Tim Cooley

Playing Together and Solitary Play: Musicking and Surfing

by Timothy J. Cooley (Cuailgne)

Ensemble. Something happens when we music together. We’ve all felt it. Maybe it was the church, school, or university choir when during mid-motet something clicked and you lost a bit of yourself while simultaneously gaining an ensemble. Or maybe it was dancing—another form of musicking—when you lost yourself in the movements, sounds, sights and smells of the event. Or was it the band or orchestra rehearsal as it finally came together. Or the old-time or céilidh session where your own fiddle playing seemed to flow from somewhere other than your own hands as you seemed to join the band in a moment of communitas, when you lost a sense of time, and achieve something truly beautiful.

This type of musical being-in-the-world, as Jeff Todd Titon has called it (2008: 31), is one of the reasons I suspect most of us engage in musicking. I would go so far as to propose that pleasure in musicking is a universal human experience, but that this pleasure is a byproduct of musical participation, not the reason for its universality. Pleasure does not seem to lead to human universals—rather need does. All humans need food, water, air, sleep, intimate human contact—those needs are all obvious. Our apparent human need for language, musicking including dancing, as well as visual forms of expression are less well understood. The physician Oliver Sacks tells us that music engages more of the human brain than does language (2007). We are hardwired for musicking. As with food, drink, human touch, and language, we don’t just take pleasure in music, we need musicking—we need to take part in the active making of, dancing to, and listening to music.

There have been various theories about this need—attempts to explain why we spend so much time and energy musicking—time and energy well beyond what would seem to be productive in most cases. For many of us, had we spent the life-hours devoted to learning to play the violin or guitar working even a minimum-wage job instead, we would be wealthy today. What is the evolutionary need for musicking? Most explanations for this that I have seen end up talking about finding mates—the evolutionary equivalent to the colorful plumage of a peacock. No doubt there is something to that hypothesis of musicking, but I imagine many in this room today know intuitively that we play music together for complex and profound reasons that may include but go well beyond our desire for a partner.

I want to suggest ways to get at understanding, interpreting, and even coming to terms with that need—that sweet, gnawing need to make music together. This may be our greatest challenge as musicologists in Charles Seeger’s sense as those who science about music—all of us who take music seriously enough to wonder how it works as sound, as social behavior, as cultural practice. My approach comes out of ethnomusicology, a discipline I suppose I represent but also a discipline I critique here as I try to come to terms with the whys and hows of group musicking.

As the title of this talk promises, I will focus on music related to surfing, but I want to take a slight diversion inspired by the death less than two weeks ago of Władysław Styrczula-Maśniak, pictured here in Figure 1.

Fig 1

I met Władek some 22 years ago and his musicking changed the direction of my life. My wife Ruth and I attended his funeral in Poland a week ago today, and the beautiful musicking that accompanied that ritual transformation from life to afterlife (Figure 2) inspires me to re-contextualize some of my work with musicking surfers.


Fig 2

Thus, I offer two case studies of people musicking together in ways that offer us some insight into who those people are collectively as groups. What do musicking at a funeral and musicking at the beach have in common? Nothing and everything. My focus will be on improvised musical groupings, what my surfing research collaborators sometimes call ‘jamming.’ In both the Polish and the surfing case studies, the whys and hows of playing together are elemental, important questions that I can only begin to answer here. First I will offer a quick look at a Polish Górale (mountaineer) funeral, and then I will turn for the balance of this article to musicking associated with surfing.

