Why Is He Singing Our Music?
by Juan Francisco Maldonado
A critical approach to Wilson y Los Mas Elegantes
To translate is to betray, writes Viveiros de Castro in his fundamental "Cannibal Metaphysics". The problem is to know whom should we betray. Viveiros de Castro, producing some sort of "Anti-Anthropology", decides to betray the western epistemological system, in favor of those amazonic cultures he approaches in his book, or at least, he tries. I start this text with such a reference, not because Wilson y Los Más Elegantes is an anthropological exercise, but because, being so close to that territory, it dodges it skillfully.
Despite its freshness and sense of humor, the Wilson y Los Mas Elegantes project (the entire project, which besides the film is made up of an album and a series of performances and exhibitions) should be looked at carefully. It dives into a pond of complex discussions and comes out pretty clean. Wilson (Hans Bryssinck's alter-ego), being a Belgian artist, undertakes the task of becoming a Colombian traditional music singer, with a specific interest in songs of a certain nationalist tenor. From the European perspective, that is, from the perspective of a territory so historically close to WWII, the lyrics of those songs are unthinkable. So, coming from a highly critical and suspicious background towards nationalism, how to undertake a research on the popular nationalism of a colonized, neocolonized, mestizo country? How to do that while being white and European? How to avoid exotizing a people whose culture, music, warmth and easiness, have been historically put in that place from the European perspective? How to translate without betraying that which one attempts to translate, how not to fall in the hierarchical division between traditional and modern, Colombian and European, folkloric and contemporary, subordinate and white? How to translate without betraying? Here, Wilson y Los Más Elegantes seems to understand that the question lays in the fact that these questions are loaded a priori. How to translate without betraying, or rather, whom to betray if betrayal is already inevitable?
We could think that Hans Bryssinck, instead, skips this dichotomic game expressed before, and decides to directly betray translation itself. A surprising operation. Wilson y Los Más Elegantes, then, does not attempt to explain, understand, translate anything from one place to another, but rather to bring a series of delicate tensions into play, and to set them free somehow; to allow them to take their own paths. Displacing himself from the position of the objective observer, Hans avoids becoming an anthropologist; he avoids to betray, from an anthropological perspective, that which he seems to be investigating (Colombia and its popular nationalism), in order to situate himself on the loose rope, in an ambiguous and subtle situation that exposes him and makes him vulnerable. If I had to set forth an object of observation, of research, even, in Wilson, I wouldn't mention nationalism, neither would I mention the identitary structure of a people, nor the "culture" (what is culture anyway?); not even traditional music, although all those things come into play all the time. If I inevitably had to think about this film from an anthropological perspective, I would say that what is being researched, what is at the center of the discussion, is in fact Hans himself, the roles he can or can't play in an unknown context, the ways he can be seen, heard and experimented.
Through a series of ambiguous and subtle performative operations (like the gesture of his comb and hairdo or his ever discreet sense of humor) Hans Bryssinck inverts the dangerous exotization operation of the Colombian aesthetics, to which he could be so close, and instead he situates himself as the foreigner, the other: an alien getting along in an environment he ignores but nevertheless navigates. Attempting to camouflage at plain sight, fiction crosses thin lines all the time. Hans goes deep into the territory in order to do things specific to that place: sing their songs, attend their celebrations; from an apparent ingenuity he establishes relationships with an intersection of intentionalities who receive him as a stranger, and as an endearing stranger they welcome him and take him in.
On the other hand, we can't bypass the problem of white and European privilege in a country with a history of colonization (or anywhere in the world, for that matter). Hans' approach to the context of Colombian popular music, and to the day to day life of the people he relates to throughout the film is, whether we like it or not, marked by this condition that in fact cuts across everything. The Mexican expression malinchismo (which blames the Malinche, an enslaved woman who served as a translator for Hernán Cortés during the conquest of the Aztec empire, for the colonial admiration of all things European at this side of the Atlantic) is crucial here. Close to the end of the film, we hear a woman advising Hans to keep his foreign accent if he wants to reach fame (in Colombia) as a traditional Colombian music singer: "Any Colombian sings. With the Colombian accent and all. What's going to help you most is your accent. That's going to be like 'But this guy is not from around here, why is he singing our music? How cool is that! Let's buy the album, let's dance to his music…" We listen to her giving Hans such an advice after having heard him singing over and over, with that same foreign accent, "how proud I am to be Colombian". And throughout the film we find all sorts of references about how exiting it is that a European is interested in that same music so many young Colombians don't know or care about anymore. Inside the fiction, Wilson seems to navigate these waters of privilege naively, listening to the advice with interest, and even stating at some point (his only statement throughout the film) that his ambition is to someday become a famous singer in Colombia. But the editing has something else to say. As sober as it is, the editing clearly exposes the problem without over-judging it. If, after all, it is Europe that legitimizes the world, that validates knowledge, why could we judge those who reclaim such legitimation? Neither does the film judge explicitly him who is favored by such privilege. It just shows, with an ironically critical tone, the softness with which the conflict unravels, leaving to the spectator the freedom to find out that play of tensions, that knot of contradictions between folkloric chauvinism, neocolonial malinchism on the one side, and the authentic encounter between people on the other; the true curiosity for what is strange for one and other, the mutual sniffing, the eventual gentle touch.
