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  • Putting a Song on Top of It: Expression and Identity on the San Carlos Apache Reservation
  • P. G. Toner
Putting a Song on Top of It: Expression and Identity on the San Carlos Apache Reservation. By David W. Samuels. (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2004. Pp. x + 325, prologue, 4 illustrations, San Carlos Apache pronunciation guide, transcription guide, notes, references, index.)

Exactly how are we to understand expressions of identity among the peoples hardest hit by colonialism and modernity, those who have supposedly “lost” their “traditional culture”? This is the complex question asked and answered by the anthropologist and music scholar David Samuels in this thoroughly enjoyable and insightful book. In the scholarly literature on so-called world music, there are many studies that examine the indigenization of globally mass-mediated popular music, of the ways in which indigenous musicians adopt many of the forms of Western pop and add their own languages, instruments, or styles to create musical hybrids. Such analyses [End Page 229] very often highlight the subversive or counter-hegemonic nature of these cross-cultural stylings, but the focus is inevitably on the indigenous elements of the productions. In his book, Samuels’s refreshing and very perceptive approach is to examine the important differences between the maintenance of traditional Apache practices and the maintenance of Apache identity. In the face of widespread and long-standing cultural disempowerment, the latter may be achieved through the very resources of mass-mediated popular culture that are typically thought to displace the former.

Samuels focuses on the ambiguities inherent in the fusion of expressive materials and their evocative power in constructing the meaning of how it feels to be an Apache from the San Carlos Reservation. Mass-mediated popular music is made meaningful on the San Carlos Reservation because it permeates peoples’ lives and resonates with their historical imagination; as a result, “being Apache” has as much to do with radio, tapes, and CDs as with “traditional” cultural forms. Samuels points to an overemphasis in the literature on hybrid musical production in the world music scene and a relative neglect of patterns of consumption as essential to identity formation. He makes a strong case for turning our analytical focus away from the “philological roots” of expressive forms— whether a particular musical or lyrical element points to the “local” or the “global”—and toward processes of intermediation, whereby mass-mediated music becomes meaningful because of its intimate connections with local people, places, and events.

Samuels presents a particularly evocative image of these processes in discussing his experience of singing with the San Carlos band the Pacers and struggling to remember all of the words to “Mathilda,” a minor 1959 hit for the New Orleans band Cookie and the Cupcakes and a song that is extremely popular on the reservation. Samuels relates that he looked into the audience to see a well-known local rock singer “facing me with his arms outstretched, his back arched, a look of beatific release on his upturned face, singing along, leaning into every note with all his heart. He knew all the words” (p. 131). For Samuels, and for the reader, this vignette is a key to opening up the entire world of San Carlos expressive culture and its complex relationship with mass-mediated expressive forms. As the author asks rhetorically, “Who was I to say that this was someone else’s music?” (p. 134). For anthropologists, ethnomusicologists, and folklorists concerned with the tension between constructions of authenticity and innovation in our materials, Samuels’ question, and the answers provided in his book, should force a fundamental reexamination of local musical cultures in a global musical world.

Much of my own research to date has been on so-called traditional music in an indigenous Australian community. As I read this book, I realized that I missed many opportunities over the years to develop a nuanced appreciation of the full range of connections between music and identity. During my fieldwork, I was only vaguely interested in being told that Elvis had been posthumously “adopted” into the regional kinship network (as most outsiders with longstanding relationships are) and in the significance several years later of driving around...