RITA fundraiser ‘Black South: A Political Journey’

The amazing RITA (Race in the Americas) team, composed of Adunni Adams and James Heath, are doing a fundraiser for their project Black South: A Political Journey. Adunni and James are independent scholars who have been putting on events across academia and activist spaces for more than 5 years. They have mainly been doing this from their personal funds and the occasional opportunity to tap into small funding pots. An event that I attended was the excellent Caribbean Future Spaces symposium at the University of Birmingham. Many other academics and independent scholars have been benefitting from their hard work and enthusiasm for their research, so it would be great if we could give some support back. This is the film that they are trying to finish and distribute:

“Black South is a documentary project that analyses African American experiences in the states of the Deep South. In paying particular attention to how the Deep South as a region may have shaped perspectives, lifestyles and interactions, the film looks at the theme of political representation, and at how America’s two-party system has shaped black political identities and activism in the region.”

You can read more about their amazing project and other research on the RITA and  Indigogo pages.

“In Catastrophic Times” review for Cultural Geographies

After temporarily getting lost, my book review of Isabelle Stengers’ “In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism” is finally out in Cultural Geographies. It can be accessed here (if you don’t have access, email me). It is one of those books that helps me think about the problem of how to affect change from the particular position that you inevitably occupy. The English version of the book is available at open access publisher Open Humanities press and can be read or downloaded here.

Woke Pedagogies in Dangerous Times @ Warwick

“Woke Pedagogies in Dangerous Times”
Workshop with Akwugo Emejulu, Ajay Parasram and Adam Elliott-Cooper

20 June, Tuesday 2.30-4.30pm
OC1.04 The Oculus, University of Warwick

“Back in the 1990s, bell hooks called for “renewal and rejuvenation in our teaching practices […] so that we can create new visions, [through] a movement which makes education the practice of freedom” (1994: 12, emphasis added). This workshop revisits this compelling call by means of a re-engagement with critical pedagogical theory and practice. However, it makes this re-engagement firmly in the present and in direct relation to the political context of increasingly widespread fascist resurgence.
The event itself brings prominent theorists/practitioners of engaged pedagogy to Warwick to share reflections on teaching in and against the times by means of building critical awareness and engagement in the classroom space.

During the workshop we will reflect on whether the classroom can still be considered “the most radical space of possibility in the academy”, as bell hooks described it. Or whether the classroom as a space of possibility has been dangerously diminished by policy and politics, as much as by neoliberal University management.
We will also reflect on the importance of the classroom space, not only within the institutional life of the University, but also within broader political life and wider society. Finally, ample time will be dedicated to the sharing of pedagogical tools and tactics geared towards returning our teaching to the practice of freedom.

Akwugo Emejulu (Warwick), Ajay Parasram (Dalhousie, Canada) and Adam Elliott-Cooper (King’s College London) will join us to talk about teaching in dangerous times and generate a broader critical reflection on pedagogy in the present.”


Researching the Colonial International Across, Between, and Against Disciplines @ Warwick

Am reposting this excellent workshop call from CPD-BISA. The event is organised by Nivi Manchanda, Lisa Tilley (Warwick Politics and International Studies) and Kerem Nişancıoğlu (SOAS Politics and International Studies) and is taking place here at Warwick.

Call for interventions/workshop participants
Travel funding available

Colonial/ Postcolonial/ Decolonial Working Group Annual Workshop 2017: 
Researching the Colonial International Across, Between, and Against Disciplines

With Goldie Osuri, Virinder Kalra, Rashmi Varma and Kojo Koram
University of Warwick, 22nd September 2017

“International Relations has often borrowed theories and methods from elsewhere to think beyond its own disciplinary limits. Similarly, interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary scholarship has long been central to thinking about the colonial question. Indeed, a key insight of postcolonial scholarship is that disciplines are themselves products of colonial practices. At the same time, in the field of International Relations and beyond, the demands of publishing, researching, teaching and hiring continue to reproduce strict disciplinary boundaries. More positively, disciplines often offer a scholarly home, a shared language and common problems that help orient our work.

This workshop will examine how such tensions affect and direct how we think about the colonial/ postcolonial/ decolonial. Conversely it will also ask how the colonial question reconfigures how we think about our own disciplines. At its core, the event will encourage a range of scholars to engage with the colonial question from outside of – and perhaps against – their own disciplinary (disciplining) homes.

