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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Despite some stunning matchups, the news story of the 2010 World Cup has undoubtedly been the vuvuzela. While there have been valiant efforts to the contrary (see Jennifer Doyle’s article in The Guardian about homophobia and sexual violence), not a newscycle goes by without some reference to this small plastic horn.
Designed in South Africa in the 1960s as a more portable facisimile of traditional kudu horns —and now mass-produced by the thousands in Chinese factories—the vuvuzela’s drone has been broadcast across the globe to the thrill of some and the annoyance of others. Non-African players have complained of headaches and difficulty playing because of the constant, loud sound; the BBC has created a special filter to block out some of the horn’s buzzing tones for at-home viewers. An oddly virulent backlash against the rising popularity of the horn outside of South Africa has effected bans against the vuvuzela at events as distant from South Africa and FIFA as one can get: the U.S. based Ultimate Fighting Championship, the Scottish T music festival, and, most recently, Nathan’s Coney Island Eating Competition, lest the horn “damage the competitive eating aesthetic.” The language used by many of these bans is that of contagion, like the sound of the vuvuzela is the herald of an infectious disease or a plague of locusts.
There have been many critiques of the horn at the level of decibels and hearing damage—the vuvuzela is reportedly 127 decibels, louder than a rock concert—although by that same logic the entire sport of NASCAR should be banned outright, as the New York Times reports it at a whopping 140 decibels. The pointed Nathan’s ban targeting “aesthetics” cuts to the quick of this heated debate. As an African instrument with its own particular history and cultural protocols, the vuvuzela seems to bother some people—namely members of Western and European nations—much more intensely than others, and for different reasons. Two of my husband’s coworkers, from the Ivory Coast and Grenada respectively, described the vuvuzela as a symbolic African diasporic sound of celebration that makes many white people uncomfortable; banning it outright would be not only an obvious pander to Western sensibilities—especially a preference for song over more random outbursts of sound—but also offensive, especially as South Africa is hosting the event. Or as the Botswana Voice Newsblog broke it down: “Hands Off the Vuvuzela!”
Dissenting voices have described the horn as annoyingly loud at best and disturbingly disruptive at worst. John Leicester, sports columnist for the Associated Press, managed to describe the sound of the horn as both “mindless” and “brainless” in his blog “Vuvuzela drone killing World Cup atmosphere,” as opposed to what he calls “football’s aural artistry”: the “ooohs,” “ahhhs,” and stadium chants of the “inventive” English who are “usually among the best-drilled noisemakers in football” but have been tragically drowned out by the “brainless” horns. After cultural comparisons like this—along the lines of the old racialized mind/body split concocted during the Enlightenment—it is difficult not to read Leicester’s closing plea, “Please, South Africa, make them stop. Give us a song, instead,” as a latent desire to control African people, not just their sonic output. At the very least, it is a tacit acknowledgement that the world is still divided along the lines of “us” and “them” and that sound plays a much larger role in facilitating these uneven power dynamics than previously thought.
It has also shown the world that struggles over the shifting border between sound and noise are rarely just that. It is precisely in such battles where sound studies can make an important intervention. . .so drop us a comment on the vuvuzela and the intense reactions it has elicited. What do you think? Has the vuvuzela been racialized? Is it a case of noise just being noise? Or is this phenomenon something else altogether? At the very least, blow one for yourself here and get a taste of what all the fuss is about.