Connecting the Dots
Johnny Finn, visiting lecturer of geography, is researching the ties between geography and music
March 24, 2011
The connection between music and geography is not self-evident.
But Johnny Finn, visiting lecturer of geography, has dedicated his efforts to making that connection not only evident, but also relevant.
Originally from Alexandria, Va., Finn finished his Ph.D. at Arizona State University in Dec. 2010. He teaches a course about the geographical dimensions of human development, which is the introduction to human geography, as well as a 300-level seminar course, Race, reAfricanization and Music in Brazil.
In the seminar, Finn said, he used music as an analytical lens to work through questions of nationalism, national identity and militarism.
“Teaching and working with students here has been really rewarding,” Finn said. “It’s fun to work with students that are clearly very driven and set really high goals for themselves. It makes it easy for me.”
Finn is not only a teacher and researcher, but also a musician — specifically, a percussionist specializing in Cuban and Brazilian music. He has released a couple of albums, but most recently he has been working with a Brazilian group based in Arizona that he co-created.
“I use all that to preface this idea that my research interests in the academic field of geography, my teaching interests and my life as a musician are very interconnected,” Finn said.
“My research is about the geography of music, so I like to study music analytically and as a social scientist, but I also perform. That’s a huge creative outlet for me.”
Since his undergraduate years living and studying in Cuba at the University of Havana — he laughingly recalled staying until they literally threw him out — Finn has studied Cuba, Cuban politics and Cuban history.
Then one day, Finn said, it occurred to him that music and geography could be put together.
“Indeed, it’s a rather rich field and it shares a lot with ethnomusicology, social and cultural anthropology, and with cultural geography and musical geography,” he said.
Finn has taken this rich, mostly unexplored field and turned it into a three-tiered, ongoing project that he plans to start working on as soon as funding and support fall into place.
The project has three parts: a CD, a book and an Internet database. The CD will include original compositions and songs from all cities, the book will chronicle the connections Finn has found among these cities, and the online database will be an interactive map that will include the projects research in photos, videos and audio clips.
Finn is still in the early stages of developing the project, compiling a large-scale proposal with colleagues. The project involves a lot of people in a lot of different places, he said, from academics at the University of Arizona to musicians in two and three different cities.
“New Orleans, Havana and Salvador — three different cities, three different countries, three different languages,” Finn said, his eyes lighting up.
“We think of them geographically as very separated, and I’m interested in the idea of what in the academic world we call the “Black Atlantic,” which is looking through the lens of the African diaspora and connecting West and Central Africa to the Americas.”
The common denominator, according to Finn, becomes the African diaspora, which is the progression of Africans and their descendants to different parts of the globe. He is interested in connecting these three cities through a musical and geographical project that will not only bring them together, but also find commonalities that will abnegate our tendency to keep them separate.
The project involves writing a book of urban histories and narratives of the three cities, focusing on a central theme of race and music. He’ll be working with musicians from all three cities on composing and professionally recording an album, which will become the soundtrack of the project.
“We haven’t started composing yet,” Finn said, “but the idea is that it’ll be new compositions involving musicians working today that reflect contemporary musical aesthetics and at the same time find common roots that go back generations of centuries through time and space, and also all three cities’ very strong connection to the continent of Africa through the slave trade.”
The third part of the project involves creating an interactive documentary timeline that you go through at your own pace. Finn is working with cartographers and geographic information systems (GIS) to create an interactive, web-based digital atlas of sorts.
“It’ll almost look like a Google map, but it’ll be imbedded with photos, video clips, audio recordings of music and interviews,” Finn said. “Some would be in Spanish, some in Portuguese and some, of course, in English.”
Finn doesn’t know exactly what the future holds for him, but he has a plan, a dream and three of the most culturally and socially fascinating cities at his fingertips.