Reviewing the Sound of Diaspora

Musical Passage - A Voyage to 1688 Jamaica

I have been fascinated by ethnomusicology since I was first introduced to the word and able to pronounce it. This study of cultures through this music and vice versa allows you to make connections and follow conclusions that shrink the world while exposing the enormously complex layers of deceptively simple sound expressions. It is also a way to illustrate and understand migration patterns, symbolic interaction, and facets of culture that might have been obscured through time.

This week my assignment for digital history class was to analyze and review the Musical Passage project, and I was thrilled. Created by Laurent Dubois , David K Garner , and Mary Caton Lingold , here is a digital fusion of history, music, and digital application to inform and unwrap the complexity of a musical piece composed to transcribe a piece of African music in the Carribean. A collaboration of scholars presents an interactive story of Hans Sloane’s Voyage to the Islands of Maera, Barbados, Neives and S. Christophers and Jamaica” from 1707. From a contemporary view, there was an English intellectual who traveled to Jamaica during an active era of slave trading from Africa to the region, held slaves and a plantation, and in effect mined the culture and talents of these forces, transplanted people to study their music through his lens.  But, this is African music, acknowledging ethnic diversity there, brought to those in a tragic diaspora, keeping a respect to the meaning and delivery of the music: the melody and instrumentation remaining as authentic as possible given the setting.

Content
This site posts the image of these 2 musical pages of text and offers hypertext to hear the passages or learn about the instruments and language within the piece. The clicks remain on the page in a popup to provide information such as a short biography on Sloane, elaborated definitions of some terms what illustrate life in Jamaica at the time, speculation on who his assistant “Mr. Baptiste” really was. On the music printed, the creators offered the historical background of each movement as it related to the 3 ethnicities represented: Angola, Popo, and Koromanti. They gave the location, some distinctive description of each and what kind of instruments would have come from the region. Along with this pop-out is a sample of the music performed as written.
koro

Form
The site has 3 main sections: Explore, Read, and About. Explore is the aforementioned page with the text and transcription from which one can listen or read more information on the piece. In the “Read” section, the authors provide a detailed history on Sloane and Jamaica at the time, the process of writing this book and Sloane’s efforts with Mr. Baptist in achieving some authenticity. They do this respecting the integrity of the music above all else. The final section discusses the collaboration of scholars, the digital architecture behind the project and platforms, and an extended bibliography. The grace and ease of transition in the site from HTML5 and Fullpage.Js among other newer software for web presentation.

Audience

The creators of Musical Passage clearly state that the audience for Sloane’s book was for his peers: the white, wealthy land-owning, slave-holding class in Jamaica at the time and not for the people who could relate to the material and join the conversation. Those they treated as sub-human were also those who were peculiar, and they held a detached intellectual interest in these rich cultures much as they would a seashell or a chair.

The audience for the website, however, is the public at large and this user-friendly site has the appeal of offering great detail in somewhat common language that can be understood by middle school children interested in the origins of the guitar or banjo or a citizen wanting to find a transcription of music hailing (inspired) from their ancestral land pre-diaspora. It would be useful as a classroom assignment to launch a multi-disciplinary study into Jamaica at the time as a case study in slavery and the Americas. Or, for someone like myself, who loves music and exploring its many manifestations as expressive cultural artifacts.

Musical Passage is both a digital archive and an exhibit. It digitized a rare and important work, perhaps the first transcription of African music into the Americas and annotated it so that we can listen and understand it in the context beyond its initial appeal.  It may inspire others to develop interactive digital sites and exhibits for other pieces, both historical and current which invite the discussion of art and meaning and the things that unite us all or expose stratification.

v

 

Comments on Peer Projects: Class Blog 3

BLOG ASSIGNMENT: Please review everyone’s prospectus as well as each group’s preliminary plan and post comments/observations to the blog. These can include a direct reference to particular prospectuses and plans, but should also reflect on any potential common themes, issues and concerns that you noticed in reading them together. You are also certainly welcome to relate these issues to your own project and think about how what your colleagues are doing might influence your own work.

One common characteristic among students of the Humanities is that they tend to shy away from superficial research topics. Most hint at the development of the author’s maturity as a scholar by being deliberate, precise, and meaningful. As students of digital history, we’re charged with going further and applying our topics to non-traditional platforms and translating from typical narrative forms into digital forms. The expectations of educators and readers may be high, but those of the researchers themselves seem to exceed.

