Going Public: The Challenges of Media Interviews and Representation in the Field
From the field in Skopje, Macedonia
Last week, after attending my regular kickboxing class with some of my DJ and club owner friends, I headed to the food court at the mall to grab some dinner. While I was waiting for my food at the counter, I started chatting with the two girls working there about where I’m from and what I’m doing in Macedonia. I told them about how I’m researching several music scenes, how I’m collaborating as a saxophonist with local jazz, classical, and electronic musicians, how I’m teaching some classes at the university, and how I’m writing a dissertation about music in Macedonia.
“Wait, I think I know you—were you interviewed on some TV show?” one of the girls asked. I admitted that I was, and the conversation moved on to other topics. In a small country like Macedonia (with a population of about two million), appearing on national media is not an uncommon experience, nor is seeing someone who has recently (or even regularly) appeared on television. But, like media everywhere, it carries the capability to deliver explicit and implicit messages to a wide audience.
Because of my ability to speak Macedonian as a foreigner who doesn’t have Macedonian heritage, I am somewhat of a novelty in Macedonia. When a friend has a friend who is a television or newspaper journalist looking for material during a slow week, I often get a call to give an interview. Or when a band I’m playing with has an important performance coming up, a television interview with an American musician speaking Macedonian can help our promotion of the concert. When I receive these calls, I start asking myself all kinds of questions as I debate whether or not to give an interview. What am I being asked to do in this interview? Promote musicians I am collaborating with? Promote myself as a musician? Am I unwittingly supporting some hidden political agenda of the mass media that I might disagree with? Or is there room for me to offer my own opinions about the musical opportunities I am trying to (as much as I reasonably can) create for Macedonian musicians, or even challenge political agendas as they manifest themselves in music?
Because of their frequent interest in traditional music, ethnomusicologists have often found themselves advocating for the minority or oppressed groups among whom they have conducted their research (referred to among ethnomusicologists as “applied ethnomusicology”). Conversely, though I do interact with Albanians, Roms, and other minorities, my work in Macedonia is primarily among urban musicians from the majority ethnic Macedonian population (60-70% of the population, depending on whose statistics you use). Most resources are controlled by this dominant group and, as such, ethnic Macedonians are not in need of any type of advocacy at home.
When it comes to regional or world politics, however, Macedonians perceive and express a great need for advocacy on the international stage, as Macedonia struggles to receive recognition as a legitimate nation-state due to conflicts with its geographical neighbors related to identity politics. So when an American comes to town, speaking the language, interested in the local culture, and representing the real and imagined symbolic capital of America, people take note and find it an interesting story. They are honored that an American would learn their language—one scarcely spoken outside its borders other than in the diaspora—and offer their trust in return, which I also receive as an honor and never take for granted.
And yet I struggle with how (and whether) to engage, how (and whether) to represent myself in media interviews. My research involves musical collaboration in several forums: playing with local jazz musicians at concerts and clubs, improvising on flute and saxophone with house and techno DJs at late night club parties, and contributing to the local new music scene by performing compositions of Macedonian composers and having my own contemporary classical compositions played by local performers. The constant and multifarious negotiation involved in collaboration is one of the themes I’m exploring in my dissertation, and I’m drawing from a rich set of experiences with local musicians to interpret our collaborations. On a practical (or even applied) level, I want to create opportunities for musicians through collaborative musical projects. And, I’m learning, as a collaborator with members of the dominant population in Macedonia, interaction with the media is part of the process.
Though I’m comfortable on stage as a performer and comfortable with my Macedonian language skills, I am a bit uncomfortable with the spotlight associated with interviews and the expectations that may come with them, depending on the situation. They ask me about the food I like. They ask me what I miss about America. They ask me where I learned Macedonian. They ask me how I first started coming to Macedonia. And they ask me if I’m planning on staying here long term. To me, those questions and their answers seem so mundane, and after so many years of coming to Macedonia (I first came here in 2002), these things are part of my every day, normal experience. In this setting, nothing around me seems exotic by any means, but rather I’m the one who is exotic, the rare visitor who comes and learns enough about this place to maybe promote it and perhaps even talk about it abroad in the way some Macedonians would like it to be represented.
