Travel on a grant II

9th January 2020

News, Student news, Alumni news

With the help of alumni funded travel grants, Wadham students have travelled the world, researching the New York jazz scene, protest in Pakistan and the delights of Tokyo.

  • New York Jazz club
  • Musicians rehearsing
  • Manhattan

Freddie Wolff (French, 2016) explores the thriving jazz culture of New York City

My aim was to investigate how New York City has sustained itself as an epicentre of jazz culture and innovation for the best part of a century; a project which would culminate in a documentary-style video.

Over the course of two weeks, I interviewed more than twenty musicians, academics, students, enthusiasts and industry moguls to try to get to grips with the relationship between geography and the broad genre of jazz. The filming locations were chiefly at universities and in and around jazz clubs in Greenwich Village, where many of New York’s most vibrant jazz clubs can still be found. 

The project was overall a success: I filmed more than 15 hours’ worth of interview footage which is now being prepared for post-production. The final documentary will be ready after I complete my final examinations in Trinity term of 2020 and, with the consent of the interviewees, will be available online for public consumption. 

There were a number of thematic repetitions among the interviewees’ answers. Unsurprisingly, there was no one clear answer to the question: ‘why does New York City remain an epicentre of jazz in 2019?’ Yet many drew on the significance of the city’s liberal ambiance. This allowed for a musical innovation in the fifties and sixties which now fuels the idolisation of ‘jazz greats’ among young musicians who seem to want to recreate - or at least become a part of - that rich history. 

Other lines of enquiry developed from the more unexpected answers given by interviewees. These included, but were not confined to, questions of drive, ego, vocation, responsibility, mastery, cultural/musical propriety, politics and the capitalist structures which have shaped the jazz scene in NYC over time. 

One interesting development was the discovery of the jazz archive at William Paterson University in New Jersey. A particular highlight for me was holding a trumpet bag and mute that used to belong to Miles Davis (a bag which still holds the forceful whiff of his cologne). 

Some of the most interesting and exciting interviewees were legendary jazz drummer, Horacee Arnold, whose credits include Bud Powell and Dizzie Gillespie; Dr David Demsey, Professor of Music and Coordinator of Jazz Studies at William Paterson University; and legendary jazz drummer Jeff Williams, whose credits include Stan Getz and Dave Liebman and who is married to the writer Lionel Shrivel. 

Overall, the trip was an extremely rich experience. I have made useful contacts, learnt a good deal about the techniques of a documentarian and explored fields which interest me practically, intellectually and musically. 

Many thanks to Wadham and to the family of Judge Burka, without whose funding I would not have been able to realise this project.

  • demonstration
  • demonstration
  • demonstration

Dangerous transport routes in Pakistan meant Zehra Munir (History, 2018) had to review her travel plans at the last moment –with beneficial results for her understanding of the women’s movement

A sense of elation upon receiving this travel grant quickly turned to sadness when during the summer vacation, I realised that I would not be able to pursue my initial travel plans. A combination of family illness and dangerous transport routes meant that I was no longer able to travel up from Lahore to Gilgit-Baltistan to continue with my previous summer’s research on money-loaning systems in Pakistan’s Gojal Valley. For a few days, I had sadly reconciled myself to having to return the travel grant money, and I comforted myself with the thought that perhaps I could re-apply next year.

In all this, I had forgotten one crucial thing. In Pakistan, problems have a curious way of resolving themselves in the ways you expect least. 

After the initial worry, I started thinking about the themes I had wanted to explore in my research in the Gojal Valley. Nominally, my work was about money-loaning systems, and their history, but the ideas that emerged last time I was there were about women and their empowerment, the history of social movements, and the economic instability modernity had brought to the region. I then thought about my long-term interest in uncovering more about histories of womanhood and women’s movements in Lahore, and quickly realised that I could carry out my research after all! I decided that the best way in which I could continue to unpack these themes was through a comparative angle. In the Gojal Valley a few years ago, my work on money loaning had included looking at the ways in which social movements and NGO projects which promote financial independence affected women in the region. Now, in Lahore, I was going to try and understand the ‘feminist’ movements that had had an impact on women’s lives since the Partition in 1947. 

Enthused once again, I began my work by visiting the Shirkat-Gah (The Women’s Collective) archives in Garden Town, Lahore. Shirkat-Gah is a long-established NGO in Pakistan, dedicated to promoting equality for women in Pakistani society. An unexpected bonus was that the Shirkat-Gah offices also house the archives of the Women’s Action Forum, perhaps the most famous women’s rights coalition in Pakistan. The Women’s Action Forum was formed in response to the Hudood Ordinances of 1979, laws which were part of the then military ruler Zia-Ul-Haq’s Islamisation program in Pakistan. Among other things, these laws criminalised adultery and non-marital sex, including rape – they led to thousands of women being imprisoned for so-called “honor” crimes. Sifting through documents detailing protests held against these ordinances, and notes from cases fought by the inimitable human rights lawyer duo, the two sisters Asma Jahangir and Hina Jillani, I quickly became familiar with the work conducted by WAF and Shirkat-Gah. All academic analysis aside, it was a moving moment for me – the realisation that despite external (and sometimes internal) narratives about Pakistan and patriarchy, there has always been some form of resistance to top-down sexism imposed by a succession of governments. 

