Sherbro Son

A Taste for the Modern

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In my last long post, I wrote about some of the DJs who are helping direct the tastes for African music in the U.S./European market. They didn’t seem to like stuff that was too ‘world music’ sounding, but preferred more raw electronic beats.

Recently I’ve found someone on the opposite end of the critical Westerner’s taste spectrum at the World Service Blog (via the Matsuli Blog) complaining about the use of ‘Western’ marketing terms like Funk and Disco to sell African music.  The traditional as authentic argument for music is something that can be quite bothersome for me.  Sometimes I slip into such criticisms per my tastes (I’m not too keen on revival music that tries to make a copy of older styles without really innovating in any way) but generally believe if someone wants to be something let them be it, as long as it doesn’t infringe on another person’s right to be what they want to be.  Everything is an authentic representation of something, right?  At the same time, I understand that things can get a little fuzzy and a lot more controversial when considering issues such as access to material resources, a history of colonialism, and general privilege.

These are all sentiments that are familiar from the days when I was actively participating in the discussions spurred on by Matt at Benn Loxo du Taccu.  Since I’ve gotten into producing myself, I’ve had conversataions with friends, like Rapper Chosan, who have expressed annoyance at the defining by ‘Westerners’ of African hip hop as a beat with African percussion on top.  Something I’ve been reading recently seems to tie all these thoughts together for me, and at the same time, offer a fresh perspective on the topic.  This is a passage from the book The Da Capo Guide to Contemporary African Music, by Ronnie Graham:

“Given the centrality of music to many aspects of everyday African life, it becomes almost impossible to conceive of a division between ‘classical’ and ‘popular’ music in Africa as obtains in the west. In this sense, all music in Africa is popular music and we should not forget that not only does ‘traditional’ music continue to flourish but indeed remains the musical mainstay for the vast majority of Africans.  At this stage, it is perhaps necessary to clarify our use of the term ‘traditional’. Almost every music is a combination of tradition and innovation…  in Africa, repetition is used as the basis for innovation in relationship to traditional patterns or those aspects of music which do not change significantly over a given period of time. To reinforce this important point, John Collins, the Ghanaian-based writer, has rejected the traditional-modern dichotomy entirely in favour of the concept of the urban-bush continuum… This is a much more dynamic approach to the classification of music and can indeed be extended further to encompass a metropolitan-periphery continuum reflecting the truly international dimensions of popular African music.”

Academic discourse and thought is something that is relatively new to my engagement with African music, and the thoughts expressed above really bring me back to a time when I never really thought about the implications of marketing or uses, it was just part of my life.  My father, or other relatives, never talked about what the music meant, or whether it had too much of a certain type of influence.  I do remember my father expressing disappointment when rapping started to creep into ‘his’ music (I actually started my own Dancehall Reggae collection from cast-off CD’s of my Dad’s that started to incorporate too much Ragga) but when I was home for the holidays, I was surprised to see an African hip hop album in his collection.  Maybe the way my father interacts with ‘his’ music is similar to my co-worker’s, who is a middle-aged black woman, and has T-Pain as the ringtone on her phone.  It’s part of her environment, she enjoys it, that makes it part of her.  Perhaps that way of owning culture is similar to the way tradition is understood in African society.  Things are passed down from ancestors, whether orally, spiritually, or physically.  Tradition is the people who are around you, not generally something put in a museum, or captured, like so often happens in the ‘West.’

Another writer who expresses this much more eloquently than I is DJ Rupture who wrote this article, a review of Toumani Diabate’s Mande Variations.

“Both fans and detractors of globalization in music tend to see it as a new phenomenon, somehow tethered to the electronic: drum machines, cheesy synthesizers, remix culture. Listening carefully to the acoustic beauty of The Mandé Variations suggests a different tack. There’s something radical about refusing to erect a line between an ancient locality and a modern cosmopolis, about letting 71 generations of collective memory speak and listen today. ‘The griot’s role is making communication between people,’ explains Diabaté, ‘but not just historical communication. In Mali I can work in the traditional way; elsewhere I can work in a different way. Why not?’”

I love that last quote.  Tradition is not a thing of the past.  Any global citizen, from anywhere, who chooses to participate in the global discourse can still be represent who they are.  Akon is the son of a master African percussionist.  Is it any surprise that he excels at making bass and beat heavy pop tunes?

