The African Diaspora: A Musical Perspective

By Gunderson, Frank | Notes, September 2004 | Go to article overview

The African Diaspora: A Musical Perspective


Gunderson, Frank, Notes


The African Diaspora: A Musical Perspective. Edited by Ingrid Monsoii. (Critical and Cultural Musicology, 3.) New York: Routledge, 2003. [vii, 366 p. ISBN 0-8153-2382-4. $50 (hbk.); ISBN 04159-6769-4. $19.95 (pbk.).] Music examples, illustrations, map, bibliography, index.

This volume presents eleven musical case studies from diverse regions of the African diaspora, including the African continent, the Caribbean, Latin America, North America, and Europe. The contributors intersect their discussions with the topics of race, gender, politics, and nationalism, and address why music claims such pride of place, using examples of the interwoven construct of the local and global, as they are found in the lives of musicians and their audiences.

In her introduction, Monson reminds the reader, "If the Jewish diaspora was the quintessential example of diaspora before the 1960s, the African diaspora has surely become the paradigmatic case for the closing years of the 20th century" (p. 1). Acknowledging a cue from Paul Gilroy in The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double-consciousness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), Monson identifies the centrality of music as emblematic of transnational identities and global inter sections which constitute the complexity of the African diaspora. The remainder of the introduction presents an overview of the book's three sectional themes: "Traveling Music and Musicians," "Beyond Tradition or Modernity," and "Contradictory Moment."

Part 1, "Traveling Music and Musicians," consists of four essays that explore the globalization of African diasporic musics, paying particular attention to exchanges between African Americans, Europe, and the Black Atlantic. Travis A. Jackson begins this section with "Jazz Performance as Ritual: The Blues Aesthetic and the African Diaspora." Based on ethnographic research conducted in New York City's vibrant jazz scene, he argues that jazz performance is driven by both an encompassing blues aesthetic, and a sense of performance as a sacred ritual of transcendence. Jackson makes the claim for a nonessentialized concept of the blues aesthetic, that "privileges interaction, participation, and formal flexibility in the service of transcendence and communication of normative values and cultural identity" (p. 71).

In chapter 2, "Communities of Style: Musical Figures of Black Diasporic Identity," Veit Erlmann examines "Mbube," the South African song classic written and recorded by Solomon Linda in 1939, and its reinterpretations known outside of South Africa as "Wimowet," or "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." Erlmann introduces the concept of "endotropic performance" in relation to the multiple versions of this piece that have been recorded over the years, showing that its multiple performances and situated reception exemplify the intraracial construction of identity through a shared experience of style which has emerged under the increasingly globalized and mediated conditions of social life since the late nineteenth century. This is a "strange situation in which a person's understanding of himself or herself and their sense of the social world no longer coincide with the place in which they take place" (p. 76). These reworkings "demonstrate the crucial role the autohypnoses and fiction of identity and global order, with all their contradictory intermixtures and mirrored affinities, play in formulating the rudiments of a politics of twenty-first century" (p. 99).

The chapter "Jazz on the Global Stage" by Jerome Harris, is a wide-ranging insider's view of the history, present state, and future implications of the spreading and flourishing of jazz in locales far from its African American birthplace. Harris, a prominent guitarist and bassist with twenty years of experience on New York's jazz scene, defines an "ecology of jazz" (pp. 104-5) as a web of interrelationships between art makers, art users (audience), and mediators (broadcasters, record producers, promoters, and managers).

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