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

From: Notes
Volume 70, Number 1, September 2013
pp. 100-102 | 10.1353/not.2013.0093

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Anthropologist Michelle Bigenho specializes in the study of Bolivian culture and music. After becoming proficient at playing a number of Bolivian music genres during the years she conducted research there, she toured Japan with a Bolivian band. Her experience while touring serves as a starting point for Intimate Distance: Andean Music in Japan.

Bigenho’s book explores the various ways transnational music practices bring the Japanese closer to Bolivians. One of the author’s initial claims is that, beyond a taste for so-called “Andean music,” Japanese people’s interest in this musical culture reflects both their impression of sharing common ancestry with Bolivians and an attraction for the Other. The similarities and differences that Bolivians and Japanese believe exist between their cultures, as well as the “pull of desire toward difference and the contrasting distance that [they] still [want to] maintain” (p. 2), lead the author to explore the idea of “intimate distance.” She expands this notion of intimate distance as she analyzes her own involvement as a United States citizen playing Bolivian music in Japan.

For Bigenho, thinking in terms of intimate distance means considering how exchanges between people who belong to countries with unequal economic power represent more than simply forms of commodification, exoticism, and appropriation. The author argues that a focus on these elements neglects important aspects of individual experiences. Rather, she proposes to analyze these dynamics as transcultural systems of desire and to take into account both their material and affective economies. The numerous short case studies of musicians and bands that the author presents throughout the book effectively support her point. Bigenho generally manages to maintain a good balance, demonstrating how commodification and exoticism are also occasionally present in some of the contexts that she discusses.

After an introductory chapter, Bigenho offers an overview of how Andean music has travelled to Japan. More importantly, she addresses the topic of indigeneity, which is central to her work. According to her, Bolivian music is closely connected with indigeneity in the minds of Japanese and Bolivian musicians, and this element is key in drawing both groups toward the practice of this music. The author considers how Bolivians, Japanese, and other outsiders such as herself adopt different strategies in order to make this music their own; she argues that all of them, including the Bolivians (most of whom are mestizos rather than indigenous), are playing “someone else’s music” (p. 2).

Except for those interested in the topic of indigeneity or a historical approach to the study of music in a transnational context, most readers will likely find chapter 3 the most engaging, as the author presents in-depth analyses that are grounded in her field research. In this chapter, Bigenho considers the performance of Bolivian music in a transnational context from the points of view of work and value. She looks at a few contexts in which Bolivian musicians play in Japan (i.e., on the street, in schools, and in theatres), noting that the musicians place different values on these performance contexts depending on how reconcilable money, music as art, and patriotism are within each of them. The focus of this chapter is on performances in schools. Several Bolivian bands, including the one with whom the author works, play in this context as part of Japan’s project of multicultural education. The author examines the commodification of cultural difference in this context; she illustrates that Bolivian artists feel forced to bend to expectations of Otherness but also to make the “exotic” familiar. As the chapter progresses, Bigenho deftly demonstrates that, while this type of performance “exotif[ies] and create[s] a distance between performers and what they represent,” it simultaneously reinforces “nationalist identification and an intimacy with what is staged” (p. 64).

Whereas chapter 3 focuses on Bolivian musicians, chapter 4 is concerned with Japanese participation in the Bolivian musical economy of difference in both Japan and Bolivia. Bigenho includes Japanese audiences, hobbyists, and professional musicians in her analysis. She notes that the fascination with Bolivian and Andean music in Japan resembles a fan culture in many respects. Rather than analyzing Japanese people’s interest in terms of fandom, however, she proposes to think of their...

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