True scientific knowledge, on the contrary, demands abandonment to the very life of the object
— G.W.F. Hegel, Preface, The Phenomenology of Mind
Discourse of all kind is heavily embedded with speech that has previously occurred, typically in the form of the first person direct quotation.
— Joel Sherzer, quoted in Michael Taussig (1993, p. 109), quoted here.
Another installment of “Monday Morning Madness,” a double feature in fact, that begins with a song/performance that I very much enjoyed the first time I witnessed it on Dimanche Gras in 1992 in Trinidad, during the Calypso Monarch finals in Queen’s Park Savannah in Port of Spain. I was pretty sure that I was one of very few people who thought the performance by Singing Sonia was enjoyable and distinctive, so I am thankful that a Trinidadian “youtuber” seems to have picked this for uploading, among the dozens and even hundreds of candidates from years gone by.
And, as seen below, I think a lot is going on in Sonia’s performance, teaching anthropology and social theory at every step.
Sonia in the Shadow of the Mighty Finds Originality
The ever charming Singing Sonia performs a piece called, “Professional Advice” — the advice coming from The Mighty Shadow, who is the author of the song, and this is just the start of the tension between learning and creation, between originality and mimesis. First let me say the performance was, as far as I can tell, unprecedented, and nothing similar has been done since. The melody has a Ska beat, with some of the big brass of modern calypso, featuring dramatic bursts that might remind one of theme music for a James Bond film, interspersed with a staccato rhythm and an innocent looking bird dance to suit. During calypso monarch finals, and given the finite number of standard calypso melodies (and only one for ex tempo performances — you can get a sample of that here), yes, definitely not part of the crowd. Also “original” was the fact that she was impersonating another calypsonian, and doing it very well, adopting his voice, his mannerisms, his dance. Singing Sonia did not win the crown, by the way, so perhaps the judges frowned on innovation, even when it bore the imprimatur of a figure as great as The Mighty Shadow, who put in an appearance in the performance itself, as seen in the first video below.
The wonder of mimesis lies in the copy drawing on the character and power of the original, to the point whereby the representation may even assume that character and that power. In an older language, this is “sympathetic magic,” and I believe it as necessary to the very process of knowing as it is to the construction and subsequent naturalization of identities.
— Michael Taussig (1993, pp. xiii-xiv)
First, about the singing. Sonia sings with her hands, so one should look at them as she sings — they punctuate. Note also the very smooth voices of her backup singers, who play in the role of the girls in the circle … I have yet to explain that one. Sonia sings in two voices, mirrored by her split costume. On her right, she sings mimicking Shadow, the darker side of her (without suggesting any moral quality here). On her left, she sings in her own voice, the lighter side, and she seems to have chosen a dress that resembles a wedding gown.
The chanter chanting creates and occupies a strange position, inside and outside. …This is not to be confused with liminality because it is both positions at one and the same time.
— Michael Taussig (1993, p. 111)
Sonia has become the shadow of The Shadow, a corporeal photograph, and in that there is magic, for as Taussig tells us, among the Cuna of Panama their notion of “purpa” (spiritual doubles) includes the shadow and the photograph (1993, p. 101).
Sonia even borrows Shadow’s “ay-yay-yay” line, singing it in his heavy voice, and then alternating with her own broad voice. She claims to be learning, to be taking the professional advice, and boasts of her originality, and does this by dividing herself, and always seeking out her master. The mimetic faculty, as Taussig (1993, p. xviii) argues, involves the compulsion to become the Other — Sonia is here performing an attempt at shamanic / anthropological crossing into the Other, into the Shadow. By imitating Shadow, she acquires Shadow.
the chanter chants [herself] into the scene. [She] exists not just as a subject but also as a mimeticised Other. In this way, as both chanter and person chanted about, as demonstrator and demonstrated, [she] creates the bridge between original and copy that brings a new force, the third force of magical power, to intervene in the human world.
— Michael Taussig (1993, p. 106)
Is Sonia’s performance a statement on the classic education pattern of the colonial, West Indian, “Afro-Saxon”? Or is it something much more fundamental?
Now the strange thing about this silly if not desperate place between the real and the really made-up is that it appears to be where most of us spend most of our time as epistemically correct, socially created, and occasionally creative beings. We dissimulate. We act and have to act as if mischief were not afoot in the kingdom of the real and that all around the ground lay firm.
