“Once upon a time, when animals and people were equal.” That is how BaAka from the Central African forest begin their gano stories, their folktales. They set these tales in a mythical time when animals could speak like humans. (Kisliuk  2000, 25) The idea that once upon a time humans did not dominate and animals had agency is a widespread idea in human mythology, addressed, for example, by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (2014, 42, 72) as a concept that we might return to within a broader “Anti-Narcissus” age that removes the Western gaze from the center of conceptualizations of experience. Consider this for a moment: animals and people with equally powerful voices — voices that rise from life on earth and require us to listen. BaAka know this kind of listening. Their powerful singing elaborates and merges with earth’s life sounds in a process that, I think, leads people and earth to a mutual understanding, to a sympathetic vibration. The rest of us can ask, belatedly, how our world might have been had we paid better attention to nonhuman voices. As we blink and wake up to an emergency, our best chance might be a jump into a surrealism that takes seriously this mythical time.After Barad’s “agential realism” (2007, 150–52).
Where was I? Oh yes, telling a story. A life story.“My intention is to define and develop an approach to the life story as a self-con- tained fiction, and thus to distinguish it sharply from its historical kin: biography, oral history, and the personal history” (Titon 1980, 276). In this sense, life story joins the genre of creative nonfiction. Mine, yours, another’s. Within a greater collective narrative looming in minds and hearts and set on an ailing earth. This looming story, or even a small part of it, is hard to jump into because we may never jump out — because this could be the last story we tell. We don’t want to hear the ending in our lifetime, in our children’s or great grandchildren’s, or the next seven generations under our watch. But by diving in to tell it we may find the permission we need, during this state of emergency, to imagine a future, to bring into earshot, into the subjunctive, a hum, a rumble, a purr of what could still be. A speculative nonfiction.For example, Rob Nixon (2011, 3) writes: “Politically and emotionally different kinds of disaster possess unequal heft. Falling bodies, burning towers . . . and tsunamis have a visceral, eye-catching and page-turning power that tales of slow violence, unfolding over years, decades, even centuries, cannot match.” See also Deborah Kapchan (2016, 2017, respectively) on slow activism and on the realm of the speculative in generating theory.
I grapple with this question: What does expressive culture teach that we intuitively know connects directly to survival, which many of us know needs urgent articulation? I ask myself — and you — to try to tell the stories that matter, both professional and personal — in versions and revisions, with bits that fit together in a map of living insight contained within expressive enactment; ways of singing, dancing, telling stories. With a language that listens as it speaks (Le Guin 2004, 195–98). The stories told by climate scientists and environmentalists, finally heard more widely in the second decade of this century, are still swirling in idioms too limited to effectively narrate our survival — not yet infiltrating mainstream babble or cutting through intentional obstruction to compel the required action (e.g., Kuruvilla 2016). As Rob Nixon has asked, “In an age where the media venerate the spectacular, when public policy is shaped primarily around perceived immediate need, a central question is strategic and representational: how can we convert into image and narrative the disasters that are slow moving and long in the making, disasters that are anonymous and that star nobody, disasters that are attritional and of indifferent interest to the sensation-driven technologies of our image-world? How can we turn the long emergencies of slow violence into stories dramatic enough to rouse public sentiment and warrant political intervention?”. (Nixon, 2011, 3) Since I first drafted this chapter and significantly after Nixon published the text quoted above, the world has changed to an even more dire state, and some answers to his questions have emerged. Climate disasters are fast becoming obvious. And there have been brave and widespread direct actions like the No DAPL (Dakota Access Pipe Line) protest that took place around Standing Rock, North Dakota, in 2016–17. The spiritual and moral center of that protest had, in consonance with the themes here, a music and dance core initiated by the Sioux of the Standing Rock region.
What I learned from BaAka forest people about singing with one another and with our surroundings is also about surviving and thriving. I ask how this kind of collective listening-sounding-interactive practice can be adopted more widely. Where are the communitarian settings woven into our everyday lives and robust enough to channel connections between collective practices and our environmental emergency? Communitarian initiatives are routinely squelched by the same interests that created this fossil-fuel-dependent existential crisis — the forces embedded within market fundamentalism (see Harraway 2016). Stretching to clutch the ring, powerful counterforces bump us away from reaching it. We need to grasp the performative circumstances (Schechner 1977) to teach and reteach one another how to listen and to hear how we might salvage life at the mercy of industrial humanity.