Digital Project Themes
With stark exceptions – most of the projects relate to translating personal experience, several from Southern, US history, into digital artifacts that are historical arguments or exhibits of alternative points of view. The commonalities of theme end there and branch into educational, military, public health, ethnic, and communications studies with the foundations remaining in historical analysis. As it is my own academic goal to combine social science and humanities in research and public discourse, I am excited to see the progress of each project and the exploration of methods for digital translation which suit the material and benefit the audience.

Public History
Digital History is a form of public history. A counter to this might be a scenario Jo Guldi or others discuss in which the historical research is given digital treatments for display in an online journal or exhibit but hidden behind an exclusive audience or social firewall. But in essence, bringing historical scholarship to digital forms such as interactive web space, elaborating timelines, 360 annotated maps and oral history presentation, or even further, gaming platforms that allow the consumer/viewer/student to manipulate the data for a personalized narrative, is public history at the core. Instead of a tautological relationship of research for publication to be used in future research for publication, academic “civilians” are able to learn general and highly specialized historical information where they are when the works are intentionally displayed digitally. On the web or in spaces dedicated to their exhibition, historians engaged in a digital translation of their work are putting courting non-elites in ways that previous analog generations could not.

Group Projects
Students also came together in small groups to consider a hypothetical digital history project for which they would seek funding. Idealism can have some erosion when faced with the cost of producing a quality site or exhibit, or it can inspire collaboration and the hunt for funds available.

In terms of setting, these small collaborations tended to focus on groups who participated in historical events or explore local and regional historical phenomena.
In other cases, the subject might not be local, but the audience can have an intimate exchange with their experiences and motivations by entering their “world” or actively participating in the digital platform in contrast to consuming.

In all cases, these projects have broad educational value. As I have mentioned before, the onset of interactive “gaming” in which a user and programmer dance to either achieve a goal or build on intelligence is a phenomenon that has entrenched itself in American culture and that of techno-industrialized nations since the late 1980’s.

  • One walking tour of Charlotte idea by Savannah, Gabi, and Rickey educates participants who can virtually walk the streets of Charlotte, noting people, places, and events of the past by location. One student also suggested the possibility of participants being able to create their own walking path, whereas physical tour groups would have a set itinerary and script.
  • Rachel, Nikki, and Tommy Warlick would incorporate gaming techniques to existing slave narratives.
    • “Using Twine, we will create a game that poses questions and dilemmas to the user that slaves faced daily, e.g., a question in the simulation might read “if you were Frederick Douglass, would you fight back against slave-breaker Covey or submit to Covey’s wishes?” The answer choices might include “fight back” or “submit” and each choice would produce a different consequence.”
      Instead of adding a “fun” element, this would allow the participant/student more insight where empathy is not possible. (1))
  • Applying this kind of insight into historical lives, Rachael, Laura, and Brian apply gaming or participant control techniques into a digital presentation on the Jamestown via self- paced navigation and character creation.

According to William G Thomas II  (2) most of these approaches are Digital Narratives by type and apply the digital platform not just to awaken existing historical data to users

In David Parry’s portion of essays on Hacking the Academy, he states one objective for fundamentally changing History as an academic and public discipline should be for historians to “Aspire to be a curator”. I think these projects prove that digital history breaks down barriers of elitism that have prevented researchers from being taken seriously and given a valid or fair opportunity to find an audience.

What I would suggest for each researcher is that they proceed with confidence and not be afraid to brand their projects or be bold. Not only are we in a digital age but in an age of commodification. Historians are producing not just their projects but a pro-duct in a marketplace: website hosting may require ads, libraries fight for funding, schools are never isolated from corporate strings, etc. Our task now is to encourage the scholarship and continue the spirit of collaboration for accountability and the deeper, more relevant dives for truth and a good story.

 

  1. Rachel McManimen, Nikki Oliver, and Tommy Warlick. Grant Project Prospectus.
    UNC Charlotte, Digital History Course HIST-6330. Fall 2018
  2. Thomas, William G. III. What is Digital Scholarship? A Typology.
    http://railroads.unl.edu/blog/?p=1159
  3. Parry, David “Burn the Boats/Books” from Hacking Scholarship: Getting Yourself Out of the Business in Five Easy Steps. Jackson, et al.
    https://quod.lib.umich.edu/d/dh/12172434.0001.001/1:2/–hacking-the-academy-new-approaches-to-scholarship?g=dculture;rgn=div1;view=fulltext;xc=1

 

It is to ponder

Thought 1

Beginning this Graduate program has been a great experience so far. I feel as though I “fit in” to the discipline, and hopefully so with my fellow students even though I am GenX. I’m rather proud to have belonged in the generation with the best music, but it comes with certain technical deficits when entering a contemporary classroom.