— Michael Taussig (1993, p. xvii)
Second, I would ask the viewer to pay attention to Sonia’s dance. Her dance visually mimics the staccato of the music, but also the famous up-and-down bounce of her mentor, The Mighty Shadow, who in a culture of elaborate “wining” restricted his movements to a kind of skip-rope style, going against the grain. She takes that on for this song, and adds a dance routine of her own, performed when she is not singing. I am calling it a bird dance since it seems to mimic some of the movements of a bird. She dances around the stage like a lone, lost, little birdie, her little wings attempting to fly, and look at how she steps out in the darkness of the stage looking for orientation, scouting for her parent. The dance also conveys innocence, and Sonia never ceases to smile. There is no point in seeking and being open to advice if you do not have some “innocence.”
One of the key elements of the song is the repetition of “girl, show me your motion!” People who went to school in the Caribbean would immediately recognize where that line comes from. It is about learning and performing in the school yard, encouraged by peer spectator-participants, in a ring game. What happens is that little school girls, as shown in the second of today’s videos, form a circle, with one girl in the centre. Those forming the circle sing: “There’s a brown girl in the ring, tra la la la, and she looks like a sugar and a plum, plum, plum. Girl show me your motion!” Then the girl in the centre is supposed to make some physical movement, a motion.
Protean Sonia appears split into two, one side her master, the other side her emergent self. In her dance at the end, as the crowd erupts in applause as Shadow appears on stage, she dances over to meet him. They then part — he takes the centre of the ring, conveniently provided by the logo of Carib beer. She dances around the perimeter. From the girl in the ring she has now become a moon orbiting Shadow, a satellite that is half illuminated by him, copier revolving around copied. The bird dance has now turned into a playful enactment of centre and periphery. The divided self, resulting from a child that has undergone mentoring, is one that exists in a state of tension between originality and mimicry. The blurred dividing line between learning and mimicry places a question mark over authenticity, originality, and even sovereignty. The self becomes impossible without the other, by viewing oneself in the eyes of the other. And their relationship spans the spectrum as tutoring begins to resemble fathering which then mutates into a subtle courtship, and finally a partnership (the collaboration between the two artists). And courtship is not far fetched here, as we shall see below.
Shadow and Sonia do not teach social theory, they chart it out in dance, and practice it through sung metaphor. And as Taussig argues, they show us one critical motion: that any representational act cannot possibly be achieved without the intervention of the mimetic faculty. It also puts the currently dominant, orthodox notions of “copying” in a different light, revealing them as pompous misunderstandings that arise from aspiring monopolists who can never own that which comes distributed to begin with.
Sonia, show me your motion
The quality is not the best, yours ears will hopefully filter out the static after some time, and you may need to increase the volume.
Pulling you this way and that, mimesis plays this trick of dancing between the very same and the very different. An impossible but necessary, indeed and everyday affair, mimesis registers both sameness and difference, of being like, and of being Other. Creating stability from this instability is no small task, yet all identity formation is engaged in this habitually bracing activity in which the issue is not so much staying the same, but maintaining sameness through alterity.
— Michael Taussig (1993, p. 129)
Brown Girl in the Ring
Alan Lomax, J.D. Elder and Bess Lomax Hawe’s There’s a Brown Girl in the Ring, featuring an anthology of Eastern Caribbean song games, suggest that ring games are children’s precursor to adult courtship. Indeed, the second video, a Jamaican one, shows the “grown up girls,” doing altogether different motions, and you can see examples of the Butterfly Dance in that video. Lomax, Elder & Hawe explained that in the ring game the players form a ring by holding hands, then one girl goes into the middle of the ring and dances around to the song, exactly like we see Sonia do at the end of her video. At some point, the girl in the centre is then told “show me your motion”, and she does her favourite dance moves as explained above. The authors here note that she may be asked “show me your partner”, in which case she picks a friend to join her in the circle. In Sonia’s case above, she picked Shadow.
There has been some discussion about the use of the phrase “brown girl.” Some think this is an internalization of the colour-coded hierarchy inherited from colonialism. Others argue, that in such a festive, positive, joyful setting, “brown girl” enhances self-esteem. In fact, it helps to form solidarity as well, by exclusion — no mention of “white girl.”
Brown Girl in the Ring
Hegel, G.W.F. (1807). Phenomenology of Mind.
Lomax, Alan; Elder, J.D.; and Lomax Hawe Bess. (1997). There’s a Brown Girl in the Ring. New York: Random House.
Taussig, Michael. (1993). Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses. New York: Routledge.