Ursula K. Le Guin elucidates how speaking is listening, is relationship, and she gets to the crux of the challenge of listening: “In most cases of people actually talking to one another [or singing with one another], human communication cannot be reduced to information. The message not only involves, it is, a relationship between speaker and hearer. The medium in which the message is embedded is immensely complex, infinitely more than a code: it is a language, a function of a society, a culture, in which the language, the speaker, and the hearer are all embedded” (2004, 187). This is the task: how to migrate the multileveled, multivocal, overwhelmingly intricate messages that expressive culture offers us as practices and as tools, into a thing we can amplify and accelerate, like an airbag deploying as the car crashes.
Little Stories: Echoing from Self and Back
Starting with smaller stories that live nearby is easier emotionally and conceptually, but those stories can be harder to effectively link to that big looming story. While these small stories may distract us into inaction if we allow them to, they also contain the potential to lead us where we need to go if we pay sufficient attention and get up to follow their lead. That is the point of this pint-sized chapter and of my other endeavors: to link some smallish stories that meld working and personal life — to retell, teach and reteach, send them out to be retold in new versions beyond my control — hoping, insisting, to bring them to a speculative reality that is still only partially visible, akin to what Stephen Tyler (1986) once imagined might be a nonfictional “ethnographic surrealism.”
So now a little story, close by, comfortable: Starting from the middle, where I find myself, and maybe where you find yourself — not sure in the moment where to step next. Then pulled along, you and me, by our lives, we might find each other where stories intersect. That’s the best thing about stories . . . and music . . . and listening. We can meet each other there, by surprise, along a stretch of yellow brick road. Stopping to dance and sing as we go, always forgetting, then reminded that the journey is the story, even when snared in a cliché we need to twist free from before passing. Our redemptive journeys might prevail if we bushwhack toward paths aimed effectively lifeward, continuing around a bend.
The only way to understand what I mean right now is to yodel. I’m not joking. Are you somewhere that echoes? Is it a generous space and place that will share its voice with you when you call out to it? Somewhere you won’t put others into a panic if you sound out loudly to hear your own voice, a place where the world can call back to you? Then try it please, now. Try it a few times until you like what comes back. Can we like what comes back even now after we have tarnished our world? Can we shape what comes back into a dialogue? Will people nearby join in? If they are American teenagers this is unlikely, at least at first. The effort required to move forward is unnerving.
The other day I walked through a pedestrian tunnel with my hound, Rocco. It had been a sweaty hike on a humid day in Virginia. For a few steps in the tunnel, I could delight in slightly cooler air where an echo amplifies a footstep or even an exhaled breath, the clink of collar tags or paw nails on pavement, and beckons me to call out. When I do, I remember my time discovering my voice in Central Africa — the echo from earth and body to trees and surroundings and back — a relationship through sound, a co-presence (Titon 2015) that BaAka know intimately. Although my own thinking about the voice and its echo began decades ago, I still strive to grasp and articulate links that this micro-immediacy has with urgent matters of our time. The links feel evident, but making them plain to others is not always at hand. I am late trying to do this explicitly. What took me so long? Can I, should I, amplify BaAka voices reinterpreted through teaching, where those voices combine with others? Can I connect this cry into the atmosphere with this moment, with the big story. It’s urgent, but real progress is slow (Kapchan 2016). The distress of not acting fast enough is ejected with a yodel into a world that sings back reassuringly that she — Gaia? — is still there and, astonishingly, resiliently forgiving, still answering, still embellishing our call with a richly elaborated echo of herself. In a sentiment that resonates here, Donna Harraway recently has made clear: “Gaia puts into question our very existence, we who have provoked its brutal mutation that threatens both human and nonhuman livable presents and futures. Gaia is not about a list of questions waiting for rational policies; Gaia is an intrusive event that undoes thinking as usual” (2016, 33).
In undoing thinking-as-usual (and by extension the conventions of scholarship that limit how we think), I want to listen to and to tell stories, to sing with you about what BaAka know of dynamic, multilectic, rhyzomatic interaction, grounded among people within a community and manifested in song. How does one teach those survival skills to others in person, while simultaneously sending a plea for urgent attention by local and global powers? Attention to, and active reverence for, people who have kept their expressivities and transformed them brilliantly under war, deforestation, cultural annihilation, lack of access to medical, educational, or legal support. These people suffer most from environmental collapse but are least responsible for it; their excellent practices, if those principles were understood and adapted profoundly, could still help avert collapse. Cultural survival meets literal survival at this spot along the path.
