The anxiety of 'blowing': on belief, knowledge, and precarity in Beninois brass instrument practice
Lyndsey Marie Hoh (University of Oxford)
Paper short abstract:
This paper considers the significance of breath and ‘blowing’ in Beninois brass instrument practice, and engages with musicians’ anxiety around a perceived lack of musical and medical knowledge and their bodily relationships with materials.
Paper long abstract:
Within amateur musical circles in Benin, one is told that if a male blows too hard into a brass instrument his testicles might swell up, fall off, or even 'run away'. Concerned parents warn their children against 'blowing' brass instruments, telling stories of genital hernias and infertility, and many maintain that male brass players must take preventative measures and attach their testicles with string. Accompanying this unease about blowing out, and the potentially dangerous effects of the expulsion of air through instruments, is a complement concern for breathing in, and the possible ingestion of microorganisms or poison through the mouth. This paper takes seriously my interlocutors' concern with the consequence of playing brass instruments on their bodies, and aims to understand the shapes and sources of their anxiety around blowing. Conceptualizing breath as constituting both a corporeal and metaphorical connection between a musician's body and their instrument, I connect beliefs about respiratory systems, wind power, and sonic force to pedagogical practices. I then relate these musical and bodily understandings to social beliefs around witchcraft, fertility, and sanitation, and notions of consumption and masculinity. An examination of musicians' rationale for their beliefs reveals uncertainty about the mechanical function and power of brass instruments—a foreign manufactured and still somewhat 'unknown' material object—and insecurity over the appropriate source of knowledge and authority on musical subjects. This paper contributes to anthropological work on bodies, materiality, and health, as well as literature on social precarity in contemporary West Africa.
Exposure: interdisciplinary perspectives on breath, air and atmospheres