When I was in public school, beginning in junior high, educators lumped students intoImage result for computer class 1988 “probably college bound” or “vocational”. There was a lot of snobbery about this, and my sociological mind zooms into the fact that most of the “votech” folks were working to lower middle class and pre-college included the less low middle class. I didn’t have much variety to go on- we went to a working-to-lower school in the district. This was a part of tracking, a practice that has changed in some ways but continues: students who score well by certain guidelines are put into a class together and given material that compliments and challenges their perceived abilities. It’s not effective, of course, because children learn in various ways and some lower performing students would benefit from adapted challenges and socialization with people out of their class (in all senses). But anyway… I was put into pre-college which meant taking algebra and advanced language courses. Those bussed to the Vocational Technical center learned computer programing for automation or designing. This was 1989. By 1992 computer language classes in my district were electives or you could play Jeopardy off a disk in the computer if you were finished with your work, which I never was.

Then came college. I began as an English major and went through several others in the humanities and liberal arts, but never took a computer class. Ever. They began having “foundations” courses a few years after I went through. I learned email in 1993 and telenet for talking to others online, and usenet for finding people outside of my college town who didn’t bore me to death. I was then absorbed into social media platforms of IRC, Yahoo boards, Livejournal, then Facebook and the other marks of the beast. But, no programming. I know absolute fundamental html but no java, no pascal, cobalt (?) etc. I always thought the tech would cater to me and I wouldn’t have to learn anything but how to be a savvy user.

Now, learning digital history, it was suggested in one reading that to present material on one platform you’d have to know Python. Wtf?

I know that when email arrived into homes and PC’s became the new TV’s that Boomers and beyond had some adjustments to make because this was completely new. But, the language necessary was shaped into icons. Save?- click the picture of the floppy disc. Before society started catering to Millennial preferences the market was selling to Gen X and boomers making use as easy as possible but schools were teaching not just how to use but how to program, how to make, and how to really understand. In college and on I would call one of my basement-dwelling tech friends to fix my machine in exchange for a beer. In college now, you not only self-diagnose but students create apps and hack authorities. They are participants in a dialectical relationship much different than the master/slave of the previous era.

Continuing with this deficit is daunting but not insurmountable. Having to do real research and real work after a few decades of narcissistic writing, essays and pondering out loud is equally nerve-wracking. It is just remarkable that in 40 years time, there is this digital explosion and some of us saw it fall, see the fallout, while others have the right suits and are able to go on about life, as usual, eschewing the debris and collecting what they can use for themselves.

 

Digital Divisions and Elevations

In reading the article “Interchange: The Promise of            Digital History “, Dr. Kirsten Sword mentioned avoiding another “digital divide” in a discussion about the use of advanced technology for public history when focused on specialized practitioners rather than generalists throughout the field. As someone trained in Sociology as well, this made my ears perk up like a fennec fox.

One reason history found itself in a paradigm shift in the mid 20th century was because there was a perception, not unfounded, that history was suited for an academic or intellectual, social elite. It was in museums and books away from accessible common spaces, save libraries. So the aim was to release history into a wider, farther reaching audience with more of a democratic sensibility. But yet I wonder if we now contend with the digital divide?

The Pew Research Center follows the use and dissemination of technology, breaking it into demographic ranges. Lee Rainie from the center presented on the current snapshot of the digital divide as it relates to age, income, and race in 2016 and there has been a great improvement in household access to the internet since the seeming “stone age” of 1999 and even 2010. Yet, some groups still have greater access than others. I think about the aim of public history to reach and engage, and I wonder about the dismally funded school systems who, without the deliberate consideration of their plight, could not provide educational tools to expose and educate children. The positive side of the report is that the 18 and younger crowd is the most “connected”. But, what they focus their eyeballs on is another issue altogether.

I firmly agree that all historians should now acquaint themselves, if not master, current and emerging technologies in order to study and interpret data while sharing and presenting research in farther reaching, more meaningful ways than the more elitist past. However, we really need to consider the most common or typical level of technical useage rather that can translate or be manipulated for more sophisticated innovation when it then becomes most accessible. Public spaces such as a well funded museum might be able to host a virtual-reality history exhibit, but that experience fulfills the goals of a humanist project by also providing a comparable experience in common technologies such as an app or 360-degree photography on a website.

I am relieved that the digital divide is closing, but we still have the hurdle of how sophisticated the experience can be, and how fruitful, once we’re on the highway.