The discourse surrounding contemporary concert dance in Africa is complex. Writings on the practice suggest that it could be considered both a neocolonial imposition and a contributor to processes of decolonization.
The growth of contemporary dance in Africa was stimulated by the establishment of an inter-Africa dance competition in 1995 by a French-sponsored dance biennale, which at the time was called the Choreographic Encounters of Africa and the Indian Ocean, and has since been renamed Danse l’Afrique danse!
A major controversy about contemporary dance was caused by the departure from the organization soon after its first event of one of its key instigators, the Ivorian choreographer Alphonse Tierou, in protest against the imposition of French artistic criteria by competition judges.
Tierou’s philosophical tenets for contemporary dance in Africa, which had guided the artistic activities leading up to the launch of the competition, were sidelined by the organizers, who set rules that insisted that entrants present new forms of dance that should not be associated with ideas of African tradition, but which still retain motifs or signifiers which a Western audience would perceive as being African. Both African choreographers and scholars feared the competition was a form of cultural neocolonialism.
While these justifiable concerns persist, there is an emerging academic discourse that promotes the ownership of contemporary dance by African choreographers and dance artists. Observing developments in contemporary dance in Nigeria, Chukwuma Okoye suggested that contemporary dance is undergoing a process of indigenization, arguing that when a foreign dance form is absorbed into a society on the terms of the people in that society the resulting practices cannot be considered a mere copy of the form that was appropriated.
This according to “James Mweu & Kunja Dance Theatre: Contemporary dance as African cultural production” by ‘Funmi Adewole (African theatre XVII  3–22; RILM Abstracts 2018-60720).
The 2005 film U-Carmen eKhayelitsha is a South African adaptation and reconceptualization of Bizet’s Carmen. The change in culture and context affects the interpretation of the character of Carmen, who emerges as a strong black woman striving for autonomy within a patriarchal and sexist postcolonial South African society.
The film involves an interpretation of identity as a social construct dependent on the interaction between character and place within a specific period of time–in this case, Khayelitsha, a township on the outskirts of Cape Town, at the beginning of the 21st century. Its portrayal of the modern Carmen as an emancipated woman within a postcolonial and postmodernist context can be traced by interpreting semiotic signs and specific narrative strategies.
The re-encoding of Carmen’s identity questions intransigent or stereotypical perceptions of Carmen as the iconic femme fatale to which audiences have become accustomed; the indigenized production offers recourse to alternative perceptions of Carmen’s identity. U-Carmen eKhayelitsha does not deny the sensuality and femininity attributed to Carmen in the precursory texts, but it depicts her as an even more complex character than the one in Bizet’s opera.
This according to “The same, yet different: Re-encoding identity in U-Carmen eKhayelitsha” by Santisa Viljoen and Marita Wenzel (Journal of the musical arts in Africa XIII/1–2  53–70; RILM Abstracts 2016-49747).
In Ghana, hip hop music and culture have morphed over two decades into a whole new genre called hiplife—not merely an imitation or adaptation of hip hop, but a revision of Ghana’s own century-old popular music called highlife.
Local hiplife artists have evolved an indigenization process that has facilitated a dynamic youth agency that is transforming Ghanaian society. These social shifts, facilitated by hiplife, have occurred within Ghana’s corporate recolonization, serving as another example of how neoliberalism’s global free-market agenda has become a new form of colonialism. While hiplife artists are complicit with these socioeconomic forces, they also create counter-hegemonic projects that challenge this context while also pushing aesthetic limits.
This according to The hiplife in Ghana: The West African indigenization of hip hop by Halifu Osumare (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).
The Field Band Foundation
(FBF) is a South African national nonprofit organization that has reached more
than 40,000 youth since its inception in 1997. Modeled initially on the
American-style marching band, the FBF’s performance style, choreography,
rehearsal techniques, and uniforms draw on local traditions and practices
resulting in a uniquely South African musical phenomenon.
As local musicking, FBF rehearsals support the locally defined values of discipline and empathy. The distinctions that FBF members and leaders make between local or global processes or qualities are discernible in the military associations and echoes of local cultural expressions manifested in rehearsal management techniques, uniforms, and choreography. The localizations of musical processes and products and the meanings and values to which these link contribute to the achievement to the FBF’s goals, which the organization aims to articulate in terms of local values.
This according to “Rehearsing values: Processes of
distinction in the Field Band Foundation of South Africa” by Laryssa
Whittaker, an essay included in The Routledge companion to the study of
local musicking (New York: Routledge, 2018, pp. 251–63).
Above and below, FBF groups in action.
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The creative hybridity of Ephraim Amu’s choral composition Yɛn ara asase ni contributed to the emergence of national consciousness in Ghana.
Originally composed for a colonial holiday in 1929, this piece spread through schools, radio broadcasts, and live performances, and was heard throughout the country around the time of Ghanaian Independence. Yɛn ara asase ni ultimately disrupted colonial categories and prepared the way for an independence movement informed by Pan-Africanism and Christianity.
This according to “African musical hybridity in the colonial context: An analysis of Ephraim Amu’s Yɛn ara asase ni” by Steven Spinner Terpenning (Ethnomusicology LX/3 [fall 2016] pp. 459–83).
Today is Ephraim Amu’s 120th birthday! Below, a performance of Yɛn ara asase ni in 2016.
It is not uncommon for African musicians to use the adjective sweet to characterize a positive musical experience. Ewe-speakers may characterize singing and drumming that is performed expertly as vivi (sweet)—generating strong feeling and conveying a meaningful message.
