If the colonial force of writing, as the Kenyan novelist, Ngugi wa Thiong’O, argues, robbed Africa of its “spirit,” what do we make of another western, technological intervention, the phonographic sound-recorder? Around 1900, a fleet of German travelers undertook their own kind of “language” invasion consistent with Africa’s broader, colonial occupation. Armed with phonographs provided by the German state, these travelers sought to capture what was commonly believed to be the sound of human beginnings: in the contours of African instrumental playing and singing, one could discover a primitive form of what would later evolve into civilized, (European) “music.” The results of this invasion—2500 seminal recordings—now stand as an emblem of Germany’s colonial past as they also identify the ideological ground from which popular notions of “world music” and “global pop” developed. How one interprets the archive without simply buying into false claims about race and authenticity will be the focus of this listening-guided lecture and discussion. It will propose that listening might develop as a critical act, a way of imagining the archive as a reanimated force, with the potential of reinventing a “spirit” previously captured, subjugated, stolen.
Ron Radano is an ethnomusicologist and Professor in the Department of African Cultural Studies. He has published widely on the history and aesthetics of black music, most recently, as coeditor of the collection, Audible Empire: Music, Global Politics, Critique (Duke, 2016).
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