Places and travel funding are limited. Please indicate your interest in attending no later than June 24th to Kerem Nisancioglu – kn18@soas.ac.uk

CPD-BISA workshops are not organized around “paper-giving”, but rather each session is introduced by a couple of five minute opening interventions. Therefore, if you are interested in attending please do also indicate whether you would like to provide one of these five-minute interventions, and if so, on what issue area.

We will calculate participation and funding with a sensitivity to career level (phd, postdoc, faculty etc) and job type (contract, permanent etc). Please do indicate your career and job attributes when you email.

Over the past four years, the CPD-BISA Working Group has become an established community of scholars drawn from within and beyond IR – this interdisciplinarity has enriched the work and activities of the community as a whole. Our annual workshop is our most important event and provides a vital space for early career scholars to connect with more established academics working through the colonial question in their research. As in previous years, this will be an innovative and participatory event with a range of heterodox sessions.”

Steal this module! Or: why teach postcolonial science studies to human and physical geographers?

Image: “This map shows the growth in scientific research of territories between 1990 and 2001. If there was no increase in scientific publications that territory has no area on the map.” (Source: Worldmapper)

When I worked as a postdoc at the University of Glasgow, I was approached by a group of Geography PhD students and university teachers about giving a talk on ‘decolonising physical geography’. It became a mini talk that I co‑presented with Dave Featherstone, who focused on the human geography side. I was very grateful to be approached, because, as in other all-white or almost all-white departments, any mention of race in the context of higher education is often considered ‘too far out’. Fellow white geographers often do not feel like it concerns them, or affects their teaching, and besides ‘we’re still struggling with gender’. Students are often much more alert to issues of race, through campaigns such as ‘Why is my curriculum white?’, but also through related debates that are taking place in campuses not only nationally but internationally. And it is not only students of colour, but white students who find the often all white, all male curriculum strange. At Glasgow, an almost all-white human geography undergraduate class recommended that staff consider syllabi that went beyond white male middle class authors and issues.

While the topic of the necessity to ‘decolonise the university’ has obviously reached geography – the next national UK Geography conference theme, with all its problems (critical commentary from RGS-IBG RACE Working Group coming out soon), is called ‘Decolonising Geographical Knowledges’ – there is too little evidence that things have started to change. Especially when it comes to the geographical sciences, the idea seems to persist that science is neutral, objective, and colour/gender blind. However, as physicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein put it in a recent talk at Birkbeck College (podcast available on this site soon), ironically, the most supposedly most ‘objective’ fields, such as physics and philosophy, are dominated by a white male academic culture that associates gender, diverging sexual orientation and ethnicity with lack of intellectual purity. This not only translates into an absence of especially academics of colour, but also a lack of funding for research that affects ethnic minorities (even those who are not so much in the minority) in general. Prescod-Weinstein also feels that this exclusion of alternative viewpoints and issues translates into growing intellectual stagnation in many fields. In UK Geography, we have an increasing number of female staff and students, but when it comes to BME (Black and Minority Ethnic, the official UK term in education) geographers the reality looks pretty dire.

Image: Physicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein (Source: cprescodweinstein.com)

The other problem for Prescod-Weinstein is that most science curricula perpetuate the impression that non-Europeans are new to scientific innovation and knowledge production. Often, the view is implicitly perpetuated that white people do the research, while everyone else is being researched – a critique also mirrored in the human sciences by indigenous activists such as Linda Tuhiwai Smith or Vine Deloria Jr. There is a notable absence, for instance, of the Middle Eastern influence on European science (and social scientific method!) and a frequent lack of engagement with other cultures and their scientific discoveries. Conversely, the colonial roots of science are rarely mentioned. Prescod-Weinstein points to the astronomical observation missions by Huygens and Cassini whose aim was to improve navigation to St Domingue (Haiti/Dominican Republic) in order to ‘make the delivery of slaves and export of the products of their labour more efficient’ (her essay on this can be read here). The consequence of such a detached, ahistorical portrayal of science is that science can present itself as being interested in the ‘common good’ while remaining in the service of economic and political power that perpetuates inequalities.

