While most books are confined to the pages held within them, Tsitsi Jaji’s Africa in Stereo (2014) begins with a link to an aural space: the book’s companion site, hosted by Oxford University Press. There, readers find a range of images and recordings referenced in the text: an excerpt from Bob Marley’s 1979 “Zimbabwe,” a recording of Léopold Sedar Senghor’s speech on métissage, and scenes from John Akomfrah’s 1995 Last Angel of History, which was produced through Black Audio History Collective. This collection of primary sources signals Jaji’s commitment to not only foregrounding the sensory–and in particular the act of listening–but also to creating a sonic archive of the twentieth-century Black Atlantic.
The site’s own characteristics mirror the theoretical ambition and methodological innovation of the book itself, which, in simplest terms, considers how Africans heard (and “read”) African-American music in the twentieth century. While the focus on listeners, audiences, and consumers might–in different hands–tend toward a kind of passivity, for Jaji it becomes a rich heuristic for understanding how Africans navigated modern media. By centering Africans as listeners and consumers, Jaji not only challenges the “originary” or “native” status of Africans in the diaspora but moreover uncovers new strategies for understanding the dialogic and intermedial processes through pan-African politics and culture were formed. She does so through a wide range of sources–including recordings, transcriptions, film, literature, websites, and magazines–which become an unprecedented archive of what Jaji terms “stereomodernism,” a “heuristic for analyzing texts and cultural practices that are both political and expressive, activated by black music and operative within the logic of pan-African solidarity” (14). Located largely in Senegal, Ghana, and South Africa, the book thus explores how music in particular helped to define real (and imagined) relationships across the Black diaspora.
After detailing her scope and methodology in the first chapter, Jaji then moves into substantive analysis in the following five chapters, which are organized around different modes of listening and reading, but are nevertheless chronological. She begins with the early twentieth century and in particular the work of transcription, which describes the act of creating musical notations for a recording or a piece of music. Looking at a group of South African writers, including Solomon Plaatje, John and Nokutela Dube, and Charlotte Maxeke, Jaji argues that the medium of transcription was in fact a way of finding (and sharing) oppositional strategies from the African-American musical tradition. As this chapter suggests, the liberatory potential in the musical form was amplified by the act of transcription, which created new linkages among South African and African American writers.
Jaji next turns to what she terms Négritude musicology, which serves as a rubric for reassessing Léopold Sédar Senghor’s theorization of black culture from the 1930s through the 1960s, a period that encompassed the explosion of interest in African-American music in the Francophone world. Influenced by both African-American writers and French jazz critics, Senghor found in jazz (and blues) a potent metaphor for the essential beauty and power of Black cultural traditions. Reminding us of the extraordinary gift of this poet-statesman, Jaji’s analysis clarifies the sonic dimensions in his poetry and prose–the “fricative phonemes” (77) and “rhythmic tension” (77)–and connects it to African-American aural traditions, like Stephen Henderson’s “worrying the line” (76) or Samuel Floyd’s “repetition with a difference” (75). She ends this chapter by returning to the culmination of Senghorian négritude–the 1966 World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar–and how it became a critical forum for debating the meaning of Black Atlantic music.
In one of the most exciting chapters, Jaji focuses on two magazines–Zonk! (South Africa) and Bingo (Senegal and France)–not so much to mine evidence of authorial intention but instead as a means to consider African women envisioned their realities and futures. In these magazines, Jaji finds evidence for how women would have navigated the emergence of new media forms, including magazines, radio sets, LPs, and film. While the advertisements suggested that modernity needed to be “ratified through consumption” (111), Jaji instead argues that women engaged in what she terms “sheen reading,” which enabled them to read these new forms critically and to, in effect, become modern through their critical engagement of consumerism and the new “audiotechnological landscape.” While specific in many respects to postwar Africa, Jaji’s careful and clear analysis of gender, media, and sound could (and should) be a heuristic for scholars in other domains.
While focused on distinct media forms, the last two chapters together help clarify the work of memory and futurity in the late twentieth century Black Atlantic. Jaji first examines the recording and reproduction of narratives of the Middle Passage, moving from Ghanaian poetry to the 1971 documentary Soul to Soul to many diasporic memoirs set in Ghana. Building from this corpus, Jaji considers the possibilites and limits in these varied acts of memorialization, particularly in response to the immense loss of transatlantic slavery.