Into the Past: Learning to Listen
Some of the most memorable recordings of BaAka music include forest sounds melded with singing (for example, a recording of the BaBenzele Pygmies produced and published by Bernie Krause; see Sarno 1995). Though sometimes highly curated in the studio, this combination contrasts with an earlier preference for technologically cleansed sound. Humanly organized sound is now better understood as it melds in sympathetic vibration with sonic (and ecologically as well as socially fragile) surroundings, either recorded or live in the moment (see Eidsheim 2015). That melding is the place to focus. I remember as a student hearing saturated Ewe polyrhythms and the mixed timbres of shakers, bells, and drums, united by distance outside, and I was impelled to run toward the sound. Like sounds in campgrounds, at night, at a bluegrass festival — sounds we hear at middle distance (see Daughtry 2015) infused in the porous, especially humid, air — in woods, leaves, and ground —with vibration that is human and social. It synchs us with the immediate nonhuman vibrations of the life that surrounds us, tiny and immense.
When I first went to the Central African Republic (CAR), I was in my mid-twenties. My goal was to learn to sing like and sing with BaAka forest people — determined to understand how they bring their yodeling, polyphonic sounds into the world. I thought if I could accomplish that alone I would have done enough for one life. Looking back, my youthful ambitions seem meager considering what our earth is confronted with, among them climate emergency. Plus I had no idea what it might actually mean to have succeeded in learning something of what they know, even if the goal were limited to learning how to sing particular songs maybe well enough to teach them to others. But the question for me now, thirty years later is, once having learned some basics of BaAka practice and having devised ways to teach them in new contexts, what are the implications and responsibilities that come with this knowledge? I can teach my students to sing, but can I also in the process teach them to fight for a healthy earth — and to generate the skills they need to cultivate relationships with one another necessary for that global health? These are things that BaAka know well how to do but are not in a safe position to widely share. So it seems, at least right now, sharing further is up to people like me.
After fall 2017, in Charlottesville and at the University of Virginia, emotionally ragged people still formed musical community in the wake of a neofascist invasion, and then we reeled from an impossible massacre of country-music listeners in Las Vegas, a string of devastating hurricanes in the southern United States and in the Caribbean, and people left without adequate rescue. Then came Parkland, Florida —while the US government pitched off the rails, sending the world backward, and children rose from pools of blood to push forward. Surely once this issue of herri has been published, and then as it ages, more disasters will have already unfolded. It is a lot to ask, to sing together right now. And it is also what we most need to be doing. Is that an ironically bold assertion in the face of existential emergency? Remembering to listen, honing our sensibility, cultivating vulnerability are especially urgent right now — to keep singing through the swirling changes around us. BaAka are still singing in the midst of treacherous environmental and political changes, cradled within the dwindling “lungs” of the earth. And if BaAka can do it under the duress they face, the rest of us could too. And if we did, maybe it would signal a change in course, a new path through the woods guiding us toward what lives and thrives.
What I did not expect when I set out to learn to sing from BaAka was that doing so would require learning deeply how to listen — not only to other people, which is crucial, but also to myself within the space around me — to the life, to the presence (and the co-presence) wherever I might be in any moment. I also did not expect that I would only fully learn this by trying to teach others to do it. To cite Jean-Luc Nancy (2002, 12), to be listening is to enter into a tension and to be on the lookout for a “relationship in self” that is in perpetual exchange with the world. Jeff Todd Titon, whom I first met when I was his student at Tufts as a freshman in college and with whom I have since exchanged ideas over many years, has recently written about Thoreau’s ear. In an article that compounds the resonance of what I have tried to say here, Titon offers a fresh hearing of that iconic figure’s sensitivity to sound. Thoreau learned about our world, especially our ecological home, through listening—and in so doing learned about himself. Titon writes that for Thoreau, “music was chiefly a human echoing of environmental sounds” (2015, 144), about an attention to sound that invites a co-presence with the environment and by extension a co-presence with one another. This is what we need to understand better and make accessible within everyday practice.
Here’s a story: Justin was my friend, later my husband, who worked with me and made it possible to delve into the sociomusical world of BaAka by guiding me to meet forest people (alongside whom he had grown up and, in contrast with many in his own ethnic group, whom he deeply admired). Justin kept me safe from potential dangers ranging from poisonous snakes to falling trees and introduced me to BaAka who knew and trusted him, which led me to trust him too. Special heightened moments of listening together stand out in my memory. Moments that felt like love in all its forms: For instance on our way to a faraway forest camp, hitching a partial ride in the back of a pickup truck full of BaAka men. Something about the flow of motion, the tires over gravel, and the fresh tropical wind in our faces in the crowded truck bed gave rise immediately to singing, to fiercely interactive and joyous yodeling that I did not know yet how to join with. We two held hands — holding to this moment. The sounds of these simultaneously exuberant and gentle voices made clear why we were in this place and why we were together right now. Life feels concentrated, distilled, in moments like this (Kisliuk 2017). Then the truck stopped as did the singing, and we had to figure out where we were going in the humid, sticky heat and needing a bath.
