SEMSEC Weekend in Trinidad

Some of you may say, “Tyler, isn’t it a bit late to be running an overview on a conference that ran a few weekends ago?” To which I would reply, “…shut up!” Trinidad was fantastic, I need to ‘immortalize’ it (somewhat) here, and I’ve had some marginally important things going on lately (becoming a PhD Candidate, for one) that have distracted me. That isn’t to say I would not have found something else to distract me, but I feel justified in this case, and you get to look at pretty pictures of beaches and cars driving on the left side of the road, so who loses here? Nobody. Unless you’re from a British-commonwealth country or Japan, in which case… understand the novelty of left-driving autos and Cricket will likely not fade for me anytime soon.


Maracas Bay (not bad on the eyes), on the way to the beach on Day 2.

I landed in Port-of-Spain’s Piarco International (it’d be kind of pointless to have a domestic airport on a tiny island) Airport late on Thursday night, March 3rd. Our conference hotel, the Royal Hotel T&T in San Fernando, sent two of their drivers down to pick up my colleague Sarah and I. Sarah’s flight landed slightly later than mine, and her airline (which shall go unnamed; they’ve already been put on blast elsewhere) saw fit to leave her luggage in Miami, so the first night there was a bit complicated. Regardless, we were grateful to be there,  and a PhD student from Florida State lent Sarah a dress for her paper presentation, so all major disasters were averted.


Royal Street, San Fernando. You can’t see Shiva’s Pharmacy in any great detail, but my friend wound up not only finding a suitable replacement for her medication, but spent a sliver of what she would have spent on it in the United States. In retrospect, we shouldn’t have been shocked considering Trinidad’s role within the wider frame of the “global South,” but capitalism is just wacky sometimes.

We headed to the conference center at the Southern Academy of the Performing Arts (SAPA) to catch as much as we could of Day 1 Morning before preparing for our own presentations in the afternoon session. I got to catch a portion of a UNC-Chapel Hill panel on music archiving and preservation (which if you read this blog, you know I’m all about), including Charles B. Anderson’s Master Fake Book of jazz recordings.

Because the conference organizers somehow overlooked a ridiculously nice mall food court down the street from SAPA, they arranged to have some Trini food catered during our lunch break. The highlight of that meal was probably the pepper sauce for our rice, which set our mouths on fire proper. By that, I mean, slamming my hand on the table, eyes-watering mouth-fire. I also became acquainted with Fruta, a soft drink of sorts that has large chunks of fruit floating around in the can. A quick google search informed me that S.M. Jaleel and Company, Fruta’s manufacturer, was actually founded in San Fernando in 1924. I assumed it was some South American product considering the Spanish name and the island’s tight proximity to Venezuela, but it turns out the SMJ targets their products at the English-speaking Caribbean.

I understand this is quite a bit of space on a Geography site to devote to a soft drink, but I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t find Geography in literally everything I encountered. Despite a heavy presence of Spanish on road signs and product names, I don’t recall hearing Spanish spoken once over the weekend. All I heard was heavily-accented English and a couple aural cameos from Trini Patois. My experience in the Caribbean is fairly limited, so I spent the two days there trying to be the best sponge I could for the cultural and gastronomical traditions. Over the past five decades (and much farther back, during the eras of British, French, and Spanish oversight), the country’s predominantly South-Asian and Black populace has been carving a unique identity. With the arguable exception of Long Beach, CA, I had never spent time in a place so diverse. After three years in the relatively monochromatic and culinary-unadventurous Eastern Tennessee, Trinidad was a welcome change of pace, even for just the weekend.

Oh, yeah, the conference.


Dr. Les Gay looks on as Sarah, Ben, and Konstantine do a tech-run of their PowerPoints before presentation time.

My presentation ran concurrently with those of my colleagues and friends Sarah, Ben, and Konstantine, so I wasn’t able to watch theirs. By all accounts, though, UT-Knoxville was represented incredibly well between the four of us and Dr. Leslie Gay’s paper on Sonny Rollins’ Caribbean heritage. Sarah presented on woman singers (e.g. Kesha and Nicki Minaj) reclaiming the sound of the female orgasm in popular music, Ben presented on Graham Lambkin and Jason LeScalleets’ soundscape recordings, and Konstantine focused on the East Tennessee soundscapes in the indie film Ain’t It Nowhere. If you’re interested in any of these topics, let me know and I’m glad to connect you to any one of them.

