Lift every voice and sing: sound, emotion and affect in the fieldwork encounter

During this past summer I was in Ghana for fieldwork as part of my VENI research project. It was such a rewarding and challenging time in the field. I made copious observational notes and wrote my reflections on a daily basis during this time. However, since returning to the Netherlands and given the hectic start of the academic year, I’ve not yet managed to pause long enough to reflect on some of the fieldwork encounters in my notes. Then just last week, I had one sweet serendipitous memory recall of a memorable fieldwork encounter.

This memorable recall occurred while listening to my weekly ‘Release Radar’ collection on Spotify. As a habit I always have music in the background while I work. I prefer external speakers to earphones so working from home is always nice. Anyway, so as I worked away preparing my teaching materials and responding to emails, a new song pops up. Just at the intro of the song, I find myself being transported back on the sound, emotion and affect of the music to my fieldwork encounter with that same song back on 31 July 2021 at the Cape Coast Castle. A smile become transposed on my face for a while as I reminisced about the encounter.

Here is the scene: it’s the Reverential Night event on a Saturday evening at the Cape Coast Castle as part of the 2021 PANAFEST/Emancipation Day festival. Part of my fieldwork involved undertaking (non-)participant observation of a number of events taking place as part of this festival. Come to think of it, how do we define participant observation? How does non-participant observation look like? Are they an ‘either’ / ‘or’ categeories? Is participant observation a continuum from total immersion in swimming to a slight tip of the toes in the stream while remaining dry? What is the ‘non’ about non-participant observation? Is it a bird eye’s view of happenings while you sit perched on your research stool elsewhere? How do you observe if you not participating in the observation? Okay, now I might be stretching things here….but the point is that these methodological concepts are blurry and require good reflection. I have written in the past about the insider-outsider complication in the fieldwork encounter. I guess my new methodological sticking point is the the complication of (non-)participant observation in the fieldwork encounter. This is what I was intending to do reflect on in this blog post before going tangential…

So lets go back to the scene –Reverential Night event on a Saturday evening at the Cape Coast Castle as part of the 2021 PANAFEST/Emancipation Day festival starting at 22.00 (10.00pm). The event starts with candlelit procession outside the gates of the castle. There is a bit of scuffles with borrowing lighters from others and lighting your candle from the fire of another’s candle. The challenge here involved keeping your candle burning as the breeze from the Atlantic Ocean blew and as you bounced off other people in the procession all the while paying attention not to burn your fingers with the melting candle. We enter the Castle and after a wreath laying ceremony in the male dungeons, we come out into the compound yard of the castle. There is a lot of energy and liveliness in the air emanating from us the (non-)participants dressed in mainly all-white clothes. We take our seats for the formal start of Reverential Night. Here we are treated to live choral music from….and then the moment arrives! This was the moment of blurred boundaries of being a (non-)particpant observer in this setting. You can listen to the audio recording from where it all starts….can you hear my off-tune voice? 😉

Audio recording of my (non-)participant observation during Reverential Night

As the pianist struck the chord, the familiarity of the tune and music washed over me. I found myself smiling – almost laughing – that I meet this song here again. I was moved as I immediately remembered where I had first encountered this song and the circumstances thereof. This was as a first year student at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana back in August 2004. It was here as a freshman, that I got to know that this hymn was our University Anthem sang at Matriculation and Graduation Ceremonies, and other official university events. We were given the lyrics and made to practice the song as part of preparation for our Matriculation ceremony. The giggles, smiles, laughter and unrestrained joy with which we sang this song both in practice and on Matriculation Day has always remained with me ever since. So each time I hear this song, I turn 18 years all over again with all the boisterousness that comes with that age – as well as what we then considered as the freedom we’ve gained as university students away from the watchful eyes of our parents. Here in the compound of the Cape Coast Castle, I got caught up in the sound, emotions and affect of the moment as I imagined myself back at the Great Hall of the KNUST campus. Thus, I sang along to this song, this hymn, this anthem, this sound that has so much meaning and affect for different people. I felt I caught a glimpse, an insight….an affective understanding to some of my research questions. Questions such as how do slavery heritage tourism practices and performances generate embodied absences? How do such slavery heritage tourism practices and performances generate affective belonging and ties between people and their roots? I came to appreciate better the cultural and political work accomplished through such slavery heritage tourism practices and performances as Reverential Night during PANAFEST/Emancipation Day festival.

Lift ev’ry voice and sing…..this is the first line of this song that blurred my (non-)participant observation boundaries in the fieldwork encounter. So it was on that mid-morning last week as a new rendition of the song (above) came through my speakers from Spotify, I got washed over by the sound, emotion and affect of that fieldwork encounter. I managed to pause my teaching preps to let that feeling sink in again and to reflect on my research.

As I was writing this blog post, it occured to me that perhaps there are seeds for journal article here – that’s the academic in me talking, always looking to theorise from what might pass as simple experiences and encounters in the field 🙂

Do you want to learn more about the history behind this song which has become known as the ‘Black Anthem’? Follow these links:
https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/why-black-national-anthem-lifting-every-voice-sing-180975519/

https://edition.cnn.com/interactive/2020/09/us/lift-every-voice-and-sing-trnd/

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