Isles of Noise: Sonic Media in the Caribbean

Isles of Noise: Sonic Media in the Caribbean

Isles of Noise: Sonic Media in the Caribbean

Isles of Noise: Sonic Media in the Caribbean

Synopsis

In this media history of the Caribbean, Alejandra Bronfman traces how technology, culture, and politics developed in a region that was "wired" earlier and more widely than many other parts of the Americas. Haiti, Cuba, and Jamaica acquired radio and broadcasting in the early stages of the global expansion of telecommunications technologies. Imperial histories helped forge these material connections through which the United States, Great Britain, and the islands created a virtual laboratory for experiments in audiopolitics and listening practices.

As radio became an established medium worldwide, it burgeoned in the Caribbean because the region was a hub for intense foreign and domestic commercial and military activities. Attending to everyday life, infrastructure, and sounded histories during the waxing of an American empire and the waning of British influence in the Caribbean, Bronfman does not allow the notion of empire to stand solely for domination. By the time of the Cold War, broadcasting had become a ubiquitous phenomenon that rendered sound and voice central to political mobilization in the Caribbean nations throwing off what remained of their imperial tethers.

Excerpt

Sometime in the spring of 1905, Frank E. Butler boarded a train traveling from Havana to Santiago with so many suitcases full of “a great quantity of wire, equipment, etc.,” that his sleeper “resembled a baggage car.” The cargo raised suspicion. During a rest stop on the twentysix-hour journey, the crew removed a large coil of wire they had found in Butler’s compartment. As passengers gathered to stare, the crew interrogated him as to its purpose and demanded a fee for not confiscating it. Once he arrived in Santiago, Butler needed help transporting the equipment. He asked a Cuban army officer he had befriended to find a few boys to help him carry the suitcases and coils to the steamer that would take him to Boquerón, in Guantánamo Bay. In Boquerón, he found a Jamaican man, George Morehead, to assist him. They strapped the equipment on the backs of two horses and began their hike through the jungle to their destination. Butler soon discovered that a clearing in the jungle was his destination; he described the proposed spot for the first wireless station in the Caribbean as “dense undergrowth … interspersed with low, arid, sand flats: a paradise for mosquitoes, snakes, horned toads, scorpions, tarantulas, wild cats, and all other kinds of tropical creatures, flying and crawling.”

The insects and snakes plagued Butler and his coworkers for a year as they built the station. Swathed in kerchiefs to keep out the swarming mosquitoes, they laid concrete foundations and constructed timber towers that they draped in 45,000 feet of seven-strand, phosphor bronze wire. With romantic flourish, Butler described the completed tower as a hybrid of nature and technology, awash in beauty: “The huge cage resembled a giant goldfish globe two hundred feet high, and months afterwards, when the station was in operation, the mesh of wires would emit a bluish brush discharge at night which was beautiful beyond description, and always proved of unending awe to the natives who would stand off from afar and gaze in open mouthed wonder.” Most often, however, the sublime barely . . .

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