Intimate Distance: Andean Music in Japan

Intimate Distance: Andean Music in Japan

by Michelle Bigenho

ISBN: 9780822352358

Publisher Duke University Press Books

Published in Calendars/Music

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One

Setting the Transnational Stage

"What are we going to do with your hair?" was the band director's worried comment when he met me at the airport in La Paz. He added this problem to his lengthy list of concerns that would have to be addressed before the band left to tour Japan. My shortly cropped hair thwarted any possibility that I might be asked to wear fake braids, a standard accessory in Bolivia's world of women's folklore costumes. Many women use these hair extensions to complete their look in an entrance parade like Gran Poder, a ritual in which numerous dance and music troupes take over the streets of La Paz, displaying colorful, kinesthetic, and sonorous splendor, as well as demonstrating religious faith and social power. When I danced in Gran Poder in the early 1990s, I had spent hours combing the outdoor shopping booths for blonde braids, definitely a rarity in La Paz. Wearing fake braids for an annual ritual dance in La Paz seemed quite different from the possibility of wearing them as part of a performance costume on a transnational music tour. The thought of putting them in and taking them out before and after each performance already had me exhausted, particularly since I've never had a knack for "doing things with my hair." Short hair meant freedom from this rather time-consuming aspect of dressing up as an indigenous or urban indigenous Bolivian woman.

I also felt somewhat strange about putting on costumes that in Bolivia were not part of our performances. In Bolivia we wore a uniform of black pants, black vests, white shirts, and black fedora hats, a more mestizo look even if our repertoire always included indigenous genres as well. The term "mestizo" might be glossed as a reference to mixed Spanish and indigenous heritage, but it often refers to a non-indigenous person, and thus it sets up a racialized binary that has deeply marked Bolivian history and to which I will return. Sometimes women in the group would exchange the pants for a skirt, but all other details of the outfits remained the same. It was when we traveled internationally that costume changes became an important part of the music performance, when women were asked to dress like women and everyone had to pack indigenous clothes. The Bolivian musicians on the tour took great pride in the different outfits they wore. Although most of them did not themselves identify as indigenous, the indigenous costumes as well as the mestizo ones were fully incorporated into their own nationalist sentiments about the project. While I was fully committed to the musical project of the group, as a US citizen my Bolivian nationalist sentiments were decidedly lacking. I also carried with me my white middle-class gringa reservations about representing indigenous peoples on stage, a process that, if transposed to my own country, could be heavily critiqued as something akin to the minstrelsy use of blackface or the scouts playing Indians. I asked myself, why couldn't we just play great music? I often had to remind myself that mimicry might be as easily an expression of admiration as one of disrespect.

In this book, I follow Bolivian and Japanese performances of Andean music—participating myself in these activities—in order to unpack the meanings behind playing what might be called "someone else's music." In different ways, Bolivians, Japanese, and I were all performing someone else's music, even though we all had strategies of making it our own. Bolivians played indigenous music as nationally identifying mestizos. The Japanese played Bolivian music as foreigners who claimed a closeness with Bolivia's indigenous peoples. And I played Bolivian music as a gringa anthropologist trying to make sense of this country's multicultural and indigenous politics. The story about my short hair indexes a myriad of issues about playing someone else's music. It points to the bodies that produce musical sounds of Others, the labor involved in the visual transformations of those bodies for the sake of performance, the perceived limitations of bodies that play the music of Others, the audiences' expectations for staged otherness, and the distinct racialized ideologies that shape interpretations of these shows. Short hair both marks the impossibility of using fake braids and reminds one of the fuzzy boundaries between the supposed interiorities of bodies—what is assumed to be there already in material form—and what is put on the outside of the body—the clothes, the dress, the costume. Short hair marked the contrast between my reluctance to dress indigenous on a transnational stage and Bolivian and Japanese expectations for precisely such costumed performances. The international presentation of Bolivian music was about the staging of an indigenous world, and the fascination with indigeneity had different meanings for all involved.

