Aurality: Listening and Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century Colombia

Aurality: Listening and Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century Colombia

by Ana María Ochoa Gautier

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In this audacious book, Ana María Ochoa Gautier explores how listening has been central to the production of notions of language, music, voice, and sound that determine the politics of life. Drawing primarily from nineteenth-century Colombian sources, Ochoa Gautier locates sounds produced by different living entities at the juncture of the human and


In this audacious book, Ana María Ochoa Gautier explores how listening has been central to the production of notions of language, music, voice, and sound that determine the politics of life. Drawing primarily from nineteenth-century Colombian sources, Ochoa Gautier locates sounds produced by different living entities at the juncture of the human and nonhuman. Her "acoustically tuned" analysis of a wide array of texts reveals multiple debates on the nature of the aural. These discussions were central to a politics of the voice harnessed in the service of the production of different notions of personhood and belonging. In Ochoa Gautier's groundbreaking work, Latin America and the Caribbean emerge as a historical site where the politics of life and the politics of expression inextricably entangle the musical and the linguistic, knowledge and the sensorial.

Editorial Reviews

MP3: The Meaning of a Format - Jonathan Sterne

"Aurality shows how hearing, writing, speech, and song were central to the constitution of modern personhood in the nineteenth century. Using Colombia as her grounding point, Ana María Ochoa Gautier explores the ways that colonial intellectuals, creoles, and indigenous people spoke, sung, and wrote across difference as they struggled to establish new kinds of political subjectivity and nationality. Based in deep, creative readings of primary source materials, and steeped in anthropological and cultural theory, Aurality is an erudite, challenging, and rewarding book. It offers a vital alternative to a literature that has too often taken Western Europe and anglophone North America as points of historical departure. Aurality will transform our understandings of the human and the animal; nation and citizenship; music and language; speech and writing; and modernity itself."
Musical Representations, Subjects, and Objects - Jairo Moreno

With generous voice and incisive ears, Aurality offers us the gift of listening to and through multiple histories, eavesdropping into a Colombian 19th-century archive in whose seemingly muted vociferations Ana María Ochoa Gautier hears nothing less than the clamor of the political-sensorial genealogy of the Latin American, Caribbean, and global present. Hearing, listening, speaking, writing, and voicing all emerge here as ontological wagers on life, on personhood, and on human - non-human relations. But this is no celebration of the sonorous, it is a most critically sober and theoretically eloquent call that we listen in order to think Latin American (and global) modernity and coloniality again for the first time.
Hispanic American Historical Review - Alejandra Bronfman

"Speaking from the intersection of sound studies, Latin American studies, and the history of natural history and musicology, this book shifts the terrain upon which all of those fields have comfortably settled. Scholars of sound studies will need to take note of Ochoa’s challenges to European or North American framings."
Ameriquests - Julian Ledford

“Gautier’s work is tremendously useful. A challenging and rewarding read, I recommend her work to persons who are seriously interested in new approaches to retelling the history of any nation.”
American Ethnologist - William Hope

"Aurality is a significant contribution to the burgeoning field of sound studies. Ana Maria Ochoa Gautier adeptly guides the reader across complex scales of analysis using well-selected historical case studies.... Aurality achieves its goal of establishing a critical vantage point for making sense of the contemporary transformations that are shaping the 21st."
American Anthropologist - Leonardo Cardoso

"Ochoa Gautier provides a vitally important account of the intricate and heterogeneous modes of knowing, being, becoming, and belonging that continue to resonate in the postcolonial lettered city." 

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Listening and Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century Colombia

By Ana María Ochoa Gautier

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2014 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7626-2



On April 19, 1801, Alexander von Humboldt began his trip up the Magdalena River en route to Bogotá, then the capital of the Viceroyalty of New Granada. During this trip he undertook experiments with the horrid smelling vapors expelled from the mouths of crocodiles, wrote essays comparing the mosquitoes from the Orinoco, Rionegro, and Magdalena Rivers, contrasted the exuberant vegetation of the Magdalena riverside to the orderly growth found along the Rhine, and wrote observations on the more than eighty champanes (boats) that one could see transporting contraband to the beautiful riverine port city of Mompox and other cities of the Colombian Caribbean during times of peace. As if re-creating the seven days of Genesis, Humboldt remapped the lands, flora, and fauna of the Magdalena River onto the scientific observations of his inner cosmology. These episodes barely made it into his famous Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America, 1791–1804, by Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland, a public account of his travels in the Americas that stops short of his journey from the Colombian Caribbean into the Andes. Thus many of his thoughts and observations on Colombia recorded in his unedited diary, remained unknown until well into the twentieth century (Arias de Greiff 1969).

