Michelle Bigenho’s Intimate Distance: Andean Music in Japan is an outstanding contribution to Andean studies and studies of nationalism and transnational cultural exchange. In an engaging, accessible, and detailed multisited ethnography, the author discusses a series of methodological questions and themes concerning the representation of Bolivian indigeneity by nonindigenous people through music. More specifically, she examines the staged performances of mestizo Bolivian musicians in Japanese schools and theaters, as well as the fascination of some Japanese hobbyists with Andean music. She explores the dynamics of what she calls “performances of cultural difference” by analyzing the meanings and motivations that move these groups to play “someone else’s music.”
The book presents several narratives explaining this “intercultural nexus,” including how Andean music traveled to Japan, first via recordings and then through performing musicians; how Japanese enthusiasts sojourn in Bolivia for extended periods of time to get a deeper understanding of the music they love; how musicians engage in playing music both as “work” and as “pleasure”; and how Japanese and Bolivian musicians find connections with one another through racialized narratives of an imagined common indigenous ancestor, even though neither of these groups views itself as an indigenous people. Bigenho uses the term intimate distance to refer to this feeling of closeness, yet distance, in a relationship [End Page 160] between nationals of two countries that have no colonial or imperial history in common. In her view, “intimacy is about narratives of shared blood traced to an imagined past that is safely distanced from contemporary nationalist narratives” (20). Each chapter of the book provides a new layer of insight aimed at answering the question, why do Japanese and Bolivian musicians claim an imagined common indigenous ancestor if they view themselves as very different from each other and from contemporary indigenous subjects? According to the author, while Bolivians are moved by an economy of affects and nationalist feelings, the Japanese person’s object of desire is centered on an imagined nostalgia for something perceived as lost in modern life.
The book is sophisticated and innovating in its theoretical and methodological approach. Since Bolivia and Japan do not typically conform to the East-West colonial and postcolonial structures, Bigenho’s intercultural area study requires new analytical parameters. Throughout the book she provides theoretical perspectives and useful terms to discuss the dynamics of transnational cultural exchange between Bolivian and Japanese musicians, which, in her view, cannot be described simply in terms of appropriation, appreciation, imitation, fandom, or consumption, because those terms tend to obliterate people’s multiple subject positions, on the one hand, and the existing relations of power and social inequalities among Bolivians and Japanese, on the other hand.
Most important, Bigenho reflects on the challenges she encountered in doing intercultural fieldwork and writing what she calls an “inter-area ethnography,” that is, one that involves two different and contrasting geographical study areas—in this case, Latin America and East Asia—thus creating a situation in which the researcher is unlikely to be evenly prepared for both field sites. The presence and interpretations of an American anthropologist whose area of expertise is Bolivia but who does fieldwork related to the reception of Bolivian music in Japan adds a third element to the standard ethnographic equation, translating into a “triangular configuration” of Bolivian musicians, Japanese enthusiasts of Andean music, and a “gringa” whom Japanese and Bolivians identify with US international policies.
Interestingly, Bigenho proposes that her lack of Japanese language skills should not be considered a shortcoming to her research in Japan because ethnographic insights can emerge at the intersection of this uneven preparation. To illustrate this point, Bigenho recounts an episode on a tour bus in which she, Bolivian musicians, and the Japanese sound engineer, whose comments were translated into Spanish by another Japanese person in the group, found themselves engaged in a discussion in which nationalist feelings and critiques of the United States as an imperialist power were expressed on all sides (151–155). While the Japanese and [End Page 161] Bolivians both disregarded...