In my book Making Music in the Polish Tatras (2005), I devote a chapter comparing the rituals of weddings and funerals. There I note that unlike weddings, which tend to be products of intense planning and careful scheduling, funerals must be held with very short notice. ‘Deaths happen when they do and the living adjust their schedules around them’ (Cooley 2005, p. 238). This is exactly what Ruth and I did the week before the ICTM Ireland conference where this paper was originally presented. We stopped what we were doing, cancelled what we could, and got ourselves to Poland for Władysław’s funeral. The photograph reproduced as Figure 2 above was taken in the cemetery, where upwards of 100 musicians showed up to play Władek off to the next world. What I find particularly interesting about funerals in the Polish Tatra Mountains is that musicians are not hired or otherwise engaged. They just show up and form an ad hoc band—what Richard Wistreich might call ‘Instantaneous banding’ (2010). No rehearsals, no scores to read from. There are no restrictions imposed from the outside on what or how they should play. They play repertoire known in the region, deferring to the better and more senior lead violinists on hand. It is music for the village, from the village, more so than any other event I have experienced there in Poland. It is musicking that must happen in the way it does happen. People playing together as a gift to the deceased, his or her family, and their community—a gift freely given so that we as humans can be together in that extraordinarily participatory way that is musicking. It is this sort of playing together, in the community one is studying, playing not for money, or for glory, but as a way of being-in-the world together musically that I believe offers us the best location for seeking answers for our questions about why musicking is humanly necessary.

As every surfer knows, the snow falling in the Polish Tatras during Władysław’s funeral will eventually return to its liquid form and flow to the sea. I truly believe it denies none of the solemnity of the funeral procession to suggest that a fundamentally similar type of musicking happens on beaches among surfers and their extended community. There too the music is about human existence, and creating the type of community where we express the affective feel that enables us to understand one another.

The larger scope of this project

I am currently engaged in the research and writing of a book on surfing and musicking. The focus of this study is on present-day musicking associated with surfing and the accompanying lifestyle. Case studies include groups of surfers who play music together on the beach, musicking at surfing competitions and festivals, the phenomenon of professional surfers becoming musicians, and the music employed in surfing films. I contextualize the subject diachronically with a historical survey of music about surfing from Hawaii in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, to musical mimesis of an imagined Hawaiian surfing lifestyle on California’s chilly coast pre-World War II, through to the popular genre called ‘surf music’ of the early 1960s. That genre of music was from southern California at first, and celebrated a particular moment in twentieth-century surfing history when California became the cultural and industrial leader in the newly conceived surfing lifestyle.

Fig 3

Figure 3 is a photo of George Freeth, a surfer of Irish and Hawaiian heritage who, while not the first person to surf in California, is the individual who did the most to introduce surfing in California in the nineteen-noughts and teens. I mention him here to draw a connection between Eire and the twentieth-century globalization of the Hawaiian sport of surfing. Indeed, Freeth is in part responsible for the existence of surfing culture in California, but of course California is expert in exporting cultural ideas, and in the second half of the twentieth century, surfing was radically globalized. Thus, while my own research begins in California, I also include case studies from Hawaii, America’s east coast, Australia, and Europe, and the surfers whose voices I will invoke today do come from many points around the world. Thus my project is a profoundly cosmopolitan project that is neither about a people nor a music, the normal topics of ethnomusicologists.

When I introduce my musicking and surfing research, many assume I am writing about that popular band called the Beach Boys or instrumental rock by Dick Dale—the so-called ‘surf music’ so named in the early 1960s. Though I do include that music in my research, it is not about that music primarily. Rather, the naming of a popular genre ‘surf music’ became, for musicking surfers post 1964, a limiting factor that they have only recently begun to overcome. Images and sounds from David Parsa’s 2008 film Live:A Music and Surfing Experience, offer a few responses to the named genre ‘surf music’ that set up some of the musical tensions that drive the theoretical challenges of this new project. I quote from three different surfers. First is Greg Noll, Californian surfer who pioneered big wave surfing in the 1950s and 60s, who became a prominent surfboard maker, and is now a senior spokesperson for the surfing community. Second we hear from Drew Kampion, a sports journalist who has written extensively on surfing history, followed by the narrator. Finally are a few words by Jackson Browne, a popular music star from Santa Barbara, California. His hit songs include “Doctor my eyes” and “Running on Empty,” before Noll returns to with a few concluding remarks.

Video: Greg Noll Interview
Video: Drew Kampion Interview

Noll: The Beach Boys and all the rest of those guys that were jumping on the bandwagon to try and get in on the surf scene. For the most part we hated all that crap. When I had my shop, they’d send music to us and we’d say thank you very much and the minute they’d leave they go in the trash barrel.

Kampion: As a surfer, we never really considered the Beach Boys to be surfer music frankly. It was overflow from the surf culture but really it seemed to talk to inland people or something like that.