Perhaps due to its more intimate nature, the diary gives us a glimpse of those things that unnerved Humboldt. And try as he might, there was something that he found impossible to contain through scientific observation: the sound of the bogas, the boat rowers of the Magdalena River. His positive impression of their tremendous physiques and "demonstration of human force" (which he would have liked "to have had to admire for less time") was muted by the sounds they made:

They are free men, sometimes very arrogant, unruly and happy. Their eternal happiness, their good nutrition ... all of this diminishes the feeling of compassion for them. But the most upsetting thing is the barbarous, lustful, ululating and angry shouting, which is sometimes like a lament and sometimes joyful; at other times full of blasphemous expressions through which these men seek to handle their muscular effort. About this point we can make quite a few interesting psychological observations. All muscular effort decomposes more air in the lungs than during repose. To bring more air into the lungs, it is also necessary to expel more vitiated air. That is why, in heavy work, the emission of cries and sounds is quite natural. If the type of work has a regular cadence (wood cutting, rock drilling in mining, the setting of sails by sailors) then a psychological factor is added. The pleasure for cadence requires that the tones be expressed in a more determined way: Hau Hau...... Ham, Ham..... Halle, Halle.... if you add all that you can imagine, the tone can become a song and even a dialogue. Thus, the heavier the work, the more angry the screaming of the bogas, among whom the cadence will be affected frequently by caprice. They begin with a sibilating has has has and end with exacerbated insults. Especially, each bush from the shore that they can reach with the pole is saluted in the most improper fashion, the has rapidly turns into a bellowing ruckus, into a blasphemy ... The racket you hear uninterruptedly until you reach Santa Fé (Bogotá) is as bothersome as the steps of the bogas on the roof of the champán, over which they stomp so loudly that frequently there is a threat of it collapsing. Our dogs needed many days to get used to this unbearable racket. Their barks and howling increased the scandal. (Humboldt 1801, 29)

For Humboldt, scientific observation, the means of making sense of radical difference in an intensely heterogeneous context, was drastically unsettled by an "acoustic release" (descarga) (Ramos 2010) that made it impossible for him to interrupt the racket of the bogas. In this brief passage, sonic perception is spread on corporeal difference, scientific explanation, and the narration of uncontainable, bodily produced noises—vocal utterances and stamping feet—that penetrated the ears without interruption throughout the day and over the course of several weeks of travel. The description of sound in this passage stands out from the larger corpus of Humboldt's writing because of his repeated use of negative adjectives of excess—barbarous, lustful, angry—only one of which, ululating, actually refers to sound itself. All the other adjectives used here metaphorically map themselves onto words that express a lack of emotional and bodily containment that are often associated with the irrational.

We also hear the difficulty of deciphering a generic category of sound. Was this a lament or a joyful type of expression? What about the blasphemy and the racket on the roof produced by the bogas' stamping feet? It was a sound that was impossible to inscribe onto a genre or an emotion, its untraceability begging for classification in Humboldt's ears. The ephemeral nature of sound is supposed to be one of its defining qualities, but when sonic perceptions are troubling, or perceived as unwanted, then sound becomes endlessly unbearable, materialized on the body as a sign of the limits of listening as a dialogic practice. It is as if Humboldt found it difficult to overcome his acoustic disgust in order to undertake the project of epistemologically mapping sonic difference as scientific observation.

As Steven Feld reminds us, "sound, hearing, and voice mark a special bodily nexus for sensation and emotion because of their coordination of brain, nervous system, head, ear, chest, muscles, respiration, and breathing" (1996, 97). Such sounds are then interpreted and experienced under what Feld has called the "local conditions of acoustic sensation, knowledge and imagination embodied in the particular sense of place" (1996, 97) which he calls an acoustemology. By this he "means an exploration of sonic sensibilities, specifically of ways in which sound is central to making sense, to knowing, to experiential truth" (Feld 1996, 97). In this case, what we are able to hear through the pages of history is the contrasting perception of those who produced the sounds and those who listened to them, as mediated by potentially radically different interpretations of the same sounds since, evidently, the bogas were not bothered by their own sounding. Once sound is described and inscribed into verbal description and into writing it becomes a discursive formation that has the potential of creating and mobilizing an acoustic regime of truths, a power-knowledge nexus in which some modes of perception, description, and inscription of sound are more valid than others in the context of unequal power relations. And yet, in these colonial contexts of intense contact, one has to wonder how the boundaries between one form of knowledge and another interact, even if it is in a context of unequal power relations.

