New professor Jerome Camal augments growing “global music studies” program

Interviewed by Nicole Tuma, MM 2014 flute & voice

With the appointment of Professor Jerome Camal, a faculty appointment in the Department of Anthropology, this semester marked a new beginning for ethnomusicology at UW-Madison’s School of Music.  The new initiative, a “global music studies” program, examines music’s constitution as a cultural force woven into the social and political fabric. The program was the brainchild of professor Ronald Radano, Professor of Musicology and Ethnomusicology and Senior Fellow at the Institute for Research in the Humanities, and former UW ethnomusicologist R. Anderson Sutton, now Dean of the School of Pacific and Asian Studies and Assistant Vice Chancellor for International and Exchange Programs at the University of Hawaii-Mānoa.

Jerome Camal.
Jerome Camal.
Photograph by Katherine Esposito.

The university will offer courses and certificates at both the undergraduate and graduate levels with the expectation of initiating formal degrees in the future. It is made possible through support from the Mellon Foundation.

Camal came to Madison from the University of California at Los Angeles, where he was part of the Mellon Postdoctoral Program in the Humanities, Cultures in Transnational Perspective. Prior to that, he studied at Webster University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in jazz studies; then earned a master’s in jazz performance from the University of New Orleans; and followed up with a Ph.D in musicology with an emphasis in ethnomusicology and a certificate in American Culture Studies from Washington University in St. Louis.

Up to 2011, he performed regularly on saxophone,  clarinet and flute as a freelancer in New Orleans and Saint Louis as well as in Guadeloupe and subsequently in France. Now, Camal’s research focuses on music and politics in the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe where he has been studying gwoka, a drum and dance tradition peculiar to that island.

This semester, Professor Camal is offering a graduate-level seminar on the subject of “Caribbean Music: Mobile Sounds, Creole Identities.” Next fall, he teach Anthro 104, Introduction to Cultural Anthropology. In the spring, he’ll teach two music- related seminars in the spring, one of them on the anthropology of dance. His summer plans include writing a book and getting married!

I spoke to him about the intellectual journey that brought him from his home in Nancy, France to the United States, first to pursue a career as a jazz saxophonist, and then to undertake formal academic studies.

When did you decide that you wanted to go into musicology and ethnomusicology? Had it been coming for a while, or was there a moment when you started getting really interested in it?
Well, I realized after a while that the musician’s life and lifestyle was just not for me. I’ve always enjoyed intellectual pursuit, and that was missing from my life. I really enjoyed the artistic stuff, and that was great, but the reality is, when you’re trying to make a living as a musician, a lot of times you end up doing the kind of music that you don’t care about, and you can’t do the music you really care about because you wouldn’t get paid for it. Artistically it wasn’t totally fulfilling, intellectually it was a complete vacuum, and financially it was disastrous, so I decided to apply for a graduate program, and honestly at the time I had no idea what I wanted to do. I initially wanted to do this thing on jazz scenes, but it didn’t sound like a terribly exciting topic. Then I got really interested in the Civil Rights Movement, and I started to do a little bit of research on the SNCC Freedom Singers. SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) had these vocal groups that raised money. And I wrote a paper about them, and I began to contact some of them, I was gung-ho, I was going to do some interviews…and then Ingrid Monson came out with a book about jazz in the Civil Rights Movement, right then.  “Well, there goes that idea,” I thought.  And then eventually I found all of this stuff going on in the Caribbean, and because I am bilingual I was in a really good position to do this work.

So you found your way to the study of Caribbean music through jazz?
Well yes, sort of. When I went down to Guadeloupe to do my field work the first time, my idea was to work on the musicians who mixed the local traditions with jazz, and then when I got down there I interviewed a lot of musicians, but they were saying, “Stop with your jazz crap already, why don’t you just focus on our music?” And I discovered that there were some really interesting things going on politically, and that music played a big part in the political questions that were being debated in Guadeloupe. Now I’ve gone 360 degrees because I’m actually working on a big paper on jazz and gwo ka, which is the traditional music. What I’m looking at is the power relationships that are taking place when you have American musicians who go down to Guadeloupe and work with local musicians there, and then they put out a CD. What happens? Who gets to control what the music sounds like, whose name is actually out there?