Narrator: By 1964, although surfing had reached new heights of popularity, the music that helped it get there was experiencing its demise.

Browne: One of the things that happened was the rise of marketing.

Noll: It was the beginning of all the commercial crap is what it was. And in a way it was sad to see it come about because surfing’s never been the same since. (Parsa 2008, DVD chapter 6)

I believe that what these individual surfers were objecting to with the named genre ‘surf music’ are the limitations that naming and branding a genre generates. Dennis Dragon of the 1970s Surf Punks summarized the negative response to the limiting quality of a named genre nicely: ‘The instrumental stuff wasn’t surfing music, ever, to me… To say that this is the exclusive music of the surf, I mean… that’s bullshit’ (quoted in Donnelly 2005, p. 86). Dragon is not saying that instrumental rock surf music is bullshit, but that its exclusive claim on surfing is.

This brings me to one of the central questions of this project, and one of the central issues of ethnomusicology in recent decades: the links between music and identity. The surfers who object to the named genre ‘surf music’ are objecting to the limiting effect of linking a music to their affinity group. This makes me rethink some of the favoured topics of ethnomusicology: Irish music, Polish music, Indian music, etc. These are all objectifying gestures, probably resulting from nineteenth century obsessions with ‘nations’ and ‘race,’ reconfigured in the twentieth century as ethnicity. Paired with the commodification of music as a product during the same period, the music-and-ethnicity hypothesis did much to recreate ethnomusicology in the mid-twentieth century, by which time the matched set of an objectified ethnos with its objectified music was in need of a stiff challenge. Yet it was not until the last decade of the twentieth century that we begin to find ethnomusicologists calling for ‘a final break with the romantic notion of ‘the ethnic’ as the harmless and colourful ‘folklore’ on the remote peripheries of our own societies’ (Stokes 1994, p. 7). While benefiting much from Martin Stokes’ call for a nuanced look at the use of music in the active constructions of ethnic groups within contested plays of power and domination, I wonder if now it is time to take it further by stopping with the first half of Stokes’ phrase and to ‘break with the romantic notion of ‘the ethnic’’ altogether. Are we entering a post-ethnic age? Perhaps so; perhaps not. But I do know that focusing on musicking and surfing demands that I conceive of group identity constructions anew since there are no models in ethnomusicology for studying affinity groups that form around a sporting affinity group, or that form around something other than place, belief systems, occupations, or occasionally musical systems.

Here is how I am approaching this post-ethnic affinity group of surfers. As suggested by my use of Christopher Small’s coinage musicking, my study takes a broad view of human musical activities associated in any way with that other human activity called surfing. The gerund of the verb to music, musicking is any active engagement in musical performance, including listening to musical sounds (live or recorded), dancing, composing, playing a musical instrument, and so forth (Small 1998, p. 9). Small’s coinage is an effort is to de-objectify music and make it an activity again—what I like to call a ‘cultural practice’ and I interpret both musicking and surfing as cultural practices. This emphasis on verbal (musicking, surfing) and adjectival (musical, cultural) forms draws from Arjun Appadurai’s influential critique of modernity. However, while Appadurai found that his focus on the cultural moved him toward discourses of ethnicity (1996, p. 13), I find that it allows one to move beyond ethnicity and toward other ways of social grouping and identity-construction such as affinity groups. Also, Appadurai was concerned with modernity where my interests embrace notions of postmodernity that foreground at least theoretically malleable and multiple self and group identities. This approach corresponds well with current interpretations of surfing from the field of sports studies (Booth 2004) and from sociology (Ford and Brown 2006) that place the activity of surfing squarely within cultural contexts of individual and group identity construction. Yet, as a fundamentally experiential and embodied phenomenon, surfing is only secondarily communicative. Perhaps for this reason many surfers find it desirable and even necessary to cultivate communicative cultural expressions, musicking among them.

