The Representation and Performance of African Music in German Popular Culture

By Carl, Florian | Yearbook for Traditional Music, January 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

The Representation and Performance of African Music in German Popular Culture


Carl, Florian, Yearbook for Traditional Music


Africa constituted a vivid part of the popular European imagination as early as the nineteenth century. Fascinated by travel accounts and adventure novels and, towards the end of the nineteenth century, by ethnographic shows and colonial exhibitions, audiences in Europe followed with great interest the "scramble for Africa," with its spectacular discoveries on the periphery of the expanding colonial empires, just as people marvelled at the images of the first landing on the moon a century later (Lindfors 1999; Rotberg 1970). Towards the turn of the nineteenth century, new media technologies and forms of representation emerged such as the panorama or the cinematograph, conveying ever new images of seemingly exotic worlds. Thus, at Berlin's Kolonialpanorama which opened its doors for the public in 1885, a 115-metre long cyclorama, showing scenes of Germany's colonial occupation of Africa, awaited visitors. In exhibition rooms, ethnographic objects from the colonies were on display. Palm trees, a special lighting system, and artificial fog were installed to create a "tropical atmosphere" (Zeller 2002). The holistic, three-dimensional experience panoramas so created led Erlmann to speak of the "first mass medium to set up a perfect enclosure, a proto-cyberspace that enabled the viewer to become an inhabitant of image-space, someone who enters an image rather than someone who contemplates it from the outside" (1999:5-6). Other technologies such as phonography imparted not only a sonic but, as it were, a new "psychophysical" reality to the myth of Africa as a continent persisting in a seemingly timeless past (Carl 2004:126-31; see also Kittler 1986).

Up to this day, the experience of Africa as a mythical place continues to be highlighted in popular cultural events. André Heller's musical production Afrika! Afrika!, for example-the "magical circus adventure from the amazing continent," as it is promoted-also offers audiences a "sensory discovery of Africa" (Heller 2009:2-3) by way of entering an imaginary world. This discovery includes the experience of "an immeasurable wealth of cultural traditions and creativity," "spectacular acrobatics," "costumes that remind one of mythical creatures or of gods from different worlds," as well as gastronomic specialties offered in "Tented Palaces" with "Moorish decor," where "visitors can enter a different world for hours at a time" (ibid.). The production, advertised as "the most successful show in the German-speaking world," attracted over three million visitors in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Great Britain since its premiere in December 2005 (ibid.).1 In Germany, large-scale and costly productions like this have given rise to a number of smaller, less expensive shows that are also staged as circus events and usually present a mixture of music and dance, acrobatics, clown- ing, as well as acts featuring trained animals. In this fashion, Afrikas Big Circus [sic], for instance, claims to bring the "magic of the jungle" to the German provinces, while the Mama Africa Circus from Africa hypes itself as "Wild! Exotic! Erotic! Different!" and promises audiences a "trip to the African continent, a colorful safari brimming over with life."2

Meanwhile, "performances of Africa" are under pressure to justify their politics of representation. In this regard, Heller's show is presented as educational and informative, fostering dialogue and cultural understanding. As the initiator of Afrika! Afrika! writes himself in the official press kit:

Our impression of Africa is one of a continent of continuous catastrophes: war, hunger, AIDS, corruption and political instability. This view was shaped by the media, yet Africa is a continent that is three times as large as Europe and home to twice as many people as in the United States. That the unquestionable suffering and bitterness of life in Africa has wrung out the great artistry of the people is lesser known. (Heller 2009:8)

In contrast to negative images of Africa transported in the media, Heller conceives his show, as "an attempt to present certain cultural aspects of this amazing continent to the eyes and ears of the West. …

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