The final chapter begins by looking at the memorialization of older technology (or “technonostalgia”) in two Senegalese films, Ousmane Sembene’s Camp de Thiaroye and Moussa Sene Absa’s Ça Twiste à Popenguine. Both films include scenes of somewhat furtive, or secretive, listening to African-American music on record players, which thus takes on a new kind of political meaning not simply because of the sounds themselves but in fact because of the “sonic world” that each has disrupted by introducing the literal and metaphorical record scratch.
Building from this analysis, Jaji considers how piracy figures into Black Atlantic musical formations in the digital age, using a film, novel, and the internet radio project, the Pan-African Space Station, which creates a future claim to pan-African solidarity not only by rejecting the logic of colonial and apartheid radio, but also the disingenuous claims to openness peddled by multinational corporations. The site doesn’t feature “podcasts”—and their barely disguised endorsements of “pod” products—but instead shares its own “passcasts” to open up the truly liberatory potential in music.
This last illustration exemplifies the broader impact of Jaji’s work, which clarifies the centrality of Africa (and African people) to global flows of media and culture and provides a powerful model for placing race, pan-africanism, and Black cultural production at the center of sound studies.
In this, Jaji joins an exciting conversation among scholars who have challenged the ways in which the history of sound and technology have, as Alexander Weheliye has described, been heretofore been read as a white, Western project. This intervention is audible in a range of recent scholarship, including recent work on sound and empire by Ronald Radano, Tejumola Olaniyan, Hisham Aidi, J. Griffith Rollefson, and Michael Denning; in analyses of race and sound by Josh Kun, Dolores Inés Casillas, Jennifer Stoever, and Nina Eidsheim; in studies of sound in Africa by David F. Garcia, Robin D.G. Kelley, and Eric Charry; and finally, in recent interdisciplinary work that has explored the varied soundscapes of the African diaspora, including work by Shana Redmond, Tina Campt, Louis Chude-Sokei, Vanessa Valdés, Ingrid Monson, Njelle Hamilton, and Edwin Hill. What distinguishes Jaji’s work is her profound re-reading of the act of listening, which becomes in her analysis a critical means of challenging the racist logic of consumerism and empire. Indeed, she ends her book by asking the reader to “Come, listen with me.” After reading Africa in Stereo, it becomes clear that this request—and admonition—to simply listen is neither passive nor deferential, but instead a liberatory act, and one that has the potential to change the field.
Featured Image: Screen capture from Moussa Sene Absa’s Ça Twiste à Popenguine.
Celeste Day Moore is assistant professor in the Department of History at Hamilton College and is a historian of African-American culture, media, and technology in the twentieth century. She is currently completing first book, Soundscapes of Liberation, which traces the history of African-American music across the Francophone world, wherein it took on new meaning, value, and political power alongside the decolonization of the French empire. Most recently, her work has appeared in American Quarterly and in the first edited volume of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS). Follow her on twitter at @celestedaymoore.
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Welcome back to Start a Band, our two-part series on Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, focusing on what the band’s sonic provocations mean for sound studies today. Last week, we heard from Jake Smith, who introduced us to a way of thinking about the Velvets that emphasized the “haptic” qualities that emerge so often while listening to them. Following that idea, Smith took us on a kind of journey from the skin to the musculature and the viscera through a deep analysis of key songs in their catalog — “This is your body on the Velvet Underground.”
This week, we’re delighted to welcome to Sounding Out! a writer whose work we’ve been eager to feature for a long while — Tim Anderson, Associate Professor of Communication and Theatre Arts at Old Dominion University. Tim has written extensively on popular music and sound, and is currently a leader of the Sound Studies Scholarly Interest Group at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, one of the scholarly groups associated with the SO! Thursday stream. It’s such a pleasure to present this sensitive and personal account of the Velvet Underground — and of learning to listen.
Reports of Lou Reed’s death came on a Sunday. Even though he was 71, it was still a shock. To many present-day friends and colleagues Reed’s Velvet Underground are a band that they understand are important, but just don’t get. In the case of an artist like Lou Reed, an artist who never had a top ten charting single and only two gold albums, you could see their point.