In the interest of time, I will not delve further into to my adaptation of twentieth- century theories of ethnicity for interpreting twenty-first century affinity groups, other than to mention that I see it as a logical extension of my past work theorizing the construction of Polish Górale ethnicity (Cooley 2005), which builds on general theories of ethnicities and traditions as cultural constructions and human inventions (e.g., Anderson 1991[1983]; Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983). If we can show that human identity frames such as ethnicities and nation-states—formerly considered natural or at least immemorial—are in fact social, cultural, historical constructions, might something as presumably temporal as an affinity group share some of the same potential for revealing how humans create community? Might postmodern, elective affinity groups be for the twenty-first century what nation-states and ethnicities were for the nineteenth and twentieth?

Surfing is arguably the prototypical ‘lifestyle sport’—sports that can be distinguished from what are called in sports studies ‘achievement sports’ (institutionally supported football, rugby, baseball, track, and so forth that teach values of competition and teamwork). Lifestyle sports are called many other things including ‘alternative sports,’ ‘new sports’ (Bourdieu 1984), and especially in the USA ‘extreme sports’ as promoted by ESPN’s X games (Wheaton 2004, pp. 2-3; Rinehart 2000, p. 505). Sports scholar Belinda Wheaton prefers the term ‘lifestyle sport’ since in her ethnographic research she found that this was the term participants used (hence it is an emic term), and that those participants were actively seeking a distinctive and often alternative lifestyle through a sport that offered them a ‘particular and exclusive social identity’ (Ibid. p. 4, emphasis in original). My ethnographic work with surfers agrees with Wheaton’s. For example surfing musician Brandon Boyd of Incubus does not like to consider surfing a sport, but rather a lifestyle (in Donnelly 2005, p. 91). Surfing is also interpreted as a lifestyle by Nick Ford and David Brown in their book Surfing and Social Theory, but for them it is a subcultural lifestyle (2006, pp. 60-68).

Just a few very quick points about this affinity group of surfers. It is a group that individuals move in and out of, and may constitute a portion of a fractured, multi-layered identity—the hallmark of postmodernity as I am using the term here. Though cultural expressions of surfing often do pay homage to Hawaii and California, the surfing community is today truly globalized, if limited for the most part to coastal areas of our globe. Surfing may be an expression of coastal cosmopolitanism. Though the mid-twentieth-century revival of surfing carried some suggestion of counter-cultural identity, the lifestyle today reflects many of the qualities and problems of the dominant societies in which it is practiced. Thus, while there are many exceptions to each of the characteristics I list here, surfing in the twenty-first century tends to emphasize competition and technology (i.e., surfboard and wetsuit technology), and is highly commercialized. It can also be described as youth oriented, masculine (though increasing numbers of women are surfing), and hetero-normative (Stedman 1997). Many critics claim that surfing is predominantly white and middle-class, but my observations are that in many cases it is heavily working class and only slightly more white than any given host community.

Surfing and Musicking

It is an ethnomusicological truism that groups of people tend to engage in musicking. What of this surfing affinity group and musicking?

In a feature story in Surfer magazine, Brendon Thomas wrote: ‘The connection between music and surfing is undeniable…’ (2005, p. 188) and surfing has been (incorrectly) called the only sport with its own music. This assumed connection between music and surfing seems to be gaining traction recently with a number of articles in insider surfing media on music and surfing, as well as at least three DVD’s that consider the same topic, one of which, Live: A Music and Surfing Experience (Parsa 2008) was mentioned earlier. Perhaps most striking, however, are the surprising number of former and even current professional surfers who have second careers as popular musicians. For example, Tom Curren is a 3- time world surfing champion and is considered one of the most influential surfers of the late twentieth century. Today he still competes, but he has also released an album (Tom Curren, 2004) and performs professionally. Australian Beau Young is a two-time World Longboard Champion, and now focuses his energy on music and released an album in 2005, Waves of Change. Eight-time World Surfing Campion, Kelly Slater, released an album in 1998, Songs from the Pipe, with other professional musicians in a band called The Surfers. Both Donavon Frankenreiter and Jack Johnson were sponsored surfers, and now are successful popular musicians. And the list goes on.

Rather than asking if the connection between musicking and surfing claimed by individual surfers is real or myth, it is more productive (and ethnographically appropriate) to accept it as a cultural construction worthy of study. This is key to the whole enterprise of my project since I cannot begin with that typical ethnomusicological pairing of a people and a music. Instead, I have the refreshing opportunity to observe how people link musicking and surfing from the ground up.