My talk was incredibly well-attended by an enthusiastic audience of multiple age groups and backgrounds. One FSU professor even complimented my choice of playing a Minor Threat clip during my tech-run before the panel began. Ironically, the mp3 of “Straight Edge” did not work during my actual talk, but it was not wholly necessary since about half the room had heard a Minor Threat song before (and reminding me why I love presenting to Musicologists). At any rate, it seemed like my dissertation discussion on the effects of DC Hardcore on the French imaginary of Washington connected well with the attendees. I was grateful to lead off a session that included a student from the University of Maryland who discussed how DC was a veritable melting pot of Latin American musicians. It was a fascinating paper, it made me nostalgic for my days occasionally hitting these Latin-music bars in Adams-Morgan, and most importantly it pointed out “another DC” that was (and still is) every bit as valid.


The Southern Academy of Performing Arts Steelpan band opens their set with a Caribbean rendition of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.” It was glorious.

That night, we got a wonderful keynote speech from Dr. Hollis Liverpool, known to Calypso fans worldwide as Chalkdust. It was the first keynote I had ever seen that began with a song. As much as I was enjoying it at the time, I had no idea what a big deal Liverpool was. I also had no idea how vilified Calypsonians were for most of the early era of that style. For all intents and purposes, Calypso has a long tradition as black power music, not unlike hip-hop in the U.S. (and increasingly in the rest of the world). [Tangent: The same thing happened around “gangsta” rap in the US in the early 1990s, never mind how overwhelmingly well-read Tupac Shakur was in continuing his mother’s Black Panther tradition. Only a handful of students attend music school in the United States now as rappers or DJs, however, though those numbers are increasing.] To return to my original point, it shouldn’t be surprising how the white governing classes went out of their way to characterize Calypsonians as degenerates and thugs. This led Lord Kitchener and other West Indian Calypso musicians to wear their finest threads when they went to England after The War. Liverpool had one funny anecdote about the time he snapped a photo of Kitch rehearsing in a white t-shirt and got threatened if he published the picture. My favorite moment of the keynote, though (and perhaps the whole conference) was when he played his second song, and invited those who knew it to sing along. All of the Trinidadians, spread throughout the lecture hall, joined in and sang the backing/call-and-response vocals as if they had known this song their whole life. Most of them probably had.

For the reception that night, we got two sets from the pan steel students at the Academy and one from a local Indian music ensemble. I had also discovered earlier that night that the steel pan drum originated in Trinidad, which shouldn’t have surprised me considering how much cross-cultural innovation has happened across those two islands.


Tassa drumming sessions with Lenny Kumar (in red shirt). Noted Trinidadian steel drummer Mia Gormandy (navy blue sweater) basically schooled us all.

My only regret about the SEMSEC 2016 conference was that it couldn’t have stretched any longer. We didn’t get to spend any real time in Port-of-Spain, though the city looked pretty cool from what we saw passing through it) nor over in Tobago, doing some of what I’ve heard is the world’s best snorkeling. But it gave me the motivation to return to the Island(s) in the future to explore these places, drink even more Puncheon Rum and eat my weight in Doubles. I’ll wrap this up with a few more photos from the weekend. Congrats to SEMSEC on following through with what seemed like a pipe dream when they mentioned this plan at the 2014 meeting in Gainesville. Even that long ago, I knew that if I didn’t go, I would regret it, and I’m so thankful I chose to head down.

Now, it’s time for me to turn back around and head to San Francisco for AAG 2016. I’ll be back on here soon with a preview if possible. I will post my schedule at the conference at the very least.

Bow Down to Gainesville (Part 2)

Another weekend, another conference. It is almost springtime, after all.

