Tag Archives: culture shock

Jazz and Identity: Comment on Lydon's Iyer Interview

Radio Open Source » Blog Archive » Vijay Iyer’s Life in Music: “Striving is the Back Story…”.

Sounds like it will be a while before the United States becomes a truly post-racial society.

Iyer can define himself as American and he can even one-up other US citizens in Americanness, but he’s still defined by his having “a Brahmin Indian name and heritage, and a Yale degree in physics.”

Something by which I was taken aback, at IU Bloomington ten years ago, is the fact that those who were considered to be “of color” (as if colour were the factor!) were expected to mostly talk about their “race” whereas those who were considered “white” were expected to remain silent when notions of “race” and ethnicity came up for discussion. Granted, ethnicity and “race” were frequently discussed, so it was possible to hear the voices of those “of color” on a semi-regular basis. Still, part of my culture shock while living in the MidWest was the conspicuous silence of students with brilliant ideas who happened to be considered African-American.

Something similar happened with gender, on occasion, in that women were strongly encouraged to speak out…when a gender angle was needed. Thankfully, some of these women (at least, among those whose “racial” identity was perceived as neutral) did speak up, regardless of topic. But there was still an expectation that when they did, their perspective was intimately gendered.

Of course, some gender lines were blurred: the gender ratio among faculty members was relatively balanced (probably more women than men), the chair of the department was a woman for a time, and one department secretary was a man. But women’s behaviours were frequently interpreted in a gender-specific way, while men were often treated as almost genderless. Male privilege manifested itself in the fact that it was apparently difficult for women not to be gender-conscious.

Those of us who were “international students” had the possibility to decide when our identities were germane to the discussion. At least, I was able to push my «différence» when I so pleased, often by becoming the token Francophone in discussions about Francophone scholars, yet being able not to play the “Frenchie card” when I didn’t find it necessary. At the same time, my behaviour may have been deemed brash and a fellow student teased me by calling me “Mr. Snottyhead.” As an instructor later told me, “it’s just that, since you’re Canadian, we didn’t expect you to be so different.” (My response: “I know some Canadians who would despise that comment. But since I’m Québécois, it doesn’t matter.”) This was in reference to a seminar with twenty students, including seven “internationals”: one Zimbabwean, one Swiss-German, two Koreans, one Japanese, one Kenyan, and one “Québécois of Swiss heritage.” In this same graduate seminar, the instructor expected everyone to know of Johnny Appleseed and of John Denver.

Again, a culture shock. Especially for someone coming from a context in which the ethnic identity of the majority is frequently discussed and in which cultural identity is often “achieved” instead of being ascribed. This isn’t to say that Quebec society is devoid of similar issues. Everybody knows, Quebec has more than its fair share of identity-based problems. The fact of the matter is, Quebec society is entangled in all sorts of complex identity issues, and for many of those, Quebec may appear underprepared. The point is precisely that, in Quebec, identity politics is a matter for everyone. Nobody has the luxury to treat their identity as “neutral.”

Going back to Iyer… It’s remarkable that his thoughtful comments on Jazz end up associated more with his background than with his overall approach. As if what he had to say were of a different kind than those from Roy Hayes or Robin Kelley. As if Iyer had more in common with Koo Nimo than with, say, Sonny Rollins. Given Lydon’s journalistic background, it’s probably significant that the Iyer conversation carried the “Life in Music” name of  the show’s music biography series yet got “filed under” the show’s “Year of India” series. I kid you not.

And this is what we hear at the end of each episode’s intro:

This is Open Source, from the Watson Institute at Brown University. An American conversation with Global attitude, we call it.

Guess the “American” part was taken by Jazz itself, so Iyer was assigned the “Global” one. Kind of wishing the roles were reversed, though Iyer had rehearsed his part.

But enough symbolic interactionism. For now.

During Lydon’s interview with Iyer, I kept being reminded of a conversation (in Brookline)  with fellow Canadian-ethnomusicologist-and-Jazz-musician Tanya Kalmanovitch. Kalmanovitch had fantastic insight to share on identity politics at play through the international (yet not post-national) Jazz scene. In fact, methinks she’d make a great Open Source guest. She lives in Brooklyn but works as assistant chair of contemporary improv at NEC, in B-Town, so Lydon could probably meet her locally.


In some ways, Jazz is more racialized and ethnicized now than it was when Howie Becker published Outsiders. (hey, I did hint symbolic interactionism’d be back!). It’s also very national, gendered, compartmentalized… In a word: modern. Of course, Jazz (or something like it) shall play a role in postmodernity. But only if it sheds itself of its modernist trappings. We should hear out Kevin Mahogany’s (swung) comments about a popular misconception:

Some cats work from nine to five
Change their life for line of jive
Never had foresight to see
Where the changes had to be
Thought that they had heard the word
Thought it all died after Bird
But we’re still swingin’

The following anecdote seems à propos.

