top of page

Virtually Connected: Research From Home (Part 2)

Updated: May 18, 2020

In lock-down mode

Samuel Llano

One of the ironies of research is that, even though its primary force, that is, thinking, is utterly chaotic and unpredictable, research must nevertheless unfold according to a carefully calculated and neatly structured time schedule. Only in that way can you plan research trips, visits to libraries and archives, ethnographic work, and other information-gathering tasks and activities. You must also plan the delivery of research, sending paper proposals almost a year in advance, and must be selective about the forums at which you present. This will ensure you avoid overburdening yourself with paper presentations, and will leave you enough time to produce quality writing. A lot of advance planning goes into research, from the time of writing up the research grant to the completion of a book and other publications.

An unexpected situation such as the COVID-19 crisis arises, and all your advance planning is in tatters. Those summer months you had imaged spending at the archive or library, enjoying some sunnier weather than at home; the conferences and workshops you had planned to attend, or even to organise, in which you were looking forward to finally meeting that researcher you had been exchanging thoughts and work with for months…. none of this will happen anymore, or will be severely delayed. You have to make do with what you have. However, not everything is lost though. Challenging situations like this often sharpen our skills, and, after some patient online research, you may end up having more materials and resources than you thought you could get a hold of at first. But let’s stop talking abstract words and discuss my case.

In the present circumstances, I may not be able to visit the Archives d’Outre-Mer in Aix-en-Provence, and the Archives Coloniales in Nantes for a long time – I was hoping to find relevant sources on the French Protectorate in Morocco (1912-1956). Worst of all, now that I’ve reached an advanced reading proficiency in Arabic, I want to reap the benefits of all the hours I’ve put into studying the language during the past two years. My visits to the Fonds Roux in Aix-en-Provence, where documents relevant to the Arab and Berber cultures of the Maghreb are held; or to the Moroccan National Archives in Rabat, and the Franciscan Archive in Tangier, which holds documents related to Francisco Garcia Barriuso – a scholar of Andalusi music –, will have to be postponed. By the time I can visit these archives, I may no longer be able to claim the travel costs from my project’s budget.

A row of houses in Aix-en-Provence

While it is hard for me to calculate the damage this will cause to my research, lock-down has taught me that it is still possible to reorient some aspects of my research, and that many more sources could be found online than I initially thought. For example, I have been able to find relevant primary sources on French cultural policy in the Maghreb through, a digital portal maintained by the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, containing OCR-ed scans of a vast amount of newspapers, journals, books, and other sources. Ironically, while I was working on my PhD dissertation (2003-2007), this portal did not exist, and I had to skim through thousands of pages in French periodicals and unending microfilm rolls in search for information. Nobody can take away from me the nearly two years I spent in France digging out information from archives that can now be accessed from home… while in lock-down (sigh). The Internet Archive portal funded by a range of institutions, is an online repository of incalculable potential. I have been able to find relevant primary sources that I thought were only accessible through travel, such as the Arabic proceedings of the Cairo Congress of Arab Music (1932). If I wanted primary sources in Arabic, now I have an 800-page one to test my knowledge of the language. The Biblioteca Nacional de España maintains in its website the Hemeroteca Digital, with a wealth of digitised newspapers, journals and books, which can be searched by content, since they are OCR-ed. The Library of the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID), which holds Spain’s largest collection of Arab manuscripts and publications, has made available some digitised contents on its website.

The Biblioteca Nacional de España in Madrid

I could go on and on. While I am not trying to argue that it is possible to do all research from home nowadays, I am trying to stay positive about the prospect of not being able to visit the archives for a long time. I still need to fully assess the impact of the current lockdown on my research, and need to figure out to what extent I will need to reorient further aspects of it. In the meantime, I intend to make the most of what is available, which increases day by day. In the light of the current situation, perhaps some of the money that goes into keeping research buildings and centres open could be used to fund digitisation projects. This could help mitigate the impact of situations such as the current one, which might unfortunately repeat itself in the future.

