Representation, Trust, and Meaning

By | 15 July, 2012

Having been back from Colombia for a few months now, I am currently finishing up editing the footage for the documentary, a process that should be reaching an end relatively soon. In case you forgot, my project not only asks how public space (Cartagena’s historic center) and private subjectivities (street musicians and dancers) are constructed through traditional folklore music, but also questions the ways in which music is understood in its relation to history’s significance and emerging identities more generally. While reinterpreting my experience there through my relationship with the footage, I have, at moments, become overwhelmed by the intricacies of nearly every addressed issue as I delve further into analysis and reflection. Having taken a break from blogging, I’d like to now use this post as a space to convey and articulate some thoughts that have been on my mind since my return.

Thus far, editing the documentary has reinforced my notion that there are an endless number of decisions that go into representing any experience, idea, or story. What’s left out is just as important as what’s left in. In some ways a video, a documentary that relies on certain narrative structures, as a form of representation feels in this particular case limiting (as all forms of representation in some way are). There’s only so much you can see, especially if trying to represent the politics inside a group (relationships, histories, implied social roles, and relations of power between individuals), which are all but insignificant. I guess it’s that the politics of a group like Candelviva are so remarkably complex that in order to present any sort of idea clearly, some things must necessarily be left out. My role as researcher, documenter, videographer, storyteller, and friend is, as well, a complex one, and it’s important to not only acknowledge, but to also reflect on my own subjectivity during the project’s various stages. (This sort of reflection, although it has been in progress for quite some time, will unfortunately find its full articulations neither on this blog nor in the documentary.)

One subject I’d like to speak to for just a moment would be the significance of trust during this sort of project, and how different levels of trust condition the types of information that are accessible to me. This might seem obvious, but it proved to be an immeasurably valuable consideration to carry with me in the day-to-day navigation of a new social world. As much as I felt like an isolated observer/researcher at times, it was important for me to understand how I was constantly and necessarily embedded in a field of social relations while there; it was a requirement for being there, for being present. As trust increased over time, certain members confided in me, letting me in on the intricacies of group dynamics, their personal histories with one another, and things that had happened in the past that they no longer talked about, which allowed me to further contextualize their lives, experiences, and stories. I’ve learned that the element of time in fieldwork shouldn’t be taken for granted. It takes time to build trust, and in a few months I surely did not have near full-access (if there is such a thing) to all the information I would’ve liked. Interestingly, I also experienced limitations when members of the group would refuse to discuss certain topics (what I would consider to be vital information) on camera—which begs the question of how the camera modifies these dynamics of trust, an important question to consider when producing any media of this kind.

When I set out to begin this project, I started with a simple question: what are the different ways in which music constructs meaning in street musicians’ lives? The varieties of meaning that music can occupy is incomprehensibly vast, so why would I even attempt to categorize the different “functions” that folklore music performed for the musicians and dancers of Candelaviva? Well, to look patterns and then to ask what the larger implications behind these patterns could be. The way people relate to folklore music says something about not only how they relate to the history folklore represents, but also how they embody contemporary social, cultural, and political ideas through this relation. Recognizing the implications behind the more common ways that folklore is understood can lead us to unravel how certain individuals (and groups) relate to history more broadly, and thus how they think, behave, and operate in the contemporary.

First I realized that folklore music and dance allowed Candelviva’s members to “connect” to a variety of different things, and through these connections we find sources of pride. It is only once we start talking about this pride that we can get a more full understanding of what folklore means and why it is particularly important to individual musicians and dancers:

Connection to ancestry

Source of racial pride: Almost all the members emphasized how folklore represented their African roots and reminded them of the hardships their ancestors went through for them to be in the position they are in today. In this sense, it was also a way of remembering slavery.

Source of national pride: Many members told me that the folklore was a direct representation of the uniqueness of Colombian history and an illustration of Colombia as a mixed-race nation.

Connection to land

I heard several times that, for them, music and dance brought the land to life. In some ways, the music implicitly referenced (especially lyrically) the significance of land within their history. Victor Medrano, a wonderful musician I came across, told me that he plays the tambor barefoot almost all of the time so that he can really feel the earth, the dirt, and the grass that his ancestors stood on. It’s another way for him to connect with them. Through this we can see that the music harnesses a sense of regional pride that is very closely tied to the other forms of pride mentioned above. Also, while talking about land, I might as well re-emphasize that the main plaza where Candelaviva performs is the same plaza that served as the primary slave-trading center for almost two centuries throughout all of New Granada. (I’ll talk more specifically about this fascinating dynamic later.)

Connection to family

As a more personal branch off of ancestry, family, as well, proved to be an important reason as to why folklore is meaningful. Mildre, a dancer, talked about how folklore dance had been passed on from her great-grandmother down the line and finally to her. (“Mi abuela bailó, mi mamá… ahora yo… y así va pasando.”) She plans to keep up the tradition by passing on the dances that she has learned to her kids, and hopes that they will pass it to the next generation as well. The act of remembering is crucial to her.

