“Student Voices:” Juan Sebastián Rojas and Ian Middleton

1. Delimiting the Field

Ana-María: Where is your “field”? Did your field change in the course of your fieldwork? If so, how?

Juan Sebastián: Libertad, the place, because it’s clearly a village. It is a settlement in a rural area. Libertad is a corregimiento (Colombian geo-political subdivision) in the San Onofre area, it is the largest corregimiento of that area, and other towns depend on it, including Arroyoseco, Sabanetica, Pisisí. So, as my intention was to analyze the collective reparation plan and its relationship with musical practices, I based my initial geographic delimitation [of Libertad] on the delimitations [of Libertad] given by the collective reparation plan. And this reparation plan included the corregimiento of Libertad with the two settlements of Sabanetica, that is a port, and Arroyoseco. What I am seeing now in Libertad serves me as a case study to speak of a region, of an area: the area of ​​the Montes de Maria. This area, with Cartagena and other surrounding areas, show a clear regional identity. People there feel Monte-Mariana, they feel that they belong to the Montes de María; there are historical relations, social processes – it is an area that has been socially very active for a long time. So I feel that, for me, the field is still Libertad, but I am understanding it in a much more fluid way, because of course I understand that Libertad does not exist, let’s say, in a vacuum, but that it exists in relation to its neighbors, in relation, also, with a history of settlement that is much older. In my research, I talk a lot about collective action and resistance, collective reparation. If you dig into the history of the area where Libertad is located, you realize that it is an area of ​​great historical importance, because it is a zone … The port of Sabanetica, which is part of Libertad, was the entrance through which freed slaves came into the region. They escaped from Cartagena and began the rebellions of the late 17th and early 18th century and all that group of freed slaves, later called cimarrones, were the founders of the Palenques, to whom is attributed the movement of emancipation of black people in Colombia. That is, before Colombia was called Colombia, and these people entered though Libertad. The area with the oldest settlement of free black people in Colombia is the area where Libertad is located, which is by the entrance of Pajonal, Planparejo, Pisisí. So, for me, that regional history, and its examples of resistance and social organization, are very important. This is an area that has been very active, socially speaking. It is an area where people, basically, do not let others tell them what to do; they have a very strong temperament. So, for me, it is also very important to understand the current processes that are taking place in Libertad. Let me say that it serves me to have a more regional look and also to see the processes in time, because the same processes that I am seeing today, one of my arguments is that these processes are not new. But, currently, music is one of the tools through which these social strategies are being generated. But this is not a new invention; people in this area have always tended to organize, always tended to fight for their rights and to seek that kind of strength through cooperation.

I do not have to characterize the [Colombian] bullerengue, gaita music, or the son de sexteto, because these are musics that have already been researched, and, let’s say that there is already literature on the subject, not much, but now there is some progress in this regard. But, yes, Libertad is part of that same tradition, that same regional tradition. There are several of the same manifestations that one can identify in other villages, and even a very cool thing is that I had the opportunity to review material from George List, an ethnomusicologist from Indiana University, who was one of the first to do ethnomusicological research in Colombia. He published a book in 1983 that is called Music and Poetry in a Colombian Village, and that village is Evitar, a village located in the same area mentioned above. In the Archives of Traditional Music of Indiana University, you can find all of George List’s field recordings. During my time at this institution, we digitized them all, and we repatriated them to the National Library [of Colombia]. All that is now available through the digital channel of the National Library [of Colombia]. But when one hears that material, one realizes … I began to find a number of things that exist in Libertad, yes, things that have been going on for 50 years, like celebrations, festive contexts, funeral rituals, and a number of other things. Then there is a continuity with the region, and yet Libertad also has its very particular new music, because they are linked to the process that I am investigating, to the process of peace-building and collective reparation in Colombia. This is precisely one of my research topics: how are these new musics, which are a kind of fusion between the traditional bullerengue and more contemporary musics, being used in a strategic and intentional way, to achieve specific social goals or objectives? Let’s say that there are some musics that are new, and they are from there, and let’s say that they are very local, but also Libertad is framed within a much wider musical tradition geographically speaking.