For this interpretative analysis I have been considering the ways that musicians talk about surfing, and surfers talk about musicking, and I note a few themes here that have particular implications for the significance of people musicking together—for playing together. In my analysis two themes return frequently: First, musicking and surfing as self-expression and sharing; and secondly, musicking and surfing as being the same thing—as being homologies. To illustrate and interpret these themes, I now turn to surfer’s voices and how they talk about musicking.

Self-expression and sharing

The concepts of self-expression and sharing are intertwined in telling ways when surfers talk about musicking and surfing. Self-expression is often mentioned as one of the ways surfing and musicking are like one another, but sharing often being offered as a point of contrast: surfing you do alone, playing music you share.

For example, retired Australian pro surfer and musician Lucas Proudfoot proclaimed that ‘Both surfing and music allow a person to show their style, whether it is a fast driving bottom turn on a nice 6ft day…. or a funky guitar riff on a lazy Sunday afternoon jam session’ (quoted in Crockett 2005, p. 61). Free surfer Dave Rastovich, also Australian, notes that both surfing and music are improvised, spontaneous, and impermanent. No wave is the same, no turn on a wave is the same, and when improvising music, he never plays the same thing the same way twice (in Kimball 207, p. 83). Similarly, Peter Kenvin of San Diego, California, finds both surfing and musicking to be ways of expressing himself artistically. As a singer, Peter believes he can do whatever he wants when performing music, as when surfing (p.c., telephone, 29 March 2006).

Surfing and musicking together as a shared experience changed fundamentally in the twentieth-century. Up through the first half of the century, it was common for surfers to surf together as a group, often with multiple riders on a single wave. The relatively gently breaking waves found at Waikiki on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, and the strikingly similar if colder waves at San Onofre, in southern California south of Los Angeles, are classic examples of locations where photographs from the early twentieth century show surfers sharing waves (Figure 4).

Fig 4

Fig 4

Out of the water, on the beach, similar musical practices also developed in both places. Figure 5 is a photograph of the Waikiki Beach Boys taken in 1963 for an LP cover, and features notable surfers and musicians, including Duke Kahanamoku, the individual most identified with globalizing surfing in the twentieth-century.

Fig 5

The San Onofre Bamboo Room Philharmonic (Figure 6), as they call themselves, is clearly a mimesis of Hawaiian beach life, as imagined first by 1930s California surfers, but continuing today, as seen in Figure 7, a photograph taken in 2006. Surfing together and musicking together was the ideal sought by some of the early California surfers, and that ideal continues today at San Onofre.

Fig 6
Fig 7

Technological changes in surfboard construction and design contributed to a changing socialization in the water, ending for the most part the practice of sharing waves. With the advent of lighter, smaller, and more manoeuvrable boards, the concept of one wave, one rider developed, and this is the etiquette today. Also in the later half of the twentieth-century, the number of surfers worldwide has mushroomed, leading surfers to refer to waves as limited resources for which one must compete, and spawning a well-documented surfing wanderlust in search of uncrowded, quality waves worldwide. While surfers seek solitude in the water, they seem to crave human connection back on land. Professional Californian surfer and successful popular musician Donovan Frankenreiter captures the tension well: ‘Surfing’s more of an individual sport, while you can share your tunes with people’ (quoted in Thomas 2005, p. 190). Australian Jim Banks draws the line sharply: ‘To me jamming is completely different from surfing, because surfing to me is a completely individual thing’ (quoted in Crockett 2005, p. 61). Dave Rastovich, on the other hand, speaks of sharing in both musicking and surfing, at least among friends: ‘The jamming thing is sharing… For me that’s where it’s at, the sharing thing. Some of the surfs I have had by myself have been amazing, but I know they would be far more enhanced/memorable if I had just one other person to share them with…. A lot like jamming…together feeling the same thing without talking…’ (quoted in Crockett 2005, p. 57).