Connection to the activity/the medium

Plenty of members emphasized the pure joy that playing music and dancing brings them in their lives. It not only feels good, but as a skill and a form of expression, it’s empowering as well. Diego, a Candelaviva musician and dancer, discussed how the music and dance themselves have been a significant part of their Afro-Colombian culture historically, and therefore he feels it’s important to work to maintain it—especially considering music and dance are some of the only well-maintained customs/traditions by black Colombians during the colonial period.

Social activity / Connection to friends

History aside, folklore provides a way for kids to meet other kids, make friends, and develop relationships. It provides an arena for social activity, and through folklore, communities are built and sustained.

Clearly this allows musicians and dancers to engage with tradition directly on an individual level, but more importantly this is also a collective social engagement. Furthermore, up to this point we see music and dance operating on a very personal level, however folklore takes on a variety of different “functions” once we look at how it operates within a larger socio-economic context:

Social project: to show kids and young adults a better life

Ronald and Ermen, the group’s founders, said over and over that this was the primary reason for Candelviva’s birth. Luis Miguel and Jose Antonio, two dancers, talked extensively about how the group keeps them focused on a positive path, staying away from both drugs and crime, which are both common in their neighborhood.

Economic project: make money

Ermen discussed how the money that Candelviva makes goes to paying for groceries for the members’ families or for education. Considering that all of the group’s members live in very poor neighborhoods, the success of the group ensures survival, and during the good months, economic progression. The idea is to make as much money as possible, and with this in mind, the group can be seen as a sort of business. (A question I will address in another post is: what are the tactics being used to “sell” the music, and what sorts of ideologies—especially regarding the role of gender as it relates to power inequalities—do these tactics promote?)

It’s important to remember that the more personal elements of how these musicians and dancers relate to folklore and the larger social/structural elements are completely intertwined; they feed into one another.

There’s a sense that, as it relates directly to identity, folklore provides this sort of, “this is who we are” statement (race, nationality, ancestry: history), as well a, “this is how we are surviving/fighting/struggling” statement (making money, feeding ourselves, education: the contemporary)—both of which can be perceived as sources of pride and progression. So we are seeing different types of struggles here. The first is to hold on to the past and remember one’s history, while the other is to stay afloat day-to-day in the face of harsh socio-economic conditions. Although these struggles are not the same, from what I’ve experienced I would say that they are not as separate or distinguishable as one might believe.

Side observation: It’s as if they are trying to hold onto and maintain part of their Afro-Colombian identity, however it is this very process itself, through this very project of striving to maintain, that contributes so significantly to how they think of themselves, how they identify themselves, in the present. It is the struggle, an entirely real and, most importantly, necessary struggle (considering how they are perceived and treated generally in the larger Colombian society), that frames how they identify both amongst themselves and in relation to the larger society.

When we start to engage more with how folklore as part of an institutionalized group (Candelaviva) works, we find ourselves in a different, more structural level of observation and analysis. This became especially clear when I talked to people outside of Candelviva about how they perceive the group, its music, and how it “fits in” inside the city’s historic center. Taking this into account, it could be beneficial to look at the pride that’s been discussed on a personal and communal level, and see under what conditions this pride is displayed, how it is perceived, and how it operates in the context of the entire city (as well as the city’s politics).

It we do this, a new set of questions emerge: How are music, dance, and the institution of Candelaviva operating on a political level? What statements are being made here about power? How do folklore and the way it manifests in the plazas reinforce or subvert preexisting power structures within the city (specifically the power structures embedded in the tourist industry)?

In other words, is this particular expression in this particular space at all reinforcing socio-economic and racial hierarchies, or (unintentionally) advocating a specific and limited perspective (for outsiders) toward what it means to be Afro-Colombian (or what it means to be marginalized)? Does Candelviva play into a larger structure that, in fact, limits its own ability to express elements of its members’ lives? Does its role in the historic center contribute to or reduce expressions and understandings of cultural complexity?

To really engage with these questions, we have to look at both the history of the space they operate in (the historic center), as well as the more subtle ways in which tourism (the economy) functions throughout different parts of the city. (In a few days I will post about both of these issues.)

As you can see there’s a lot going on at a variety of different levels. As I stated earlier, the documentary will not be able to express this complexity. My goal here in writing is not to come up with any analytical conclusions, but instead to present questions that can hopefully lead to better, more complex questions—questions that can deal with a more complex reality. These “patterns” above are just starting points, building blocks, pieces of a larger puzzle. The extent to which these interact with one another and interact with an individual’s personal narratives is not only unknown, but also fluid, mutable, and ever-changing.


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