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Decolonial Hacker
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Decolonial Hacker critically examines cultural institutions, their alliances, interests and behaviour. Born of a desire to entrench more consistent and collective engagement with institutional critique, Decolonial Hacker operates through a web browser extension that “hacks” institutions’ URLs with commissioned criticism, and an online platform that archives these texts. The extension activates when a user logs onto an institution’s website, dissolving their webpage to reveal an article that analyses certain problematics of that place informed by decolonial politics at large – for instance, pillaged colonial objects, funding sources and labour conditions.

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Decolonial Hacker critically examines cultural institutions, their alliances, interests and behaviour. Born of a desire to entrench more consistent and collective engagement with institutional critique, Decolonial Hacker operates through a web browser extension that “hacks” institutions’ URLs with commissioned criticism, and an online platform that archives these texts. The extension activates when a user logs onto an institution’s website, dissolving their webpage to reveal an article that analyses certain problematics of that place informed by decolonial politics at large – for instance, pillaged colonial objects, funding sources and labour conditions.

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This project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council for the Arts, its arts funding and advisory body. We acknowledge the ongoing violence and dispossession which characterises the so-called settler-colony of “Australia” and pay full respects to First Nations peoples past, present and emerging.

Archive
SHOBUN BAILE — TRUST STUDY #1 (2020)
Screening: 28 JUNE 2022 - 12 JULY 2022
SHOBUN BAILE — TRUST STUDY #1 (2020)
Screening: 28 JUNE 2022 - 12 JULY 2022
SHOBUN BAILE — TRUST STUDY #1 (2020)
Screening: 28 JUNE 2022 - 12 JULY 2022
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Cold War-era map of Cuba, United States Central Intelligence Agency. Source: New York Public Library.

“Revolution Within
a Revolution”:

Cuba, Modernity,
and a Hip-Hop Agency

08 September 2021
Decolonial Hacker
University of Miami Cuban Heritage Collection
University of Miami Cuban Heritage Collection
Miami Herald
Miami Herald
Words
S. David
08 September 2021
Decolonial Hacker
University of Miami Cuban Heritage Collection
University of Miami Cuban Heritage Collection
Miami Herald
Miami Herald
Words
S. David

contents

For a country whose politics can appear opaque, the Republic of Cuba offers revelations for those willing to seek them. Along the limits of political conversation in contemporary Cuba is the Cuban Rap Agency (Agencia Cubana de Rap). Established in 2002, three years after Culture Minister Abel Prieto’s now-famous call to “nationalize rock and rap,” the Rap Agency is a state-sponsored organization that has outwardly aspired to promote and market Cuban hip-hop music on the island. Since then, the government of Cuba has initiated a productive—albeit, at times, uneasy—embrace of rap’s young progenitors. State representatives have gone so far as to mull the music’s “revolutionary” potential as “an authentic expression of Cuban culture.” 

Defining culture in ideological terms can itself reflect a preoccupation with economies on the margins, as Cuban state actors tend to emphasize. But despite its political valence, Cuba’s investment in hip-hop culture is best seen as a reflection of the government’s multifront response to an increasingly globalized media environment—one at odds with the state’s residual and seemingly anachronistic socialism. The very existence of the Rap Agency thus raises questions about culture’s ability to sustain an institutional program within a “revolutionary” framework. In light of hip-hop’s increasingly dominant orientation in global culture, how does rap coincide with the language of liberation? 

Cuba’s decades-long effort to “re-invent situations” by reshaping hip-hop in the country’s self-image calls to mind an idiosyncratic attempt to reintroduce the genre to its apparently revolutionary roots. The Cuban party-state has guided this process by a consciously layered and ironically-inverted means of détournement. This is to say that Cuba’s cultural efforts—enshrined in the Rap Agency—embody the way forms shaped by global capital, like rap, are re-examined and (re-)redefined as counterculture. That this intervention has been mediated by the state alone makes it, like much else about Cuba, unique. Ultimately, the kinds of cultural processes that define the island nation provide avenues for approaching alternate models of association and cultural participation at social margins.

In March 2007, the journalist Dalia Acosta declared hip-hop in Cuba dead by scholarly consensus. Reflecting on the findings of a study sponsored by the University of Havana, Acosta wrote that hip-hop was “struggling to survive in a country where it lacks performance venues, receives only weak institutional support, and has to compete with more commercial music styles,” namely its younger sibling rival reggaetón. In the article—aptly titled “Hip-hop is out, but Rap is Definitely Cool”—Acosta further quoted an anonymous musicologist from the state-run Cuban Institute of Music (ICM), who said, “I think […] the hip-hop movement is on the wane, perhaps because it has already fulfilled its social function, or because its historical time is over.”

