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Intimate Distance: Andean Music in Japan by Michelle Bigenho (review)

From: The Journal of Japanese Studies
Volume 39, Number 2, Summer 2013
pp. 418-422 | 10.1353/jjs.2013.0044

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In the last three decades, the discipline of ethnomusicology—hitherto devoted to the study and preservation of ethnic and folk musics in their purportedly pure forms—has changed course to explore hybridity and transmission between musical cultures and systems. This was partially out of necessity, as there were increasingly fewer examples of isolated musical cultures untouched by influences from globally circulating, mass-mediated popular and art musics. It was also a recognition that something enormously significant was occurring in these interactions. Eventually, historically sensitive ethnomusicologists came to question the assumption that musical cultures were ever isolated and uncontaminated, to interrogate the invention of musical traditions as aspects of nation-building and identity-formation projects, and to re-envision musical exchanges in the age of mass media as an intensification of longstanding processes rather than as fundamental shifts that endangered the integrity of authentic, wholly indigenous forms of musical expression. Most ethnomusicologists today start from the premise that contemporary “musicking” (Christopher Small’s term for the multiple ways people participate in a musical performance as a social event1 ) transpires on a global stage.

Bruno Nettl’s The Western Impact on World Music: Change, Adaptation, and Survival (Schirmer Books, 1985) helped establish the dominant paradigm in the study of musical crosspollination, a framework familiar to Asian studies scholars: “impact-response,” specifically, the impact of a dynamic and dominant Euro-American cultural presence (facilitated by imperialism) on passive yet receptive non-Western regions. Michelle Bigenho’s fascinating Intimate Distance is one of a growing number of recent multisited studies that explore a musical relationship in which Europe and North America are de-centered (as much as possible). It is, of course, debatable how non-Western either Japan or Latin America is, despite their “common marginal position within a global racial geography” (p. 132). Yet it is still valid to characterize relations between Japan and Bolivia as relatively uncomplicated by a shared history of imperial dominance or racial oppression, so the conventional impact-response framework has little analytical value for their musical connection. Or, perhaps one could argue that this particular case is a reversal of that dynamic: the impact is felt by the more affluent and globally prominent party—Japan—rather than the other way around. Bigenho’s agenda here is to describe and explain Japanese fascination with indigenous Andean music in a relationship in which the more economically prosperous, politically stable participant does not hold all the advantages.

“Participant-observer” hardly does justice to Bigenho’s ethnographic role; “performer-observer” better describes her complex position as a gringa norteamericana playing indigenous Andean music on the violin with a troupe of Bolivian musicians touring Japan, while on research leave from her professorial post at a U.S. liberal arts college. She enhances her scholarly credibility here by repeatedly drawing the reader’s attention to the occasionally humorous and frequently awkward aspects of a theoretically informed, politically sensitive white American woman playing “someone else’s” music for a crowd of different “someone elses.” Bigenho is a Latin Americanist with no prior training in Japanese language, but she has definitely done her homework, working adroitly with the most recent and relevant Anglophone scholarship on Japan to create a book that readers of <I>JJS will find not only enjoyable but instructive, particularly with regard to contemporary fandom, consumptive practices, national self-conceptions, and the seemingly widespread desire to transcend the Japanese ordinary.

Intimate Distance does not lack for ambition. It is a case study of “transnational cultural flows” grounded in the “intercultural nexus of Bolivian music in Japan”; it is a “critique of nationalism as an ideology,” with particular attention to how indigenousness and “race thinking” figure into nationalist formulations (p. 167); and it is a statement about playing “someone else’s music” that respectfully acknowledges the affective attachments involved, rather than reducing it to exoticism or an act of “cultural theft” (p. 124). Furthermore, the book proposes “intimacy” as a new “organizing concept in anthropology”—as “kinship” once was, and “consumption” has become— because it “chaotically herds the unruly ambiguities of social relations that are infused with historical structures of power and the coexisting experiences of pleasure and affect” (p. 177). Bigenho defines...

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