Undoubtedly, I will fall short of the grand hopes and expectations Macedonians often have for me as such a “promoter,” and in my local interviews, I want to be honest about the world around me, about my perceptions of Macedonian music and culture. I want to move beyond the mundane and be open about the beautiful and not so beautiful things I’m seeing, while still showing respect for the people who have embraced me and offered me access to so many aspects of their lives.
My ideas on representing myself (and my work) through media in the field are far from worked out. I’m only at the beginning of this thought process, this terrain that has been tread by many ethnomusicologists and other ethnographers over the years. I’m writing this “note from the field” in the spirit of this column—to invite comments, responses, and links to other thoughts and reflections on this topic.
For now I will provide a link to a newspaper interview I gave in February to a Macedonian journalist, Tina Ivanova, who is a trained musicologist and often reports on new classical music in Macedonia, among other musical happenings. I told Tina when I met her that my fieldwork was very much about beginning some musical partnerships with local musicians, and she seemed to understand and support what I hoped to contribute to the world of music in Macedonia. When she asked me for an interview later, she said that as a relatively new participant in the musical circles of Macedonia, I should be introduced properly in the media. After a 45 minute interview, she chose a few responses to include in the article. I talk about Macedonia food, how I came to study Macedonian musical culture, and a few of my observations of how Macedonians often interact with foreigners. The original interview is here, and my English translation can be found below. I welcome comments on how I handled the interview as well.
INTERVIEW - Macedonia is a small country, but it has many music scenes
"When I started to discover its music, I began to realize what kind of country it is," says Dave Wilson, American saxophonist and composer who explores Macedonian musical culture.
by Tina Ivanova
Dave Wilson (34) is an American saxophonist, composer and ethnomusicologist who has been coming to Macedonia for ten years to uncover and analyze not only Macedonian traditional music, but also the sound of Macedonian modernity. Born in Chicago, he lives in California, and studied at Indiana University. He is fluent in Macedonian, and is presently completing his doctoral dissertation, which is an analysis of a number of diverse musical genres and scenes in Macedonia. The Macedonian music community knows Wilson from his frequent appearances at nightclubs in Skopje, as a jazz musician, and from collaborating with Macedonian jazz musicians and DJs. In March, will perform at the "Days of Macedonian Music" festival as a saxophonist and, for the first time in Macedonia, he will be introduced as a composer of contemporary classical music. In this interview he talks about his Macedonian experience:
Dave, Macedonian musicians know you and would say that you are an excellent musician and an accomplished saxophonist. Some of these musicians are also your good friends. For starters, how did you choose Macedonia as the place for you to explore musical culture?
Before I started my career in music, I wanted to first do something else for a few years. So I came to Macedonia from 2002 until 2004 to work for an NGO. It happened quite spontaneously; I wanted to live outside of America for a little while. When I arrived at Skopje airport, the old one, I asked myself, “Where am I?” I knew nothing about Macedonia. First of all, I could not read a single letter in the alphabet. I thought I might be somewhere in Russia––I had no idea that Macedonian was written in Cyrillic. I didn’t know anything about your music either. But since I had a degree in music from Indiana in saxophone, in jazz and classical music, I started to explore the music here. My first encounter with Macedonian music was through the albums of Dragan Dautovski, Vlatko Stefanovski with Miroslav Tadic, and the group “Anastasia” from the film “Before the Rain,” things that were popular at that time. And when I started to discover the music of Macedonia, I realized a lot about the country itself.
Was music the reason you returned to Macedonia, after that initial two-year stay?