In Geography, there is a similar tension around the colonial past, as the discipline continues produces expertise for resource extraction and the military. This also translates into revenue: many departments – and especially the Royal Geographical Society/Institute of British Geographers – are sponsored by oil and mining companies, and sometimes old colonial families. This became one of the reasons for the emergence of ‘critical geographers’ who, amongst tackling other significant issues, sought to critically engage with the on-going effects of geography’s problematic past. For Prescod-Weinstein, too, the move to increase diversity ‘needs to become a ‘reclamation project’: an anti-colonial project that seeks to reorient science towards more benevolent goals that benefit all of humanity’. This seems quite a stake. Some critics say that in order to be a totally equitable system, the university has to be redesigned from the ground up, since it participates in the creation of elites and is increasingly inaccessible (e.g. through fees, tests). I agree with this opinion. At the same time, there are people who still have to operate within the current system, and, for this long-term aim to be achieved, people first need to know why this is an aspiration. One way to bring attention to this problem is, I feel, through teaching.

Image: “India’s ‘space women’ (from left) Ritu Karidhal, Anuradha TK and Nandini Harinath. Two years ago, as Indian scientists successfully put a satellite into orbit around Mars, a photograph that went viral showed women dressed in gorgeous saris with flowers in their hair celebrating at the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) in the southern city of Bangalore. It was reported that the ecstatic women were scientists and the photograph challenged the stereotype that rocket science in India was a male preserve. Isro later clarified that the celebrating women were administrative staff, but it went on to add that there indeed were several women scientists who had worked on the mission and were in the control room at the time of the launch.” (BBC NEWS)

There are quite a few geographers, and especially geographers of colour, who are currently looking at pedagogy as well as new curricula that reflect the present situation. Some recent examples from Geography will appear in a forthcoming AREA teaching and race special issue (edited by James Esson). For me, one approach is to teach about Geography as a science – and to teach this both physical and human geographers. The framing as ‘science’ allows for a variety of topics to be explored: the feminist and postcolonial critique of science studies; global knowledge production; the history of geography and science and their ties to (neo)colonial practices. There are many similarities between physical and human geographers in terms of their ‘knowledge making practices’: both types of geographers tend to go on (frequently international) field trips, they share knowledge at international conferences and through academic journals, they apply for funding to national and international programmes, they take part in international collaboration, they teach an international student body, and they are invited to give public talks. All of these tasks benefit from an in-depth knowledge of inequalities in knowledge production.

Practically, there are different ways of teaching this, from a single seminar to (preferably) an entire course, depending on departmental logistics. The content of the proposed seminars/lectures is not new – geography teaching includes a lot of science studies based teaching and teaching on race. It is just that science and race/inequality are rarely found in one module. Looking through curricula across the country, science studies and postcolonial/development studies are not only kept apart, and they are usually only taught to human geographers. And although there is constant talk of joint teaching and project building between physical and human geography, the most obvious cross-over of postcolonial science studies has largely been ignored. With this in mind, I hope there will be more crossovers in teaching beyond ‘human geographers should also know physical geography’. A full module could look as follows (please note, the readings are just examples from a longer reading list – more reading suggestions welcome!):



1 Why look at geography as a science? What is a science? Science and knowledge are terms that are usually associated with neutrality and objectivity. How can uneven global development affect how science is conducted and how knowledge is shaped?

Hacking, I (1999) The Social Construction of What? Cambridge MA: Harvard University Pres.

Kropotkin, P (2014 [1885]) What Geography Ought To Be. In J Dittmer, J Sharp ‘Geopolitics: An Introductory Reader. London: Routledge

Suman, S (2017) Colonial History and Postcolonial Science Studies. Radical History Review 127

Tadaki M et al (2015) Cultivating critical practices in physical geography. The Geographical Journal 181(2), 160–171

2 Global divisions of science, or why look at science’s geography? Why do pharmaceutical industries move their experiments to the global South? Why are most science papers published by Western scholars? How is science funding distributed?

Benjamin, R (2009) A Lab of Their Own: Genomic sovereignty as postcolonial science policy. Policy and Society 28, 341–355

Blicharska, M et al (2017) Steps to overcome the North–South divide in research relevant to climate change policy and practice. Nature Climate Change 7.