I then sought to enrich my understanding of the women’s movement history by interviewing a few of the women who were involved with these organisations in the 1980s, and I also met with organisers active in feminist struggle currently. The discussions that followed were eye-opening. A continuous critique of the original movement that came from dissenters within, as well as from newer activists, was that the organisations were inherently elitist. Having studied this year the break in the American feminist movement between the Betty Friedan followers of the 1960s, and the Black feminists who called the Friedan and her compatriots out on their ignorance of issues of race and class, it was fascinating to see that the same issues were present across the globe – almost at the same time. Interviewees spoke varyingly of the intensely hierarchical nature of the movement, of a dismissal of class issues, and most strikingly, their worry that these mistakes are being repeated in the modern feminist movement. Some spoke of this worry manifesting itself during the much publicised Women’s March in Lahore this year, which while claiming to be intersectional, was still heavily dominated by women from the middle classes – and consequently, by their demands. 

With so many avenues of exploration opened by this trip, I have many ideas for what I will do with my archival and interview-based material. I intend to do a write up of my research in the form of my an article or two that I can pitch to international publications, but also hope to go back again this winter to continue with my work, and perhaps write a few longer essays based on it. For now, I leave you with a few photos of my time in Lahore – including a couple of the Lahore Climate March, which I managed to catch while I was there!

  • Tokyo snapshots

Rachel McVeigh (Oriental Studies (Chinese, 2016) broadened her understanding of Japanese language and culture, enjoying spring time in Tokyo

I arrived in Tokyo after a long stopover in Chengdu—in this way, I stepped from the loud sounds, smells, and colours of China, so familiar to me from my year abroad in Beijing, into the muted, sleek world of urban Japan. The well-trained Mandarin syllables waiting on my tongue for deployment were suddenly ordered to retreat: they were replaced by a motley crew of botched conjugations and misread characters, which parachuted from my mouth in an undisciplined riot. Taxi drivers and cashiers were left dazed and confused in the wake of this onslaught. Exhausted by the effort, I collapsed immediately upon arrival in my friend’s home, where I would be staying for several weeks for a language and culture exchange.
Despite the encouraging words and polite smiles of my host family, it took some time for my mostly written Japanese skills to translate into conversation, for which I attempted to compensate in the meantime with enthusiastic nodding and laughter in probably inappropriate places. Indispensable in facilitating basic communication was my knowledge of Chinese characters, which I often wrote down and passed around the table. With much patience on the part of my interlocutors, however, my spoken Japanese improved considerably over the course of these weeks.

When I arrived, the season of sakura (cherry) blossoming was just beginning: parks were full of families and friends picnicking beneath the trees, cheerfully making the best of this opportunity for day-drinking. In a few days, the petals began to snow down, blanketing the pavements and canals, and by my departure, hardly a petal was to be seen. Witnessing this spectacle, at once a representation of the joy of reunion and of the melancholia of fleeting beauty, was not something I had specifically planned; however, it was one of the things about Tokyo that left the greatest impression on me.

It was a significant time in Tokyo for another reason: during my stay, it was announced that the new era name (年号 nengō) would be Reiwa 令和. The era name is used in the traditional Japanese calendrical system and will be used to refer to all the dates under the reign of the new Japanese emperor. The announcement was highly anticipated and televised: watching this moment, as well as the reaction to the news from ordinary Japanese people, was one of the highlights of my stay. There were a number of political implications relating to the choice of era name—the choice of literary source for the name broke with tradition, taking the characters for the first time from a native Japanese text and not from a Chinese classic, which has been interpreted as a reflection of growing Japanese nationalism. It also attracted some criticism for the use of the character 令 rei, which has strong connotations of ‘order’ or ‘command’, leading many of my Japanese friends to object to its authoritarian flavour. The announcement of the Reiwa era was a truly historic moment, and I felt privileged to be in Japan at that important time. 

My time in Japan gave me so many rewarding and enriching experiences, it would be impossible to list them all in detail. I could write pages about the traditional tea and sweets served by my host family, or about touring my friend’s old high school, or about meeting his old friends at an izakaya (pub equivalent); much ink could be spilled about the azalea festival at Nezu shrine, or the dog convention (‘woof-woof meet’) in central Shibuya, or the house where Chinese and Japanese literary giants Lu Xun and Natsume Sōseki lived at different times. I could laud the variety of street food or lament the paucity of vegetarian fare. I could enthuse for hours about the streets of bookstores on any and every subject in Jimbōchō. Ultimately, however, I can only extend my most heartfelt thanks to Wadham for generously awarding me this travel grant, which made it possible for me to deepen and broaden my understanding of the Japanese language and culture. 

Related news