Once we have gone through the critical apparatus of the film in its more structural sense, so to speak, it is important to say that perhaps the most interesting part of it happens at the level of affect. Not that one field is separated from the other, of course, but for the sake of reflection, it is possible to attempt a distinction. The wide territory in which fiction and reality intertwine allows, on the one side, to follow the path of a character (Wilson), who tries to become a famous Colombian music singer, and on the other, the learning process of a real person (Hans), who is truly interested and moved by that music. We see almost chronologically (in words of the author) the pedagogical process of someone who, farther than the art project, attempts to understand the rhythmic, melodic and emotional finesse of a music that is touching. And in fact we see (above all, we hear) an important evolution in his interpretative skills while he moves closer to that music which, though it will always remain foreign to him, becomes more and more intimate. I would dare to say here that every affective process is as well a learning process, and as the film develops it is very interesting (being both fictitious and real at once) to realize that the approach between people, characters and music is so mixed together, that at some point it becomes indistinguishable. In other words, the invention of a fictitious character seeking success, also works as a socialization apparatus that operates in reality in order to allow an undeniable affective approach between different cultural contexts, between different intentionalities, between people who, on the way, get to know each other, to examine each other, to affect and excite each other. Not only fiction appropriates reality, reality itself feeds from fiction, it uses it to lubricate its gears, to help its mechanism flow.
When we hear the characters symbolically awarding Hans with the Colombian nationality (and this happens more than once), we can understand there is a complex colonial nationalist game in play, which of course is very important, as we saw above; but we can also notice a genuine welcoming gesture that has to do with something more intimate. Something that is not limited to the pedagogical development and the artistic project, but rather, something that is related to the importance of real personal relationships that seep through the screen. Wilson y los Más Elegantes ends up operating a double fiction: The evident one, that of the characters; but also a more entangled one, one in which the film itself pretends to be a mockumentary in order to allow itself certain truths, in order to subtly suggest things that are not so easy to simply expose.
I would dare to say that this project, therefore, is an attempt of affective production that nonetheless creates space for critique. It is important to mention that the film is not intended to be watched alone, nor is it presented on its own. The piece is understood as part of a wider apparatus that weaves a relationship between what goes on behind the screen and what happens in front of it. This is such an important part of it, that when I was invited to write this text, I had to organize a group of friends to watch it and chat collectively, by request of the author. The presentation mechanisms of the film (because there have been many), come from the importance of if it being a social, non-solipsist phenomenon, and while doing this, they open the question of how to communicate what is incommunicable (to go back to the idea of translation). How to bring to the table identitary issues specific to each context of presentation, and not only to portray those anecdotes that, from afar, could easily be romanticized or, in the best of cases, would leave us indifferent. What of which we see concerns us directly and what part of that interrogates, excites or implicates us? What if what we are watching from afar, operates here too, in the space of the projection room, between mezcal, chatter, and perhaps a little karaoke.
Which of those comfortable, uncomfortable, endearing, distant connections plays an important role in our own personal questions. How does relating to a specific identity move us closer or farther from certain cultural manifestations, from certain music, certain people. What, beyond the more obvious identitary codes, makes us feel part of, or strange to a context, or better, to a situation; and how dealing with these long and short distances can be enriching if we skip a simple taxonomical categorization.
Wilson y Los Más Elegantes, with all its subtlety and ambiguity, poses fundamental questions of our current existence in the world. Without aggression (although not without violence, if we assume that every act of exposition inevitably implies some violence), it exposes the deceitfulness of the multiculturalist idealism of the last years, not without proposing, almost barely insinuating, that relationships between worlds, between idiosyncrasies, are possible if they are tackled from the difference, from the complexity of incomprehension, even. From the abstraction of affect.