Noxolo, P (2008) ‘‘My Paper, My Paper”: Reflections on the embodied production of postcolonial geographical responsibility in academic writing. Geoforum 40, 55–65

Sunder Rajan, K (2007) Experimental Values: Indian Clinical Trials and Surplus Health. New Left Review 45

3 Knowledge controversies: Whose knowledge counts? How are decisions made when it comes to socio-environmental problems? How are the voices of different actors weighted in and across the developing and developed world? What counts as an issue? How are current shifts in knowledge inequalities managed e.g. in spaces such as environmental law or the museum?

Bassey, N (2010) To cook a continent: Destructive Extraction and Climate Crisis in Africa. Cape Town: Pambazuka Press.

Cooke, B, Kothari, U (2001) Participation: The New Tyranny? London: Zed Books.

Escobar, A (1998) Whose Knowledge, Whose nature? Biodiversity, Conservation, and the Political Ecology of Social Movements. Journal of Political Ecology 5(53)

Tolia-Kelly, D P (2016) Feeling and Being at the (Postcolonial) Museum: Presencing the Affective Politics of ‘Race’ and Culture. Sociology 50(5) 896–912

4 Human, nonhuman: how to divide the world (differently)? Who decided on how we categorise things around us? Who decided on hierarchies among humans, animals, plants and stones? Are there other possible ways of dividing or uniting what exists in the world? What proposals are being sidelined and why? Would a new world view change our current predicament? Why are science and legal scholars so obsessed with taking the ‘nonhuman’ into account?

Kohn, E (2013) How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Latour, B (2004) The Politics of Nature: How to bring the sciences into democracy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Todd, Z (2016) An Indigenous Feminist’s Take On The Ontological Turn: ‘Ontology Is Just Another World For Colonialism’. Journal of Historical Sociology 29

Verran, H (2001) Science and an African Logic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

5 Science and policy in an unequal world What does it mean to do science and make policy in an unequal world? What are the options and limitations that practitioners have? What are good and bad examples?

Jasanoff, S (1987) Contested Boundaries in Policy Relevant Science. Social Studies of Science 17, 195-230.

Hart, C (2013) High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society. New York: Harper.

Hecht, G (2012) Being Nuclear: Africans and the Uranium Trade. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Nelson, A (2013) Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

6 Managing Environmental Hazards across North & South How are environmental risks being managed differently in the developing and developed world? What happens in the case of a disaster? Who are the actors that respond and what consequences does this dependency have for the affected countries? What is environmental racism?

Bullard, R D (1993) Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots. New York: Southend Press.

Hannigan, J (2013) Disasters Without Borders: The International Politics of Natural Disasters. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons.

Ngosso, T (2013) The Right to Development of Developing Countries: An Argument against Environmental Protection? Public Reason 5(2) 3-20.

Nixon, R (2011) Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

7 The Racial Economy of Science How does race or ethnicity affect science and knowledge production? How does the history of racial science still affect science today? How do scientific methods take ‘race’ into account?

Mbembe, A (2017) Critique of Black Reason. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

McKittrick, K (2010) Science Quarrels Sculpture: The Politics of Reading Sarah Baartman. Mosaic 43(2)

Painter, N I (2010) The History of White People. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Rusert, B (2017) Fugitive Science: Empiricism and Freedom in Early African American Culture. New York: NYU Press.

8 Science and Gender How does gender inequality affect science and knowledge production in general? Do women do science differently? How do imaginaries of gender norms affect science? How have women and non-normative people worked towards equal access to science and scientific professions? What is Geography’s history in this respect?

Agard-Jones, V (2013) Bodies in the System. Small Axe, Volume 17, Number 3, November 2013 (No. 42), pp. 182-192

Haraway, D (1989) Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science. London: Routledge.

Johnson, D R (2011) Women of Color in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). New Directions for Institutional Research 152

LeVay, Simon (1996) Queer Science. The Use and Abuse of Research into Homosexuality. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

9 Contesting science from the margins What are the reasons for contesting science? What are histories of scientific abuse of marginalised populations? How can marginalised populations contest science? What is the difference between a marginalised population, a marginalised issue? What is ‘fugitive science’? What is the difference between marginalisation and ‘bad science’? What are existing networks that try to change the way science is conducted?

