César Colón-Montijo discusses research and role as a presidential postdoctoral research fellow

Thursday, Oct 31, 2019

Interviewed by Julie Clack

You received your Ph.D. in ethnomusicology… can you describe what that field is for us?

Ethnomusicology has been described commonly as the study of music in culture or the study of music as culture. I would say that my approach to studying music builds upon my background in media, journalism and audiovisual anthropology. Because I am an alumnus of Columbia University’s ethnomusicology program, my critical take of the discipline draws heavily from anthropology, cultural studies, history, critical theory and media theory, and centers critiques of the discipline’s intellectual history and its entanglement with colonialism.

As I see it, or maybe I should say as I hear it, ethnomusicology is also embedded within the field of sound studies. Something that differentiates ethnomusicology from other approaches to the study of music and sound is its focus on ethnographic field research.

So, to summarize, I would describe what I do as ethnographic-centered inquiries of music and sound as relational media — which in my case is focused on Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Latin American, and Afro-Latinx musics and sounds.

What will you be working on while you’re at Princeton as a presidential fellow?

I am working on a couple of overlapping projects, all of which serve as extensions of my doctoral dissertation research. Specifically, I am making the dissertation into a series of articles and a book manuscript that is tentatively entitled “Después de tanta salsa: Variaciones maeleras.” All this work comes from ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Venezuela, Panama and Puerto Rico since 2006 around the life, music and myth of Afro-Puerto Rican salsa singer Ismael ‘Maelo’ Rivera.
My work maps a network of devoutness to Maelo emerging after his death in 1987; a network that is made up of music collectors, fans, critics, writers and musicians who reinterpret his music and biography according to their own life experiences, people who often identify as maeleros, maelistas or maelómanos.

Briefly, I explore articulations of race, gender, illness, religion and politics in the affective relations they create through their Maelo-centered listening and storytelling. Developing this research by concentrating on my writing is my main project as a presidential postdoctoral fellow. Also, I am starting to conduct preliminary research for a long-term book project examining the crossings of anthropology, pharmacology, colonialism, empire, music, and sound in Puerto Rico.

At Princeton, I am working with Pedro Meira Montero and with Arcadio Díaz-Quiñones. With Arcadio, we are planning a course we will co-teach during the upcoming spring term, which is for me truly an honor; it is a real pleasure to learn and teach with him.

With Pedro we are planning for me to present my research to our colleagues in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese (SPO) and the Program in Latin American Studies (PLAS), and to explore collaborations with other people and spaces on campus whose work aligns with mine. I will seek his mentorship, too, not only on research related matters in which his work would enrich what I do, but also on the work he does with Brazil Lab, for example, because I would like for my time at Princeton to serve as a means of professional development that includes other aspects of academia. So far, the Brazil Lab events have been great on a personal, familial sense because I am strengthening my knowledge of Brazil, which is not only a central country in current Latin American and global politics but is also where my wife Lívia comes from.

Your thesis discusses work that is in Princeton’s graphic arts collection. Do you plan to utilize other materials in the collection while you’re at Princeton?

I am proud to have “Versado y de larga duración” available in Princeton’s graphic arts collection, and I must thank both Fernando Acosta and Julie Mellby for doing this. This is an artist’s book of poems written by Dinorah Marzán in 1987 mourning Ismael “Maelo” Rivera, a book that we edited with “La Impresora,” an editorial and graphic experimentation workshop in Santurce, Puerto Rico led by poets Nicole Cecilia Delgado and Amanda Hernández, as a posthumous reedition shortly after Dinorah died and for the 30th anniversary of Maelo’s death. It is very meaningful to have it in the graphic arts collection, a collection so rich on Puerto Rican matters.

I am hoping to explore the collection for my long-term project on the links of the arts, anthropology, colonialism and empire in Puerto Rico. I would say an entry point for me would be the carteles collection, as well as the work of Lorenzo Homar and Rafael Tufiño’s work on plena, for starters.

What are you most looking forward to about being at Princeton and a part of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese?

I look forward to sharing my work with my colleagues at SPO and PLAS, to receive feedback from colleagues coming from different disciplinary and intellectual backgrounds, to get to know and be an active member of the intellectual community here.

I also look forward to creating bridges with other spaces and people on campus to collaborate with people whose work dialogues with mine. In Latin America and the Caribbean, the study of music has pretty much always been as linked to literature studies as it has been linked to anthropology or folklore studies, so I see the opportunity to grow my projects from SPO as a chance to further that long intellectual exchange.