Feld’s back in the field

How do we write ethnomusicology and what counts as scholarly work in our field? Feld’s 2012 book, Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra, (of which we read the introduction and first chapter) sent us chasing these questions in our discussions of the introduction and first chapter at the May EDG (ethnomusicology discussion group) meeting. I’ll attempt to recapture some of the flavour of our discussion in this blog post, which I hope will be the first of a series which will follow on from our monthly discussions which take place at the Institute of Education bar.



Feld’s introduction lays out and defends his method of stories as analysis. This book is in the ‘memoir genre’, following several years he spent playing jazz with musicians in Accra, without ever intending to write about it. But the material eventually took form (can academics keep any area of our lives outside of our writing?) in a series of lectures at Berkeley. Through a process of ‘dialogic editing’ with the Ghanaian musicians he was playing and touring with, Feld decided that ‘the only honest thing to do’ was to present the book as ‘a memoir of encounters’ (p9). ‘Ok, stories are not analyses in the academic scheme of things. But this does not mean they are unanalytic’ (pp7-8).

‘Stitching stories together is… a sense-making activity, one that signals a clear analytic awareness of the fluidity and gaps in public and private discourses’ (p8).



The first chapter details how he got involved with jazz musicians in Accra, Ghana, through meeting a jazz musician there who, similarly to himself, felt that ‘Coltrane had saved his life’ (p13). Feld starts producing an album for them and within a few months he is also playing the ashiwa box, which he has just started learning, in their band. The chapter meanders through a description of an experimental Hallelujah chorus as ‘postcolonial theatre’ and a genealogy of the ‘car horn band’. His description of the car-horn band – which really captures my imagination – gives a flavour of the ‘stories’ he is telling. The por-por (squeeze-bulb car horn) which was introduced to Ghana in the 1930s with the cars of the time, has now been displaced by the electric horn, but it has continued life as a musical instrument. The genesis of the car horn band is from the horns’ use on wooden lorries that transported people and goods up the Gold Coast in the 1940s-60s. The drivers’ union turned them into musical instruments with the addition of struck tyre rims, bells and percussion. This combination was initially used when lorries had broken down in remote areas, to ward off animals and to use the rhythm to encourage the people pumping up the tyres. They now play at their fellow driver’s funerals, with musical influences from New Orleans jazz, big-band film shorts, on top of Ghanaian dance rhythms (pp40-45). Threaded through all of these stories is Feld’s fascination that musicians in Ghana should have experienced the same musical influences as he has done in the US, suggesting that these musicians have come up with an ‘African critique of American nationalist jazz master-narratives’ through their reworkings and experimentation with these forms.



Feld makes references throughout to cosmopolitanism, suggesting thinking about ‘cosmopolitanism as musical intimacy’. The form of writing he has chosen – storytelling rather than an academic mode of writing as presenting an argument and evidence – means that it is unclear whether he is making a new claim about cosmopolitanism, or what he might mean by describing it as ‘musical intimacy’. He references Martin Stokes’ On Musical Cosmopolitanism (2007) which argues for a playful way of seeing cosmopolitanism as outside of the dualism of domination or resistance to globalising forces. That is to say, rather than cosmopolitanism (or globalisation) being theorised as a hegemonic force imposed from above which we can either submit to or resist, there can be something that escapes through the gaps, through pleasure and play, which means that participation is not necessarily collusion. (This speaks to me at the moment as I’m reading Amy Buller’s account of visiting Germany between 1934 and 1938 and talking to ordinary Germans about various ways in which they carefully resist the Nazi regime. My favourite of these stories so far is a school teacher who makes all her lessons about Nazi themes really boring so the kids switch off, but when she is teaching anything which is critical or non-Nazi, she makes the lesson really exciting and engaging).



It appears that Feld is drawing on Stokes’ work but rather nodding to it than actively situating his material in relation to it. The reader can choose to ponder the ways in which these jazz musicians in Accra – including Feld himself? – are engaging with or subverting these musical cosmopolitanisms. There are some aspects of Feld’s account, however, that trouble the story of cosmopolitanism that he is hinting at. For example, he seems to be celebrating a pan-African nationalism which he sets against American nationalism as well as against European notions of cosmopolitanism. Why is Ghanaian nationalism better than American nationalism, apart from the fact that it is less powerful? What story is he telling about ‘Africa’ when he suggests that ‘studying African music is always about spirituality and politics’?