Branford Marsalis quartet on stage outside at the Indy Jazz Fest 1999. Some dude in the audience starts heckling the band: “Play something we know!” Marsalis, not losing his cool, engaged the heckler in a conversation on Jazz history, pushing the envelope, playing the way you want to play, and expected behaviour during shows. Though the audience sounded divided when Marsalis advised the heckler to go to Chaka Khan‘s show on the next stage over, if that was more to the heckler’s liking, there wasn’t a major shift in the crowd and, hopefully, most people understood how respectful Marsalis’s comments really were. What was especially precious is when Marsalis asked the heckler: “We’re cool, man?”

It’s nothing personal.

Montreal Culture and Linkup

Noticed an event on Montreal Linkup set up by the Linkup founder. In it, he says:

I’d like to help Montreal Linkup eventually become just as active, so I am scheduling a series of events on the Montreal site to help get things started. I will not be able to attend this event myself, but I wanted to provide this opportunity for people on Montreal Linkup to gather for dinner and get acquainted in a relaxed, comfortable setting.

(Follows: a description of the restaurant, apparently coming from a guide.)

Given my ongoing commentary on the Montreal Linkup and Quebec culture, I really had to say something.

Here’s my message to him:


Though you may do the same for all of the less active Linkups, I get the impression that you’re trying to get the Montreal Linkup up and running.
As a cultural anthropologist from Montreal, I feel compelled to give you my perspective on what may or may not work. I blogged specifically about this issue.

Since then, I participated in two events in Montreal with people from New York Linkup.

Obviously, you know your business very well and this is not meant as a way to “teach you your job,” but in case these comments make a difference, I wanted to send them to you.

Clearly, every Linkup has its own life, feel, “personality.” From direct contacts with members from Boston and New York City, it seems that these differences are quite consequential. My argument is that Montreal might be even “more different.” Businesses from the U.S. that have established branches here were either already well-established outside of the U.S. or went on to become quite well-established elsewhere. Chances are that your success outside of North America (Paris, London, Hong Kong, Shanghai) will bring success to the Montreal Linkup, and vice-versa.
The key here is to adapt to the culture.

So let me pinpoint some differences between Montreal and other North American cities in the hope of helping you adapt Linkup to Montreal. Similarities between Montreal and the rest of North America are quite obvious but differences are making adaptation desirable.

The first thing to realize is that, as you probably know, Francophones make up for the majority of Montreal’s population (including a significant part of the business community which seems to be your primary target). This is not to say that you alienate two-thirds of the population by having an English-only site. After all, most of us French-speakers also read and write in English fairly frequently. (Contrary to Paris, English proficiency may not necessarily correlate with business-mindedness.) Yet the sociolinguistic constitution of the city might help explain why homegrown solutions are usually preferred. Quebec portals and blogs are really quite popular and even the traditional media are controlled locally (in a unique and much-bemoaned example of vertical integration).
Even English-speaking Montrealers perceive themselves as significantly distinct from the rest of North America. This is no mere city rivalry.It’s an actual identity.

While it has little to do with Hollywood or New York City, Montreal has its own star system. Montreal celebrities aren’t necessarily well-known outside of Quebec but they have a tremendous impact on the culture and appear in most of the media. Those celebrities are perceived as very personable and people meet them regularly, as they live in specific neighborhoods and tend to “hang out” at specific cafés, bars, and restaurants (hint: not Nizza). If a Montreal celebrity were to host an event, chances of getting the word out and the ball rolling would increase tremendously. Few celebrities are truly part of the two language communities but attendees may come from both communities if they really feel compelled.

To compare with Boston, locations listed for the Montreal Linkup (Saint-Jérôme, Joliette, Granby, Drumondville) are more like Springfield than like Cambridge. Similarly, your “Paris area” sounds as if the New York area included Boston, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, and Bangor. A common way to divide up the Montreal region is (Island of) Montreal, South Shore, Laval, North Shore. Quebec itself is divided up in very distinct (and large) regions (the aforementioned cities are all in different regions).

Quebec culture in general tends to emphasize informality in many circumstances. One reason the Montreal Linkup appears to only be working with a specific group of entrepreneurs is that most other people are quite fond of impromptu, informal gatherings.
For an example of a homegrown network, you might want to look into the history of YulBiz, started by members of YulBlog (a blogger network).
The YulBlog rules may clash with Linkup’s “Good Hosting Guide.”

By the way, the website for Nizza is http://www.nizza.ca/.
Sorry to be blunt but the link you gave is for a restaurant in Minneapolis. It might just be that you were going through a list for all Linkup locations but it makes us think that your choice was arbitrary. There are many great restaurants in Montreal to host Linkup-type events, including way too many French restaurants. It doesn’t sound like Nizza would be a first choice for anyone to make.

Again, I hope some of this can help you understand what needs to be done to make Montreal Linkup a success.


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