The musicologist’s sentiments are reflective of a distinctly Cuban concern with political memory and social utility, all in the face of uncertainty. This is especially so, considering the then-recent end of economic troubles (amid a thaw in Cuban-Russian relations) as well as Cuba’s political leadership changes, initiated by Fidel Castro’s retirement announcement the year before. But, with hindsight, the statement is no less jarring—even ironic—given that, mere months later, Acosta wrote another article documenting the sheer diversity of Havana’s underground rap scene. In this article, conversely titled “Rap Calls for ‘Revolution Within the Revolution’,” Acosta quotes a long-time hip-hop artist named Afro Velásquez, who says, “Our dream is to sign a contract with a foreign record company … But the most radical, the most orthodox, don't want to be bound to any recording company.”

That Velásquez would use the words “radical” and “orthodox” in such a pointed way evinces the curious and seemingly contradictory position in which Cuban society finds itself. In Cuba, to be called socially orthodox—a term that, anywhere else, might imply conservatism—here reflects one’s commitment to the revolution. To be called radical means the same thing.

Cuban Rap Agency - Agencia Cubana de Rap. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Cuban Rap Agency - Agencia Cubana de Rap. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

While some underground artists profiled in Acosta’s later article maintained their independence from—or even defiance of—state authority, they nonetheless all framed their music in revolutionary terms that mirror the state’s ideological language. One artist, allegedly detained by police for his outspoken lyrics, plainly spoke of a desire to see the country “revolutionize the political sphere and the minds of the people.” His words read like something out of Che Guevara’s diaries: Motorcycle, Congo, Bolivian.

Two years after Acosta’s articles, Catherine Jheon profiled the director of the Cuban Rap Agency, Susana García Amaros, in an article for The Toronto Star titled “Hip-Hop, Cuba’s New Revolution.” In the article, García was careful to praise the involvement of state authorities as crucial to the wider visibility of Cuba’s burgeoning hip-hop culture. Jheon also interviewed affiliated artists, one of whom likewise affirmed that the Agency had been, in his words, “an important tool for my music and my career.” And so, the inconsistent proposals offered by state sources in both Acosta’s articles and in Jheon’s—wavering between the twin poles of self-importance and blunt recognition of economic reality—suggest that the government’s official statements are at odds with what it is willing to admit in private: When viewed from a purely economic angle, the state’s participation in hip-hop has yielded uneven results. Indeed, Acosta’s earlier article makes clear that many Cuban youth seem more attracted to the “commercial” alternatives offered elsewhere in the circum-Carib world than they are to state-sanctioned rap.

Nonetheless, the varied attitudes to hip-hop shared among both state-aligned and more “apolitical” actors shed light on a reality that exists in spite of the residual Cold War-era stereotypes: Cuba, in fact, does possess a diverse cultural dialog, as well as a changing politics.

The Cuban government’s official position on hip-hop has itself changed. It has softened from the stance of consternation it adopted in the early 1990s—when the state initially rejected the genre as a product of global capitalism’s excesses, or, worse, a counter-revolutionary export—shifting to open embrace by decade’s end. This change, both real and radical, was in no small part due to the profound austerity and cultural conflict that characterized Cuba in the 1990s, during the country’s so-called “Special Period in a Time of Peace.”

Cuban hip-hop/graffiti series. Source: Oriana Eliçabe.

Initiated by the dissolution of the Soviet Union—till then, Cuba’s top source of foreign aid and subsidy—the Special Period was defined by a Cuban economy in free-fall. The economic situation greatly exacerbated the degrees of scarcity and social precarity experienced by everyday Cubans, already severe from the longstanding United States-led blockade. These changes forced the Cuban state to quickly “pivot to culture” in the face of an unprecedented and rapidly changing geopolitical situation. Equally important, the Special Period fostered burgeoning underground economies that trafficked not only in physical goods, but ideological imports from abroad. Fittingly, hip-hop came to Cuba by these very accidents of globalization—literally smuggled in, as the story goes, in the form of a twelve-inch copy of Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.”