The experience of playing someone else's music points to a key theme of the book: that pull of desire toward difference and the contrasting distance that one still maintains while taking on the cultural trappings of an Other, about the multiple and contrasting stories of intimate distance—a key idea about which I will say more below. Here, I look at the staging of Bolivian music for Japanese audiences, as well as the Japanese fascination with Andean music. The Bolivian musicians, however, do not merely respond to exoticizing demands of foreign audiences. Nor do the Japanese simply appropriate this music for economic ends. Economies of affect are present in the playing of someone else's music, and in this work these affective exchanges revealed racialized narratives in which Japanese and Bolivians described a closeness to each other through an imagined common indigenous ancestor. What do these narratives mean for Bolivians and Japanese? While studies of transnational music and culture often draw attention to exoticism, commodification, appropriation, and tourism, I want to set aside these predominant interpretive frames, giving a more prominent place instead to the motivating factors of transcultural affect, the material effects of transnational cultural labor, and the racialized narratives of culture that reveal both new and old perspectives on questions of nationalism and transnationalism.

The "problem" of my short hair underscored the distinct performance demands of the international context. If for nine years I had performed with the Bolivian orchestra Música de Maestros (Music of the Masters) in a black vest, white shirt, and black fedora hat, now I was being asked to dress in indigenous clothes, and preferably in accordance with my gender. As part of my doctoral fieldwork, I had performed with this ensemble between 1993 and 1995, and since that time, annual return research trips to Bolivia have been coordinated with the ongoing performance and recording schedules of this group.

A week before our departure to Japan, the director of Música de Maestros, Rolando Encinas, had held a meeting to discuss the details of the trip and to make final decisions about costumes. In his apartment that doubled as his rehearsal space in the lower middle-class La Paz neighborhood of San Pedro, we sat on the low seats assembled from wooden crates and homemade cushions, the furniture of the ensemble's meeting space since the end of 1993 when I first began playing with them as a violinist. The other five musicians who would travel to Japan had completed a similar tour the previous year. Although I knew these musicians from previous performance work in Bolivia, I was the new one on board for the Japan tour. We had been rehearsing music every evening, and I felt quite comfortable with the repertoire, but costume issues represented a different kind of challenge. The director told me that we would all carry two costumes, an indigenous one for the first half of the program and, for the second half, our usual mestizo look—"as a maestrito" they would say in reference to our ensemble's name. To distinguish the group that toured Japan, we would wear burgundy colored suits rather than our usual black attire (see figure 1). The director made arrangements for me to visit the tailor who was making all the pants and vests. In La Paz, tailors do much more than alter clothing, and they often provide the least expensive option for anyone trying to uniform a group of performers. For the Japan tour, adding a burgundy skirt to the vested mestizo image was not an option. To dress as a woman, I would have to match the cholita paceña costume of the only other woman on the tour who was also a violinist, Claudia Gozalves.

The term "cholita" can refer to an indigenous mestiza woman, but comes from the term "chola"—a loaded reference in many Andean contexts. In her study of cholas throughout the Andes, Mary Weismantel calls attention to the fact that this imagined and real social figure is often described in sartorial terms—with reference to her "typical" dress—in spite of the fact that the term's referent is also heavy with meanings of both race and sex—what is imagined to be in the body and underneath the clothes. The typical dress of the cholita paceña includes a wide gathered skirt (pollera) over at least three petticoats that are seen below the skirt hem like a lacy white border, a fringed shawl pinned together with a broach, and a bowler hat worn over hair parted into two long braids—the requisite hair style for anyone wanting to approximate a Bolivian woman's indigenous dress. The clothes of a cholita from La Paz, including a skirt from a colonial Spanish wardrobe and a hat from British railway workers, today may index an urbanized indian, but ultimately they reflect a complex history of European and indigenous aesthetics. The aesthetic mix continues to shift and turn. The shoes of a contemporary cholita paceña are flat elegant slippers that look something like ballet shoes. But for our performances, the director had opted for a period look, taking inspiration from photographic images of the 1920s; with this costume, the other violinist, Claudia Gozalves, had to wear high-heeled lace-up boots (see figure 2). For this half of the program, I thankfully wore the pants in which I felt comfortable performing.

My short hair posed the most problems for the first half of the show, the indigenous section; I could not simply slip into a woman's pollera and fake braids. Actually, no one ever "slips" into these costumes. In folklore tours of France, I had seen Bolivian dancers set aside over an hour just for costume preparation. In theatrical work there is nothing unusual about spending this amount of time for costume and makeup preparation, but on this tour, in which everyone was a performing musician, there would be expectations about both costumes and musical preparation. It was something akin to the idea that an opera company's orchestra members would do their hair, apply their makeup, and change elaborate costumes as they also warmed up on their instruments. I had foreseen this possibility, and short hair seemed like my best defense, the best way of keeping an extra hour for practicing music rather than parting and braiding hair.

