Performing Africa

Performing Africa

by Paulla A. Ebron

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The jali--a member of a hereditary group of Mandinka professional performers--is a charismatic but contradictory figure. He is at once the repository of his people's history, the voice of contemporary political authority, the inspiration for African American dreams of an African homeland, and the chief entertainment for the burgeoning transnational tourist


The jali--a member of a hereditary group of Mandinka professional performers--is a charismatic but contradictory figure. He is at once the repository of his people's history, the voice of contemporary political authority, the inspiration for African American dreams of an African homeland, and the chief entertainment for the burgeoning transnational tourist industry. Numerous journalists, scholars, politicians, and culture aficionados have tried to pin him down. This book shows how the jali's talents at performance make him a genius at representation--the ideal figure to tell us about the "Africa" that the world imagines, which is always a thing of illusion, magic, and contradiction.

Africa often enters the global imagination through news accounts of ethnic war, famine, and despotic political regimes. Those interested in countering such dystopic images--be they cultural nationalists in the African diaspora or connoisseurs of "global culture"--often found their representations of an emancipatory Africa on an enthusiasm for West African popular culture and performance arts. Based on extensive field research in The Gambia and focusing on the figure of the jali, Performing Africa interrogates these representations together with their cultural and political implications. It explores how Africa is produced, circulated, and consumed through performance and how encounters through performance create the place of Africa in the world. Innovative and discerning, Performing Africa is a provocative contribution to debates over cultural nationalism and the construction of identity and history in Africa and elsewhere.

Editorial Reviews

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute
Performing Africa raises stimulating challenges. Very little is off limits: not nature, not gender, not sexuality, not music—and most especially not Africa as the purest locus of these things. Tackling such provocative subjects with confidence and insight, and with such impressive control over so many scholarly domains, is a major achievement.
— Caroline Bledsoe
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute - Caroline Bledsoe
Performing Africa raises stimulating challenges. Very little is off limits: not nature, not gender, not sexuality, not music—and most especially not Africa as the purest locus of these things. Tackling such provocative subjects with confidence and insight, and with such impressive control over so many scholarly domains, is a major achievement.
From the Publisher
"Performing Africa raises stimulating challenges. Very little is off limits: not nature, not gender, not sexuality, not music—and most especially not Africa as the purest locus of these things. Tackling such provocative subjects with confidence and insight, and with such impressive control over so many scholarly domains, is a major achievement."—Caroline Bledsoe, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

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Copyright © 2002 Princeton University Press
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ISBN: 978-1-4008-2521-9

Chapter One

Music: Europe and Africa

The idea that Europe is an idea is one whose time has come. But to reach back to the point of its origin is not an easy task. A more feasible project is to observe Europe in the act of reaching back or out toward an idea of what Europe is not: the "primitive," the "Orient," "Africa." -Christopher Miller, Blank Darkness

Upon mere mention of the phrase "African music," a list of features readily comes to the fore. A sampling of comments: "African music is all drumming"; "It's rhythm"; "It is the heartbeat that just makes you want to get up"; "It is noise and not music"; "African music is so primal." This brief list of common refrains in no way gives one a sense that informants agree about the value of African music. Yet attentiveness to the ideas behind some of these statements helps illuminate the sedimented logics that hold in place Europe and one of its Others, Africa. Ideas are always formed in dialogue; thus, in teasing out overlapping conversations about music we are immediately drawn to the ways particular mythic stories form allegorical narratives that reinscribe geographical difference.

A focus on stories and their mythic qualities offers one way into a discussion that attempts to get at popular assumptions that surround music and that become "everyday" knowledge. Stories help shape and negotiate reality. Edward Said (1999, xiii) suggests that "stories are at the heart of what explorers and novelists say about strange regions of the world." Similarly, musicologist Kofi Agawu (1992, 247) suggests that early stories generated by North African and European explorers, travelers, and geographers formulated stereotypes of the distinctive and exotic features of African music. An example: "Dancing and beating time are engrained in their nature. They say: were the negro to fall from heaven to the earth he would beat time in falling" (attributed to Ibn Botlan, died ca. 1068, by Mez 1937, 61). Contemporary stories, I suggest as well, are at the heart of the ways we imagine different musical and cultural geographic regions.

Two key terms are discussed in this chapter to illustrate how regional distinctions between Africa and Europe are configured. The first is rhythmic repetition, most often viewed as the salient feature of African music; it becomes a repeatedly told aspect of African music's difference. The second is community feeling: African music is said to create a communal experience. While these features may indeed be associated with a great deal of music in Africa, their repetitiveness and communal coercion constrain the range of possibilities found in musics across the continent.

What compels my discussion here is the way certain features attributed to African music become facts not just about "music" but about "Africa." These generalized features are transferred from a discussion of music onto the geopolitical landscape by both popular and scholarly audiences. How often do we hear about the communal, polyrhythmic qualities of African music, to then move to an idealized generalization of all of Africa's social relations, rooted in tradition? Whenever commentators try to eschew the other stereotype-Africa in ruins, the coming anarchy-why do they retreat into an idyllic unstratified Africa, the Africa of "African music"?

