Basketball and Public Ethnomusicological Research

By Jordan Zalis and Jonathan Dueck

Jordan: I’ve just finished walking home from playing basketball at the YMCA on College Street, West End Toronto. I am still sweating. Yikes! At least I am getting more exercise. This is important for me, for mental health, for physical health, for social health, for cultural health, etc.–especially while away from my home campus. Even in a big bright city, you can really feel alone sometimes.

For a PhD in ethnomusicology from Memorial University, I am writing about music and basketball to understand something about platforms; the idea that basketball has become a platform for so many things. Right now, I am asking: 1) How can basketball be a platform? (or how can anything be a platform, really?), and 2) How did basketball become a platform for ‘everything’? What I mean by this is that at once, a basketball game can be an intentional stage for federalist liberal multiculturalism, women’s empowerment, immigrant rights, social mobility, muscular Christianity, neo-liberal economics, and the subjugation of the non-white body–how can this be? For now, I am working with ethnographic data while pulling together theoretical work on musical meaning, musical bonding, identity formation, a Canadian sense of belonging, semiotic flexibility, hyperreality, and sound and music as they relate to the extreme affective states.

To begin the fieldwork portion of my ongoing dissertation project, I moved to Toronto from St. John’s, Newfoundland, after I completed my coursework in May of 2018. I set myself up reasonably close to Scotiabank Arena, home of Canada’s only National Basketball Association team: the Toronto Raptors. I can see the CN Tower from my window; sitting on the edge is Drake. Kobe is ascending. WE THE NORTH! is everywhere–this is the Raptors’ performing arts-centred brand and identity campaign.

Rapture and a Street (I can’t remember which street; I think it was King Street)!

On June 13, 2019, when the Toronto Raptors won the championship, “WE THE NORTH!” rang from sea to sea to sea…

…according to Global News, it was impossible to count exactly how many people were celebrating in the streets. Bell Media confirmed that 15.9 million Canadians ‘watched’ the telecast simultaneously. That night, portions from Toronto’s celebrations made it to a screen in at least 215 other countries. By design, Toronto’s Entertainment District south of Union Station was live, within the security gates it was licensed. Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment were throwing a tailgate party.

They consecrated the space “Jurassic Park.” Fifty smaller versions worked in other cities, in other official sites by satellite, simultaneously. I was a fan that day; wearing binaural headphones and at the party ready to celebrate. All around, were prepped for celebration: NBA Finals Champions 2019.

Drake was on the main outdoor stage, playing our people’s Dionysus. Leseth would call him a living model on the park’s main outdoor. The 6ix God (that’s one of Aubrey Graham—Drake’s—stage names) was up there with some friends, effectively playing a living room (at once a public and private space).

Here I am interested in the grandiloquence of the whole thing. What is its bombastic truth? To build a better Canada, I feel it is important to pull apart what is going on when our country’s most valuable sports and entertainment commodity (the Toronto Raptors) stage their performative slate of game days.

Jonathan: My interest in public ethnomusicology came about before I started to work on sport. In the late 1990s I started to write an ethnography of music in Mennonite congregations in Edmonton, Alberta. I was interested in the ways music was part of people’s lives in the long term, and the ways those long-term musical meanings and memories shaped the musical experience of people worshiping together.

Churches are an interesting location from which to consider what is public, and what is private. On the one hand, most Christian congregations understand themselves as open to anyone who would like to attend–sounds public, right? On the other hand, people shared very personal things during worship. And they prayed and sang to God and to the gathered congregation, and in return sometimes felt God’s presence or activity. Worship, while public, is also about as high-stakes an activity as humans have, and incorporates the intimate and personal.

One memory, about which I wrote in the book that came from this research was of writing field jottings during church. Field jottings are the brief, almost poem-like notes that ethnographers sometimes write down to remember what happened during fieldwork. I tried to write mine in a way that other church members sometimes did, just to take notes on the service: I wrote them on my bulletin, the paper order of service handed out in a lot of non-liturgical “low” churches.

Of course the folks in each congregation knew that I was taking notes, and writing about them–in two of these churches I got the chance to preach about my research. But it is still strange to be written about, and strange to write about others. My friend, sitting next to me, pulled a pencil out of the pew in front of him. With a glint in his eye he started to take notes on me, on his bulletin.

Jordan: I am glad you point to collectivity, Jon. I am starting to really believe that Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena acts like a building of worship for its devotees. Not identical, of course, but there is a sense of connection between Raptors games and Mennonite congregational musicking. I argue that the church organ, the sacred hymnody, Abraham’s temples, the ceiling, the Candomblé, they are all presence—syncretically—supporting a group of people being-together musically. This is Scotiabank Arena. Thank you, MLSE! And the way the game moves — there too is a sense of musicality.

Bringing it down to earth though, I am unpacking WE THE NORTH with permission from the Toronto Raptors. How does the team stage the games? What else is going on while the players play? Why are they in the schools? Why WE THE NORTH? Why Scotiabank? I am really looking into a socio-cultural and political history of the performance of the Canadian game.

