Kisii Ethnomusicology @ AAA 2016

This year at the American Anthropological Association (AAA) Annual Meeting (Nov 16-20, Minneapolis, MN), I’ll be participating in a session organized by Jessica Love-Nichols and Morgan Sleeper from UC Santa Barbara Linguistics titled Playing the changes, saying the changes: The social meaning of musico-linguistic style-shifting. The session will be chaired by Audrey Lopez (UC Santa Barbara Linguistics), with John Haviland (UC San Diego Anthropology) as the discussant. My own presentation is titled, Singing the morals: The function of musico-linguistic shifts in Kisii folktales. Check out the session and paper abstracts below!

Session Abstract

Musical performances have long been recognized as rich sites of social meaning-making, and accordingly much work in linguistic anthropology has examined language use within these performances (Alim 2006, Kapchan 2006, Sarkar and Allen 2007). While the linguistic aspects have often been the main focus of such analyses, recently linguistic anthropologists as well as scholars in other fields have further explored the musical components of these performances, as well as the way that both musical and linguistic elements function in tandem semiotically to enact sociocultural meanings that are unique to combined musico-linguistic performances (Fox 2004, Harkness 2011, Haviland 2012, Weidman 2011). Just as linguistic anthropologists have recognized embodiment and voice quality as important semiotic resources to be considered alongside other linguistic signs (Bucholtz and Hall 2008), musical signifiers that co-occur with language contribute significant semiotic richness and must also be examined as inseparable components of the larger context of language in use in performance.

Our panel will build on work combining musical and linguistic analytic frameworks (Feld and Fox 1994, Fox 2004, Harkness 2011, Haviland 2012, Weidman 2011) as well as work in code-switching (Gumperz 1982, Poplack 1988, Zentella 1997) and style-shifting (Bucholtz 2011, Eckert 2004) to examine the social meaning created specifically by shifts in the linguistic and musical aspects of performances, whether within a single performance, or across performance practices over time. The papers on this panel will explore the ways in which such shifts in musical and linguistic styles recontextualize all signs within the performances, creating new meanings and changing local interpretations of both the linguistic and musical semiotic components. In some cases the shifts analyzed occur when components of previous performances are recontextualized (Bakhtin 1981) and resignified in new work, resulting in novel and distinct understandings, while other cases highlight moments in which cotemporal musical and linguistic shifts within a single performance function in unison to create social meaning. In all cases these shifts serve to construct a diverse range of locally interpretable and deeply contextual sociocultural meanings.

The papers on this panel examine these musico-linguistic shifts in Welsh rock music, US country music, Ekegusii traditional stories, six-second comedy Vine videos, Chican@ Instagram accounts, and Mexican youth K-Pop dance cover groups. Across this diverse range of genres and contexts, we show how combined musical and linguistic shifts—such as the confluence of musical and linguistic code-switching, the dynamic interaction of linguistic and sonic qualia, the recontextualization of musico-linguistic signs, and shifts between sung and spoken language—constitute genres, enact identities, and locate communities in spatiotemporal contexts. Throughout all of these papers, the local sociocultural meanings of these shifts are constructed not through linguistic signs or through musical signs, but through the combined interaction of both, creating nuanced and complex social meanings distinct from those enacted by either linguistic or musical signs in isolation. Examining moments of musico-linguistic style-shifting as cohesive units of social meaning allows scholars to build a more nuanced understanding of musical performances and their importance for local communities, identities, and genres.

Paper Abstract

It is well known that the act of invoking a genre is fundamentally one of social action: speakers perform texts with specific social ends in mind, drawing on intertextual connections to imbue their performance with social meaning (Basso, 1996; Bauman, 2004; Briggs & Bauman, 1992; Hodges, 2015). But when a particular genre consists of or includes musical signs in addition to linguistic ones, the question becomes, ‘What does music add to the social act? Why mix the two modalities, and why switch between them?’

This paper describes the use of short songs in a particular moralizing genre of narratives called ‘folktales’ in Kisii, a Bantu language of southwestern Kenya, and shows how these musical performances not only play a role in the socializing function that these narratives have, but are in fact central to how the narrator accomplishes social action through the genre. Because the moral messages of these folktales are never supposed to be told explicitly, Kisii narrators must use indirect means of conveying the proper stances that listeners are meant to have towards events and characters in the narrative. By having characters within the narrative sing emotionally expressive songs, narrators avoid explicit moralizing by either themselves or the characters, while simultaneously layering the text with an implicit social metacommentary. In this way, the switch from linguistic to musical signs becomes the most central component of the text-as-social-action.


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Kapchan, D. 2006. Talking trash: Performing home and anti-home in Austin’s salsa culture. American Ethnologist 33(3): 361–377.

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