Charters, C, Stavenhagen, R (2009) Making the Declaration Work: The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Copenhagen: IWGIA.

Kukutai, T, Taylor, J (2016) Indigenous Data Sovereignty: Towards an Agenda. Canberra: ANU Press.

Shiva, V (1993) Monocultures of the Mind: Perspectives on Biodiversity and Biotechnology. London: Zed Books.

Third World Network (1993) Modern Science in Crisis: A Third World Response. In S. Harding, The Racial Economy of Science. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

10 ‘Decolonising’ Science? What do calls to ‘decolonise science mean’? How has science been implicated in colonialism and how has the science curriculum been shaped by it? What might a science look like that more strongly amplifies its global history and connections? What are the obstacles and possibilities? What could it mean to ‘decolonise Geography’?

Prescod-Weinstein, C (2016) Intersectionality as a Blueprint for Postcolonial Scientific Community Building. URL: https://medium.com/@chanda/intersectionality-as-a-blueprint-for-postcolonial-scientific-community-building-7e795d09225a#.g46jqlwfs

Simpson, L B (2017) As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Smith, L T (1999) Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. London: Zed Books.

Stengers, I (2012) Reclaiming Animism. E-flux. URL: http://www.e-flux.com/journal/36/61245/reclaiming-animism/

Basically, this module aims to

  • sensitise students to the embeddedness of science and knowledge making in geopolitical/economic dynamics
  • expose students to the debates that run across theory and practice, and also directly affect the higher education setting
  • support students in considering these wider dynamics in their own work
  • engage students with a variety of perspectives from across the world, in order to enable students to communicate to across different backgrounds in academic and professional careers

Further reading (suggested by readers)

Mavhunga, C (2017) What do Science, Technology, and Innovation Mean from Africa? Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


Further Resources

Here are a few further resources from the talk that Dave Featherstone and I gave at the Glasgow Geography teaching away day (19 May 2016).

Useful questions

1) How do we, especially as white academics, develop an awareness of these issues and knowledges?

  • There are a number of really good academic/activist books, articles, blog posts and reports that have a strong relevance for geography (see list at the bottom of this post) e.g. Decolonising Methodologies by Linda Tuhiwai Smith.
  • You can also follow specific tags on social media or initiatives specific to your subject (e.g. Black Physicists, Black Philosophy Network, Black Geographies, Race In Geography etc)
  • Look out for events at your local university or geographical area

2) Being reflexive when it comes to putting together reading lists, assignments, or even field trips: how is the subject or field being portrayed?

  • Ask yourself questions, for instance: What image do you have of who/what makes a geographer/scientist? How do you affirm students’ identities as scientists? What overt or hidden messages about science do your students receive by the way you teach your curriculum? How do you learn about your students and connect the relevance of science to their daily lives? (from: US National Association for Multicultural Education) What is your visual narrative in your lectures, teaching and open day materials?

3) What practices can we adopt to support BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) and other ‘minority’ students? And to support white students in learning about whiteness as an issue in science?

  • Educate yourself and other white academics about whiteness/heteronormativity/ableism etc through academic and activist literature and integrated this knowledge into your teaching practices
  • There is an increasing amount of teaching resources on the net for both sciences and social sciences e.g. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein’s Decolonising Science reading list, the Global Social Theory project
  • Make colleagues aware that everyone (staff, students) benefits from diversity in the curriculum (e.g. see UCU Black members campaign): young people in general have a more global sense of place
  • There are mechanisms/training in place that can help you (university internationalisation schemes, Equality & Diversity units, Equality Challenge Unit workshops related to the Athena Swan/Race Equality Charter Mark)

4) How can we consult formally or informally with students and colleagues regarding experiences and suggestions?

  • Let people know you have an interest in the topic.
  • Strategies are far from agreed, so it is useful to attend/organise workshops, public lectures and meetings, contact local groups with BME/intersectional focus such as BME staff network, BME student groups.

Reading, mailing lists, contacts

Feedback/additions appreciated.