Not a quality of cloying sentimentality, “sweet music” has a presence that moves a listener, often in a profound way. Listeners feel musical beauty through the interplay of the phenomenal surface of musical sound and the theoretical underneath of musical syntax.
African musicians are aware of the expressive opportunities afforded by musical syntax, and intentionally create music within known systems. The evaluative term sweet can open a path towards the scholarly articulation of musical syntax and culturally relevant statements about aesthetic judgment in Ewe agbadza.
This according to “Sweetness in agbadza music: Expressiveness in an item of agbadza singing and drumming” by David Locke, an essay included in Discourses in African musicology: J.H. Kwabena Nketia Festschrift (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2015, pp. 98–123).
In the mid-1990s South African apartheid ended, and the country’s urban black youth developed kwaito—a form of dance music (redolent of North American house) that came to represent the post-struggle generation. Kwaito developed alongside the democratization of South Africa, a powerful cultural phenomenon that paradoxically engages South Africa’s crucial social and political problems by, in fact, seeming to ignore them.
Politicians and cultural critics criticize kwaito for failing to provide any meaningful contribution to a society that desperately needs direction, but these criticisms are built on problematic assumptions about the political function of music. Artists and fans aren’t escaping their social condition through kwaito, but are using it to expand their sensory realities and generate new possibilities. Resisting the truism that music is always political, kwaito thrives on its radically ambiguous relationship with politics, power, and the state.
This according to Kwaito’s promise: Music and the aesthetics of freedom in South Africa by Gavin Steingo (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).
The widespread preference for buzzy timbres in African traditional musics has been notably borne out in the Mandé region of West Africa.
The two main types of buzzing mechanisms in Mandé music are metal buzzing rattles, which are attached to the neck or bridge of various string instruments, and mirlitons (vibrating membranes), which are placed over small holes on the resonating gourds of wooden xylophones.
Over the last seventy to eighty years, an older and rougher buzz aesthetic within Mandé music has become increasingly endangered, with buzzing largely disappearing from instruments such as the kora and the ngoni in favor of a more “clean” Western aesthetic. Considered in a wider cultural context, the incorporation of buzzing sounds within Mandé music might be connected to forms of esoteric, supernatural, and spiritual power.
This according to “The buzz aesthetic and Mandé music: Acoustic masks and the technology of enchantment” by Merlyn Driver (African music X/3  pp. 95–118).
Above and below, kora playing with nyenyemo (metal rattle attached to the bridge).
Jùjú, a type of popular music that combines indigenous Yorùbá musical practices with Christian hymnody, was first popular in Lagos in the 1930s.
The tambourine, introduced in Lagos in 1920 by missionaries, was integrated into jùjú because of its musical and symbolic associations. The spiritual dimension of this instrument is partly responsible for the name jùjú, which is an extension of the term used by colonialists to describe the various African traditional belief practices. Other stylistic resources of jùjú include the samba of the Brazilian community of Lagos and songs and musical instruments of the Liberian Kru sailors.
In the 1940s jùjú bands began to experiment with new musical instruments such as gangan (talking drum), pennywhistle, organ, and mandolin. The projection of Yorùbá elements and the introduction of accordion and harmonica are identified with Isaiah Kehinde Dairo (above). The rapid changes in social and political structures of the 1960s and 1970s in Nigeria were reflected in further developments.
This according to “A diachronic study of change in jùjú music” by Afolabi Alaja-Browne (Popular music VIII/3 [October 1989] pp. 231–42).
Below, King Sunny Adé, one of the performers discussed in the article.
Rap songs from Tanzania’s urban youth are especially popular due to two factors: (1) unlike the majority of countries in Africa, Tanzania has a well-established national language, Swahili, which is spoken from one end of the country to the other, and has enabled the emergence of a well-subscribed sentiment of national belonging; and (2) as of 2013, 64% of Tanzania’s population was 25 years old or younger.
Like much youth music, a constant theme for Tanzanian rap is romance and relationships, but social and political critique has also proven emblematic of the genre. With penetrating lyrics, Swahili rappers target those who engage in predatory capitalism and political corruption—elites who hoard resources to accrue ever more wealth, spending it in an ever more conspicuous style, while the majority find their lives made ever more difficult.
This according to “Neosocialist moralities versus neoliberal religiousities: Constructing musical publics in 21st century Tanzania” by Kelly M. Askew, an essay included in Mambo moto moto: Music in Tanzania today (Berlin: VWB: Verlag für Wissenschaft und Bildung, 2016, pp. 61–74).
Above and below, Soggy Doggy’s Nyerere uses clips of Tanzania’s first president, Julius Nyerere, who believed that socialism was the antidote to colonial-era capitalism.
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For it [the Walkman] permits the possibility…of imposing your soundscape on the surrounding aural environment and thereby domesticating the external world: for a moment, it can all be brought under the STOP/START, FAST FOWARD, PAUSE and REWIND buttons. –Iain Chambers, “The … Continue reading →
In 1947 Ella Fitzgerald, already an acclaimed singer of jazz standards, toured with Dizzy Gillespie, immersing herself in the new style known as bebop. Like Dizzy, Ella responded to bebop’s complex harmonies with an infallible ear, and easily translated its … Continue reading →
Gertrude “Ma” Rainey’s Prove it on me blues affirms her independence from orthodox norms by boldly celebrating her lesbianism. Rainey’s sexual involvement with women was no secret with both colleagues and audiences. The advertisement for the song (above, click to … Continue reading →
The American traditional song Go tell Aunt Rhody originated as a gavotte composed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau for his opera Le devin du village (1752). An English version of the opera was produced in London in 1766; subsequently the melody attracted … Continue reading →