1. A Diverse Corpus of Acoustic Materials Formed Across Multiple Field Studies Over the Years


Making field recordings has long been a common practice in anthropology and has contributed to the emergence of significant bodies of materials.[2] These recordings are often collected for archivistic purposes or with a view to transmission: for example, to document performances or to maintain a trace of linguistic practices. My use of field recordings within my research is somewhat different. Although sound plays a big part in my ethnographic practice – whether in the form of interviews and ambiences recorded hastily on a smartphone, notes and private thoughts dictated on a smartphone recorder as a memory aid, audio CDs of a musical group from the region, WhatsApp messages addressed to and left by colleagues and contacts, etc. – for a long time, I paid only peripheral attention to these materials. 


The aim of this research, carried out in Mexico’s Oaxaca region, was to explore claims relating to territory and sovereignty, the political uses of discourses around identity, and forms of political mediation. I undertook this study on conflict and protest with a focus on two major social spaces within which politics plays a big role in this region: schools and local festivals. I followed the teachers of Oaxaca around within the different social spaces they occupied: trade unions, schools, and their communities. Subsequently, I studied preparations for local festivals, notably the rehearsals, and the ensuing performances and parades. These festivities and performances are often an opportunity to publicly voice territorial claims and criticize the powers that be, to speak of conflicts in a context where festivities are rooted in local territories and histories.


I was able to build up a diverse corpus of sound materials, including recordings made at numerous events and meetings held by the teachers’ union in commemoration of political violence inflicted in public spaces or at protest events. At the time, I considered these recordings – made with no real consideration of the microphone positioning or recording technique – to be surplus material, a sort of sparse form of acoustic sampling which could potentially be useful for my analysis and my ethnographic descriptions. However, I was well aware that this milieu had its own specific soundscape. Indeed, all the events and all the protest situations that I covered were punctuated with chants, political anthems, music played by community bands, the constant noise of firecrackers, slogans, shouts, and various oratorical displays. 


It took a long, sensorial immersion to become familiar with the social and political meanings of these different sound elements. I gradually acquired a kind of repertoire of songs and slogans used during the trade union demonstrations in which I participated. Likewise, it was only through attending local festivals that I began to understand the musical repertoires of the different regions of Oaxaca and the different communities, gradually grasping the symbolic and political implications of each variation. In July 2016, the performance of the song “la Mixteca” with the public during the “popular” Guelaguetza[3] took on a very strong political dimension shortly following the murders that took place during an episode of police repression in the Mixteca town of Nochixtlán. In these contexts of union meetings and local celebrations, firecrackers were used to underline a political message and to highlight anger or emotion (Féraud 2010).


During my different stays in Oaxaca, I made daily recordings, first on my voice recorder, then on my smartphone, and sometimes on a hand-held audio recorder, preserving the sounds of market scenes, bus journeys, street sellers, bar musicians, radio announcements, and other aspects of everyday life in Oaxaca as well as in the different places to which I travelled for my research. I thought of these recordings, at the time, as a playful “aside,” detached from my research into politics and conflict. Regardless of how I treated these recordings – whether I only filed, named, even deleted them, or used them for writing – they reflect my immersive and relational connection with people and places, congruent with the ethnographic practice of embeddedness in the everyday life of society, in this case in a sonic environment of which I was always aware. These “recordings on the side” can be brought in relation to the American feminist Kate Millett’s “whisper tapes” recorded in Iran, in March 1979, during marches and protests for women’s rights (Mottahedeh 2019). The whispers were personal ethnographic vocal notes, keeping record of what she saw. But the recordings also offered another layer: the accompanying soundscapes offer an opportunity to listen to the voices and sentiments of the Iranian women around Millett during the protests and marches of these political moments.



A union speech similar to so many I have recorded - but this one is barely audible


This recording is of very poor quality, oversaturated. It was probably made to “keep track” of this moment, this speech. Listening to it, one can barely make out a trade union speech denouncing the actions of the local and national police, a voice that nevertheless stands out in a rich and complex sonic environment. This type of voice – including the distinctive prosody that characterizes it – is very familiar to me, as it is typical of the protesting union speeches of the local branch of the teachers' union. The ambient sound is punctuated by the occasional burst of firecrackers, so common at public political demonstrations. As for my position at the time of recording, I was in the audience, facing the stage, observing and listening to the meeting, which explains the layers of sonic information in which I was immersed: the speech, my immediate surroundings, and the distant noise.

A white noise, a distant rumble that I can hardly locate


A rumble, a lot of white noise, distant conversations whose meaning we don't understand, a police siren. It is a recording I cannot locate, probably made by mistake, and then kept. A dross of sound investigation, too abstruse to be easily used.

A recording of a trip in a collective taxi between Oaxaca and Miahuatlán


This is a recording of everyday life made in a collective transport van travelling from Oaxaca to Miahuatlán, a mode of transport where one often hears ranchera music, popular Mexican music, accompanied here by bandas. Only the driver's voice interrupts the sequence of ranchera songs to announce each destination. This is a recording made from the front seat next to the driver, with no other intention than to document this journey and its musical context.

A song recorded at a teachers' plantón, a sit-in in Mexico City


During a stay in Mexico City, I visited teachers who were occupying a site. As is often the case, they had set up camp in tents for several days or weeks, bringing with them food, bedding, and music. Here, a teacher who gave permission to record is singing a song in the style of a cantautor, romantic and political songs by singer-songwriters from the 1970s. The song tells of the departure of a rural maestra, a figure of truth and justice, and how her absence is felt in the village life. The musical vigils taking place during the teachers' plantones draw upon a political tradition from the 1980s, and participants share a lively repertoire of protest music, including songs by the well-known and very popular Cuban Silvio Ródriguez.