The cosmology of the tarantella

This Sunday, I am doing a Curved Radio spot on the tarantella (podcast recording here). It follows on from the show in which I talked about the ‘Mexican baroque’ and other black and indigenous influences on early and classical music. Much of it is based on two albums (Los Impossibles and La Tarantella: Antidotum Tarantulae) by an experimental baroque ensemble called L’Arpeggiata, led by the Austrian theorbist/harpist Christina Pluhar. These albums, and the booklets that accompany them, provided a starting point for looking up other versions of the songs they performed, but also more on the hidden histories of music we usually perceive as ‘European’ and devoid of all associations we might have with music from other countries. For instance, we do not often connect European music with ritual, not even when we talk about folk music. We also tend to forget about European histories of trade, travel, war and colonialism, which all brought Europeans into contact with other musical traditions.

L’Arpeggiata’s Los Impossibles album, for instance, features a couple of villancicos, a musical form that was shared across Southern Europe (Portugal, Spain) and Latin America in the 15-18th centuries. This style was known for incorporating instruments, rhythms, speech rhythms and words (actual or made up) from other cultures, such as African or Native American. Although this appropriation was often done in a mocking fashion, satirising the primitiveness of the Other, it nevertheless constituted an influence that then proceeded to move to other musical and poetic forms. The negrillo (such as L’Arpeggiata’s version of ‘Sa qui turo‘ above, another example is ‘Bastiao‘) is an example of attempts to copy African speech and music. It has also been argued that some of this music was used for subversive ends, to express commonalities and even solidarities between poor people from both sides of the colonial divide and their political struggles. Robert Stevenson, in his survey of baroque villancicos, gives the example of a 1677 song by early feminist villancico poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, whose lyrics translate as “tumba, la-lá-la, tumba la-lé-le/wherever Peter enters, no one remains a slave”. The active influence on negrillos by black musicians (from the mid-15th century) has also been documented by Stevenson. Curiously, by the close of the 18th century, negrillos – and villancicos as a whole – were forbidden (by royal edict!) in both Portugal and Spain.

The tarantella, an Italian (and, through migration, Argentinian) folk dance, was popular during a similar time, although some sources date it back to the Middle Ages or earlier. In fact, the beginnings of the tarantella are so obscure that the myths that surround it sound as plausible as the many origin stories that have been suggested across the last 600-or-so years. The L’Arpeggiata booklet samples some of these legends, from medieval field workers’ spider bite treatments to dancing sirens that tried to overcome Ulysses’ resistance to their songs. At its most basic level, the tarantella is a song and dance combo, most often in 6/8 time. Its name appears to reference spiders (or the Italian city of Taranto), and it is commonly portrayed as a highly ritualised cure for spider bites. More recently, anthropologists such as Ernesto de Martino have been looking at 20th century practices of tarantism (you can sample some of their films and audio recordings at the Wellcome Collection archives and also on youtube), and ethnomusicologists such as Giovanna Marini and Diego Carpitella have been been instrumental in reviving research into this cultural phenomenon.

What I find interesting about the tarantella is that its history, whichever one is true, suggests a series of different oppressions, especially from the Church. For instance, it has been proposed that the tarantella is a remnant of Greek/Roman pagan rituals devoted to gods such as Diana or Dionysus that were driven underground by the Church and then became redefined as a medical cure and also a social dance for courtship, funerals et cetera. At a later point, the Church seemed to have intervened again, initially banning the dance and the music. When this containment did not work, they banned the music, forcing performers to solely rely on vocalisations and the use of colours. The Church additionally proceeded to ascribe the healing powers to Saint Paul, in an effort to create, as Jean-Paul Combet put it, “theologically satisfactory explanations” for this obstinate insanity. This suppression has strong parallels with other ‘civilising missions’, for instance, the ban on indigenous and slave music in many European colonies (there is a powerful talk by Tanya Tagaq on the attempt to erase throat singing as a First Nations cultural practice).

The question that always fascinates me is how much music (and often dance, too) is perceived as threatening, even more threatening than words. Not only was the music of the tarantella periodically banned, but also any publications on the topic. So, what does the tarantella look like in practice, and what does it allow performers and ‘victims’ to do? Christina Pluhar, the creative director of L’Arpeggiata, describes the ‘healing’ version of the tarantella as follows:

“In order to overcome the poison, he must overcome the broken equilibrium in himself. On his journey the sick person identifies himself with Nature, whose harmony he perceives through sounds and colours and whose vibrations he absorbs into his body. The sick person becomes the black sun (or black spider) in the centre, surrounded by the planets, which are symbolised by the people and the musicians who accompany him in his quest for healing. It has always been written that each sick person reacts to different melodies, rhythms, colours and instruments according to his own character and the nature of his illness. The appropriate music is found by empirical means: the musicians play different melodies until the sick person reacts and his body begins to move. The healing process can spread over several days of almost uninterrupted dancing.”

