Please note that I wrote this in November 2014. I am only re-sharing here as I am moving some articles/notes/essays from one old blog into this one. Some of these will form part of the upcoming book, The House of Plenty.
The CHI: Thoughtless Dancers or Dancing Thinkers?
In his book Representing African Music: Postcolonial Notes, Queries, Positions; Kofi Agawu writes
“Inventing African Rhythm: That the distinctive quality of African music lies in its rhythmic structure is a notion so persistently thematized that it has by now assumed the status of a commonplace, a topo’s.
And so, it is with related ideas that African rhythms are complex, that Africans possess a unique rhythmic sensibility, and that this rhythmic disposition marks them as ultimately different from others.
Consider a few of these characterizations. The eleventh-century Christian physician and theologian, Ibn Butlan, in a tract entitled “On how to buy slaves and how to detect bodily defects,” claimed that If a black were to fall from the sky to the earth, he would fall in rhythm.” In other words, even while facing certain death – speaking as metaphorically as Butlan did-blacks (especially black women) continued to exhibit an essential and irreducible rhythmic disposition.
The association of dancing with death, the racialist referral of particular sensibilities on particular groups of people, and the construction of African rhythm as complex, superior, yet ultimately incomprehensible: these and other implications of Ibn Butlan’s casual remark are found reproduced in diverse ways and with diverse accents throughout the history of discourse about African music.
In many twentieth century accounts, the emphasis on dance and the constancy of music-making are retained while rhythm as a separate dimension is singled out for special mention. Erich von Hornbostel describes a piece of African xylophone music in which he found one of the parts “syncopated past our comprehension.”
And A.M. Jones, writing with characteristic enthusiasm and confidence in 1949, declares that – “the African is far more skilled at drumming rhythms than we are – in fact our banal pom, pom, pom, pom on the drums is mere child’s-play compared with the complicated and delicate interplay of rhythms in African drumming.”
All the above clearly shows the various stereotypes and convenient generalization with which the Euro-Americans and some lazy minded Afrikans have continued to view Afrika. This single-story narrative has been analyzed and rubbished by the likes of Franz Fanon and even Aime Cesaire in his Return to My Native Land and other essays, poems and songs from the Negritude and Black Power era’s.
Recently the celebrated Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi-Adichie did an TED Talk on this very notion of a single story, although she was speaking out against the expectations that weigh African writers down to the extent that they no longer have individual/personal or unique stories to tell since the world expects some types of narratives.
The rhythmic African narrative has even been thrust comically onto the public sphere by neo-liberals caricaturing the South African president Jacob G. Zuma as a dancing buffoon with no other redeeming qualities.
They even go so far as contrasting him with the more Western palatable ‘rhythmless’ former President Thabo Mbeki. The problem with all these Eurocentric constructions and deconstructions of Africa is that many Africans follow suit unquestionably.
But fortunately for the thinking Afrikan, the Afrikologist, there are still many Black folks such as V.Y. Mudimbe who provides a sustained interrogation of the very idea of ‘Africa’, showing it to be a construction of European fantasy and discourse.
Mudimbe argues that beyond its relative stability as a geographical pointer,” Africa” is not readily ontologized from within an imagined Afrikan worldview; nor is it easily graspable either as a unified cultural phenomenon or as a fruitful epistemological referent. Kwame Appiah similarly argues that “the very invention of Africa (as something more than a geographical entity) must be understood, ultimately, as an outgrowth of European racialism.”
Yes, we have rhythm, yes, we gravitate towards the polyphonic and syncopated sounds of our cultural environment but that does not make “us” any more humane, or special as a species. We are just as fallible and as beautiful as any other people. But more than anything, Afrika’s people are diverse and as multifaceted as the peoples of any other continent.
That Africa is a continent rather than a country, that crossing national borders is not – in terms of restrictions – like going from one American state to the next, that a greater portion of it is French – rather than English-speaking, that its numerous languages are not mutually comprehensible dialects of a few languages: knowledge of these and other “facts “cannot yet be taken for granted.
“Indeed, it is possible to discern an ongoing resistance to knowing Africa. Why should we bother to learn the strange and often unpronounceable names of people in remote places practicing weird customs when we can simply use the all-purpose term Africa”?”?
Allied to the retreat from comparison is a retreat from critical evaluation of African musical practice. The pious dignifying of all performances as if they were equally good, of all instruments as if they were tuned in an “interesting” way.
All of this reminds me of how Europe and America systemically underdeveloped Afrika and how this underdevelopment continues until this day and that popular music largely contributes to this colonization at least on a psychological level.
Our purported sense of uncanny rhythmic ability may be a natural impulse, but it may very well be our undoing as “a people”.
The saga continues …