In my research, I note a desire, even a need to create community while surfing, and this may spill over into the parking lot for shared musicking post surf. This literally happens at Manhattan Beach, part of the greater Los Angeles area, where as seen in Figure 8 from left to right, Laurie, Mike, Al, and Gene surf together most Saturday and Sunday mornings, followed by a music session in municipal parking lot 26. In a recent email exchange, Mike offered a nuanced interpretation of the desire to share the experience of surfing. According to Mike, this begins with shared understanding and mutual respect:

Fig 8

An understanding of the reading of the conditions. An understanding of the effort involved in maintaining your physical ability to enjoy the sport. An understanding of engaging in a sport that is seen by some still as counter culture and self centred.  While it is true that each surfer is surfing alone, they are really amongst a whole orchestra of other surfers, sharing waves when appropriate, and dominating when necessary, but in the end, hopefully, they all share a session that allowed each person to advance their ability while not inhibiting the more advanced or truly gifted to also enjoy and express their skills. The same could be said of musicians. When they get together and jam, there is an immediate, shared understanding of an experience and ability to perform. Each person has their own skill level. I have been in many jam sessions where accomplished musicians essentially tutor neophytes, but in the end, everyone has had a good time. (p.c., email, 29 January 2010)

Fig 9

E. J. Oshier, seen in Figure 9 around 1935 down the coast in San Onofre, spoke to me a few years ago (when he was 90 years old) in quite similar ways about the joy of sharing music with similarly skilled musicians, and the pleasure of virtuosity, as well as the need to mentor less-accomplished musicians. In my interviews with Oshier, he also frequently commented on the surfing abilities of the musicians he mentioned. It was all part of the bigger picture. With these amateur musicians and surfers, the ultimate objective is clearly shared musical participation, even if individual virtuosity must be sacrificed in the service of communal pleasure.


At least as common among surfers talking about musicking as discussions of sharing, are statements about music and surfing being similar or even the same thing. These statements usually take one of several forms. First is a homology between sound waves and water waves. A second common response is to speak of rhythm as either a metaphor or an important feature in both musicking and surfing. Finally, a more general response is that surfing and musicking generate the same affective feeling or peek experience sometimes called ‘flow,’ a term that I will adopt for reasons explained below. I believe that this type of talk among surfers about musicking is where we find the most information about why musicking is important, the role it has in creating a sense of self and group identity, and some of the ways it is effective in not just expressing, but also creating an experience similar to that of surfing.

Surfer and musician Samuel Bonanno, proprietor of Kapa Boutique and Music Store on the Hawaiian island of Kauai (note 14.xi.06 Kaua’i, Hawaii), put it to me in an informal conversation eloquently: ‘Music and surfing are the same thing… Sound and music are both just waves.’ He went on to say that the origins of life are where the sea meets the land; and that we all descend from this place. Music for Sam replaces the feeling of surfing when he can’t be there in that meeting zone actually surfing. For Sam, musicking and surfing are not only in essence the same, but they are the essence of being. Tim Donnelly in the beginning of his Surfers Path article on music approaches the same idea in a poetic mixing of metaphors: ‘The waves of sound and the waves of water are the translucent and connective engines that universally flow through our saltwater veins’ (2005, p. 76).

Rhythm is a second common theme in this category I am calling homologies. I will let eight-time platinum selling popular musician and former professional surfer, then film maker, Jack Johnson introduce the concept:

Johnson: I always sing a song when I’m riding a wave. Especially somewhere where the wave’s long enough to get going and forget the fact that you’ve taken off. Then you just start getting a song in your head and you kind of get this rhythm going sometimes. Somewhere like Rincon where you can really start to get a rhythm going, and having a nice groove in you head kind of helps out.”

Narrator: Ultimately and most basically, creating a flow on a wave is an expression of rhythm. (Parsa 2008, DVD chapter 14)

Surfer and popular Hawaiian musician John Cruz talked about surfing and rhythm this way: ‘Melodies…there’s always rhythm. The water… always rhythm. When you’re swimming…bouncing…floating on top…with little bubbles that form on the board…there’s always rhythm. When you’re working a wave, it’s all rhythm—get the groove and figure out what pattern this wave is gonna be. When I watch surfers that have the spot wired, they almost know what song they’re going to play’ (in Donnelly 2005, p. 93)

I hear in these discussions of rhythm an indigenous music theory, on the one hand, and a worldview or cosmology on the other as surfing musicians make sense of phenomenological experiences.

