not those voices, but these: learning to hear
“No, not that frog sound. Something more like this,” said Makota’ay Pangcah （港口阿美族）visual and performance artist Rahic as he began to discuss my recording of frogs in a culvert beside the Siuguluan River （秀姑巒溪）, which enters the ocean near his home village of Makota’ay （港口村部落）, one of the Cepo’ Pangcah Communities. He had told me his version of the history of the 1877 Cepo’ Incident, a massacre after which Qing （大清帝國）armies annexed Cepo’ Pangcah Country into the empire. To those who know the story of the 1877 Cepo’ Incident （Kalaloodan no Cepo’ 港口事件） the sound of frogs (this particular sound of the frogs, not another vocalization) resembles the keening of elderly women upon hearing the demise of the community’s 200 youth, whom the Qing army ambushed at a banquet. On this journey up the Siuguluan on my electric scooter, I hadn’t recorded the right sound. CiRahic reminded me that more than recording, my work around Cepo’ and along Taradaw–The River, as Cepo’ Pangcah call the Siuguluan–entailed an aural pedagogy, learning ways of listening and responding to the multiply occupied places of Pangcah Country. I still had to learn to connect frog sounds (these frog voices, not another) to history.
Listening to frog voices, I also attend to the ways that Cepo’ Pangcah create sonic histories. In addition to placing these sonic histories into conversation with work in sound studies, I am interested in how learning to listen to traces of multiple occupations may ground collaborative ethnographic and sound installation art work. I argue that Indigenous sonic practices, such as registering traces of the Cepo’ Incident in these frog voices, create resonant figures of Indigenous survivance. Just as the frogs have found spaces within Settler infrastructures to survive, Indigenous practices of registering histories in sound assert that Pangcah relationships to the land endure.
Yet just like frog voices, which resound within Settler infrastructures, Indigenous assertion remains entangled with Settler occupation; after all, the frog voices resemble the laments of elderly women in the wake of a massacre. If we know how to listen, the frog voices register this incident. Yet this sound is never just any frog voices, but a specific species of frogs singing in a particular frequency and rhythm at a particular time of year. Moreover, drainage ditches, such as those nearby the old bridge spanning the Siuguluan and nearby the site of the massacre (now on the campus of Jingpu Elementary School 靜浦小學 in Cawi’), provide additional habitat and concrete vaults that amplify frog voices. In this fashion, the frog registered narrative maintains a presence, sounding within Settler landscapes. Repeating annually, does it remind us that Settler Colonialism is, as Wolfe (2006) argued, structure and not event? Does it matter that hearing these frogs as a memory of the 1877 Cepo’ incident requires a pedagogy in listening?
In turning to registration I move away from the question of “what occupation sounds like” toward questions of how Cepo’ Pangcah record and inflect occupation in sounds, quotations of sound in discourse, and practices of listening. In this regard, my work shares with Feld (1996) and others (Faudree 2012, Helmreich 2007, Idhe 2007, Samuels et al. 2010) who are concerned with how we sense and know the world through sound. This shift to “how” questions away from “what” questions might best be indicated in Feld’s (1996) move from Schafer’s (1977) concept of soundscape toward “acoustemology.”
Although I am inspired by Feld’s discussion of knowing and sensuous participation in the world through sound, I must admit that I have always been a bit skeptical of acoustemology in Feld’s work (1994, 1996, 2012) because of its avoidance of power relations, particularly colonial occupation, as constitutive. The term projects a kind of ecological holism upon Indigenous people and their ways of knowing through sonic practices. Although it calls our attention to a variety of copresent non-human subjects with whom (and sometimes through whom) people sound and listen, acoustemology too easily falls into a romantic depiction of Indigenous people that elides the echoes of colonial occupation just beyond, it always seems, Feld’s aural-temporal horizon. Nevertheless, shotguns, chainsaws, and string bands (to name just a few sounds of occupation present on the margins of Feld’s work) resound just as clearly in the environment as bird songs and water. In this regard, Feld’s acoustemology is driven by desires similar to that of Schafer (1977): It desires a world undisturbed by the forces that it assumes have rent a previous acoustic ecology, rather than examining the complicated processes through which Indigenous people have wrestled with dispossession. Like other erotics of the noble savage, acoustemology closes its ears to power relations, particularly those of occupation. What if, however, we began with a consideration of how colonial occupation resonates across Indigenous places? After all, the category of Indigenous is always defined in relationship to occupation, to dispossession from, as well as relationship to, Country.
Another set of conversations I would like to have with this discussion of sonic histories is with critical indigenous studies. Much work in critical indigenous studies takes a critical stance on western notions, including those such as sovereignty or recognition, which are supposed to reconcile relationships between settler and indigenous peoples. Turning away from recognition or procedural justice, many scholars in critical indigenous studies focus on the ethical role of place in narrative, situating narrative as one of many place-based practices through which Indigenous people assert the failure of settler colonialism to eliminate them.
I take a related but slightly different tack: I am interested in how sonic practices establish place, in how people construct or inhabit multiply occupied places. I hope to contribute to our understanding of both the sounds of occupation—the kinds of sounds that accompany or index settler colonialism—and the sonic practices of refusal and resurgence through which Pangcah confront occupation. Some of this work will require close description of sounds in the niyaro’ (Pangcah community). In other places, I will discuss how sonic practices are tools with which Pangcah mediate multiple layers of occupation in their assertions of enduring relationship with land / ocean, not just projected into the past, but extending into the future.
Attending to the ways that Indigenous people register occupation, I am also interested in how listening and sounding in their witness to occupation might inform decolonizing strategies. Such a strategy emerges from listening to frog voices as a memory of the 1877 Cepo’ Incident and resonates with the name some survivors of the incident gave their community when they returned from the mountain refuge of Cilangasan: Mangota’ay, murky, may refer to the turbid waters surrounding the mouth of Taradaw; it also encodes a desire to leave memories of the Incident murky, letting one’s heart remain murky until the day when the waters settle and one can again remember and see clearly. This murkiness inheres in a soundscape where frogs maintain memory for those who learn to listen