Ian: In some ways I did quite traditional ethnography. I spent quite a lot of time in a town called San Martín de Loba in the south of Bolívar, on the banks of the River Magdalena. That’s one of the places where Tambora is most practiced. But mine was a comparative study, so I was also in Ovejas, Sucre for Gaita. I also followed particular musicians who mainly live in Cartagena and some young people involved in social projects that took them to Villanueva, Guajira. On top of that, I had Cali as a base (that’s where my wife is from and where I lived years ago). I didn’t initially plan to do fieldwork there, but while I was applying for funding and waiting around, I found myself expanding my field and getting involved in musical and social projects there.

The networks of musicians in those different places overlapped quite a lot. For example, Martina Camargo is a central interlocutor and friend. She lives in Cartagena, but comes from San Martín, and we brought her to Cali for the launch of a record she appeared on as a guest artist. Whatsapp and Facebook have sort of become “fieldy” too, but I’m resistant to relying on them too much. I think ethnographers get much more out of face-to-face coexistence than face-to-Facebook-to-Facebook-to-face interaction.

Ana María: So those networks of people, of musicians, delimited your field?

Ian: And “delimited” is a good word. Once I’d made friends in the scene I felt committed to making my research beneficial to them, so I couldn’t run off and look into something else, even if I was tempted at times.

Ana María: And did violence play any kind of role in defining or delimiting your field?

Ian: Yes. My research is about attempts to reduce violence through music-making, so I was in areas that at least have a history of or reputation for violence. Some of the places I originally wanted to work are still a little too “caliente” at least according to some of my interlocutors, so I chose to stick to currently safer areas  – I’m not one of those fearless explorers who will get right into the thick of things among active paramilitaries and guerrilla groups. In Cali I couldn’t do all the work I wanted to because Siloé (the neighbourhood where I worked) is largely controlled by gangs, so parts of it genuinely aren’t safe for outsiders after dark.

2. Learning in the Field

Ana María: A. What did you learn about yourself in the field? Did you feel like an outsider/insider/“in-between” in the field? B. Did musical practices transform that distance, or your perception of that distance, in either direction? C. Did you have to re-position yourself politically, socially, etc. in the field?

Ian: My research is based on trust. I learned quite quickly that for potential interlocutors to trust me it helped to downplay the fact that I was a researcher. A journalist friend called David Lara wrote a great article on the suspicion many locals in rural areas of northern Colombia have towards “investigadores” – no one likes to be investigated! – and “el profe” has been a pseudonym for so many armed actors that are using that title too. So I hardly ever showed anyone official letters, I didn’t form links with Universities in Colombia, I presented myself as a person interested in music, and a friend of musicians. In Cali it helped to be a teacher – gangs in Siloé are mostly very supportive of local education projects, so I taught as much as possible and presented myself as a teacher and learner rather than a researcher, but that felt like a good fit to me anyway.

Being an active musician in the field helped too. I learned a lot on the march (literally when playing the brass band in San Martín) about myself as well as my friends and field. For example, I’m a sworn atheist, but after an exhausting few hours of playing the same tune and following the statue of San Martín in a candlelit procession around an otherwise uncharacteristically silent town, I came to feel something close to the sensation that others must interpret as a religious experience or direct connection with powerful supernatural religious figures. That kind of experience generates an empathy with interlocutors that it’s difficult to get otherwise.

I don’t pretend to be a complete “insider”, though. I’m not a virtuosic enough musician to be fully involved in the thick of things sometimes – I’m thinking about gaita music, for example, which gets very virtuosic and intense sometimes. Juan Sebastián can tell us more about that aspect because he’s been doing his thing at the top level for a long time. Also, there were some local ways of being that I simply wasn’t willing to adopt. Getting gaiteros to understand that I was not interested in cheating on my wife with local girls was an arduous process. They needed long and repeated explanations about how it’s more common in England to be faithful to your partner. That outsider status can be useful for all sorts of things, from understanding doxa to applying for funding from international sources for social projects. For me it’s always a constant process of balancing the benefits that insider-outsider aspects of one’s self can bring to each situation.

Juan Sebastián: That process has been very interesting because, let’s say that when doing field work, I have always find it easy to make music. This has always allowed me to integrate much easier with people, do you understand me? Suddenly I do not have to … I do not transcribe the music that I learn or study in the field, because I don’t do studies like the ones that were done in the middle of the century, full of musical analysis. Let’s say that for me, playing music as part of a methodology has a lot to do with rapport. Because, that is if it is immediate: one connects immediately with people. Music is too powerful and that experience cannot be replaced. So, for me, playing music in the field  has always been an advantage, although I do not do it for that, I do it because I love it, I love music and that’s why I do everything else.

