A broader, expansive Black global cultural studies: An Interview with Ron Radano

By Kathryn Mara

(Part of our “Get to Know us Better” series.)

After a long wait for an elevator to the fourteenth floor, I knock on Professor Ron Radano’s door, which is slightly ajar, and he welcomes me in.

We jump into the interview quickly. I begin by asking, “How long have you been teaching in the department?”

“That’s complicated because I shifted my appointment sometime in 2016,” he says, “but it was very protracted. So, it took a long time for it to actually get formal approval, but I had a conversation with Aliko Songolo [the former chair of what was then called the Department of African Languages and Literature] about three years before that, I guess it was, about the idea of moving my appointment over here. In practical terms, my actual teaching began in 2016.”

Following up, I ask, “And what department were you in previously?”

“I was teaching in the School of Music in the program in ethnomusicology, principally in the graduate program,” he explains.

Although I know Dr. Radano is not teaching in the department this semester, as he is the Andrew W. Mellon/Berlin Prize Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin, I ask, “What courses have you taught in the department, and what courses do you anticipate teaching in the future?”

He responds, “I have taught African 609, which is a course on Global Black Music. We studied the idea of circulation, mainly, you know, different practices of circulation of bands, records, media. And another course is 901, which I taught as a broad study of cultural theory, cultural studies, in relation to anti-colonialism and the legacy of that scholarship.” He continues, “I have also taught another version of 609 on world music but focused specifically on the recording itself, on the record, and the way in which that disseminates the idea of ‘world music,’ but not only the Paul Simon, Graceland phenomenon but actually looking back to earlier recordings, as early as 1902 when the Berlin Phonograph Archive was established and created what were known as ‘cylinders,’ cylinder records, recordings. There are 10,000 cylinders that were produced between 1902 and 1935 of African music that no one has done anything with but we did a little bit with in this course. Another course I taught was African 100, in which I moderated the presentations of a number of faculty and graduate students.”

I nod my head, remembering my own presentation on my dissertation research in Dr. Radano’s “Introduction to African Cultural Studies” course. In addition to those mentioned, Dr. Radano has also taught African 403: Theories of African Cultural Studies and African 409: Global Jazz and Blues Authenticities in the department.

I ask about his current research.

“I’ve been working on a book seemingly forever. It’s my grand theory of Black musical value, and it’s hopefully coming to a close. But it’s a broad theoretical and historical study on what is it about U.S Black music that leads folks automatically to assume that it’s better than the de-race-inated, uh, white music? The term ‘white music’ isn’t even employed, which is probably an indicator. Why is it that when bringing two performances into comparison there’s often a sense of higher value or authenticity or realness attached to U.S. Black expressions? Where does this idea come from, and what is the complex of ideas that brings this notion into form? And then simultaneously, I’m developing this project on African phonographic recording, which I am currently focusing on.”

Always on the lookout for my fellow graduate students, I prod further, “So, in terms of graduate student work, what kind of graduate student projects, dissertations, theses are you interested in supervising?”

“I’m not sure I am,” Dr. Radano discloses before going on to explain, “I’m always happy to work with graduate students. I’ve trained about a dozen ethnomusicologists and musicologists who are in the field and practicing in disciplines. I am enjoying here in this department, working with graduate students who are interested in an expanse of cultural practices and helping students develop a great acuity and understanding of the significance of sound more generally in its relation to race and culture. But I’m not seeking out to educate a new fleet of graduate students by any means for a variety of reasons.”

I shift the topic. “I know this is a difficult question to answer, so I understand if there is a delay here, but for African Cultural Studies graduate students, what book or article do you think is just essential for their education and path moving forward?”

“Yeah. There are millions. One that comes to mind that we read in African 901 is Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic, which we used as an orienting text to begin the semester. I think that Gilroy’s book, published in 1993, is a kind of seminal—is a seminal work. It really shifts the way in which ideas about Blackness and culture are formulated, not only against the background of African American cultural studies, but in a broader, expansive Black global cultural studies. So, that was easy actually!” he proclaims, seeming proud of his on-the-fly response.

“Yeah, it was,” I concede. “Now, on a more personal level: presumably you’ve been in Madison a long time. What do you like to do here? Where do you like to eat?”

“Oh, boy. That’s a good question. I like to eat. My wife, who is a historian on the faculty here, she and I often go to Osteria Papavero on Wilson. Do you know that restaurant?”

“I do not. No,” I admit, making a mental note to remember the name.

“You should check it out. It’s run by a guy from Bologna. For my money, it’s a quality food that you would be challenged to produce in your own kitchen at really reasonable prices. And I am by extraction actually multiple ethnicities, but my surname is Italian, and so it’s symbolically important to me. I had to play that up,” He says, laughing. “But that’s a great question. And then just the higher end fashionable places like Field Table and then that lovely little place, the Southasian place on State Street, where we had dinner during the Pleasure and the Pleasurable conference. I forget the name of it.”

Changing the topic once more, I indicate a figurine of a man, riding atop a camel, near Dr. Radano’s window. “Is there a story behind this?”

Dr. Radano looks over at the trinket. “Yeah,” he says. “Salah [a recent alum of the Department of African Cultural Studies] gave that to me. That’s the Bedouin image. I don’t know how exactly you would describe it. It’s a little statue made out of leather and cloth, and he—sweet guy—he gave it to me.”

I thank Dr. Radano for his time, and at first, I ask him if I can take his picture next to the nomad figure, but he suggests that I take it instead next to a poster that more closely relates to his research topic. I happily oblige.