Feld also uses the term ‘vernacular cosmopolitanism’ which I love, maybe just because of the seductiveness of the word ‘vernacular’. The argument of the book appears to reclaim cosmopolitanism for non-elites, moving away from cosmopolitanism as ‘just some heady abstraction’ and towards its ’embodied, lived, uneven, complicated’ nature (p7). But as we discuss this idea – as with many of his other terms – we become less and less clear what he means, given his lack of definitions. We decide that ‘vernacular cosmopolitanism’ could be a useful phrase if it’s used to decentre an idea of an elite cosmopolitanism of the middle/upper classes as having ‘multi-local belonging’ across different continents, and to therefore include economic migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, and the upwardly mobile – imagining a cosmopolitanism that is not only about choice but about necessity, fear, and work. But the empirical material we read in Feld doesn’t back up this claim. One of the other musicians in his band is the brother of an ambassador to the US, and as one discussant points out, how many people from Ghana could get into the jazz scene in America? Is his cosmopolitanism, despite his rhetoric, just another version of the ‘elite cosmopolitanism’ we are critiquing? Is it just because this music-making is happening in Ghana that it is cosmopolitan? If it were happening in a conservatoire in the US would it still deserve that label?



In addition, some of the discussants at our meeting found this ‘storytelling’ mode of writing to be problematic because Feld uses terms from his own previous work (eg acoustemology, intervocality, con/disjunctions) without referencing his work or explaining how he is using these terms. This gives the work a strange, as he calls it ‘academically hybrid’ quality (p6), which seems to assume an academic readership who is familiar with his work and his terms, but who (maybe similarly to him) is a little fatigued of the usual mode of writing and argument and would like to try something different. In our discussion, we agree that Feld can get away with this because of his academic reputation; none of us early career researchers would be able to write like this, we assume. Feld acknowledges ‘generous Guggenheim support’ which allows him to spend time in Accra, and there is of course his tenured position. (We heave a collective sigh – one of us has got a post-doc starting soon, the rest of us are at various stages of writing PhDs; precarity is our buzz-word). In particular, his promising claim that ‘stitching stories together is… a sense-making activity, one that signals a clear analytic awareness of the fluidity and gaps in public and private discourses’ (p8) is (as so often in what we promise!) not borne out in the material we read. (Although, only reading chapter one of a book then making critiques of it is somewhat unfair). I would like to see more of the ‘fluidity and gaps in public and private discourses’ that he refers to in the introduction.



After a good two hours’ vibrant discussion, we come to a lull in conversation. There is talk of more drinks. One of our number breaks this silence by asking ‘isn’t cosmopolitanism as a big idea a distraction from the global division of labour?’ We drink to that.






Our next meeting is in the last week of June (date and time tbc) when we will be discussing craftsmanship, reading Tim Ingold and Richard Sennett. If you’d like to go on the mailing list and be kept updated of forthcoming meetings, please email ethnomusicologydiscussiongroup@googlegroups.com






Buller, E.A., Lindsay, A.D., n.d. Darkness over Germany, First edition. ed. Longmans, Green and Co.


Feld, S., 2012. Jazz cosmopolitanism in Accra: five musical years in Ghana. Duke University Press, Durham.


Stokes, Martin, “ON MUSICAL COSMOPOLITANISM” (2007). The Macalester International Roundtable 2007. Paper 3.




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3 responses to “Feld’s back in the field

  1. Thanks for taking a glance at my book.
    Many of the things you wonder/worry about (particularly positionality vis-a-vis theories and discourses on cosmopolitanism) are unpacked more in later chapters and in footnotes.
    The videos that the book accompanies are now online.

    • Thanks for your comment Steven (and apologies for slow reply). I’ve been looking forward to reading the rest of the book, so I’ll definitely get on to that now. And fantastic to have the videos! especially the Hallelujah one, as that particularly caught my imagination. I’ll pass these on to the rest of the group.


  2. Mark Porter

    I’ve been flicking through the rest of this book this week to see what I can make of it with regard to my own writing about cosmopolitanism. Even having got to the end I find it hard to get a grip on what Steven actually means when he uses the term. It comes with different meanings in different places in the text, which is probably part of the point, but it would be helpful to know a bit more what the background is in Steven’s mind when he’s invoking the idea.

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