Music, Race, and Indigeneity

Gabriel Solis Awarded an NEH Grant

Promotional still from the film The Sapphires, which Solis writes about.

A scholar of African American music and indigenous music of the southwestern Pacific, Gabriel Solis studies the ways people engage the past, performing history and memory through music. A professor of music, African American studies, and anthropology at Illinois, Solis has authored books on contemporary jazz music and numerous articles on music, culture, and ethnomusicology. A 2016 National Endowment for the Humanities grant will further his research. We asked him about his work and the NEH grant.

Tell us about your work in Australia and Papua New Guinea.

Gabriel Solis
Gabriel Solis

I've been doing research in the Pacific for nearly a decade now, roughly once a year. This includes fieldwork, oral history, and archival research, with politically engaged indigenous musicians and dancers. I was first interested in understanding indigenous modernity through musical performance, and that led in part to my article "Artisanship, Innovation, and Indigenous Modernity in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea," which deals with the work of a man named Ataizo Mutahe, who makes small clay flutes to sell to tourists. That piece was recognized in the Jaap Kunst prize competition as one of the two best articles in the discipline of ethnomusicology by the Society for Ethnomusicology the year it was published. During the research process, I became particularly interested in the history of connections between indigenous people in the region and the rest of the world. Ultimately, this became the driving point of the book I'm writing with the NEH fellowship: The Black Pacific: Music, Race, and Indigeneity in Australia and Melanesia. The main idea is that there is a significant history—more than 100 years—of intensive connections between indigenous people in the southwestern Pacific and people from the African Diaspora, that this history is critical to the resistance to colonialism in the region, and that music and dance have been the primary media for the relationship. 

What importance does music play in connecting different cultures?

We often hear music described as a "universal language," but music is useful in connecting cultures precisely because it is not a language, and indeed not really like language except in the sense that both are media of communication. Music translates easily across cultural lines and yet is also easily given new meanings in new settings. Its meanings are deep and significant, but they aren't propositional like language; they are more a matter of implication. And music is routinely "polysemous," which is to say, any given musical sound can mean lots of things to lots of people. This is an important part of why the relationships I'm drawing out in The Black Pacific have happened through music: when indigenous people in the Pacific and people from the African Diaspora have connected, they have generally seen themselves as similar but different, to put it simply. They have recognized shared histories and ways in which their contexts are radically dissimilar (it helps that the word "black" in Aboriginal English is used to mean either indigenous or diasporic). Music actually captures this contradictory same-but-different notion much more easily than language does—indeed, in language it might seem like a paradox or a contradiction in terms.

George Telek, taken from his recent music video for the song "West Papua"

What does the National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship mean to you?

This is a big endorsement of the research I've been doing, and I'm really very pleased. It is a hard fellowship to get, and being selected means that both a panel of specialists in ethnomusicology and a board of interdisciplinary humanists have read what I'm working on and thought it was compelling. That certainly inspires me to keep at it. And, more simply, it means a year for writing in which I can get a draft of the book done, I hope! 

What else would you like people to know specifically about your work in Papua New Guinea and your body of work in general?

I see this project as part of a long trajectory for me, studying the ways people use music to explore histories that are not part of the dominant narrative. Whether those stories are local, regional, or global, they are a critical part of modernity, and I am committed to adding them to the larger conversation.