Hello from Singapore, where I am on the last leg of my fieldwork. Supposedly. The truth is I’m probably going to take a couple of extra trips to my previous field sites to conduct some more interviews. Now that I’m here, though, I’ve found myself slipping back into the rhythm of thinking-cramming-reading-producing that drums out the particular dance of graduate-level academia. As my geography professors and colleagues are fond of reminding me — place matters. One part of my brain is roaming about haphazardly on the ‘field’ (it is as much an imagined space as an actual one), while another is trailing after other people’s trains of thoughts in seminars, workshops, conferences, reading group meetings, etc. Not so different, these meanderings: somewhere along the way I hope to beat out my own path.
So I’ll be posting two sorts of entries in the coming weeks: field notes, and abstracts of (past and future) presentations, each of which deal with a certain facet of my thesis.
One such paper I’m working on is for an Asia Research Institute (ARI) workshop on Migration Infrastructure in Asia and the Middle East, to be held this 22-23 August at ARI, Singapore. The participants have been invited to engage with the concept of infrastructure in understanding how migration plays out within an ‘ecological and relational context of organized human practices across time and space’ (Star, 1999). I immediately thought of how agents perform this infrastructural function: they ‘manufacture’ individual musicians into coherent ensembles that are ‘suited’ — attired and modified for — the particular performance niche for which they are destined, ‘bridging’ the gap between supply and demand. In pulling together and channeling different kinds of resources and people, they work as the vital hubs which, through their ceaseless spinning, literally keep the music playing. (Note to self: save that phrase for future use. Corny article titles FTW.)
A sudden memory: I had the pleasure of talking to my uncle the economist about this during my last visit home a few months ago. What a rare treat it is, to feel that talking about one’s thesis can be a ‘pleasure’! After a long-winded, challenging chat with many qualifications, questions, and caveats on my end, Tito N. folded his hands and smiled widely. “It all comes down to supply and demand. Again!” And he laughed his big laugh.
Is it really that simple? It might be. But there’s a whole complex story behind it for sure. I’m excited to unravel it and re-weave it into a compelling story. Who says that academic work isn’t creative?
Anyway. Here is the abstract:
‘Packaging’ Talent: Agents and the Infrastructure of Overseas Filipino Musicianship in Asia
Across a diverse range of entertainment and leisure venues across Asia, Filipino musicians occupy the center stage. Their dominance as cover entertainers in Asia—whether as show bands in cruise ships and clubs, lounge duos in hotel lobbies, or classically trained performers in specialised theme parks—has been explained in the context of a distinctly ‘Filipino’ facility for musical expressiveness and mimickry (Bowe, 2005; Watkins, 2009). Coupled with narratives of chronic poverty in the homeland and endemic uncertainty in the sector of professional musicianship, this knack for cover performance renders the ubiquity of the migrant Filipino musician predictable and natural.
Going beyond these popular discourses of cultural proclivity and economic necessity, I argue that overseas Filipino musicianship, as a distinct form of migrant cultural labor, can be better understood in terms of its hidden infrastructure—the mundane, behind-the-scenes workings of agents who recruit, train, promote, and represent Filipino musicians in overseas markets for live musical entertainment. Agents facilitate the institutional channels through which Filipino musicians cross borders; moreover, they provide overseas employers with a ready, steady flow of cheap yet high-quality labor for a specialized performance niche by actively managing migrant musicians’ modes of performance, dress, behavior, and conduct for overseas consumption. In consolidating a vast socio-technical-aesthetic assemblage of bodies, technologies, and cultural and economic capital, agents act as crucial hubs (Kiwan and Meinhof, 2011) that ‘package’ Filipino musical talent to meet and in some ways shape the demands of a distinctly transnational cultural market.
My paper will draw from in-depth interviews with seven agents who have each been training, recruiting, and promoting Filipino musicians in cruise ships, clubs, and hotels in Asia for at least 20 years, collectively managing over 500 migrant musicians. By exploring the linkages and fissures of their individual experiences, I hope to foreground the common infrastructure that enables two seemingly disparate sectors of work—cultural labor and migrant labor—to overlap in a performance niche that has become distinctly ethnicized as ‘Filipino’.
Bowe, J. 2005. How did house bands become a Filipino export? The New York Times Magazine. Online access here.
Hoffman, A. 2012. Filipino house bands are hot around the globe. The Globe and Mail. Online access here.
Kiwan, N. and Meinhof, U.H. 2011. Music and migration: A transnational approach. Music & Arts in Action 3:3-20. Online access here.
Star, S.L. 1999. The ethnography of infrastructure. American Behavorial Scientist. 43: 377-391. Online access here.
Watkins, L 2009. Minstrelsy and mimesis in the South China Sea: Filipino migrant musicians, Chinese hosts, and the disciplining of relations in Hong Kong. Asian Music 40:72-90.