In any sense, by the time of the Special Period, the island was already culturally primed for the genre’s arrival. In a 2002 report on race and identity in Cuba by the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA), Margot Olavarria writes evocatively of the moment:

Half an hour's drive east of Havana is the suburb of Alamar, home to 300,000 Cubans …  It was here that in the 1980s, young residents would construct antennas to put out on their balconies to capture the sounds of “la Mona,” R&B and rap music from Miami radio stations WEDR 99 Jams and WHQT Hot 105. That is how the sounds of U.S. hip-hop arrived ... Young, mostly black Cuban men adopted the genre, first by imitating it and eventually infusing it with their own roots and reality, transforming it into a space for self-expression that both reflects and constitutes their identity.
Cuban hip-hop/graffiti series. Source: Oriana Eliçabe.
Cuban hip-hop/graffiti series. Source: Oriana Eliçabe.

In light of this chronology, it can be said that moments of upheaval like the Special Period cast a particularly strong shadow: against Cuba and the kind of complex sociocultural gestures that allowed for rap to emerge on the island. In this way, Ariel Fernandez, an editor of the Rap Agency’s magazine, Movimiento, points out that rap became first and foremost the “natural language” through which Cuban discontents—often young people born well after the revolution—could feel comfortable voicing social criticisms within a shared idiom constituting “constructive” personal-political narratives. 

This phenomenon naturally evolved with a distinctly Cuban flavor of incorporation and cultural perseverance. Even before hip-hop, much of Cuba’s widely-exported popular music reflected the kind of assimilative, “melting-pot” tendencies possible at diverse cultural margins. In a 1999 feature in the Village Voice titled “La Revolución Embraces Hip Hop, with Fidel’s Blessing,” Danny Hoch argues that Cuban rumba—a genre derived from combining Africanized rhythms and instruments with a distinctly Afro-Hispanic orality and featuring storytelling and chanted rhyming—was “arguably … the first rap in the Americas, far predating Jamaican toasting.” As Fernandez himself puts it, the “transfer of culture” manifested by rap’s emergence in Cuba suggests “not a ‘phenomenon that fell out of the sky’,” but, rather, reflects residual cultural conventions of assimilation that have always been present on the island.

Thus, understanding Cuban hip-hop as a reflection of national subjectivity provides one key to which the seemingly paradoxical nature of the country’s current climate may be unlocked. In this sense, Afro-Cuban hip-hop affirms a national narrative, solidifying a broader countercultural offensive against global hegemonies, those from los Yanquis or otherwise. In this social sense, Cuban hip-hop succeeds: by deconstructing, inverting, and reinvigorating forms inherited from elsewhere in the Black Atlantic, like hip-hop. Recalling the words of Guy Debord and Gil J. Wolman—whose 1956 essay “A User Guide to Détournement” seemed to foreshadow and speak to the very soul of Cuban revolutionary aspiration—such

Détournement not only leads to the discovery of new aspects of talent; in addition, clashing head-on with all social and legal conventions, it cannot fail to be a powerful cultural weapon in the service of a real class struggle … It is a real means of proletarian artistic education, the first step toward a literary communism.

Some observers, like the sociologist Sujatha Fernandes, have commented on the Cuban government’s “co-option” of hip-hop. It is more accurate to say that, rather than being appropriated, rap has been détourned by the state, re-contextualized to express a view culturally consistent with some elements of ideology.

That state organs like Cuba’s Ministry of Culture and its Rap Agency would be explicitly involved in such a process at all, though, ironically inverts Debord and Wolman’s definition of détournement, who likely wrote their essay with revolutionary artists in mind. That the state literally “discovers new aspects of talent”—rappers—and in turn markets and promotes their work, further shows the extent to which it draws identities closer, to one another and to itself.

In this way, Cuban hip-hop is both radical and reactive. It furthermore explains the use of revolutionary themes and language by some Cuban hip-hop artists, even those critical of the government. In Acosta’s second article, one artist even claims to have named his latest album Revolution within the Revolution. 

When discussed in popular sources, Cuban rap—like many things associated with the island—seems to invariably present a spectrous political prism. It is one through which others can reaffirm an ideological orientation toward the island’s revolutionary government, at the same time allowing them to dismiss the country’s citizens as merely passive actors. Much of what has been written on Cuban hip-hop in these sources neglects the emergence of the genre as an embodiment of Cuban culture and its unique political character. It is important to recall that Cuba is not a country of faceless denizens, but a republic with a distinct history, one steeped in racial diversity and radical culture.

