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Interview with Alex Chávez: Co-Winner of the 2018 Merriam Prize

Thursday, September 12, 2019   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Stephen Stuempfle
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Interview with Alex Chávez:
Co-Winner of the SEM 2018 Alan Merriam Prize

By Jesse Fivecoate, Indiana University Bloomington

Alex E. Chávez, the Nancy O’Neill Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame, was a co-winner of the SEM 2018 Alan Merriam Prize for Sounds of Crossing: Music, Migration, and the Aural Poetics of Huapango Arribeño (Duke University Press, 2017). Through the year of 2018, the Merriam Prize recognized “the most distinguished English-language monograph in the field of ethnomusicology.”

Photo courtesy Alex Chávez

Chávez has a formal background in anthropology, but while studying for his doctorate at the University of Texas at Austin, he found his interests coming together at the intersection of cultural and linguistic anthropology, ethnomusicology, folklore, and Mexican American studies. His book on the Huapango Arribeño is an example of his interdisciplinary training and practice.

Given the broader cultural context about which Chávez writes, he suggests that Sounds of Crossing is, in a way, less about the music and more about the social world of Mexican migrants and how aesthetic forms lend meaning to their migration. For him, ethnomusicology as a discipline aids in apprehending the contours of social experiences. There is something methodologically important about engaging with communities in “their own genres of communication,” particularly in being able to join in the music-making process alongside them. When doing so, researchers not only learn about the contexts in which they are positioned but are transported beyond mere participant-observation into a deeper place. In fact, this is how Chávez came to ethnomusicology and his research in the first place. While he was an undergraduate at UT Austin, he began playing traditional Mexican folk music with local musicians. This involvement connected him with the artists who would later become important figures in his ethnomusicological work. What started out as gigging eventually turned into research. In this way, methodology and theory were intimately intertwined in his ethnomusicological practice.

Chávez’s current work asks questions similar to those posed in Sounds of Crossing, but in a different context. Though still concerned with issues of sound, aurality, and phenomenology, he has moved his location of study from the Mexico-United States border to Chicago, Illinois. This new research explores the complex relationship between sound, race, and placemaking in urban space. Chávez sees this work as the “other side of the coin”—Latina/o/x Chicago remains woefully understudied, especially in terms of vernacular expressive culture. He hopes that his research can help to fill this gap in the scholarly record.

Chávez says that it is both an honor and humbling to be placed in a distinguished category with other Merriam Prize scholars whose work he has long admired. For him, the recognition of Sounds of Crossing by his SEM peers highlights the importance of issues of migration, expressive culture, and racialized personhood in the United States. The significance here, as he sees it, is that fellow ethnomusicologists consider the issues raised in his work as translatable to other cultural contexts and other genres of music.

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