birmingham. Cultural studies has become a broad catch-all term to describe the study of anything calling itself “popular culture.” I hear it now (again?) dismissed as a trifling pursuit, noodling at the margins of massification or lost in the vagaries of discourse and representation, while the real scholars have returned to hard work. But Denning’s central causal claim — that 78s decolonized listening, paving the way for political transformation — revives the ethical urgency of his training. The Rosetta Stone for Noise Uprising is Stuart Hall’s essay “Notes on Deconstructing ‘the Popular,’” in which Hall argues that popular forms deserve serious study because they “occupy and rework the interior contradictions of feeling and perception in the dominated.” It’s the process of reworking that deserves our attention, the battle over what constitutes “the people” and “the popular” in a series of relations.

And make no mistake, battle is the correct term. There is a culture war here, but not the one-note Enola Gay “Piss Christ” refrain that seems forever trapped in the 1990s. The term “culture war” usually refers to the weaponizing of symbolic forms as a cover for existing political positions. This is very different from approaching those forms as the terrain on which political subjectivities are formed. The whole point is to recast Coronation Street as part of a process where, for Hall, a socialist politics in Thatcher’s Britain could be constituted. “Otherwise,” he concluded, “I don’t give a damn about it.” This is a method — no, stronger, a creed — that is not content to describe our representations as perpetrators of misogyny or heralds of race-positivity, but seeks out objects of study that could foment a revolution of consciousness.

Of course, there are readers who will never be convinced by arguments like these, who prefer their revolutions institutional and their art unblemished by utopia. Raymond Williams’s “structures of feeling” — a way of tracing culture all the way down — and “cultural formations” — a heterogeneous totality of social locations and aesthetics — often show up in introductions to signal an author’s commitments to the causal power of meaning-making. But in the end, cultural studies is as much an article of faith as a method. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as it could be said for most transformative paradigms (see: Marxism, religion, liberalism, etc.). If you are already convinced of the significance of culture, then Williams and Hall provide an elegant justification for your work. If you don’t, you are unlikely to be moved by the argument for a remastered ear as the groundwork for political revolution.

But if you’re on the fence, Noise Uprising could be the work that convinces you. There are graphs of exports! There are important voices — Adorno, Glissant! There are clear, traceable paths of the diasporic arcs left in both records and in continuing musical practices. The sheer volume of insults lobbed at such diverse sounds suggests something significant was afoot. Even if you’re not sold on the whole argument, there are valuable insights about popular music. One is the use of vernacular, which “inserts a linguistic detour between art form and people.” This is much better than the scene in Straight Outta Compton where only a handful of seconds separates Ice Cube’s encounter with the cops and “Fuck the Police,” a speed that makes the verses an immediate and unmediated reflection of police harassment rather than a complex matrix of genre, politics, and invention. Another is the book’s decentering of US recording history, which reframes watershed events like Alan Lomax’s field recordings and the Carter Family’s 1927 Bristol Sessions as one in a series of encounters. Finally, if nothing else, Noise Uprising will make you want to listen. If you know calypso as the soundtrack for the demonic dinner party in Beetlejuice, give Attila the Hun a try. And when you do, listen for that other world.


Rachel Miller is a graduate student at the University of Michigan, where she is writing a dissertation on vaudeville, labor, and the first Chappelle’s show.