In a 2006 article, The New York Times’ Mark Lacey interviewed creators involved in the Havana hip-hop scene. When asked about the Rap Agency, one artist apparently waved his hand, exclaiming, “We don’t want to be in any agency … It’s the same as slavery for us.” Like Acosta’s article, Lacey documents the perceived decline of hip-hop on the island, amid the increased popularity of reggaeton: “The [Havana] hip-hop festival, held every August, was a flop last year [2005], and was canceled this year [2006],” he writes. Not many primary sources detail what has happened since, and the Cuban government has offered few definitive statements with regard to its fate. 

2021 and beyond

In line with the Government’s COVID-19 roadmap to re-opening the country, the doors open on 17 May 2021.

 

Almost all of the Barbican’s casual staff don’t show up for front-of-house shifts. They have moved out of London or found employment in places that value them more. The Barbican’s creative upper class have to become hosts and invigilators to open the centre.

Barbican Stories is published.

 

Barbican employees are shocked at the stories and recollections of racism in the book. They can’t believe that this is all true and so they dive into their minority workforce to find out for themselves, once and for all. Unconvinced and under mounting public pressure, the Barbican hires an external consultant (a friend of a director) to publish a public race report that concludes that whilst the Barbican could do better, there is no systemic issue.

 

2,000 workers across London’s cultural sector create a picket line in solidarity with Barbican workers. The demands of the protest are impossible and necessary.

 

During the Barbican’s opening concert, as the conductor enters the stage to fill the auditorium with music, it is instead filled with the sound of 400 people standing up and leaving the orchestra on stage with no audience. A violinist cries.

 

All the employees of colour evacuate and the Barbican is left with a purely white workforce. There is a palpable sigh of collective relief: If there’s no one but white people, then we can’t be racist! 

 

Artists stop aligning themselves with backward institutions so cultural producers at the Barbican have to become artists to fill the programme.

 

Whiteness clings to the walls like moisture. Visitors are too ashamed to cross the picket line.

Coffees go undrunk, B R U T A L tote bags collect cobwebs, the conservatory grows wild. The ducks leave the lake in solidarity. Old Barbican guides litter the foyer. The orange carpet turns grey with dirt.

Eventually, audiences don’t need a picket to stop them from coming to the centre. A primed and ready-to-pay cultural audience now reflects the fastest growing demographic in London. Now, these younger and more diverse audiences that make up the city’s landscape find different and better cultural spaces that actually care about them and reflect their lives without skirting around the ugly facts. Why see another token diversity event when there are now whole institutions dedicated to the complexity of the diaspora?

One by one, lights are cut from the Barbican’s many rooms and offices, as they grow dusty in the absence of people. Moss grows between the cracks in the concrete.

 

The only room that remains open is the directorate office.

 

The directors maintain a throne of old catalogues, leaflets and newspaper clippings, in a never-ending meeting where the only thing on the agenda is to dust. 

 

One unremarkable day, the Barbican ruins collapses in on itself. The debris blows away to reveal an ON SALE sign.

 

The only thing worth anything at the Barbican is the land it used to occupy (and even that won’t cover the debt left behind by the brutal beast).

 

Blitz Property Developers find EC2Y 8DS and they love a bargain.

 

Once again, the site is raised by the Blitz.

While hip-hop’s popular cultural moment, in the word’s of Acosta’s musicologist, may have passed, its mere existence—and support by the state—points to the possibility of shared countercultural spaces within media and economic environments determined by global capital. This is largely made possible through the détournement of cultural products, like hip-hop.

The Cuban Rap Agency provides an example by which frameworks of alternate modernity, as well as their limitations, can be assessed. The Cuban revolutionaries of the Granma themselves saw the impulse to artistic experimentation as nothing less than, in the words of Nicola Miller, “a manifestation of the urge for freedom … experimentation of form—if not always of content—was deemed to be essential to a revolutionary culture.” Hip-hop is a naturally experimental and mercurial form; its roots lie firmly in subalternity. As Cuba firmly enters the post-Castro era and approves new constitutional reforms—legalizing private property and removing de jure references to communism—it raises the question, what is next for global counterculture, and who, if anything but the subaltern themselves, will be its patron and vanguard?

Cuban hip-hop mixtape cover. Source: https://losminavip.blogspot.com/2009/12/28915-studio-hip-hop-cubano-vol1.html.