In contrast to the communal and rhythmic "Africa," the West, both as music and as a conceptual region, emerges as individuated, distinctive, and complex. While these "facts" tend to be challenged by area specialists, and the terrain of image-making is fraught with overlapping and competing ideas, such grand generalizations continue to assert themselves in the popular imagination. I suggest that the conviction with which these truisms appear as real attributes has something to do with the status of music itself and the complicated legacies that cordon music off from the nuances of scholarship on ideas, texts, and images. Unlike other areas of the humanities, including literature and art history, discussions about music often seem above rigorous debate.

Music still occupies a distinctive place in discussions of Western high arts. Among the arts, music is often viewed as beyond representation, as evoking feelings first rather than stimulating thought. Music, for some, becomes the sensual side of the "reason versus emotion" dichotomy. These distinctions are sustained when musical "traditions" are presented as autonomous, ahistorical, self-perpetuating entities-bounded moral systems-thereby obscuring how ideas of particular musics were formed within and against other musics. Here lies the critical difference, for even as aesthetic value and hierarchies of difference between popular and "art" music erode, cultural values attributed to differences rooted in place of origin persist. How African music and Western art musics come to be understood as such is key to this persistence.

Defining African Music

Another feature that is common to all types of music in black Africa is rhythm.... Some people regard it as a purely mechanical thing-the periodic repetition of downbeats and upbeats that mark given musical phrases. Others believe it is a kind of magic that is exclusive to Negroes who employ it in order to render their music "bewitching" or "satanic." The truth lies somewhere between these two viewpoints. Rhythm is an invisible covering that envelops each note. -Francis Bebey, African Music

Is there such a thing as African music? How does the idea of African music get sustained and maintained? It is a mistake to answer these questions with generalizations about musical phrasings or musical sociologies. Instead, our ability to imagine "Africa" and "music" as fitting together depends on intertwined histories of category-making in which a whole continent has been located as a place that might best be characterized through a nonverbal aesthetic. In other words, we have had to work hard to create notions of "Africa" and notions of "music" that might fit together. As one might argue from Bebey's quotation, cited immediately above, African music is that Other sensibility that is always "somewhere between" mechanical and neutral-seeming technologies of reality-making on the one hand, and the magics of European bewitchment and satanic fears on the other. As the repeated remembrance of that in-betweenness, with its "periodic repetition of downbeats and upbeats" of dispassionate recording and exoticization, African music is always rhythm, the "invisible covering" that envelops each meaning-making gesture in difference.

African music as a category is constructed in a variety of texts and contexts: popular and scholarly, improvised and official, musical and tone-deaf. African drumming classes in Boston and world beat concerts in Melbourne take their place beside up-country naming ceremonies in The Gambia, addresses by the Nigerian ministry of culture at the United Nations, and the latest ethnomusicological texts in the university library. I begin a discussion of the ways "African music" is made by turning to one of the influential accounts that helped pave the way for scholarly discussion of the then emergent field.

Francis Bebey's African Music: A People's Art (1975) is now considered a classic, foundational text. It helped establish the legitimacy of African music as a field of study. Its production was supported by UNESCO, and it remains, along with Nketia's (1974) Music in Africa, an important examination of African music. Without Bebey's book, which presents a broad survey of Africa through music, it would be difficult for scholars to talk about something called African music. Bebey argues for the integrity and unique features of African music, which he places in self-conscious dialogue with Western standards. As Bebey argues, African music was generally thought of as noise in the West; to counter this image, his aim is to offer a complex African aesthetic.

To postulate something known as genuine African music, Bebey must frame it as an object sustained through the repeated production of a dichotomy between the distinct and separate musical traditions of Africa and Europe. In this formulation, Bebey is clear about the development of a parallel but different "African" civilization-a civilization whose accomplishments are equal to, though opposite from, those of Europe. This task requires the reification of "European music" as a single entity that can produce Africa. Thus, for example, Bebey constructs Western art music as autonomous, independent of social life. This then delimits its African opposite. "African music is fundamentally a collective art" (1975, vi). Moreover this collective spirit, distinct from European universalism, turns out to be the true universalism, surpassing even Europe itself. Music, Bebey continues, "is communal property whose spiritual qualities are shared and experienced by all; in short, it is an art form that can and must communicate with people of all races and cultures" (Bebey 1975, vi).

Similarly, Bebey draws his picture of the role of the musician in African society in contrast to the image he conjures of the West, again in stereotypic form: the West produces musicians as individuals, while Africa produces collective participatory activity. His comparison depends on a notion that Western art music is produced by an individual genius transcendent of collective representations. In contrast, he is able to argue, African music is an integral part of every aspect of social life, an expression of that life. Through this contrast, both Europe and Africa are reduced to static repositories of tradition. Only European music, as a unified phenomenon, can produce and preserve "authentic" and "traditional" African music. And only a cultural broker, trained in both civilizations and musical in both ways, can explain the beauty of each side.