For her, the disorienting change and improvisation over recognisably stable repetitive sequences – basically a long quasi-psychedelic jam – serves to dislocate the afflicted person from their current state in order to “restore the cosmic order”. The tarantella serves supernatural ends and therefore constitutes a rival to other providers of supernatural services such as the Church.

While the tarantella may have had an actual function, at least at some point, to keep a person alive after a spider bite – the music would certainly keep a person awake, which is often crucial in the first stages of paralysis or convulsion inducing spider bites – this functionality seemed to spill into spiritual life (or is it the other way round?). What is interesting here is the role of the spider. As Combet describes, different spiders are assigned different moods (melancholia, anger etc) and colours (red, green, yellow or black). Given that the tarantella appears to enable a number of controversial boundary crossings such as gendered behaviour – for instance, the tarantella allows women to express themselves differently erotically and socially (e.g. their role as musicians) – the connection with the lowly but feared spider, an animal mainly encountered by peasants during harvest (Combet writes that some municipalities even paid for musicians to ‘treat’ farm workers, so they wouldn’t get into debt and miss out on work more than necessary), suggests a strategic affiliation with the nonhuman. The nonhuman element appears to permit not just boundary crossings, but extravagant enactments of these transgressions. Pluhar even wonders whether the role of women as not only as singers and dancer, but primarily as percussionists, adds another nonhuman dimension: “woman as the pulsating rhythm of the earth…?” This seems to affirm Athanasius Kircher’s mid-17th century view that “the cosmos was revealed in musical ratios and that musical harmony mirrored universal harmony” (reference source: J-P Combet).

For me, the music-spider-farming-gender-cosmos connections that appear to endure against the onslaught of time feel like a form of resistance to the imposition of a different worldview (monotheism, modernism etc) – a worldview that was perceived as limiting. Here, the role of sound and oral culture stands out as a more successful format than print, both in terms of its accessibility, communicability and destrucibility. So few print works have survived from ancient times, on the tarantella and overall, but we still, despite the inevitable mutation and evolution of the songs and dances, hear the same songs, the same lyrics, the same themes (the lyrics are often in old and/or local languages such as Griko). While the lyrics may not speak of political or spiritual struggle – the lyrics often seem quite bawdy and rude, speaking of voluptuous women, heartache, inebriation, food, poverty, madness, death – they feel like a Bakhtinian/Rabelaisian use of the grotesque as a celebration of that which is being excluded from official culture. Some of my favourite lyrics accompany the intensely percussive Pizzica Ucci: for me, they represent an undisguised mockery of the Church’s attempt to clean up the spiritual side of the tarantella via an association with St Paul:

St Paul of Galatina, pardon this young lady!

St Paul of tarantulas, pinch the girls’ bottoms.

St Paul of serpents, pinch the boys’ balls.

The imagery is brilliant in its takedown of the officially ‘highest’. It is also funny and highly understandable, qualities that assure its wider appeal and transmission. The music, too, despite its filtration through a variety of contexts, instrumentation and other ‘treatments’, powerfully transmits a concept. Whether it is the maddening speed and repetition of the pizzica or the frighteningly grating ‘harmonies’ of the funeral laments, a tarantella almost never fails to disturb and/or arouse, even in its most sanitised renditions. There is something raw and alien about the dance, the music, the lyrics – or all three of them at once – that makes you want to know more about it. While no one may ever be able to trace the tarantella’s exact history and purpose, it is perhaps sufficient that it has survived and continues to trouble and inspire, from women in rural Italy to people in unexpected locations, searching for a different connection to the world than one is supposed to be having.

Notes: This post follows on from Protest music: questions of travel (2013)

The Curved Radio show that features the tarantella spot broadcasts on Sunday 14 May 2017, 11pm – 2am Sydney time, 2-5pm UK time.