In the end, my costume problem was not insurmountable. After Encinas reviewed his vast knowledge about different forms of women's indigenous dress—a mental archive that came from performing folklore and traveling throughout the country since he was a young boy—he found the solution in a head veil that covered a woman's hair completely, and that was then topped off with a white wool hat. Gozalves and I would wear these headpieces, gathered wool skirts, and colorfully woven belts. For this part of the program the men on the tour wore white cloth pants, white peasant shirts, wide woven belts, lluch'us (men's woven hats with ear flaps), the same white wool hats, and an aguayo (woven cloths) folded and tied diagonally across their chests. The abarcas or indigenous sandals went with these costumes, while dress shoes were combined with the mestizo suits of the program's second half. For the second part of the program, I abandoned the feminine look, dressed like the men, and was thus spared any further clothing changes. But Gozalves changed costumes a total of four times—representing in turn a highland indigenous woman, an African Bolivian woman, a cholita paceña, and a woman from Bolivia's southern region of the Chaco. All her costumes fit in a huge bag that she herself had difficulty lifting.

Since the 1970s, Bolivian musicians have been touring Japan, often coming to rely heavily on these short-term jobs to sustain their economic and artistic goals at home. Those who earn a living in Bolivian music struggle at home with underemployment and general employment insecurity. A one-to-three-month tour of Japan is ephemeral in the long term, and a sure thing in the short term, a guarantee of significant income that might finance the next eight months of living in La Paz, and also allow for small capital investments that help move musicians out of their usually precarious economic position. When viewed in relation to other music employment opportunities at home or abroad, a tour of Japan is one of the best remunerated gigs that a Bolivian musician can secure. These jobs have shaped significantly the economic lives of Bolivian musicians, and to grasp ethnographically their significance, the interpretive frame must move beyond a predominant focus on transnational exoticism.

For these coveted contracts, musicians do their best to guard their reputations, trying to avoid or at least dissimulate the personal frictions that inevitably emerge from the extended close contact of on-the-road employment. Work relations on the tour may determine whether or not musicians receive another invitation. Juan, a musician in La Paz who was worried about not getting another contract, speculated that his own music group might no longer fit what the Japanese wanted because his ensemble did not include any women, even as dancers. He surmised that the Japanese sponsors probably wanted both masculine and feminine representations of Bolivian folklore. Then he complained about how problematic it is to complete these tours with women, a comment that was repeated to me by other musicians as well. "Look at Ximena!" he said, referring to a woman who allegedly had been stealing and using up the phone cards of other tour members to call her boyfriend back in Bolivia. But stories of dishonesty among tour members cross all genders. With these close working conditions, a single experience of this kind was enough for a director to say "never again" to a tour with that person. Too much was at stake: the group's chemistry, performance moods, and ultimately future work.

Juan extended his discussion about the problems of women on the road, alluding to concerns about romantic entanglements. He mentioned Bolivian women who had married Japanese men and the "problems" that ensued. Their decisions about where they would live (Bolivia or Japan) and whether or not they stayed together often affected the complex and fragile social relations through which Bolivians either received a contract offer or continued waiting for a call. This musician was not alone in his opinion that feminine presence brought risk to this predominantly male performance space. Other fellow musicians made similar statements in my presence. Following comments like these, the person would quickly add, speaking to me, "of course you are different." They never elaborated on the ways that I was different. I surmised that as a gringa who worked as a professor of anthropology in the United States, I was already in a different economic position from other women who have performed Bolivian music in Japan. Or at least I had a certain license to behave differently through the privileges of being a gringa. In spite of these general sentiments about the dangers of female presence, many Bolivian tours of Japan included women through dance. Although Gozalves played the violin, her presence was also used to feature four different typical costumes and dances. Three years after this tour, she married a Japanese man who had lived for six years in Bolivia, learned Bolivian music, and returned home to perform his own compositions of Bolivian music in Japan. But I'm getting ahead of myself in the story. Suffice it to say that love, intimacy, and sometimes marriage are also part of these Bolivian-Japanese encounters.


Excerpted from "Intimate Distance: Andean Music in Japan" by Michelle Bigenho. Copyright © 0 by Michelle Bigenho. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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