Listening in a State of Emergency: Into an Imagined Future
I teach my students that they need to render in writing their most potent, personal, sometimes painful concerns. I firmly believe this leads to a necessarily positioned writing and thinking that enables emotional, experiential, and metaphorical connections that link profoundly to the intellectual and creative work at hand.Anthropologist Renato Rosaldo ( 1993) wrote about this process decades ago in “Grief and the Headhunter’s Rage.” As difficult as it is at this juncture for me, I try to follow my own advice right now: addressing fear, love, mourning, missing, still aching for a different outcome in my personal life and in the global present. This is not for the sake of confession but for the sake of looking straight at reality in order to act from that place. It’s what we need to do, in microcosm, individually and together.
So I face my own family story that has recently turned a traumatic corner (see Kisliuk and Mongosso 2003). I thought I could overcome, but could not as of this writing, my Central African husband’s scars from early trauma and subsequent addiction that kept surfacing to contradict the story we had thought our lives would tell: I had to admit just a few weeks before writing a draft of this chapter that I could not control the narrative or heal my husband’s ailments, try as I might, and no matter what I might feel. These ailments were old ones. When I first arrived in CAR as a researcher I had a parallel realization that, unwittingly, I had “walked onto a stage set to play to a Colonial audience” (Wilmsen in Kisliuk  2000, 23). And now, again, I had to acknowledge how the history of pillage large and small has shaped the stage I live on now and could threaten to extinguish it altogether, personally, globally. What the two of us had wanted at first was a life between two places, an intersection of homes, here and there, at once separated and integrated. Merciless sectarian violence in CAR and attendant desperation, seeded by escalating global plunder, made it impossible to forge that life we had imagined. Instead, now, it became clear after years of struggling for footing, that for now I must protect the rest of the family from descending with him into grief that had its seeds long before we met. Nothing gold can stay. It gets scuffed, dented. This is the challenge we face with our distressed planet. We need to entirely rethink how we live in order to survive, even when the mess is not our fault. Our world is drastically scuffed, almost beyond recognition. We all face trauma at points in our lives. Trembling under threat from a loved one who is sick, whether our spouse or our Gaia earth, what is key is how we emerge from the crisis — as individuals and as a collective in concert with the life cradled here.
Might the home (or the nation, or the planet) where we dwell and that we love — like a spouse — which has sustained us and which we thought we could sustain, which we had expected to endure, show up transformed, and instead threaten to hurt us, maybe even kill us, or our dog, or our child, or incinerate our home. Those destructive forces are alarmingly self-unaware. One cannot negotiate with rage or amnesia. Fire or flood or poison water must be answered by the fierce assertion of life. Either we and our fellow humans reject mindfulness-stealing addictions (alcohol? opioids? social media? fossil fuels? celebrity? unfettered greed? white supremacy and patriarchy?), or they will consume us too. Gaia and humanity will perish in our time if we don’t act. We can, in fact, choose to steer away from the elaborately designed habits and allures that take us pitching toward disaster, along with the blameless life that falls victim to our actions. Though the window is closing fast, it’s a choice we might still have time to make collectively and personally.
Whose guilt, whose responsibility, whose aspirations, whose redemption? In gratitude, we pull the good from the past and insist as best we can that what we cherish will endure beyond linear time and into the surreal real. What do we owe the world while under the immediate threat of inebriated violence or environmental catastrophe? I had to change my life’s trajectory in order to protect myself and my child — at that juncture a longed-for harmony forged from difference was not an option within my nuclear family. Is such harmony still an option for our nation, for our world? I open my mouth to sing, but my throat denies the yodel as my ear listens in suspended fragility for an echoing back from the earth. Lives meshed in profound diversity produce beauty and can produce something else, something terrifying. Coming to terms with profound difference engenders pain that can, in the end, lead to another, better reality. To make it so, the trajectory itself has to change, to lead to a future we need but haven’t yet envisioned. I want to sketch out a speculative nonfiction for my own life and extend it to the life we might imagine for the earth. A story that will find a way to reassemble the pieces that, in new formation, might still lead toward flourishing survival, in a new shape, a new sound that we were previously unable to perceive. That story is about to be told: Upon a future time, animals and people might sound aloud their co-presence, rippling from the drop of a voice, adding to the sustaining polyphony of a world that sings back.
