Old instruments, new keys: the musical performance of Lahu identities

Author: Judith M. S. Pine (Western Washington University)
Speaker: Judith M. S. Pine
Topic: Linguistic Anthropology
The (SCOPUS / ISI) SOAS GLOCAL CALA 2019 General Session


This paper explores the semiotic landscape within which performers of Lahu music, and, arguably, performers of Lahu identity engage with hegemonic ideologies associated with colonialism and neo-colonialism, and contend with impact of changes in a global mediascape through which representations and performances of identity travel. An analysis of the images, orthographies, music, and lyrics of a selection of Lahu-language pop music videos produced in mainland Southeast Asia and in China, each video available on YouTube, offers insights into the historically-situated representational economies within which Lahu identities are performed.

The circulation of Lahu-language pop music videos, as part of a vibrant market of videos in a variety of languages which make up the complex language ecology of the Greater Mekong Subregion, provides a location for the performance of Lahu identity. These performances form a location for the exploration of entangled representational economies, and the elements of semiotic ideology which inform and infuse these economies. Visual, musical, orthographic, and textual elements of these videos undergo processes of enregisterment (Agha 2003), forming recognizable semiotic repertoires. Elements of these repertoires (guitars, musical styles, clothing, landscapes, lyrics) which, directly or indirectly, index “modern”, or “Western”, or “indigenous” or “authentic” aspects of Lahu identity, display a potential for transformation which allows them to make sense in a variety of conversations within and beyond the region of their production.

Successful deployment of these semiotic elements, in the context of performances of identities which are both Lahu and modern, must contend with changes in media- and technoscapes associated with the rapid growth of the global internet within which they find audiences, as well as shifting ideoscapes, as the West, whose musical styles they often evoke, is decentered, creating potentially seismic shifts in the discourses of modernity, indigeneity, and identity in which they take part. The ethnographic perspective taken in this paper offers insights into the complexity of these performances and their contexts.