You’ve also taught some classes on popular music.
That’s the reality of a teaching position, right? I taught at UCLA for a few years, which is a program that’s really into popular music, so one of the courses that I had proposed was on Caribbean popular music, and especially on a side-by-side study of hip hop, Jamaican dance hall and reggaeton. So they thought that I was a popular music person, and so they asked me to teach the history of rock ‘n roll, so I became a rock ‘n roll guy. I did that twice, and I really, really enjoyed it. This year, I’m on the committee for the International Association for the Study of Popular Music conference, and it feels like a good fit. The questions that people who study popular music are asking are the questions that I am interested in learning about.

Jazz, the Caribbean, rock ‘n roll…how did your appointment as an anthropology professor come about?
I was the first hire in Ron Radano’s plan to put together the Global Music Studies Initiative, and they had a really well-defined job announcement. They were looking for someone who did African Diaspora, either the Caribbean or Latin America. It just fit very well with what I do. I’m really happy; I love the anthropology department. It’s cool, because I get to learn something new. It’s also very liberating to teach courses that have nothing to do with music. When I was at UCLA the very first class that I taught was a graduate seminar on music and nationalism, and now, this coming semester I’m going to do a seminar just on ethnicity and nationalism where I may talk about music at some point, but it’s an anthropology course, so I can really deal with some of the theories and read more stuff, read it differently, and not necessarily worry about applying them to music. I’m also affiliated with the School of Music; half of my teaching has to be cross-listed with the School of Music so that I can continue to contribute to the ethnomusicology curriculum. I’m also affiliated with LACIS (Latin American Cultural and Iberian Studies).

Beyond music and anthropology, what are you interested in bringing to the classroom?
I received a Madison Institute for Learning Excellence Fellowship to help me develop hybrid pedagogical tools for bringing technology into the classroom, especially in large, lecture-based courses, and using social media tools in the classroom, figuring out how to use these technologies to actually increase student engagement in lectures that can be totally boring and impersonal.

What sort of tools do you think have the most potential in that respect?
I’ve experimented with Twitter. I created an account for a class, and students would tweet questions, or I would ask them something and I’d ask them to tweet answers back. And I would periodically check the feed and answer questions orally during the class. And then after class we would keep the conversations going. We’d sometimes exchange videos, or articles that we found – you know web pages, anything. That was pretty successful, so I’m probably going to continue working with that. There are also instant polling websites…it’s basically the idea of a clicker, but much more sophisticated because you can ask students to type full sentences. My attitude is, “If you’re going to be on your computer, I’m going to disrupt your Facebooking by asking you to do things online that actually have something to do with what we’re talking about.” Not only do we have professors who are not good at thinking or knowing about some of the things that can be done with these tools, but we have a lot of students that aren’t good at them either. It’s important to think about how to use social media beyond “Here’s a picture of my friends and me at the bar last night,” and to teach students to use online tools like Wikipedia in a way that makes sense.

In terms of your own teaching, what courses are you planning on offering in the future?
I’m not entirely sure. I may end up teaching the “Musics of the World” class. Also, no one is teaching a seminar in ethnomusicological methods right now, so that’s something I’m probably going to do in the future. And I may start to think in terms of undergraduate courses on global popular music. I think that would be fun, and it’s also something that no one is offering right now, so it might be a good idea in terms of relevant courses that could attract a large undergraduate population to the School of Music. I taught a seminar last semester that was an introduction to the anthropology of the Caribbean which I’m going to be revamping to become a more lecture-based 200- or 300-level course for undergrads, an introduction to the Caribbean as a region. I cannot just offer courses on the Caribbean because there’s not enough interest, so I’m thinking about offering things on popular music, topics in anthropology, theoretical topics in anthropology…I’m really invested in post-colonial studies, so I’ll maybe develop a course along those lines. It sort of depends on what the different departments need and where they’re hoping to go. I hope we can find a happy medium.

Reach Professor Camal on campus:

Office: 5313 Sewell Social Science Bldg.
Email address: camal@wisc.edu

Visit his personal website: http://tanbouolwen.com/

Read more about his research in these books of essays:

American Creoles

Sun, Sea and Sound: Music and Tourism in the Circum-Caribbean

 

 

 

 

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