I’ll be making my first of at least two trips to Florida this semester to present at my first Ethnomusicology conference, the annual meeting of the Southeastern and Caribbean Chapter of the Society of Ethnomusicology happening this weekend in Gainesville, Florida! Hopefully things have cooled off since the Associated Press threw the #1 ranking at their Basketball team yesterday.

More information about the conference is at the official website here. I’ll post the draft schedule here, with me and some of my Tennessee colleagues highlighted. I have to admit: “flutelore” sounds pretty badass.

Here’s lookin’ at you, Gainesville. See you all soon.

Friday, February 28

Session 1 (8:30 am  – 10:00 am)
Historical Perspectives on Women and Music
Kathryn Etheridge (Florida State University), “The Modern Girl Composes Herself: Japanese Modernist Yoshida Takako”
Sarah Kahre (Florida State University), “The Gravest of Female Voices: Women and the Alto in Sacred Harp”
Megan MacDonald (Florida State University), “‘Heaven is Nearer Since Mother is There’: Gendered Spaces in Southern Gospel Songbooks of the Great Depression”

Session 2 (10:30 am – 12:30 pm)
Drop on Down in Florida: Musical Models For a New Generation
Peggy Bulger (American Folklife Center, Ret.), “Dropping Back Down: From the Field to the Archive to the iPod”
Dwight DeVane, (Florida Folklife Program, Ret.), “The Drop on Down in Florida Reissue: Opportunity, Conceptual Framework and Digital Access”
James Cunningham (Florida Atlantic University), “A Grass-Roots Applied Ethnomusicology of in the Glades”
Gregory Hansen (Arkansas State University), “Fiddlelore and Vernacular Theory within Presentations of Public Folklore”

Session 3 (2:00 – 3:30 pm) 
Multicultural Musical Mediations in the United States
Sarah Renata Strothers (Florida State University), “Looking Like the Enemy: Negotiating Risk in Japanese-American Musical Performance”
Elizabeth Clendinning (Emory University), “Symbiotic Sounds: University-Community Interdependence in World Music Ensemble Instruction”
Matt DelCiampo (Florida State University), “‘Real Beauty Turns’: Beauty and Gender Perceptions in Mixed Media”

Session 4 (2:00 pm – 3:30 pm) CONCURRENT SESSIONS (continued)
Identities and Spiritualities In South and Southeast Asia


Tyler Sonnichsen (University of Tennessee), “Can’t Breakaway: Indonesian Punk and Xenocentrism”
Nina Menezes (University of Florida), “Voices of Sheila: Re-signification in Bollywood Filmic and Non-filmic Contexts”
Gavin Douglas (University of North Carolina, Greensboro), “The Sounds of Buddhism in Myanmar: Dhamma Instruments and the Cultivation of Divine States of Consciousness”

Book signing (3:30 – 4:15 pm)
World Flutelore: Folktales, Myths, and Other Stories of Magical Flute Power
Dale A. Olsen (Professor Emeritus, Florida State University)

Keynote Address (4:30 – 5:15 pm)
Robert Stone (Independent Folklorist)

See the website for the Saturday schedule.

Alan Lomax on Music and Transformation


An art so deeply rooted in the security patterns of the community should not, in theory, be subject to rapid change, and in fact this seems to be the case. Musical style appears to be one of the most conservative of culture traits. Religion, language, even many aspects of social structure may change; an entirely new set of tunes or rhythms or harmonic patterns may be introduced; but, in its overall character, a musical style will remain intact. Only the most profound social upheavals – the coming of a new population, the acceptance of a new set of mores – or migration to a new territory, involving complete acculturation, will profoundly transform a musical style, and even then the process takes place very slowly.

– Alan Lomax (1959), in American Anthropologist, explaining why music may be the great barometer of culture. For the uninitiated, Lomax may be one of the major reasons that this site exists, and there will be more on him soon, especially as I try to sort through my own feelings on his system of cantometrics. All I know is, his 50s recordings from the American South are eternal.

The New Alan Lomaxes

I woke up to see Don Fleming’s name in my email inbox yesterday morning. For those of you who don’t know Don Fleming, he has been plying his talents as a musical and cultural jack-of-all-trades for more than three decades. Imagine David Byrne if he had emerged from Washington DC. Or just listen to some of his early works and get the idea.

