The entrenched connectivity of sound to objects—and to forms that create sound—is imperative in attempting to map early African music, which has hitherto been relatively undocumented. Take, for example, the abstract planes employed in classical African sculpture—those that so enamored the modernists to the point of plagiarism. Those sculptures, resplendent with their bold planes, can be read as unfixed musical scores—coded slabs of rhythmic syncopations. Exposed to these forms, the eye literally bounces off one plane and glides to the next. Sound is complicit/integrated in this proposed viewing experience. What is rendered in this hearing of a form is, in fact, multiple imagined, unfixed sound scores. In the performative act of creating the sculpture, the sounds of the metal tools, complicit in the rhythms employed by the carver who sculpted the wood, were very much part and parcel to that. The sonic reverberations are therefore still imbued in the form, somewhat akin to a portal. So, in both of these conscious states of aesthetic viewing and improvised listening, multiple fluctuating sounds can be experienced from the said integrated form. Music, whether composed or improvised, is the trace or record of a series of listenings and of acts of forming that are informed by these listenings. Without opening up the question of form itself, we can say that the cumulative density of listenings, and their inscription in sound, traces out an emerging and developing subjectivity. We sense that the sonic presence of an intelligence is not only there to be retrieved from the music as a kind of “content”, but to be actively engaged with by the listener. This is already suggestive of something that could be meant by the idea of active listening.1
‘Negro Prison Songs’: recorded by Alan Lomax at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in 1947. right: excerpt of text by Alan Lomax from the back sleeve liner notes.
Even in the various phonograph archives, the distorted imprints of the digitized wax cylinders are lacunae. Unfortunately, they therefore only partially convey the complete sonic tapestry that was being sewn at the moment of the performance. This begs the question: if the phonograph machine was the slave of the anthropological master, what was the role of the African performer and under which duress was the performance performed? Phonograph recordings were limited to a time span of two minutes. We know from various sources—one being Swedish anthropologist and missionary Karl Laman, who spent much time in the Congo region—that some of these performances lasted for several days and that most were ritualistic and of a supernatural nature. I therefore argue that the performances were mere sketches, and hasten to add that, in some cases, they were, in fact, part minstrelsy—sans black face. We witness the aforementioned duress in many of the fetishized photographs of the period, which can be read as colonial mug shots. The imposition of technology, i.e., miracle-making machines, hand in glove with zealous missionary-led Christian fundamentalism, plus the European epic grand entrée into Africa on ships with sophisticated sextants, telescopes and cannons, played a colossal role in the psychological convincing of Africans that Europeans were the supreme race. Furthermore, these late 19th century stolen performances remain authorless in exactly the same manner as the collected artifacts exhibited in museums throughout the world. Many of the wax cylinders in European sound archives have as yet not been translated or digitized.
Music is not produced in a vacuum; it responds to the conditions in which the composer/performer finds themselves. Hence, a pragmatic understanding of music’s societal impact plays a pivotal role in understanding the evolution, sophistication and spiritual matrix embodied throughout the various transformations and migrations of Black music. Sound in and of itself is the firmament on which all creativity is built.
1 Tim Hodgkinson, Music and the Myth of Wholeness: Toward a New Aesthetic Paradigm (MIT Press: 2016).