3. In the Field

Ana María: What difficulties did you encounter in the field?

Ian: Uuuuuf! How long have you got?! I have a few Malinowski-style comments in my field journals: As ethnographers we’re supposed to be involved and as close to our interlocutors’ subject position as possible, but most of them are so far from the reflexive subject position of an ethnographer trying to finish a research project that it’s a logical impossibility to do both. However, at the end of the day, any “problems” I had were nothing in comparison to what most of my interlocutors face most days, so no complaints.

Juan Sebastián: The field, for me, was “multi-sited.” I did ethnography mainly in two places: in Bogota and in Libertad. I am from Bogotá and I have lived all my life in Bogotá, except the years I was in Indiana. Then [Bogotá] is … And it is not the first time that I did ethnography in Bogotá, then, for me it is sometimes difficult to understand Bogotá as the [field]. Because it is too entangled in my daily life. But then, if “the field” we are talking about is like that notion of a distant place, then Libertad would be like that place for me. That was that ethnographic experience. It’s where my research takes place, and mainly at the level of cultural exchange. Doing fieldwork in Libertad involves several complexities because of the kind of site it is. It is a place that is far away, it is a place that part of the [Colombian] armed conflict for a long time. It suffered paramilitary occupation, and there is therefore very little state presence, very little infrastructure, very little security. It’s a complicated place. But look, that did not make things difficult for me. I did not have any problem  getting there, or talking to people … Anyway, I know that there are many alarms with regard to this type of place, many fears and a number of situations: conceptions and ideas on these places that have been built by the mass media, through a number of mechanisms that do not necessarily tell us what is happening there. So I did have the feeling that it would be difficult to be in Libertad for all the reasons I just mentioned, but actually, doing fieldwork there was much simpler than I thought. It involved other complexities, but let’s say that at the level of the security issue, that was not really the case. I was very lucky too. I came to the community in a very special moment, and I was surrounded by very special circumstances when I was beginning to establish links with local musicians.

Ana María: And what were those special circumstances?

Juan Sebastián: Well here we have to go into the details. The special circumstances were that when I was arriving to the community, the [Colombian] Victims Unit … As I already told you, my work is about collective reparation and Afro-Colombian music in Libertad, so it is closely related to what the Victim’s Unit does and with the actions of the state regarding the victims of the armed conflict, especially the victims of Libertad. At the time I arrived, the Victim’s Unit was developing a large activity as part of the Community Repair Plan. The Unit was then visiting the community and it was carrying out activities frequently. When I arrived, they were doing a cultural activity that involved musicians, and so the people of the Unit already knew that I was going there, and so they gave me the opportunity to go to the meetings, and, thus, to meet many community leaders in a single moment. They introduced me to the community. It was also at that same moment that the possibility arose that I would give workshops to the musicians of the town, so that immediately I was practically tucked inside the structure of the music programs of the town. And so somehow I arrived and the people from the Victim’s Unit told everyone: “well, this is the researcher that will be here all these months, the guy works with music,” and so I was introduced to all the leaders. I started to work with young musicians and so let’s say that these were the special circumstances.

Ana María: And how did you introduce yourself in the field? People in Libertad did not take you for a member of the Victim’s Unit?

Juan Sebastián: I explained that I was an ethnomusicology Ph.D. student from Indiana University. And so I introduced myself … but I think that they assumed that I was going to be an ally on the ground. But I knew from the beginning that I had to make it very clear that I came as an independent researcher and that I was not a worker of the Victim’s Unit, let alone any NGO… So to speak a little of the difficulties, that was one, for example. That mixed role was not, sometimes, very easy to understand. Sometimes people did not really understand what was my role in the community, and that, many times … Well, all of us who have done [fieldwork] know that our role can be sometimes confusing: people think sometimes that you are able to do things that you are really not able to do, or that you can solve some situations … Then, on that way, there was some difficulty in relation to people in my research and at a personal level, as people sometimes thought, “he can have such and such influence on…” do you understand me? But I do not feel that that has affected my research.