Acosta, Dalia. “In Cuba, Hip-Hop Is out, but Rap Is Definitely Cool.” Inter Press Service. March 20, 2007. Gale In Context: Global Issues.

———. “Rap Calls for ‘Revolution Within the Revolution.’” Inter Press Service. August 14, 2007. ProQuest Central.

Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” In Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, translated by Ben Brewster and Andy Blunden. Monthly Review Press, 1971. https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/1970/ideology.htm.

Baker, Geoffrey. “¡Hip Hop, Revolución! Nationalizing Rap in Cuba.” Ethnomusicology 49, no. 3 (Fall 2005): 368–402. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20174403.

———. “‘La Habana Que No Conoces’: Cuban Rap and the Social Construction of Urban Space.” Ethnomusicology Forum 15, no. 2 (November 2006): 215–46. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20184559.

Debord, Guy, and Gil J. Wolman. “A User’s Guide to Détournement.” Les Lèvres Nues, May 1956. Situationist International Online. https://cddc.vt.edu/sionline/presitu/usersguide.html.

Fernandes, Sujatha. “Fear of a Black Nation: Local Rappers, Transnational Crossings, and State Power in Contemporary Cuba.” Anthropological Quarterly 76, no. 4 (2003): 575–608. https://doi.org/10.1353/anq.2003.0054.

Fernandez, Ariel. “Rap cubano: ¿Poesía urbana? O la nueva trova de los noventa.” El Caimán Barbudo, 2000.

Frazier, Denise. “Cuban Hip-Hop: The Promoted and Commercial Revolution.” Wadabagei: A Journal of the Caribbean and Its Diaspora 11, no. 2 (Spring 2008): 65–94.

Grogg, Patricia. “Rap Music Gains in Popularity despite Criticism.” Global Information Network. August 9, 2003. Gale In Context: Global Issues.

Hoch, Danny. “La Revolución Embraces Hip Hop, with Fidel’s Blessing.” The Village Voice. October 5, 1999. ProQuest Central.

Jheon, Catherine. “Hip Hop, Cuba’s New Revolution: Once Scorned, Now Promoted by Government Cuban Rap Agency Handpicks Talent, Helps Promote It.” Toronto Star. April 16, 2005, Ontario edition, sec. H. ProQuest Central.

Lacey, Marc. “Cuba’s Rap Vanguard Reaches Beyond the Party Line.” The New York Times. December 15, 2006, sec. A. ProQuest Central.

Miller, Nicola. “A Revolutionary Modernity: The Cultural Policy of the Cuban Revolution.” Journal of Latin American Studies 40, no. 4 (November 2008): 675–96. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0022216X08004719.

Olavarria, Margot. “Rap and Revolution: Hip-Hop Comes to Cuba.” Report on Race and Identity. New York: North American Congress on Latin America, June 2002. ProQuest Central.

Perry, Marc D. Negro Soy Yo: Hip Hop and Raced Citizenship in Neoliberal Cuba. Refiguring American Music. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016.

Ramsdell, Lea. “Cuban Hip-Hop Goes Global: Orishas’ ‘A Lo Cubano.’” Latin American Music Review / Revista de Música Latinoamericana 33, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 2012): 102–23. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23318357.

Saizabitoria, Jauretsi, and Emilia Menocal. East of Havana. Streaming, Documentary, 2006. https://vimeo.com/55336629.

Saunders, Tanya L. “Black Thoughts, Black Activism: Cuban Underground Hip-Hop and Afro-Latino Countercultures of Modernity.” Latin American Perspectives 39, no. 2 (March 2012): 42–60. https://doi.org/10.1177/0094582X11428062.

Sokol, Brett. “Rap Takes Root Where Free Expression Is Risky; with Grim Soldiers Looking on, the Raperos of Cuba Are Playing to Enthusiastic Crowds as They Call for Greater Racial Equality.” The New York Times. September 3, 2000, sec. AR. Gale In Context: Global Issues.

Venegas, Cristina. Digital Dilemmas: The State, the Individual, and Digital Media in Cuba. New Directions in International Studies. New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press, 2010.

Watrous, Peter. “Swapping Cha-Chas and Rap in Cuba.” The New York Times. March 31, 1999, Late edition (East Coast) edition, sec. E. ProQuest Central.