Michelle Kisliuk. “BaAka Singing in a State of Emergency: Storytelling and Listening as Medium and Message” in the collection Cultural Sustainabilities: Music, Media, Language, Advocacy edited by Timothy J. Cooley. University of Illinois Press. April 2019. Chapter 17. Pp 220-228.
Barad, Karen. 2007. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Daughtry, J. Martin. 2015. Listening to War: Sound, Music, Trauma, and Survival in Wartime Iraq. New York: Oxford University Press.
Eidsheim, Nina Sun. 2015. Sensing Sound: Singing and Listening as Vibrational Practice. Durham, NC: Duke University Press
Harraway, Donna. 2016. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Kapchan, Deborah. 2016. “Slow Activism: Listening to the Pain and Praise of Others.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 48:115–19.
———. 2017. “The Splash of Icarus: Theorizing Sound Writing/Writing Sound Theory.” In Theorizing Sound Writing, edited by Deborah Kapchan, 1–22. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
Kisliuk, Michelle. (1998) 2000. Seize the Dance! BaAka Musical Life and the Ethnography of Performance. New York: Oxford University Press.———. 2017. “Writing the Magnified Musicking Moment.” In Theorizing Sound Writing, edited by Deborah Kapchan, 86–113. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press. Kisliuk, Michelle, with Justin Serge Mongosso. 2003. “Representing a Real Man: Music, Identity, and Upheaval in Centrafrique.” Emergences: Journal for the Study of Media and Composite Cultures 13 (1): 33–46.
Kuruvilla, Elizabeth. 2016. “Amitav Ghosh: We Are Living Our Lives as Though We Are Mad.” Live Mint, E-paper. July 18. https://tinyurl.com/z8sqwjg.
Le Guin, Ursula K. 2004. The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination. Boston: Shambala.
Nancy, Jean-Luc. 2002. Listening. New York: Fordham University Press.
Nixon, Rob. 2011. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Rosaldo, Renato. (1989) 1993. Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis. Boston: Beacon Press.
Schechner, Richard. 1977. Essays on Performance Theory, 1970–1976. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Titon, Jeff Todd. 1980. “The Life Story” Journal of American Folklore 93 (369): 276–92.
———. 2015. “Thoreau’s Ear.” Sound Studies 1 (1): 144–54.
Tyler, Stephen. 1986. “On Ethnographic Surrealism.” In Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, edited by James Clifford and George Marcus, 122–40. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 2014. Cannibal Metaphysics for a Post-Structural Anthropology. Translated and edited by Peter Skafish. Minneapolis: Univocal.
Sarno, Louis. 1995. Bayaka: The Extraordinary Music of the BaBenzele Pygmies and the Sounds of Their Forest Home. Produced by Bernie Krause. Ellipsis Arts CD3490, compact disc.
|1.||(Kisliuk  2000, 25) The idea that once upon a time humans did not dominate and animals had agency is a widespread idea in human mythology, addressed, for example, by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (2014, 42, 72) as a concept that we might return to within a broader “Anti-Narcissus” age that removes the Western gaze from the center of conceptualizations of experience.|
|2.||After Barad’s “agential realism” (2007, 150–52).|
|3.||“My intention is to define and develop an approach to the life story as a self-con- tained fiction, and thus to distinguish it sharply from its historical kin: biography, oral history, and the personal history” (Titon 1980, 276). In this sense, life story joins the genre of creative nonfiction.|
|4.||For example, Rob Nixon (2011, 3) writes: “Politically and emotionally different kinds of disaster possess unequal heft. Falling bodies, burning towers . . . and tsunamis have a visceral, eye-catching and page-turning power that tales of slow violence, unfolding over years, decades, even centuries, cannot match.” See also Deborah Kapchan (2016, 2017, respectively) on slow activism and on the realm of the speculative in generating theory.|
|5.||(Nixon, 2011, 3) Since I first drafted this chapter and significantly after Nixon published the text quoted above, the world has changed to an even more dire state, and some answers to his questions have emerged. Climate disasters are fast becoming obvious. And there have been brave and widespread direct actions like the No DAPL (Dakota Access Pipe Line) protest that took place around Standing Rock, North Dakota, in 2016–17. The spiritual and moral center of that protest had, in consonance with the themes here, a music and dance core initiated by the Sioux of the Standing Rock region.|
|6.||Anthropologist Renato Rosaldo ( 1993) wrote about this process decades ago in “Grief and the Headhunter’s Rage.”|