Soundscapes in the City: forthcoming research

Rajinder Dudrah, Drama/Screen Studies. This blog post highlights new research that is currently being completed for a special issue of the journal Midland History. The article in question contends how understandings of cities and their cultural histories might be articulated through the notion of the ‘soundscape’ via a case study of British Bhangra music in the post-war East and West Midland city regions of the UK (1).

A familiar point in contemporary urban and cultural studies is that cosmopolitan cities are not just experienced through sight but through the other senses as well: sound, touch, taste and smell. Nonetheless , there is a need to explore more fully, not only the experience of a city through the senses as they happen in the contemporary moment, but also how we might be able to think about the formation of cities and regions as developing from a historical understanding of the formation of those senses too. A cultural history of the senses in a given time and place might illuminate for us the possible connections between different people and their inhabiting of place and space through sense formation. In my current research I have been particularly drawn to the investigation of how a sense of place and space might be considered through the sounds of popular music that circulate through the city – sound as heard and seen in the cityscapes as people use and move through the city; and as these sounds are created out of particular cultural histories in cosmopolitan settings. The case of the popular music genre of British Bhangra is an interesting one: it is a soundscape in and of multicultural British cities.


The idea of the soundscape is developed as articulating at least two of the senses simultaneously: sound and sight; and is developed inter-disciplinarily from work undertaken in cultural anthropology, popular music studies and cultural geography. Soundscapes allows us to think about the movement of people from different places of origin in new places of settlement, and how they not only produce popular music anew (i.e. music that is inflected through their routes of journeying), but also how they make this music through instances of their arrival and contemplated futures. Popular music is a distinctive type of sound that has socio-cultural meaning and position, and the study of diasporic music such as Bhangra can assist in understanding how social landscapes are formed over time and in places where the music has been produced locally and disseminated internationally. To this end, the forthcoming article offers an analysis of how a Punjabi folk music becomes a genre of popular music, particularly in the post-war British Midlands. It draws attention to key cities and regions namely Birmingham, Walsall and the Black Country, Derby, Nottingham, and Leicester, in terms of how they have sustained the cultural production of this music and its industry. The article offers a cultural historical account of how and why different musical genres are fused together in Bhangra (Punjabi Folk, RnB, Soul, Reggae, Grime, UK Pop, amongst others); provides a historical overview of some of the places, spaces and people key to the evolution of the music; and presents a textual analysis of some song lyrics and album cover artwork to elaborate this soundscape of the British Midlands.

1- Malcolm Dick and Rajinder Dudrah eds. (forthcoming September 2011) ‘Ethnic Community Histories in the Midlands’, Midland History, vol. 36, no.2. Article in this peer reviewed special issue: Rajinder Dudrah, ‘British Bhangra Music as Soundscapes of the Midlands’.

References and further reading: email cities [@]

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