Joshua Tucker

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Joshua Tucker

Assistant Professor of Music

Mike Cohea/Brown University
Ethnomusicologists use music as a point of entry for studying a different culture. For Josh Tucker, that began with a degree in guitar performance and a strong attraction to the music, language, and culture of Peru.

Ride big-city subways often enough, and you’ll hear it: a quick, bright, chiffy, flute-like sound zig-zagging above a guitar and maybe some rhythm instruments. It’s an energetic, special sound, different from the run of urban transit buskers. It’s Peruvian, some say — music of the Andes.

“Everybody who works in Andean music has the same story,” said Joshua Tucker, ethnomusicologist, Andean specialist, and new assistant professor of music. “We all got interested in the street music, and then when we finally got down to Peru, we discovered that it’s really not what most people actually listen to there.”

How that could be — Peruvians not listening to “Peruvian” music — is part of a larger set of questions that fascinates Tucker, whose training includes anthropology, musicology, and classical guitar. Given the powerful impulse of Western popular culture toward homogenization and mass appeal, how can indigenous people maintain their music, their culture, their way of life? Further, since indigenous cultures must continue to evolve if they are to remain vital, how can indigenous people manage change and still remain authentically indigenous? What, exactly, is indigeneity?

Tucker was a long way from Peru when he started. He grew up in Nova Scotia, parlaying his passion and talent as a rock guitarist into a Bachelor of Music in guitar performance at Dalhousie University in Halifax. He morphed from rock into classical guitar for his formal studies, and he made a few other discoveries — Spanish, for example, taught by a Peruvian. He wavered between music and Spanish, finally took his degree in music, and began casting about for the next step, something that would combine his guitar performance skills with his interest in Latin America. Enter ethnomusicology.

His next step was to the University of Michigan, where he took his master’s (2001) and doctorate (2005) in ethnomusicology. He found plenty of encouragement for his Andean interests in the music department and in anthropology.

In 2000, he began a series of visits to Peru, where he studied mandolin, harp, guitar, and quena (a Peruvian wooden flute) in both Ayacucho and Lima. He gained reading, writing, and speaking proficiency in southern Peruvian Quechua. Along the way, he also worked on the Javanese gamelan, the Japanese shakuhachi, Yoruba drumming, and Ghanian palm wine music for guitar.

“I’ve always been a person who wanted to learn how to play the instruments I encountered,” he said. “You get something from learning an instrument in another tradition. You can talk to people on a much deeper level. Things get revealed to you, and you need to work them out yourself.” The music becomes, in effect, a portal to a wider, deeper understanding of a given culture. In Tucker’s case, the music led to an examination of how commercial Andean music commodified ethnic and class identities in Peru.

The indigenous peoples in Peru, he said, are holding their own and “are finding ways in which they can decide which elements of their culture should or should not be changed. They can see what is coming to them and can choose what they believe will be useful.”

Tucker comes to Brown from the University of Texas–Austin, where he has taught graduate and undergraduate courses in Andean and Brazilian music and directed the University of Texas Andean Ensemble. He’ll offer the music of Brazil course at Brown this spring and lead a freshman seminar on the music of Latin America, including both Brazil and the Cuba–Caribbean–New York triangle.

He may also look into starting ensembles for Andean and Brazilian music in the next few years, extending the idea of playing music from another tradition. “Providence also has a large Bolivian community,” he said. “Forming an ensemble that would be open also to members of the community would be very interesting.”

The first order of business, though, is settling into a new home north of the Ladd Observatory — an anthropological household he shares with his wife, Jessaca Leinaweaver, assistant professor of anthropology at Brown, and their 10-month-old son.

Although mainstream commercial Andean music can still be found online or in music stores, it has had a steady decline since its heyday in the 1980s. (One New York Times critic at the high point said Andean music had become “the Chinese food of world music” — absolutely everywhere and not always good.)

“That wasn’t the fault of the music, of course,” Tucker said. “These were well-meaning artists and they certainly made a lot of wonderful music. It was big in Chile, big in Bolivia, and very big in Paris, and there still are a lot of people out there who love Andean music. But it didn’t seem to be very interesting to people in Peru.”

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