Still, I obsessed. Rattled from my travels in Washington, DC, I called my wife and we talked about his music for about an hour or so, after which I took a long walk to the Washington Mall. It was a sunny fall day, October 27, 2013, and I walked past the Smithsonian with its prominent memorials, such a clean space for so much past, some of which the nation has buried and some of which we don’t even bother to think about. The deceased have always done the most important work in our nation’s capital.
The day after, I really don’t remember doing much. I took a train home, read everything I could online about Reed, and thought a lot about his records. The ones I liked —New York and The Blue Mask—the ones I learned to like —it took me years to enjoy Transformer—and the ones I loved —The Velvet Underground and Nico, White Light, White Heat, The Velvet Underground and VU. Those four records, more than any records I can remember, altered me, many of my friends in my teens and in college, and almost every rock musician I admired in the 1980s. Velvet Underground records were simply foundational. Writing about Reed’s death, rock critic Greg Kot summed up the Velvet’s influence by claiming that they were “as influential as The Beatles” and if you named “just about any left-of-centre band or artist since the ‘70s”, some of whom like R.E.M., U2 and Talking Heads “became mainstream giants”all of them would “acknowledge a deep debt to the Velvet Underground.”
This influence is the reason that the collective mourning of such a marginally popular figure swelled to such a crescendo. However, to paraphrase the words of one of Reed’s most storied rivals, Lester Bangs, on the death of John Lennon, this was not the mourning of a person. Most of us never met Lou Reed. Instead, we were mourning ourselves. To lose Lou Reed was tantamount to losing the author of a proverbial urtext of a kind of secret rock language that has been passed down since the late 1960s on how to be cool. It was a language of composed of style, gestures, and reactions. It was one that was filled with a fun that was not of the obligatory “hey-dude-let’s-party!” party. The Velvet’s overdriven guitars repeatedly underscored that teenage kicks included other aesthetic pleasures such as contemplation and melancholy. Most importantly, the Velvet Underground offered a language of listening passed down from one rock underground to another.
Because pop fans of all stripes must learn how to be a fan, learning how and what to listen to is a taste-defining social exercise. Simon Frith once explained that, for him, “one aspect of learning how to be a rock fan in the 1960s was, in fact, learning to prefer [original records made by black artists of the 1950s] to covers [made by white artists of the same era]. And this was, as I recall, something that had to be learned [by Frith]: nearly all the records I had bought in the late 1950s had been the cover versions” (Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music, 1996). In my case, learning to listen also meant learning what to listen to while listening to The Velvet Underground, a process involving peers, record clerks, friends, musicians and reviews.
As a young rock fan who began first collecting cassettes —that’s right, cassettes —this process would begin through an obsession with R.E.M.’s Murmur, a cryptic, odd inscrutable cassette with no lyrics, a black and white picture and layers of reverb. The copy I found had been severely discounted in a ma and pa record store in Globe, Arizona. In Summer 1983 I read a rave review in a copy of Rolling Stone and at 14 had purchased a cassette unlike anything I had ever heard; I wasn’t sure I enjoyed it. Why did so many reviewers seem to fall over themselves about this record? To solve this puzzle, it meant learning how to listen to music invested in tone rather than ostentatious chops. It meant paying attention to drones rather than solos. It meant following those features to Velvet Underground records after peers, record clerks, friends, musicians and reviews made a point that Murmur reminded them a bit of VU records.
Murmur was also the first record I ever purchased that embraced what Jacob Smith so wonderfully identifies as a distinctive trait of all Velvet Underground records. For Smith, these pop records are part of a genealogy that “stress evocative timbres, idiosyncratic voices, and signature sounds over structural or lyrical complexity.” The distillation of this pop ethos onto record was one of the reasons that so many musicians whose abilities may have been limited but whose tastes tended toward the poetic found The Velvets so influential. As Jonathan Richman explained, “I didn’t start singing or playing till I was 15 and heard the Velvet Underground. They made an atmosphere, and I knew that I could make one too!” (Quoted in Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, 61). Indeed, Smith notes that the deceptive complexity of VU Records “can be found more on the level of timbre than in musical structure or instrumentation” and “lyrics often encourage a blurring of listening and touching”; his post actually reads like many of the conversations and reviews surrounding R.E.M.’s debut LP. The same could also be said of records released by other 1980s and 90s artists such as The Pixies, My Bloody Valentine, Opal, Mazzy Star, Radiohead, The Dream Syndicate, Galaxie 500, The Rain Parade, Green on Red, New Order, Joy Division, The Feelies, Spacemen 3, Sonic Youth, The Pretenders, The Sisters of Mercy, Ministry, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and The Violent Femmes, to name but a few who drew water from the Velvet Underground well. Bands sonically inspired by the Velvets often providing feedback before solos, drummed without cymbals, and portrayed dark themes sung in monotones that sounded sophisticated and obscure.