Zooming In

Eric Petzoldt

By now, many people might have become familiar with Zoom, a video communication software, which allows for virtual meetings and conferences. And many might have become avid users of it joining multiple meetings per week or hosting an event themselves. Speaking for me, it has truly changed the way how I connect with colleagues, researchers and collaborators during the time of the coronavirus outbreak. In this section, I want to share how I have used Zoom in the past two months by highlighting two separate activities I took part in. As I am writing these lines, I am still unsure, but curious how this momentum of an enhanced virtual connection might feed into my research on the jazz diaspora (Johnson 2020), in which I am particularly concerned with a. how jazz is learnt and performed in present-day Morocco and b. how jazz as intercultural dialogue is used as a form cultural diplomacy.

I want to start with how I got introduced to Zoom, because to be honest, I haven’t been using it or any other virtual communication software such as Microsoft Teams or Skype for Business before the lockdown. About two months ago, on March 23, I received an invitation to the Facebook group Jazz Studies Collaborative (JSC) by Pedro Cravinho. Pedro had been the conference chair of the 2nd Documenting Jazz Conference held in Birmingham in January 2020, where I presented on jazz coverage in French Moroccan newspapers. As I quickly learnt, the JSC’s Facebook group acted as a second platform to an already existing email list, which had been created by Lewis Porter, Mark Lomanno and Alex Rodriguez in October 2018. Currently led by Porter, Lomanno and Kelsey Klotz, the email list counts 138 members, whereas 931 people have joined the Facebook group. The JSC has been growing rapidly in the past weeks and defines itself as an inclusive, safe and professional space to discuss everything relating to someone’s jazz activities and whose members are an international group of educators, musicians and scholars from a variety of disciplines and personal backgrounds. Intended for ‘anyone who is professionally involved with jazz, researching/performing/studying any aspect of jazz – the music, its listeners, its audiences, its history, its recordings, etc.’, it aims for ‘fostering greater communication and collaboration in jazz studies throughout North America and worldwide’ by hosting online panel discussions, book talks and other activities.

Two weeks after I had joined the group, I participated in the first JSC Zoom meeting on April 8. Lewis Porter and Mark Lomanno were leading the session, in which many distinguished scholars, writers, musicians and archivists took part, for example Krin Gabbard, John Hasse, Wolfram Knauer, David Ake and Howard Mandel. The concept for the first session was simple: Every participant should introduce herself/himself. That was it. While we listened to each other’s short biographies, past and current projects, the participants were commenting on what had been said with the occasional riff on RIPM Jazz, an astonishing archive of jazz periodicals. A very welcoming, relaxed and attentive atmosphere prevailed and as I received a couple of helpful comments regarding my area of research, I became more and more fascinated by ‘this’, my first-ever 30 plus members counting virtual jazz conference.

Excerpt from the 1st JSC Zoom meeting

Strikingly apparent in this first session was the fact that most participants were white and male. Roughly two weeks later, the JSC discussed the issues of race, gender balance and sexism in a second Zoom gathering entitled Studying Through the Undercommons – Imagining future work through JSC. A panel consisting of John Gennari (English/Critical Race and Ethnic Studies at University of Vermont), Lydia Liebman (publicist and daughter of renowned jazz saxophonist David Liebman), Gayle Murchison (musicologist at College of William & Mary), Stephen Haynes (trumpeter and arts organiser), Aja Burrell Wood (ethnomusicologist at Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice) and Rebecca Zola (guitarist and graduate student at Hebrew University of Jerusalem) tackled where to go next and how we as a collective could set up a fair and indeed safe space for everyone’s voice to be heard. And maybe the 'Zoom filter', as Vanessa Paloma Elbaz observed, helped to make the discussion of these topics easier, because a. participants were physically separated, but virtually connected and b. because the space was still unfamiliar to many and destined to be explored in the course of performance. But then, what do we make of this space where intimacy is constructed virtually? How does the juxtaposition of profiles – one face next to another in gallery mode – helps to foster a discussion on who is indeed participating and thus is being able to be heard. What could we learn if we compare our virtual discussions with those happening in the 'real' world?