Ana María: And has it been difficult to write about these issues, being an active musician and knowing so many people in the music realm that you are actually researching? I mean, especially in the context of Bogotá?

Juan Sebastián: That is an area that exceeds the subject of my dissertation, because the dissertation is really about Libertad, although there is a series of information that I get in Bogotá. And yes, that has a lot to do with relations of power, of collaboration, or of tensions between people from Bogotá, government people, organizations and people in the community. So in that sense, Bogotá becomes a place, like a posture from which one reads “the other,” but I try to see it more in that way and try to understand it also from my experience. For my dissertation, the topic Bogotá as an ethnographic place is not central. So that there are friends of mine, or known people who are part of my research, that does not happen in Libertad. But that does happen in the realm of my life, because I am a musician and I am a researcher too. And part of the phenomena that I wanted to investigate and study have to do with phenomena of which I am also part of. For example, the theme of “new Colombian musics”, all these musical practices such as what Maria José [Salgado Jiménez] does, which is something relatively new in Bogotá, I also have research on that, and I have published about that. And in that context, I have had to think differently, in fact, about my own role in the field. Or, for example, that has also happened to me in the case of another research project I have conducted about bullerengue, but in the context of the Urabá area. There, for example, one of the issues I deal with is how bullerengue performers from Bogotá have influenced what happens in the [Urabá] regions. Because when the bullerengue group from Bogotá go to the Festival of Bullerengue of Puerto Escondido, people in Puerto Escondido says, wow! this must be a great festival if people from Bogotá are coming here to participate, do you understand me? It generates a number of dynamics. Bogotá was the place where women started to play drums, and that has had an impact in the Colombian coastal areas. I’m not saying that the women from Bogotá are the pioneers of the female drum, but that they were the first to dare to play drums publicly, in a moment in which no one else was doing so.

Ana María: Has forced displacement been a tragic means to create bridges between Bogotá and other regions of the country, like for instance that which you are currently researching. I mean, in such a way that such regions have expanded beyond their own borders through the path followed by their inhabitants?

Juan Sebastián: That has generated a number of processes. It is related to the issue of why Bogotá is now so musically rich, since it has had such a rich musical influence from all parts of Colombia, and mainly from Afro-Colombian musics, in the last 20 years. That is something that exceeds Sidestepper, Chocquibtown, which exceeds the musical industry, as there are a number of traditional musicians who have come with their experiences, with their families, and they have opened up a space for their musics here in Bogotá. So these relationships are complicated a lot by the mutual links between the region and Bogotá, by how Bogotá is influenced by the region and how the regions are influenced by what happens musically in Bogotá. That theme is already very complex.

4. Ethics in the Field

Ana María: Was there an ethical aspect that arose, unexpectedly or not, in the field?

Ian: My experience is a lot like Patricia’s (scroll down to number 4 in this post). I’m still grappling with how to tell important stories without compromising anonymity. I think it’s a difficulty we have in ethnomusicology more than some fields of anthropology because music-making is often a public practice, so songwriters and performers for example are very particular, identifiable people. Doing some sort of justice to the task of telling their twisted histories while maintaining an ethical stance is a tricky balancing act. The process has given me a less critical view of ethnographies that avoid dealing with violence so directly.

Juan Sebastián: This work is a doctoral dissertation, then it is framed within very rigid parameters, within very specific university requirements. Then, I could not do my research in the exact way that I wanted to. And then, I wanted to touch on this point because, when I got to Libertad, in Libertad, look, there was an 84-year-old drum player, Don Migue. And Migue was not even a drummer, he played the drum, but he was a singer, a cantaor of bullerengue. But he was the only one who still knew how to play drums. Moreover, because of the paramilitary occupation and another series of things, there was a generational gap of a whole generation, and when I arrived at Libertad there was nobody playing the drum. There was that gentleman and some young men between 26 to 25 years old, who were doing hip hop and who were inventing a fusion of bullerengue with hip hop. But they did not know [how to do it] because they did not know how to play the drum. Then I arrived with my drum, and as soon as they saw me playing, they were the ones who approached me and said: can you teach us? And I said, of course! At any time you want, I say, because I’m going to be here every day so everything is fine, so… It’s funny because it was really a person from Bogotá, who came to a place where the bullerengue was traditionally a very extended practice, and the one who taught bullerengue in Libertad back again was a person from Bogotá, do you understand me? It is a very interesting thing, it is a subject of which I will not escape in the thesis and I have to talk about it, I have to reflect on this, I have to talk about the subject of the applied [ethnomusicology] projects, of how a research project can make an impact on a social context without necessarily leading to lack of rigor, which is precisely what many people are afraid of, right? They think that if one intervenes in the social reality that is researching, one may incur in methodological contradictions.

