Representing African Music: Post-Colonial Notes, Queries, Positions

By Solis, Gabriel | Notes, September 2004 | Go to article overview

Representing African Music: Post-Colonial Notes, Queries, Positions


Solis, Gabriel, Notes


Representing African Music: Post-colonial Notes, Queries, Positions. By Kofi Agawu. New York; London: Routledge, 2003. [xxvii, 266 p. ISBN 0-415-94389-2. $85 (hbk.); ISBN 0-415-94390-6. $23.95 (pbk.).] Music examples, bibliography, index.

This is a strikingly original book, promising to shod new light both on music from across the African continent, and on the history of Africanist musical discourse. Upsetting apple carts of convention and dispassionate prose, this book, while sure to elicit controversy from virtually all corners of contemporary American musical scholarship, should be required reading not only for African music specialists, but ethnomusicologisls of all sorts, popular music scholars, music theorists, and historical musicologists with an interest in the politics of representation. While the principal audience will likely be music scholars in the United States and Europe, Agawu's approach to the issues involved in studying African music, his cogent explanation of musical practices, and critical acumen, make this book valuable to a broadly interdisciplinary audience including Africanists generally, anthropologists, and scholars of postcolonial theory. Throughout the book Agawu focuses on the importance of a deep engagement with African musical sound and musical texts as an end in itself and as a corrective to various exoticizing tropes in the study of African music. The book divides roughly into three large sections: an introduction to the subject, including a meditation on the relationships of colonialism and a survey of the materials of Africanist musicology; followed by a substantial set of essays on theory and close analysis of African music of various sorts; and finally a concluding section, drawing on the insights and examples of the previous chapters to argue strongly against "difference" in the representation of African music-in his words, "Taking an explicitly political stance" (p. 152).

The first section presents a useful overview and finds Agawu at his most compelling. In a moving chapter on colonialism's impact on music in Africa, Agawu draws a much more complicated picture than one finds in older ethnomusicological literature. Gone is the assumption that the colonial presence would somehow overwhelm the local knowledges and practices of African culture, erasing them utterly-Agawu, like most contemporary ethnomusi-cologists, is not concerned about "greyout"; he sees the process of contact and change as a deeply lopsided, but always partial assimilation of the new to the old. He is alert to the complexity of the colonial encounter on the ground in West Africa in a way reminiscent of the writing of African philosophers like Kwame Anthony Appiah (for instance, Anthony Appiah, In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture [New York: Oxford University Press, 1992]). That said, Agawu is not reserved in his critique: "Of all the musical influences spawned by the colonial encounter, that of tonal-functional harmony has been the most pervasive, the most far-reaching, and ultimately the most disastrous" (p. 8). If it is disastrous, Agawu suggests, it is because "The vast harmonic resources available in traditional African music . . . remain underappreciated. . . . The number, variety, and intricacy of multipart techniques suggest that . . . Africa perhaps has a lot less-if anything at all-to learn from Europe in the house of harmony" (p. 10). Ultimately Agawu rejects nativist answers to the questions that arise from thinking about African music after colonialism. Instead, he enjoins us, "to be fired by the complex and contradictory reality of contemporary Africa to pursue a future in which the vastness and potency of our collective musical resources inspires composers and performers to aim even higher for excellence in creativity" (p. 22).

The second portion of Representing African Music, and the bulk of the book, extends an argument begun in Agawu's "The Invention of 'African Rhythm'" (Journal of the American Musicological Society 48 [Fall 1995]: 380-95). …

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