Finally, in the category of homologies are statements by surfers about the similar affective feelings provided by surfing and musicking. Not just any feeling, but the description of a certain quality of feeling that is special, transcendent, sometimes described as out-of-body. This range of experience or feeling is described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as ‘flow,’ a term and theory that is cited in recent ethnomusicological (Turino 2008, pp. 4-5, 30) as well as sports studies (Wheaton 2004, p. 11). By ‘flow’ Csikszentmihalyi means a range of optimal, pleasurable, and desirable experiences. They are moments or extended periods of intense focus and concentration where distractions disappear, and time passes unnoticed (Csikszentmihalyi 1990, p. 40-42). I believe that this is exactly what surfers are describing when they talk about musicking and surfing using terms such as ‘in the goove,’ ‘timelessness,’ ‘the zone,’ ‘in sync,’ ‘the heart space,’ ‘instinctive, thoughtless moment,’ and a ‘mindless, timeless experience.’

Though there are many ways to achieve flow, here I am interested in surfing musicians who equate surfing and musicking by their ability to create flow. Here are some examples. In one of the several projects that treat surfing as an artform, Andrew Crockett sets out specifically to understand what he calls ‘the unconscious side of surfing and music, the feeling of timelessness experienced with some art forms’ (2005, p. 53). This is exactly how surfing musician Shannon Carroll compared musicking and surfing: ‘the key similarity between surfing and jamming is the sense of timelessness you experience when you’re fully immersed in the moment. When you’re playing a melody or a solo you are like the surfer, drawing whichever lines the waves allow… Good sound connections usually make for good sound waves’ (in Crockett 2005, p. 57). Surfing blues musician Ash Gruwald also talks about timelessness, while adding ‘zone’ and ‘in sync’: ‘The ‘Zone’ that the surfer or musician experiences is a fleeting feeling at first, a moment where everything is in sync and a moment where time does indeed stand still, or perhaps just becomes irrelevant’ (in Crockett 2005, p. 61).

Timelessness or time standing still is a sensation commonly reported by surfers as being experienced when they are ‘in the tube,’ meaning riding inside the hollow, cylindrical tube of spinning water sometimes created by waves in certain rarefied conditions. Placing oneself in the tube is extremely difficult to achieve, usually terminating in a violent wipeout. Surfers also talk about this experience as being ‘thoughtless.’ For example, Dave Rastovich drew the connection between playing music and surfing in the tube this way. About a good music jam session, he said, ‘I have no idea what I’m doing. But, I’m playing music.’ He then compared that to surfing: ‘When I get inside a tube, I’m not thinking at all, there’s no thinking going on.’ Then after an almost phenomenological explanation of bodily instinct he concludes: ‘surfing and music seem to be such good analogies, and such good examples of the way it works. You go into that mindless, timeless experience—timeless and mindless but so intelligent, so loaded, and so fuckin’ fun’ (quoted in Kimball 2007, p. 85).

Summary and Conclusions

In all of these homologies, I find a key distinction between the experience of watery waves and musical waves. The experience of ‘flow’ when surfing is created when a lone surfer interacts with the ocean. However when musicking, musicians interact with other people. One is play with the ocean; the other is play with other people. In both cases, the emphasis is on experience. This, of course, is at the heart of Small’s musicking—the emphasis is on active experience. This trend is consistent in my survey of globalized musicking surfers. Just as I have not heard surfers talk about a sense of timelessness or achieving a sense of flow while watching others surf, they also do not talk about flow when they listen to others play music. Perhaps one quality of the affinity group of surfers is that the individual self must actively engage, must get in the water and paddle for the wave, or join the band and get in rhythm, in the groove, in the zone. This is what Thomas Turino calls ‘participatory performance’ (contrasted with presentational performance) (2008, p. 42-43). As he explains, active musical participation increases the likelihood of social synchrony, bodily mirroring through musicking, intense focus on subtle changes in the group dynamic, marked by improvised melodic riffs, shifts in rhythmic subtleties. This attentive focus shields the musicking participant from distractions, be they external or internal, sometimes creating a sensation described as ‘thoughtless’ or as Dave Rastovich put it: ‘timeless and mindless but so intelligent.’