However, actually hearing a Velvet Underground record in 1983 and 1984 was a significant problem for newer fans, as their MGM catalog was out of print. Many understood these records to be effectively buried by label president Mike Curb’s infamous axing of the act from MGM along with seventeen others who allegedly promoted and exploited “hard drugs through music” (Tiegel, Eliot “Mgm Busts 18 Rock Groups.” Billboard, November 7 1970, 1, 70). As Lou Reed himself once noted, “it’s depressing when you’re still around and your albums are out of print.” I have often wondered if this was one of the reasons that The Velvets catalogue would have such a profound effect on so many of us. Sure, I had found a copy of Loaded, the band’s fourth official release, but its bright tones had none of the subversive menace that so many reviewers alluded to when speaking of the Velvets. Even in a mountain town in Arizona, I had a better chance of finding used copies of The Grateful Dead’s Wake of the Flood or Blues for Allah than I did The Velvet Underground and Nico. In other cities, in other record stores, when I did find those records they were used and prices started at $15 and up. They were records I simply could not afford to listen to.
All that changed after 1985, when every MGM Velvet Underground record would appear in my life for less than $25. Bill Levenson’s efforts as Polygram’s then A&R manager to reissue the buried and lost MGM catalog on Verve provided me and every other young person who had only “heard of The Velvet Underground” the chance to finally to listen to all of these records at once. Indeed, the moment of the catalogue’s reissue was simply a sonic flood, one where sounds filled in gaps that had been cut deeply by conversations, descriptions and my own imagination. Writing at the time about these reissues and the unveiling of a lost album’s worth of material that would be titled V.U., David Fricke argued that “rock historians and fans alike owe Bill Levenson, the executive producer of V.U., a debt of thanks for resurrecting these tracks and for giving the band’s first three LPs the proper reissue they’ve long deserved. At $5.98 list price, The Velvet Underground and Nico,White Light/White Heat and The Velvet Underground are essential purchases —certainly essential listening for any study of Seventies and Eighties punk evolution. As for V.U., the Great Lost Velvet Underground Album is no longer lost. It is simply great” (Fricke, David. “The Velvet Underground – V.U.” Rolling Stone, March 14 1985).
Is it too much to suggest a that the pent up desire to hear a secret history sparked by The Velvet Underground’s reissues created the 80s/90s iteration of “alternative rock”? Perhaps, but history is filled with desires asserted, accepted and denied. Indeed, most of those aforementioned 80s alternative acts I came into contact with had been performing and recording and releasing records years before 1985. However, there is no doubt that the VU reissues turned a number of ears predisposed to hearing in a certain way onto new ways of listening to the Velvets concentrated doses of moody darkness, modes that earlier Velvet Underground fans simply had little access to.
Ignoring the impact of the sonic flood of VU material that fell upon my ears during this period turns away from a specific history of listening that, while personally unique, was an opportunity available to so many of my contemporaries. Indeed, if sounds have histories because their traces persist, then listening must have histories guided partially by testimonial. To hear these histories we might ask ourselves to remember how, why, and with whom did we listen, and to trade in this information. If we did so, we might better understand how we learned to listen: especially what to listen to and why it was important. And, without these testimonials of our pasts as listeners, we just may lose sound’s crucial other half.
Featured Image: “Velvet Underground Yellow Label Mono” by Flickr user Simon MurphyThe Velvet Underground – Yellow label mono
Tim J. Anderson is an Associate Professor of Communication and Theatre Arts at Old Dominion University where studies the multiple cultural and material practices that make music popular. He has published numerous book chapters, refereed journal articles, and two monographs: Making Easy Listening: Material Culture and Postwar American Recording (University of Minnesota Press, 2006) and Popular Music in a Digital Music Economy: Problems and Practices for an Emerging Service Industry (Routledge, 2014). His latest research project focuses on recordings, musicians, listeners and the public sphere. His website is timjanderson.weebly.com and he can be contacted at email@example.com.