Listening to Race and Gender in World Music
NYU Press 2015
The origins of world music can be found in early ethnographic recordings as anthropologists and ethnomusicologists sought to record the songs of lost or dying cultures. In Modernity’s Ear: Listening to Race and Gender in World Music (NYU Press, 2015), Roshanak Kheshti explores how these origins shape how listeners hear world music today.
Kheshti did fieldwork at Kinship Records, a pseudonym of a world music label, and examined how world music gets record, produced, marketed, and sold. Full of theoretical insights, Modernity’s Ear focuses on how listening and the ear have become key sites for the production of racial and gender identities and how listeners come to hear their own desires. Kheshti challenges earlier scholarly studies that criticize world music for appropriating ethnic sounds. Instead, she considers how music allows listeners to incorporate a wide range of sounds into their own culture. For example she discusses how Vampire Weekend, an alternative rock band, drew on Afro pop in their music. For Kheshti, this is a key example of how listeners came to make world music their own.
The book concludes with a discussion of Zora Neale Hurston’s recordings of African American folk songs and tales. Kheshti argues that Hurston understood all too well the dominant paradigms around such folk recordings, which viewed such recordings as valuable because they were authentic sounds. Hurston, however, refused such a position and chose to preform African American folk songs and stories herself rather than record “authentic” native voices. For Kheshti, Hurston’s decision demonstrates potential agency and the ability for world music performers to shape how they get heard.
Roshanak Kheshti is Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies and affiliate faculty in the Critical Gender Studies Program at the University of California, San Diego.