Back in the Polish Tatras, it is clear that the invented genre góralska muzyka (mountain music) featured at the funeral I attended last Saturday is an index of identity for the musicians and their community. The active performance of this reified repertoire creates community, as others and I have suggested elsewhere. There is no such repertoire for our affinity group surfers, at least not yet. What there is, however, is the individually articulated but collectively shared experience of wave riding. Surfing is the cultural practice that forms the index of belonging to the affinity group of surfers. Turino wrote of the knowledge and ability to appropriately perform in a given musical style as an ‘index of belonging and social identity, because performance competence is both sign and simultaneously a product of shared musical knowledge and experience’ (2008, p. 43). The same may apply to surfing competency. Obtaining the intellectual and bodily knowledge to ride ocean waves is a performance that becomes an index of belonging in the surfing community. The challenge becomes how to experience this individual pleasure as a group. Perhaps this is why surfing is the prototypical lifestyle sport: the sport of surfing demands a collective lifestyle that gives cultural expression to the solitary practice of wave riding. This cultural expression of the surfing experience must be cultivated out of the water, since sharing the experience in the water is difficult at best. Musicking, like surfing, requires active involvement—play that communicates directly without symbolic or linguistic mediation. Thus musicking together is an especially effective expression of surfing alone.

References Cited

Anderson, Benedict  (1991 [1983]) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, revised edition, London: Verso.

Appadurai, Arjun (1996) Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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Discography and Filmography

Parsa, David (2008) Live: A Music and Surfing Experience. David Parsa Films. DVD.

The Surfers (1998) Songs From the Pipe. Sony. CD

Curren, Tom (2004) Tom Curren. Wedge. CD

Young, Beau (2005) Waves of Change. See-green Records. CD


1. Władysław Styrczula-Maśniak playing for a post-concert dance at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2007. Photo by T. Cooley.

2. Funeral for Władysław Styrczula-Maśniak, Koscielisko, Poland. Photo by Ruth Hellier-Tinoco.[TC1]

3. George Freeth. Reprinted courtesy of the California Surf Museum, Oceanside.

4. Sharing a wave at San Onofre, 1937, Horatio, Pete Peterson, and Lorrin Harrison. Photo by Don James. From Surfing San Onofre to Point Dume, 1936-1942, Photographs by Don James, San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1996. Page 44. Reproduced with permission of Tom Adler and Graham Peake.

5. Waikiki Beachboys at the Outrigger Canoe Club, Waikiki, Hawaii, 1963. From the cover to the LP Duke Kahanamoku Presents: A Beachboy Party, now reissued on CD by Taboo Records. Front, left to right: Splash Lyons, Fat (Abraham Kala), Panama. Back, left to right: Squeeze Kamana, Ox, Hawaiian sportswear king Waltah Clarke, Kalakaua, Jimmy Hakuole, Harry Robello, Duke Kahanamoku, Chick Daniels. Photo Courtesy Cord International/Hana Ola Records.

6. San Onofre music session 1939. Eleanor Roach dancing accompanied by (from left to right) Barney Wilkes, Katie Dunbar, and Bruce Duncan. Photo by Don James. From Surfing San Onofre to Point Dume, 1936-1942, Photographs by Don James, San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1996. P. 50. Reproduced with permission of Tom Adler and Graham Peake.

7. San Onofre music session 2007. Right to left: Unknown, Fred Thomas, Gigi Thomas, (white hat looking down, unknown), Pat Enos, Bill Tapia (red shirt and hat), Joe and Donna Osterkamp (barely visible in background), Ron Cook, Roxanne Moores (in shadow), Jack George, David Weisenthal (in shadow), Mike McCaffrey (barely visible with hat on), and Bill Breau. Photo by T. Cooley.

8. Post-surf musicking at Parking Lot 26, Manhattan Beach, 2006. Left to right: Laurie Armer, Mike Goodin, Al Lee, and Gene Lyon. Photo by T. Cooley.

9. E. J. Oshier and Peanuts Larson, San Onofre, 1937. Photo by Don James. From Surfing San Onofre to Point Dume, 1936-1942, Photographs by Don James, San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1996. P. 41. Reproduced with permission of Tom Adler and Graham Peake.