West-Duran, Alan. “Rap’s Diasporic Dialogues: Cuba’s Redefinition of Blackness.” Journal of Popular Music Studies 16, no. 1 (April 2004): 4–39. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0022-4146.2004.00009.x.

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II. Listening

Today, the Phonogramm-Archiv’s collection of wax cylinders reside in an annex of the Ethnologisches Museum in Dahlem, a building constructed in the style of Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) during an expansion in 1973. Before entering the building, we register ourselves with a security guard and await the arrival of the collection’s archivist. Brought through catacomb-like corridors, doors of mountainous weight and stairwells painted white with pale green lacquered handrails, we arrive at the resting place of Jaap Kunst’s wax cylinder.


Not dissimilar to other institutions, the depot we found ourselves in is an environment of conditioned circumstances. It has a temperature of nineteen degrees celsius and a relative humidity of fifty percent, a syncopated soundtrack of humming neon lights and murmurs from an air conditioner, all of which when taken together attempt to mimic a neutral space. Here, in this performatively coy room are musical instruments from gamelan orchestras, whose only emitted sounds are those of silence. Originating from the Southeast Asian islands of Bali and Java, these instruments are accustomed to a climate of high temperatures and humidity. Their primary functions were spiritual: to be played at religious rituals and ceremonies, as well as traditional performances. Now, however, the ensemble is attuned to a spiritual decay—conservational poison is used to ‘preserve’ their function for archival purposes only—inside storage within the depot of Berlin’s Ethnologisches Museum.


Neighboring the gamelan storage room, the first audio recording of a Balinese Sanghyang resides here. An inventory of empty, ‘silent’ wax cylinders necessary to capture this event had been allocated to Kunst by the Phonogramm-Archiv’s then-director Erich von Hornbostel in exchange for his act of sonic collecting. These cylinders embarked on an extended journey—from Berlin to the Sunda Islands and back—as Kunst went on to produce 300 or more recordings on his trips to Indonesia, documenting musical performances and rituals. We seek arrangements for listening to this performance, and attempt to move as close to its recorded event as the wax cylinder allows.

In Bali, times where it is forbidden to play gamelan are rare. One hundred years ago, however, deadly pox epidemics repeatedly infected villages on the island, forcing the inhabitants to close all temples and lock the gamelan instruments up. No rituals and ceremonies were permitted, the kinds that were believed to hold power in halting the spread of precisely such deadly disease. And though the temples fell silent, abandoned by their priests, village communities gathered at them each night to create a cacophony of noise, orchestrated through the quotidian: buckets, bamboo and wood. Noise was believed to be the only medium left to banish the demons of disease and cast the people’s fears away. According to the renowned dancer and sculptor I Made Sija from the village Bona, during one of these dark nights a man became possessed by the familiar rhythms of the gamelan. Yet the sounds he was enchanted by did not originate from bronze cymbals and gongs, but rather, human voices.

cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– –––
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––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak
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––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak –––
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––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak

From that moment, disease began to ease as death and illness were overcome by sheer oral percussion. To this day, the people of Bona believe that the chanting and dances in trance outside the temple walls saved the village from the epidemic. This moment also marked the emergence of Bali’s most popular dance performance: the Kecak.

In its history from a sacred to a secular chant, the most famous Kecak dancer is I Wayan Limbak from the village Bedulu. When interviewed in the 90s about the origin of Kecak, he recalls a story with a similar arc. Already in the early 19th century, before the Dutch colonization of Bali and in the era of Bali’s kingdoms, Kecak dances accompanied trance rituals, the so-called Sanghyangs. These Sanghyangs were held every year to prevent the cholera pandemic, a rite of prayer performed every night around the village that was believed to ward the disease away.

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Inside the Phonogramm-Archiv, the room we’re in is just large enough for three. Monochrome, ethnographic photographs from a non-European continent decorate otherwise plain walls, while drawers are labeled by geography: ‘Afrika’, ‘Asien’, ‘Amerika’ and 'Ozeanien’. On the table we’re led towards, a Hi-Fi receiver is connected to a pair of speakers and a myriad of playback devices for a variety of mediums—vinyl records, magnetic tape, analog audio cassettes and compact discs. We immerse ourselves into Kunst’s recording of the Kecak via the wax cylinder’s digitized successor, a DAT cassette tape.