Knowledge in sound often confounds the boundaries between sensorial perception and discourse, between nature and culture characterized by sound's capacity to reverberate in the body and in different entities. Claude Lévi-Strauss drew attention to this characteristic, stating that "in music the mediation between nature and culture that occurs within every language becomes a hypermediation" ([1964] 1983, 27). Augoyard and Torgue (2005) explore what they call the "sonic effect," which calls attention to "the relation between the observer and the emitting object" (8) that is formed between "the characteristics of the constructed environment and the physical conditions of hearing and listening" (9). Although I do not think of sound as an "effect" but rather as an event whose emergence simultaneously transduces bodies and multiple entities, I wish to use their linking of circumstances, experience, and vibration to incorporate the idea that an acoustemology is forged not only by "the ways in which sound is central to making sense" but also by the ways in which acoustic knowledge is located at the nexus of what we are able to make sense of and what is beyond sense making but still affects us. As such, the experience of such knowledge is not only articulated by how human beings make sense of the acoustic through words but also by the very allure of the acoustic, by the relation between the capacities of sound to affect different entities and of different entities to be affected by sound. In the experience of acoustic perception in contexts of social heterogeneity, emotional and discursive knowledge of self and other, perceptual and descriptive knowledge of sound, and descriptions of the allure of the sonic are often collapsed into one another.

Connor has stated that "perhaps the most distinguishing feature of auditory experience is its capacity to disintegrate and reconfigure space" (2004, 56). Studies of acoustic perception show that "because sound, itself, has no spatial properties, sound localization itself is based on perceptual processing of the sound produced by a vibrating object" (Yost 2001, 440). The forced proximity of the bogas and the passengers in the champán collapsed auditory regimes best kept at a distance, placing them in an unsilenceable world whose temporary spatial reordering was caused by the riverine transportation technology that prevailed in Colombia during this period. In this chapter I wish to explore the ways in which the perception of acoustic difference—that of the bogas, that of an exuberant natural world, and that of the riverine population along the Magdalena—was made sense of and mapped onto the practices of acoustic knowledge-making by Europeans, Creole elites, and the bogas.

Here listening is understood as "a historical relation of exchange" (Novak 2008, 16). The recognition of the role of listening in the constitution of acoustic ontologies and knowledges complicates the idea of how notions of "local" sounds or musics emerged, and questions the epistemological construction of local sounds as static traits meant to represent a particular place and people. Rather, "the emergence of new musical genres [or the materialization of sonic perceptions across acoustemological differences] is an on-going cycle of multi-sited, multi-temporal interpretations which must be situated within a global history of exchange" (Novak 2008, 16). Moreover, a description of music does not necessarily conform to its practice (Perlman 2004) or constrain its capacity to affect different persons, even ones belonging to the same group, in radically different ways. So, this is not a history about clashes between different musical "traditions." It is, rather, a history of how different notions of convention and invention (Wagner [1975] 1981), of what is given and what is made, coalesce in discussions about the nature of sounds and music, and of the entities that produce them in a world that had undergone drastic upheaval due to colonization.

Because of their role in connecting regions and peoples, transportation technologies in this period acted as communication technologies, conflating spatial and communicative regimes. In the colonial period in Colombia, boats were manned by bogas, or boat rowers, identified mainly as zambos by the eighteenth century, men of mixed Amerindian and African origin, who by then held a virtual monopoly on river transport and as such became central characters of the many types of passages initiated by travel. During the colonial period, rivers provided the main form of transportation and communication in Colombia, a country repeatedly characterized, since the conquest, as having a difficult geography, fragmented not only by the division of the Andes into three distinct mountain ranges but also by the dense tropical rainforest vegetation of the lowlands. The Magdalena River became the leading navigational route in terms of sociopolitical importance for the formation of the nation-state because it connected the Atlantic with Bogotá, the capital of the new republic, and with Antioquia, a primary gold mining state. It was also the route of entry into the Andes if one wished to go from the Caribbean into the larger South American Andean region by land instead of by sea.