Yes, it was because of the music. After a two-year stay here, I didn’t think I’d return to Macedonia. I began my career in Los Angeles––I grew up in Chicago, but Los Angeles and New York are the major cities for the music industry in America. With my skill set LA was a good choice for me because I could work as a jazz musician as well as in the context of popular music. But at that time, I began to gradually get into the so-called "world music" scene and found that I had some knowledge of the Macedonian music tradition. I went back to Skopje, I bought a kaval and again began to discover that world. I enrolled at the UCLA Department of Ethnomusicology and am now working on a doctoral thesis that is a study of Macedonian musical culture on the topic: “Making Music, Making Space: Musicians, Scenes and Belonging in the Republic of Macedonia.” I’m doing this with the goal of becoming a college professor. I’m using an anthropological approach, doing an analysis of the culture here and it’s a great fit for me.
You speak Macedonian very well. At one point you mentioned to me that you learned the language because Macedonians are sometimes shy of foreigners, and you wanted to form deeper friendships.
Yes. But it wasn’t extremely difficult to learn the Macedonian language. It was interesting. I had American and Macedonian colleagues in Macedonia when I lived here and I took classes for several months. But I learned from friends. My roommates and I lived in the Kozle neighborhood at that time––when we needed to go somewhere, we took a taxi. That for me was a cheap Macedonian language class because I would sit in the front seat with the taxi driver and try to talk about simple things. As for the fear of foreigners, today it is very different than it was in 2002. Now, there is a greater openness to foreigners. People initially tended to be shy of me, guessing that I didn’t speak Macedonian. Even though everyone here speaks English, more or less, I felt some sort of fear from them. There’s no need for that happening. Macedonians should have confidence in themselves, and open up greater communication with people from the outside.
What is your general assessment of Macedonian music, as you experience it as an outsider, but also as an insider on stage during your performances at clubs?
The most interesting thing for me is that Macedonia is a small country, but it has many music scenes. And every scene is filled with good musicians. You have a scene for classical music, folk, pop music, electronic music . . . People say that Macedonia has a rich and abundant traditional folk culture, but for me that richness is also evident in that Macedonians have a strong interest in music in general and really enjoy it. For example, a few days ago I was at “Menada” when the band "Chalgia Sound System" performed, and the club was packed. The rich abundance here is that for every kind of music, there is interest.
That being said, I think the state should fund projects that will take place outside of Macedonia’s borders. Only in this way can Macedonian music be promoted on the international stage. For example, there is a partnership with Tempe, Arizona (near Phoenix) and President Ivanov visits there, since Tempe is a sister city of Skopje. The university there has a strong Slavic Studies department, University, and this is a good example of cultural exchange.
In addition, since I work with jazz music, "Skopje Jazz Festival" is a great thing for Macedonia. The festival is very well known among jazz musicians all over the world, they all absolutely love Skopje, because Oliver Belopeta is a great host. That is a prime example of how to advertise Macedonia. It was great some time ago when he said: "We did not create the program for the festival according to the wishes of the audience." And it should be that way, because he knows what's going on in the world, and those things should be given to the audience. Also, “Menada” is a good club that supports artists and provides opportunities for performance.
What are Macedonians like?
Macedonians are good hosts. For example, I’m going to be the godfather at the christening of the son of some very close friends that I’ve gotten to know over the years while living in Macedonia. For me these kinds of rituals are very interesting. I have been able to bond with people here quickly, and it's not quite the same as in California.
On the other hand, Macedonia is a small country. And every circle of people is very small. People do not have a lot of trust in one another, they rarely speak about their deeper secrets, they’re afraid that people might find out something about them. You need to be very careful what you say here. With me, because I'm a foreigner, I'm from California, and since people know that I’m leaving, they open up. And I don’t take that openness for granted, I deeply value it. I have a unique position. But people need to talk, it's a human thing, they need to say the things that they keep inside.
Finally, I'm interest to know which foods from these areas you find delightful.
When I have guests from America, I always have them order a shopska salad, because the Macedonian shopska salad is legendary throughout the world. Then they'll have selsko meso (mixed meat stew), stuffed peppers and other things that cannot be found in America. The best thing for me is that I can eat burek at four or five in the morning, or a simit-ogacha. After a gig that’s a really beautiful thing here. In America you can find burek, but only during the day.