Every transferred sound begins with a short, customary introduction which signposts from which cylinder and collection the listener is about to hear:

Es folgt die Übertragung der Walzen der Sammlung “Kunst, Bali”. Es folgt Walze 1. 
[Coming up the transfer of the cylinders of the collection “Kunst, Bali”. Coming up, Cylinder 1.]
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Additional materials of correspondence, provenance and consignment accompany the phonographic recording. Yellowed papers of different grammage, typesets, handwriting and signatures compose together what feel and appear as the past breaking into the present. A watermark shines through one prominent sheet: a mark which signifies the longing of its maker, towards the distant islands the sounds of these cylinders were first captured on. Another sheet of paper reveals terse descriptions of all fifteen wax cylinders recorded by Kunst in Bali: 

Abridged from numbers five and six: “Sanghyang dedari. Male choir (at the end gaggling [Schnattern])”, “mostly gaggle [Geschnatter]”.

It remains uncertain who exactly wrote these descriptions. Scribed in German, the curators of the archive assure us that both the director of the Phonogramm-Archiv at the time Erich Moritz von Hornbostel and his colleague Curt Sachs were diligent in avoiding disrespectful formulations. Whoever it was, these words reprise another compression of the actual acoustic event.

 

Confined to this room at the Phonogramm-Archiv, one’s listening to Kecak is directly produced by the archive’s prefigured auras of hospitality and hostility: the latter feeling affected through the bureaucracies a visitor must face to be given permission to access the collection’s hold. Given the inability to revisit the recording’s original event, any act of listening to its field recording will forever reanimate the conditions in which a colonial gaze captured it. Though, in this space of re-listening, the hands of coloniality and premature technology are easily forgotten. The field recording we listen to operates not only as a narrow range of frequencies, but narrow-minded vectors of power: it comes to represent a recording of an assumed, objective reality. The DAT cassette dislocates the event of Kecak and echoes its sound further away. Is there room for narrative to diverge inside the Phonogramm-Archiv?

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III. Diverging

In recent years, the act of listening to the wax cylinder had been temporarily transposed outside of the Phonogramm-Archiv listening room—though this public display was only down the corridor.9 In 2013, as part of the Humboldt Lab Dahlem programme the exhibition Seeing Music: Lichtklangphonogramm transformed the optical and mechanical characteristics of the archive’s wax cylinder collection, producing novel installations that facilitated an alternate perception of listening. The artists behind the exhibition—Melissa Cruz Garcia, Aleksander Kolkowski, Matteo Marangoni and Anne Wellmer—produced a mixture of site-specific installations: magic lanterns that visualised a cylinder's textural grooves, self-made ‘gramoscopes’ that hacked a gramophone’s tunnel by transforming it into a projector of light and image, and a multi-body listening booth of selected recordings from collection. Described as an artistic treatment of ethnographic material, the artists facilitated an ocular engagement with an event originally recorded as something purely sonic.10 When asked about the exhibition’s potential to inform the Humboldt Forum’s unconfirmed future display of wax cylinders, Ethnologisches Museum director Lars-Christian Koch appeared skeptical of the presence of artistic intervention within this space:


“As an ethnological museum, we have an educational mission. We are not an art museum. If we want to seriously convey what other music cultures are like, how they treat sound in their processes, how they shape sound, then the question is, how much art or artistic design we require to optimize this conveyance.”11

 

Koch’s hesitancy to open up room for such narratives in the space of the Humboldt Forum is unsurprising given the long-standing aversion between ethnographer and artist.12 His intention to ‘optimize’ artistic interpretation neglects the reality that both the music and cultures recorded were done so on the aforementioned colonial terms. Silencing the noise contained in these field recordings omits its glaring context from the museum’s “educational mission”, not too distant from a former ‘civilising mission’. If Seeing Music’s artistic intervention of re-interpreting the wax cylinder is not welcome at the Humboldt Forum, another means of listening must be sought out beyond the confines of the listening room. By decentering the diegetic sound of Kecak heard within this particular wax cylinder, we turn instead towards the recording’s incidental, underscored noise to listen to its other realities that were present at the time of recording. 


Our ears hone in: the Dutch colonial rule of Bali began in 1849 and reached full control after two puputans (mass suicides) by the royal houses of Badung and Klungkung, in 1906 and 1908 respectively. At this juncture, a cultural policy known as Baliseering (Balinisation) was enforced to prohibit the ‘modernisation’ of Bali and maintain it as a ‘living museum’. Such realities were inaudible, beyond sound and the Phonogramm-Archiv’s collection, and stand to be heard in the noise of Jaap Kunst’s recording.

