Dr. Njelle Hamilton

June 16th, 2010 by Bridget

“‘Music & a Story’: Sound Writing in Ramabai Espinet’s The Swinging Bridge”  was the first chapter I wrote for my dissertation on music and memory in the contemporary Caribbean novel. This wasn’t at all what I had planned — it is actually the last chapter in the project, but while I was researching the history of the phonograph record, I got really excited about the etymological and linguistic connections between writing, recording and memory.  I spent hours looking up photographs of early prototypes of the phonograph, gramophone and similar technologies, and learned that, the invention of this foundational technology of what became the music and recording industries, actually began as an attempt to graph sound i.e. sound writing. Derrida-fan that I am, my brain just exploded with excitement at finding a concept and a technology that was both germane to the novels I was writing about, but also key to the methodology that I was inventing for this interdisciplinary project. As I re-read The Swinging Bridge, I realized that this chapter was going to be the lynch-pin of the entire dissertation: here was a novel in which the main character, Mona, used music — remembered songs from her childhood, from a myriad of musical genres — to reconstruct her fractured identity as an Indo-Trinidadian woman adrift in an unwelcoming world. Further, not only were these songs rendered in text as lyric only (as writing, not sound), the novel quite interestingly works towards the rediscovery of a lost journal that contains censored song texts of Mona’s ancestress. As I focused on this journal and the subversive feminist work that both the journal and the songs were accomplishing, I realized that the novel was really about the censorship of (Indian) women’s voices in history, literature and culture, and that the music of the novel was key not just to understanding what the novel is trying to accomplish, but also to Mona’s reassembling of her identity — in fact, she operates much like a studio engineer, curating and selecting records to create a new sound all her own. So, after a three-month archival journey through the history of three countries (India, Trinidad and Canada), five music genres (jazz, calypso, presbyterian hymns, Hindi bhajans, and dub), two recording technologies (the phonograph and the cassette tape), and the art of documentary film making, this article, and then the longer chapter were born! I hope you have as much fun reading it, as I did writing it.

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