Academic journal article Music, Sound and the Moving Image

Med Hondo's Sarraounia: The Musical Articulation of Cultural Transformation

Academic journal article Music, Sound and the Moving Image

Med Hondo's Sarraounia: The Musical Articulation of Cultural Transformation

Article excerpt

As a film that re-imagines the past, Sarraounia (Med Hondo, Mauritania/ Burkina Faso/France, 1986) is perhaps 'about' the organisation of time, just as its dramatic narrative is about the contestation of space. Preserving a period of African history on celluloid, while thematically engaging with issues of memory and history, the film depicts its eponymous heroine's struggle against colonial invasion from Europe, thus organising its narrative around the historical rupture of an African cultural formation through its encounter with the West. While the film's dramatic power lies in its narrative of an African queen's resistance to the colonial conquest, at a thematic level it engages in a rigorous thesis on the ramifications of cultural trauma that is played out through both its narrative content and formal structure. A key component of this thesis is music, and a range of musical styles are used which, in their ability to invoke identification, politicise space, and structure temporality, form a complex layering of meaning through which the wider issues of cultural transformation are articulated. This articulation is on the one hand achieved through the cultural connotations of the various musical idioms used, but more complexly it is also built into the music's rhythmic and tonal organisation, and the contrasts between these formal structures function to underline particular conceptualisations of temporality and historicity along a Western/African cultural axis. This relies on music's capacity to divide and organise time in ways that are specific to given cultures. In this way, music in Sarraounia demarcates ethnic and political spaces, at the same time as it layers a narrative of profound cultural trauma within the substructure of the film's (often musically emphasised) drama.

Belonging to a tradition of filmmaking in Africa that depicts encounters between Africa and the colonising West, Sarraounia is described by the critic Manthia Diawara as a 'colonial confrontation' film, which he locates within a tripartite model of African cinema ('the social realist tendency', 'the colonial confrontation', and 'the return to the source') (1992: 140). For Diawara, these films directly oppose the European, 'official' versions of history, showing 'African heroism where European his tory only mentioned the actions of the conquerors, resistance where the colonial version of history silenced oppositional voices, and the role of women in the armed struggle' (ibid: 152). Moreover, such films address 'the need to bring out of the shadows the role played by the African people in shaping their own history' while filming 'a liberation struggle to keep it forever in people's minds' (ibid: 152). In this spirit, Sarraounia recounts a nineteenth-century encounter between the Aznas of Niger, Islamic conquest, and European colonialism. The film's protagonist, the Queen of the Aznas, Sarraounia (Ai Keita), leads the resistance against these forces, in the European arm of which the film finds its antagonist, Voulet (Jean-Roger Milo), the bloodthirsty captain of the French military and arch-enemy of Sarraounia. Despite the military power over which Voulet presides, Sarraounia is able to outwit him at every turn, and the film leaves our heroine and her entourage victorious, successfully resisting the might of the French invasion.

In relating this legendary narrative in cinematic form, Hondo undertakes an act of historical recovery that seeks to establish a 'popular memory' in place of the logocentric 'official history' circulated by nation-states. The popular memory vs. official history opposition, a recurring theme in African cinema, has been formulated by Teshome Gabriel as follows:

Official history tends to arrest the future by means of the past. Historians privilege the written word of the text - it serves as their rule of law. It claims a 'centre' which continuously marginalises others. In this way its ideology inhibits people from constructing their own history or histories. …

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