 

In More Brilliant than the Sun (1998), artist and theorist Kodwo Eshun advocates for a methodology that enables another kind of listening. Eshun’s alignment of Afrofuturist frequencies with jazz, breakbeat, as well early techno productions, drove him to propose a means of listening to artistic compositions outside that of Western theory and its canonical methods of analysis. Instead, he carves out an idiosyncratic guidebook for “dense personal narrations of imaginations” that emphasises an auditory experience’s material output: vinyl grooves, record sleeves and liner notes included.13 Sound artist Pedro Oliveira has framed sonic fiction’s potential through its ability to voice previously unheard stories, to modify the perception of sound and its effect/affect, in ways that are as much political as they are aesthetic.14 He writes:

 

“Eshun’s sonic fictions are...a means by which the subaltern speak, sound, and unfold their knowledge as theory and culture. Sonic fictions are the proposal for a radical divorce from so-called universal (metropolitan and/or Eurocentric) theories of musicology and social and cultural studies, to make room for other systems to claim their space.”15

Utilising Eshun’s methodology of sonic fiction onto the colonial artefacts in the Phonogramm-Archiv comes highly charged, however. We must first decouple artistry from artefact, renouncing Jaap Kunst—and any field recordist complicit in the archive’s creation—from the role of artist in their production of the wax cylinder’s recording. Doing so allows us to listen with the noise and not with its producer: a reminder of the place and context through which the cylinder was first inscribed, a reminder of the spatial and temporal distance between listener and event—the listening room and Bali. In other words, we decenter the ethnographer as producer and compose a means of listening beyond their control.


A step further, our interest in sonic fiction is woven and informed by Saidiya Hartman’s notion of ‘critical fabulation’: a discursive practice that deals with representing what the archive deliberately omits. In Hartman's essay Venus in Two Acts (2008), she attempts to tell an impossible story: the account of an enslaved young girl, brutally killed whilst captive on a British slave ship. The personhood of Venus, named only once in the legal documents from the trials that followed, emerges at the very limits of the archive. Hartman's writing is at times autobiographical, leaning into a similar empiricism to that of Eshun’s sonic fiction that reveals her authorship in (parallel to) the story of Venus. As much a counter-history as it is critical theory, Hartman welds the gaps between silence and noise. In our own undertaking, such gaps—marked between Jaap Kunst’s original recording of Kecak onto a wax cylinder and our own act of listening today—establish an opportunity to compose a historical narrative counter to that which was originally inscribed.

Woven together, a sonic fabulation is one that must tell one of many impossible stories contained within the Phonogramm-Archiv. To displace Jaap Kunst’s gaze and mediation, we drum up another imaginary. Widening the aperture for analysis beyond soundwaves alone, a sonic fabulation of the wax cylinder and other, similar objects departs from the depot and listens with the yellowed documents left behind, the broken wax seals of colonial correspondence, and the haphazard commentary made by archivists which are bundled up with preserved recordings. With each act of sonic fabulation, the wax cylinder’s suspension inside the archive might then be slowly loosened.

 

To tell a story ‘against’ the Berliner Phonogramm-Archiv, as Saidiya Hartman might say, is to tell a story of the wax cylinder’s sonic debris. What was once consequential, the unintended and immovable residue of its mechanical recording, is felt out differently as a sense-making tool for critical ways of interpreting the sonic artefact. Turning directly towards this space in between silence and noise, other subjects for listening emerge.

 

Throughout the wax cylinder’s unstable course of living, revolutions may result in death. At a rate somewhere between 80 and 250 per minute, their divergence narrates its own story.

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S. David is a history writer and insurgent interdisciplinary artist from the US capital metro area (Tsenacommacah), focusing on culture, music, and memory at social margins. His interests lie at the intersection of ideology, language, and agency in the post-industrial circum-Carib world as well as within the wider so-called Black Atlantic. Known for idiosyncrasy and disquiet, his words have appeared in digital and print sources as diverse as Tiny Mix Tapes, The Brooklyn Rail, Dweller Forever's blog, and Ars Technica, among others. He is a lifelong traveler and recovering third-culture kid, as well as an aspiring satirist and student of the Castilian/Spanish language. He avoids both pigeons and pigeonholing.

https://hyperlinkhex.bearblog.dev
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