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Interview with Timothy Rommen

December 11, 2017


Timothy Rommen is Professor of Music and Africana Studies and the Davidson Kennedy Professor in the College of Arts and Sciences. He specializes in the music of the Caribbean with research interests that include folk and popular sacred music, popular music, critical theory, ethics, tourism, diaspora, and the intellectual history of ethnomusicology. 

In July of 2017, Professor Rommen was named the Interim Chair of the Department of Africana Studies.

We spoke with him about a number of topics, including his current work, the impact of music in the African diaspora, and the value of Africana Studies in our current social and political climate.

Continue reading to learn more about Professor Timothy Rommen.


What projects are you currently working on?  What are the goals for these projects?

I’m currently working on two main projects. The first is a volume on the political economy of music and sound in Caribbean all-inclusive resorts—a collection that I’m editing with my colleague Jocelyne Guilbault from UC Berkeley. For the longest time, all-inclusives have been marginalized and avoided within music scholarship in the Caribbean in favor of thinking about sites of musical production deemed in some way more “authentic” or artistically interesting. And yet, these venues are often the primary sites within which musical encounters and exchanges between local musicians and tourists take place So, the volume takes a long look at the colonial and neo-colonial histories of race, class, precarity, and power that inform the political economy of these spaces while also exploring the ways in which musicians and audiences continue to shape and respond to shared cosmopolitanisms in and through performance.

My second project focuses on two styles of popular music in Dominica—cadencelypso and bouyon—in order to think about decoloniality and citizenship in the Caribbean. In a region of islands, Dominican musicians prefer to think about archipelagic space and how that affords them the possibility of transcending the nation and connecting to the wider region. They use the idea of creole in order to one, explain their hybrid musical genres (these genres both incorporate sonic markers and influences from around the francophone and anglophone Caribbean and blend them with local musical ideas); and two, in order to point to a future of shared, archipelagic possibility. In this sense, these musicians are also weighing in on questions related to citizenship (and even to sovereignty) in the Caribbean and I am thus thinking about their musical interventions as examples of decolonial thought and practice.  

What do you want students to take away from your classes?

I always aim to open students to the possibilities that music affords for thinking about life beyond the concert, the recording, or the jam session. Music is a lens that affords profound insights into topics ranging from race and class to gender and sexuality, and from political economy to social justice, to name just a few. Engaging with these registers of analysis in the process of coming to a better understanding of musical practice has been a constant source of wonder for me and I hope to share this approach to sound with my students.  

What are your three favorite Africana texts and why? 

Tough question…it’s impossible to pin this down to just three, so I think I’ll just go with three of my favorite classics by Caribbean intellectuals.  

C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins is still one of my favorite accounts of the Haitian Revolution. It carefully details how Haitian revolutionary leaders laid bare the contradictions and hypocrisy at the heart of French Revolutionary ideals while simultaneously wrestling free of French colonial rule. Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism  hooked me from the first page the first time I read it (Europe is indefensible) and the book has remained deeply important to me ever since. It is a relentless and powerful rejection of the colonial project and, because it mounts such a devastating anticolonial argument, I still regularly feature it in my courses. And Derek Walcott’s The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory is a beautifully poetic diagnosis of the predicament of culture in the Caribbean. It offers a series of powerful reflections on history, memory, and identity in the region but also points to possible futures in the process. I love this short book because it is at once unflinching in its analysis and also unyielding in its love for the region. 

What led you to want to study the Caribbean, as a region, and Caribbean music, in particular?

I was initially drawn to the region by its music (reggae and calypso, in particular) in high school and quickly realized that these musics index a whole array of issues, many of which I’ve already raised in my previous answers. I didn’t really dive into formal studies in the region until graduate school, but early in graduate school I felt compelled to learn how to explore in ethnographic fashion the possibilities for thinking with musicians about the region they are so richly representing through sound. And I’ve been unbelievably fortunate to have the chance to collaborate with and learn from so many amazing, creative, and insightful Caribbean interlocutors (many of whom I now count as dear friends) throughout the years.

What impact do you think music has in the African diaspora?

It’s massive! I think that music circulates throughout the African diaspora in ways that are both exciting to trace and hear and also profoundly generative for musical communities. One of the dynamics that I particularly enjoy about music’s movement around the diaspora is that it re-circulates through spaces, carrying new information and ideas even as it does so. For instance, while African antecedents were certainly powerful catalysts for musical formations in the Americas, the United States and the Caribbean have also returned the favor, so to speak, seeding musical communities throughout the African continent with new possibilities and ideas that have, in turn, engendered new styles and approaches which, again, find their way back to the diaspora. These cycles of giving and receiving and then giving again of one’s aesthetic and artistic life are obviously also part and parcel of many other registers of social and cultural life in the African diaspora, but music makes these circulations audible and generates a profound sense of inter-connection in the process. I don’t think music’s impact can be overstated in this regard. 

In your opinion, what is the importance of Africana Studies for society at large at this moment in time? 

I believe that Africana Studies is particularly well-placed to continue speaking truth to power in the same spirit as the three classic texts I mentioned. Africana Studies offers a context within which we are able to think deeply and historically about marginalized populations; about precarity and economic injustice; about forced migration and genocide; about structural inequality and racism; and about human rights and social justice in global perspective, to name just a few possible areas of inquiry and focus. And Africana Studies is also uniquely positioned to engage not just the academy but also the communities within which we live and work. I really feel strongly that Africana Studies is a critically important site from which to respond to the current political climate in the United States. It is imperative that we continue to make ourselves heard in this moment.