Since the second meeting, the group organisers have conducted a survey, which is getting evaluated these days. They will draw from the first two sessions, in particular from the second one, and finalise their thoughts on moving to a new platform, which could be a website, forum or a combination of the existing platforms. Next to the issue of gender balance in academia, on the bandstand or in the audience, the aspect of how to teach jazz history has become a second point of inquiry on the email list server. Over the past weeks, an interesting exchange among the JSC members has emerged, in which they debate alternative approaches to teaching jazz history. One question that has been addressed multiple times: What are the benefits and disadvantages of taking a reverse chronological approach towards jazz history? As the members of the JSC continued their discussion on how we could head towards a more inclusive and interdisciplinary jazz research community, a major global celebration took place on April 30: the 2020 International Jazz Day. Designed to bring people together under the umbrella of jazz as intercultural dialogue, Jazz Day aims for unifying disparate cultures and emphasises solidarity among peoples. It is held annually by the UNESCO and hosted by Goodwill Ambassador Herbie Hancock since 2011 in another global host city. Every year, it concludes with a live-streamed All-Star concert. However due to the outbreak of the coronavirus, this year’s version of International Jazz Day turned 100% virtual. There was no All-Star concert, but a pre-edited video streamed on Facebook and YouTube, which was moderated by Herbie Hancock from his living room. It featured international artists, excerpts from past editions and an official address by UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay. It also provided for a virtual forum offering educational programmes live-streamed via Zoom in the six official languages of the United Nations, which are Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish.

New York-based Moroccan singer Malika Zarra (orange rectangle) contributed to the official pre-recorded musical collaboration for International Jazz Day 2020

Announcement for the 2020 Virtual Forum

Following the announcement of the 2020 Virtual Forum, I was inspired by the possibility to host a parallel Zoom session, which would enable me to watch parts of the virtual forum together with musicians and interlocutors from Morocco. Thus, I hosted a Zoom event during Tarek Yamani’s masterclass on reharmonizing Arabic music. After his 45-min masterclass, which he gave in Arabic and which focused on the combination of Western chord-scale theory and the Arabic maqam system, a couple of his musician friends from the Arab world joined the conversation: Alexandra Ivanova (Dubai), Yusif Yaseen (Kuwait), Ousso Lotfy (Egypt), Lyn Adib (Syria, joining from Paris), Mohammad Rashid (Bahrain), Omar El Ouaer (Tunisia) and Mazen Lawand (Lebanon, joining from Boston). In another one-hour conversation, they shared approaches on how to reframe and reinterpret their respective local musical traditions by drawing on jazz and improvisation. After the livestream ended, my interlocutors joining from Morocco and France and I engaged in a lively discussion on the use of microtonal music in a jazz context, on the issue of fusion in music and on the genre ‘fusion music’. In short, the Jazz Day Arabic-language Zoom meeting, whose participants had joined from the United States, Europe and the Arab world (not to mention the many people who have watched from different parts of the world) became the reason for another Zoom gathering, which connected North Africa with Europe.

Tarek Yamani's Zoom meeting live-streamed via Facebook

As we are bound to stay at home for most of the time and live music – at least as we knew it – has vanished in many places, activities such as the offered masterclasses of the Jazz Day's Virtual Forum or those provided by the JSC shape new encounters among the many people interested in jazz. Zooming in from living rooms or 'home offices', from gardens and verandas, from practice rooms and studios, jazz musicians make use of what is at hand, but which is slowly changing how intercultural dialogue through jazz might look and sound like. New understandings on solidarity, exchange, cultural diversity and the role of learning to improvise might be explored as facilitators pop up like mushrooms shaking up and enlarging our conceptions of what jazz is about in the present day.



bottom of page