Ana María: Can you tell me more about your experience with this particular issue?

Juan Sebastián: When I arrived [in Libertad] I knew that I wanted to help, but I also arrived with the clarity that due to the type of project I was involved in, I could not have the initiative offering to help, the initiative had to be theirs. Then, they [people from Libertad] were after me every day, “come, give us drum lessons,” they also asked me to accompany them. I really like applied anthropology, here in Latin America we are from that school, you know, for me the US model was a hard clash. All the applied projects that I wanted to do. I was told that I could not do them because that was not valid for a dissertation, or for an essay. And that too is as problematic as questioning the essentialisms of a musical practice in a region. I feel that it is really much more problematic for researchers not to try to use their resources, their power and privilege, their position to contribute to global equity. Someone has to do something; we can all do something. I feel that that is what we are there for.

Ana María: What you are saying about Latin American anthropology and applied anthropology is really interesting…

Juan Sebastián: It is a different paradigm, I had to deal with that all along my graduate studies: in my quals, one of my essays was about that, and well, that was also the topic of my papers for many different seminars. Well, I am alumni of the National University of Colombia, I am an anthropologist of the National University, and there I studied with Luis Guillermo Vasco. Vasco is the evolution of Fals Borda, and he was a very influential figure in my career, during my time at the university. He has said things very clearly, and they stayed with me. So let’s say that I try to do my job that way, and well, that I’ve in fact tried to help. Precisely, now I was working on the outline of the chapter where I have to talk about all this. Then I had thought a little about it. The first thing was: I accompanied, I still accompany musical ensembles there, they ask me to share musical materials, to send them songs via Whatsapp, to send them recordings of the “toque de tambor de chalupa“, of how the drum is played, and I of course always send them everything I can. There [in Libertad] we met for a long time … uff, we worked hard, we spent many hours working together, doing bullerengue workshops, drum workshops. They also had an opportunity… look, this was one of the things that happened: When I got to Libertad they were making “bullenrap,” that’s what they called it, and they were doing it with pre-recorded beats, they downloaded some of these beats from the internet and they composed their songs. That was the first time I went [to Libertad], in November of 2015, I was there for like a month and a half, and we did some workshops. Ok. The Unit sent them musical instruments and, some time later,  I came back to Bogotá. But when I returned to Libertad in March, they were no longer using the beats, they had dropped that completely, and they were making their “bullenrap” entirely with the traditional drums from the Colombian cost. For me, when that happened, I said, OK, “I did something,” do you understand me? The fact that they dropped the use of electricity, of tracks made by others, the fact of them playing their own drums and using their own “riddims” and their music with the drums (because of the classes we had), for me that is very important . More things happened too. From the Victims Unit we managed to invite them to the Caribbean Cultural Market, which is an important event in Cartagena, where many promoters and programmers from the Womex, Lincoln Center, many sites in Europe and the United States go to. That was a great opportunity, because to play there, groups have to pay a ticket to apply, to get chosen and to get into the business meetings. And the Libertad boys got invited to play in the showcase, which is a big presentation that is only given to established bands such as the Aterciopelados. This implied also three weeks of working with them to prepare the show, to learn something about performing on a stage, about handling the stage spaces, choreography, show setup … What else have we done? We have also presented proposals to grants, we have submitted a couple of projects and we have won 35 million pesos (about $11,790 U.S dollars) in projects there in Libertad, cultural projects that we have written between the community and me, basically, in a collaborative way. We got a cultural recognition for Isabel Martinez, Chabelo, who is a cantaora from there, and there she won a good amount of money that has been really useful: they bought a motorcycle, a computer for the boys to do their music studio, a camera… That was cool. And we also won a grant from the Ministry of Culture of Colombia to do bullerengue workshops with my teacher, bullerengue master Emilsen Pacheco, back in Libertad. And well, we are always in touch, and I am still working. I’ve found things there super cool and super interesting, and well, I wish to continue working in the area.

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