Anyway, I first came into contact with Don a few years ago when I contacted the Cultural Equity Center in New York, primarily out of my general interest in the life and work of Alan Lomax. It turned out that Fleming, whose name seemed familiar at first, had not only been integral to DC’s bizarre post-punk scene in the early 80’s, but had also produced records for a number of legendary artists (Hole, Sonic Youth, Andrew WK) and had, at one time, worked at the same company that I had in Bethesda, MD. Given his nearly endless resume as a musician and producer, “archivist” and “preservationist” both followed pretty closely.

Alan Lomax with friends, 1960’s (Photo: UNC Libraries)

This is not the first time I’ve written about Alan Lomax, and it absolutely won’t be the last. I cannot understate his contributions to ethnomusicology, musical geography, anthropology, and of course the recorded backbone of American music, but here’s the ten-cent biography from the auction listings:

A prolific folklorist, ethnomusicologist, anthropologist, writer, producer, and musician, Alan Lomax dedicated his life to documenting and preserving the world’s expressive traditions. Lomax was devoted to what he called “cultural equity”: the right of all cultures to nurture their traditions and to see them represented equally in media and the public sphere.

Fleming’s email to the Cultural Equity list serve announced that their foundation was downsizing and, in an effort to spruce up funding, was selling off many of the original tools of Lomax’s trade on eBay. Just tell me you don’t want his beautiful typewriter, or that you don’t want to buy me his original UHER 516 Mono Microphone for my (upcoming) birthday.

A few years ago, Mississippi Records issued dozens of his field recordings made during his now-mythologized “Southern Journey” through the United States from 1959-1960. I got my hands on a couple of them, and it’s completely remarkable how well the analog recordings have held up, and how you can hear strands in these traditional numbers (many of which hearkened back to the Antebellum era, even) in all kinds of modern music.

The last track on Side A of “Worried Now, Won’t Be Worried Long” (I love the titles that MR chose, by the way) is a fife-and-drum traditional song called “Ida Reed” performed by Ed, Lonnie, and G.D. Young. As strange as it felt when I first heard it (and still feels strange to type a few years later), I could not get “Hollaback Girl” out of my head as I listened to it. (Where’s the tribute there, Gwen Stefani?)  I couldn’t find the exact recording online, but here is a video that Lomax filmed of Othar Turner and friends playing a snare-happy version of the song in 1978.

True to form, I had difficulty finding the shooting location of Gravel Springs, MS via any satellite, but from what I gathered, this is approximately 50 miles south of Memphis and 50 miles East of the Mississippi. In other words, the middle of nowhere in the Mississippi Delta, which may be the most appropriate place they could have filmed this. It’s remarkable how unrefined Turner’s playing style is, considering how he was one of the best known fife players of this century. Of course, the music is meant to be somewhat sloppy, though, like the dried-out, unkempt land they grew up on and worked for most of their lives. Based on all evidence I can find, these guys were the real deal, and Lomax devoted his life (like his father did before him) to reminding us living on the other side of all this just what exactly “the real deal” was. 

I don’t know if Lomax has a direct successor out there now, but given how cheap recording technology has become (or embedded in the phones our society sanctifies), there could be thousands out there. For all of the damage that Youtube and similar sites have done to comedy, production standards, and our attention spans, they’ve done a good job immortalizing once-unknown street musicians and musical styles.

Anyway, thanks to Don Fleming and his associates for making sure we don’t forget just how expansive and vital all of this was for so much of the 20th century. And thanks to whomever supports the Association for Cultural Equity and puts in a winning bid for this poor geographer on Lomax’s amazing blue typewriter. Or maybe the microphone, too.

Bonus Tracks

  1. In case anybody is interested, I’ll upload my 6.14.11 interview with Don Fleming from my former radio show once I find the file.
  2. In case anybody missed it (or just isn’t obsessed with 90’s emo), the title of this post is indeed a nod to the song “The New Nathan Detroits” by the (ostensibly) late, great Braid