Jonathan: I’m so glad you took the discussion here, Jordan–that is, to the idea that sport has something that is basically relational in it; that the relational aspects of sport are beautiful, patterned, metrical, improvisational, gestural–all like music; and that these things can amount to something akin to (but not identical to) religious experience for many people. And that this is public behaviour.

I’m remembering when I started to be interested in sport. I taught at the University of Maryland in the mid-2000’s. It was then a big basketball school in the ACC conference, arguably the premiere NCAA conference for basketball. I taught a big introductory class called “The Impact of Music on Life”–a truly grandiloquent title that I’d inherited–and one day I had planned a class session on music and politics, exploring this through national anthems.

But the day before, Maryland had won the NCAA women’s tournament in spectacular fashion. My wife and I attended the on-campus viewing party for the game, and at the end of it, after we won on a fadeaway three from a freshman, everything broke loose. Everyone, all packed together in the Stamp student union, broke into the Maryland victory song and spilled out down the campus streets like water overflowing the eaves. The next morning my 250 students and I gathered for class, and I decided: let’s talk about music and sports as a way in to thinking about music and politics. They not only talked; they also sang several songs for me. And I started to understand some of what was so important, for my students, about sports: for a moment we are part of something much bigger than yourself, and we accomplish this in part through sound. And the moment of becoming this feelingful, passionate thing happens in broad view of thousands of people and of even more on the other side of the television cameras.

Jordan: I agree here with you, Jon. People here in Toronto (and across Canada by in-person work and by internet survey), people relate to the basketball event in sound, by music, by sneaker culture, by being-together, by being un-other, by being-in-the-north (although according to brand management, THE NORTH holds no single location), by being not American, by load management (speaking of this–how might we apply load management to Canada’s natural resource development strategies?), and most importantly: by winning…

As the team goes in victory (with victory come riches), WE THE NORTH is building community. My issue is finding new ways to effectively capture some of the variety of experience that occurs in-arena, or in sports-bar, or in Jurassic Park, or in the house (THIS IS OUR HOUSE!) during each and every game day.

Jonathan: That is so cool! For me it underlines the way in which public work pushes us to be creative, since we need new tools to accomplish fieldwork in new kinds of spaces. Working on collegiate basketball pushed me to be creative along these lines, too.

When I left Maryland to teach at Duke–one of Maryland’s biggest basketball rivals–I had the chance to teach courses exploring my own ethnomusicological interests in sport. It was so helpful for me to have a chance to think through how to explore a new ethnomusicological “field” together with classrooms full of students that came in knowing that “field” intimately.

One of the things we explored was the dynamic between public and private in sport, and in writing about sport. We did it in part through a team-based ethnography project that students did in groups. The idea was twofold: first, inspired by my experience being written about by my friend when I was taking notes on him in church, I wanted student ethnographers to try taking field jottings using the instruments that sport fans used to publicly document themselves and the game. Second, I wanted student ethnographers to work together to try to capture more about the big simultaneous social experiences of sport than they could on their own.

So teams of four or five students chose a basketball game to attend together, and made a plan as to where to disperse themselves around the arena. Like many other folks attending the game, they brought their phones along so that they could tweet their impressions of the game, as well as taking cell phone pictures and short audio or video “snippet” recordings of key moments. They “followed” each other on Twitter, creating a timeline of audio, video, and short texts that noted their impressions of the game’s sound and sociality. The tweets and sounds and so on, in other words, comprised a set of public and multimedia field jottings created by not one but many ethnographers. (And these were part of a much larger set of impressions that people throughout the stadium, and those watching on TV from the four corners of the earth, were also contributing to in real time.)

Then, students got together after the game and read their jointly created Twitter feed together. They decided on a through-line, a story to tell from these many impressions. They jointly wrote this story and later on shared it with the other teams of students in the class.

What was really interesting to me here is the way that intimate social experience and public performance are present, both in the occasions of sport themselves (at least at places like Maryland and Duke) and also in the way we write about these things as ethnographers, writing which always, even as we are doing fieldwork, anticipates a story we will tell publicly.

Jordan, thanks so much for co-creating this piece with me here. Readers out there, we invite you to “write back” in the comments here, expanding this conversation about what it means to do fieldwork, and how to do it, in these paradigmatically public sites of sport. And, of course, making it a little more of a public conversation.

Jordan Thanks, Jon! I really do appreciate your time too. I am excited to take this into the comments (and copy your Twitter timeline group-writing review!). And to the readers–thank you. I would love to put a footnote here, telling a story about a joke I heard at a lunch meeting: “How many ethnomusicologists does it take to change a lightbulb?” ; “Trick question–ethnomusicologists can’t change anything.” Here I push back. We did it right up there with third “sea”. WE THE NORTH–until we get to the politics over who is claiming what the complicated settler-colonial indigenous reality.

Jon: Wish granted.


Listen to Jordan’s “The Day After (the Parade)” audio recording (click here for a transcript).


Jordan Zalis is a PhD candidate at Memorial University of Newfoundland.

Jonathan Dueck is Vice President Academic and Academic Dean, and Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology at Canadian Mennonite University.

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