In the role of cultural broker between Africa and the West, Bebey can create a classificatory system for African music paralleling that of European music. His typology of African instruments and musical styles lends a scholarly legitimacy to the former. One must read a text for its appeal as well as for its information; its ability to attract a following draws on many aesthetic levels. Thus, Bebey illustrates his text with stunning photographs and ends the book with a long discography. The visual images illuminate for readers the idea that African music is a thing of both difference and beauty; the discography-which suggests the archival depth of a "civilized" music collection-leads us to listen to this music with respect. In this process, Africa itself comes to be identified with music. "No other art is quite so specifically African," Bebey writes (1975, 122). The unity of Africa is the unity of its music. And the unity of its music is the rhythm of the repetition of difference.

Bebey's strategy has been effective in that the field he helped introduce has flourished. Two features of its success come to mind. First, those who appreciate the arts of Africa have found African music a powerful rubric not only to valorize the beauty of the aesthetic they know but also to defiantly criticize imperialisms of the West. Second, those who study European music have busily gone about the process of codifying Western music as if it were a homogeneous and transcendent thing against which other musics can at best form oppositional parallels. The ongoing strength of the story of "Western culture" as an autonomous, special object deserving reverence has necessarily reproduced narratives of difference like the one Bebey tells. Thus it would be disingenuous to single out Bebey's discussion of music as problematic without acknowledging the limitations of the hegemonic constructions of music and value that preceded his book. His work is a product of a particular time, but it also continues to capture the attention of general audiences interested in Africa and African music. Before discussing the literatures that have followed the trajectory of Bebey's "African music," that is, those that have grown up within the domain of African ethnomusicology, I turn to the realm around which all ethnologies revolve, the domain of high culture in the West.

Music and the "Western" Experience

In certain societies where sounds have become letters with sharps and flats, those unfortunate enough not to fit into this schema are tossed out of the system and qualified as unmusical and their sounds are called noises. It is known that one of the primary tasks of ethnomusicologists is to study what traditional societies consider music and what they reject as non-music. A music bound up with movement, dance, and speech, one in which the listener becomes a co-performer, one that has no overall form except a continually recurring sequence of notes and rhythms, one that plays endlessly-for nobody has enough of life-has been called elementary or rudimentary. -Trinh Minh-Ha, Framer Framed

Western art music is continually placed in a hallowed space in the conversations of both popular and scholarly audiences, evoked as the representative form of Western music even as it is thought to be dying among Westerners. (Or, at least, this is the rumor regularly spread by recording companies in the United States.) Without reflexively acknowledging the historical conditions in which the category of Western art music was created, one can produce a list of the features that are thought to make Western music distinctive from Other musics, including the disinterestedness and aesthetic autonomy of both musicians and audience. Here the meaning of a particular musical performance is thought to be derived from something beyond social context. The cult of the artist as an individual and inspired creator reminds us of music's historical tie to its sacred past; inspiration is at heart divine. Furthermore, critics as well as musicians hope to be inspired. Unlike literature and art, where more attention to the social production of aesthetic forms now appears more commonplace, music is often still portrayed as being above discourse and representation and-in this way-beyond ideology.

Challenges to the notion that music is transcendent historicize the processes through which classical music becomes a reified category. The lack of critical attention to the social production of music is central to its seductive power as a privileged discourse in Western society. Precisely because music appears to be above ideology, discourses on music are free to reproduce dominant social relations.

Recent histories of the development of Western music draw us into the cultural legacies that have shaped different musical traditions. In Music and Society (1987), cultural critic Janet Wolff explores the development of the notion of aesthetic autonomy and the possible explanations for its persistence. She traces the emergence, during the late Renaissance, of a growing distinction between artists and craftspersons. Artists were no longer dependent upon guilds and therefore had a greater degree of autonomy. The artist became the originator of the work, and genius was attributed to the creator. Later, the Enlightenment further developed these trends. Wolff shows how many of the ideas that gave Western music its prestige in the late twentieth century are inherited from the Enlightenment, though it is important to note that Enlightenment ideas are themselves heterogeneous and often sites of contest. Here, too, she traces ideas that art music is apolitical and nonrepresentational.


Excerpted from PERFORMING AFRICA by PAULLA A. EBRON Copyright © 2002 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are saying about this

Carolyn Martin Shaw
Ebron's work is innovative and presented with engaging immediacy. Matching her breadth of interest is her ability to speak to different audiences. With scholarly precision, fine political acumen, and clear writing, Ebron deftly accomplishes what she sets out to do. She presents highly original theoretical reflections on method, a detailed ethnographic study of social interactions, insightful cultural understandings of political economy, and specific readings of the imaginative and historical in the construction of 'the Africa.'
Carolyn Martin Shaw, University of California, Santa Cruz

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