Before the introduction of the steamboat in Colombia in the mid-nineteenth century, and even afterward (since steamboats were used only in parts of certain routes), travel with bogas on the comparatively small champanes was the only means of transportation in the Magdalena River, the main route of entry into the country. The champanes were large dugout canoes that were covered in the middle by rounded, thatched roofs, a design feature that was supposedly imported from Asia in the sixteenth century (García Bernal 2007). (See figure 1.1.) The bogas stood on top of these roofs, alternately pushing against or raising the long poles that they pressed against the bottom of the river to make the boats move.

Depending on its size, each champán was manned by a crew of seven to eighteen bogas. According to the weather, travel between the Caribbean and Bogotá took between six weeks and three months, and was conducted in two stages: first from the ports of departure on the Magdalena River's outlets in the Caribbean to Mompox, and then from Mompox to Honda, if the destination was Bogotá, or to Nare, if the destination was Antioquia. Humboldt's trip took forty-five days (Humboldt 1980). One day of navigation toward Bogotá, upstream counter current for ten hours on a heavy champán, covered fifteen kilometers of navigable terrain. The same vessel could cover thirty to forty kilometers a day when traveling downstream, north toward the Caribbean. The champán thus became the site of prolonged encounters between different types of people. Acoustic exchanges acquired a particular density due to the great amount of time travelers and bogas spent in close proximity. Humboldt was not alone in committing his acoustic impressions to writing, and the howling of the bogas is a recurrent topic in travel writings of the period.

The nineteenth century was a crucial period for the constitution of the disciplinary formations that, in large measure, still persist until the present. The construction of natural sciences was itself mediated in good measure by travel literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with the natural sciences in turn serving as a model for the disciplinization of musicology and comparative musicology at the end of the nineteenth century (Clark and Rehding 2001). Among others, Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra has shown how natural history, as cultivated in the Ibero-American world during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, was crucial to the construction of the epistemic transformations of modernity, as important as the math and physics of Northern Europe, which are a more frequently recognized site of scientific consolidation (2006). If today the idea of "nature" has come into question, then so does the history that has articulated its different definitions. In this chapter I explore different practices of listening to voices, their role in the construction of different notions of human nature, of "nature," music, and sound. Specifically I explore how natives' howls seemed to be the limit against which Western ideas of music took form in the late nineteenth century. I begin by comparing how different Creole or European travelers perceived the vocalizations of the bogas.

A Cartography of Sonicities

The voice of the bogas and the sound of the Magdalena River basin in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is a legacy found in snippets and fragments, an exceptional audibility that either interrupts or accompanies, sotto voce, a narrative meant to highlight what is seen in a voyage. What are the practices of interpretation through which such sounding is described and comes to be associated with particular types of personhood and to particular ideas about nature? I begin to explore this question by comparing the different travelers' testimonies of their sonic perception of the bogas. This comparison allows us to highlight some of the terms and traits that appear repeatedly across different testimonies, thus creating a historical account of a particular sound that was described, again and again, through similar acoustic interpretations.

Auguste Gosselman, a Swedish botanist who traveled through Colombia between 1825 and 1826 and who published his travel book in 1830 wrote:

When one of them [the bogas] pushes in a certain direction, the other has to do it in the opposite sense, after which he runs from one side to the other, howling like a dog, and in the midst of screams and whistles comes back in the opposite direction to initiate the chore again. Thus, all day long, at a temperature that, in the shadows fluctuates between thirty and forty degrees [centigrade]. (Gosselman [1830] 1981, 102–3)

As with Humboldt, the sound of the bogas is heard as a function of physical labor but is mimetically imagined as the sound of howling dogs. Despite the racket of the bogas, Gosselman was also able to hear the silence of the river and the sound of animals: "During the morning the route followed the left margin of the river, with the company of monkeys and parrots as the only ones capable of interrupting the silence of the river" (Gosselman [1830] 1981, 104).


Excerpted from Aurality by Ana María Ochoa Gautier. Copyright © 2014 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Meet the Author

Ana María Ochoa Gautier is Associate Professor of Music and Director of the Center for Ethnomusicology at Columbia University. She is the author of several books in Spanish.

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