Sir Wayne Marshall, echoes off the homies with this post about Somali-American rapper K’naan.  It is one that for me reinforces my belief that we who are alive and participating and creating, who are citizens of the same world,  are a culmination of our past, and the foundation for the future.  We are a mix of tradition and innovation.



  1. And the hipster march back towards 80s-style world music continues apace, eh? 😉

    I’d be weary as hell of essentialist statements suggesting that, I dunno, Africans listen to music in this way and relate to music in this way. Africans as a collective generalised group. Whether the divide is urban-rural, traditional-modern, geographical, age-based or just between individuals, there’s always going to be a whole range of different responses and approaches to music. On the other hand, I’m not sure that suggesting stuff like music existing in a span between the modern and the traditional isn’t going to be true for practically all music – modernism itself being a tradition, not least. (And the idea of a tradition being a fairly modern phenomenon.)

    One thing I do like is how you’ve gone beyond the folk vs popular divide and matter-of-factly accept mediated, recorded music as “traditional”. Not only that, but if I read the anecdote about your father correctly, reggae as “traditional” too! (In Africa!) That certainly raises an interesting discussion about the nature of tradition – how old is old, or are we simply seeing a negotiation of “african” and “european/supposedly modern” elements, rather than anything explicitly temporal? (Compare to the bhangra world where the debate usually centers around whether something is “too desi” (i.e. indian) or “not desi enough”.)

  2. I guess I’m interested in arguing away from traditional as an adjective describing music in general. My idea of tradition is quite simply inheritance. Is inheritance a modern concept? I was trying to say that African music doesn’t exist on a traditional-modern axis.

    But you’re right I shouldn’t speak on behalf of all Africans or Europeans for that matter as a generalized group, but I perhaps there is universality in continental culture related to tradition and inheritance and individual’s understanding of it?

  3. Is inheritance a modern concept?

    I can only speak for the european perspective due to my biased and badly balanced education, unfortunately, but here the answer is yes (which is one of the things that most surprised me when studying musicology). Before about 1800 the elite music public were aware of what had come before as a predecessor of what was being done now, certainly, but they saw it constantly as less evolved and less interesting. They might occasionally try to do something “in the spirit of” (usually ancient greek music drama), but never actually perform older music as if it was relevant to the current audience. The idea of inherited timeless pieces that any age can appreciate enters around this time, hence the term “classical music”.

    More relevant to this discussion is probably the attitude to folk music, where the idea of preserving tradition and looking for the pure old state of primitive/national music enters around the same time. Folk musicians before then would play the music that was handed down to them more or less purely because they liked it and that it was the only music available to them.

    There’s a bunch of anecdotes about ethnomusicologists looking up old people in remote Swedish villages to make field recordings of their orally transmitted music repertoires, as late as the fifties and sixties. The old women and men would sing them all sorts of tunes they knew and liked, from pop material they’d heard on the radio to medieval ballads, and the the thing is they didn’t understand the difference. All of it was just music, that they’d been taught by someone or heard somewhere and memorised. They didn’t recognise any of it as more modern, or more ancient, and wouldn’t have valued it any differently if they had. None of it was thought of as “inheritance”, all of it was just functional music that had struck a resonance with them. I think the resemblance to your “Africans” is quite significant, and I recognise the same sort of “anything goes” attitude in my in-laws who are working class people from small Swedish and Finnish villages.

    (The sorting out of the “real” music from the “fake” was left up to the scholars, and later the journalists and DJs. Is it any wonder I dislike european World Music fans?)

  4. Well I pretty much agree the our two anecdotes illustrate the same thing, and I pretty much assume that patterns of urbanization reflect each other across the globe.

    But I think we have different concepts of inheritance. My idea of inheritance is completely compatible with both anecdotes that were presented. Inheritance is not the past necessarily, it is the the things around me as well. I carry it with me in my tradition which I practice every day. My ancestors are with me always, that’s why we poor libations on New Years, and make food for our ancestors on holidays. Descendants of Africans all over the world do similar practices to honor their ancestors. Do you get what I’m getting at?

  5. Yes, I do, and in that sense it’s definitely possible that African and African-derived cultures (plus, er, Asian and Australian and Latin American ones, everyone but us really) are more tradition-centered than the European one, at least in the reverence for ancestors.

    But I also wouldn’t discount the possibility that some of it is in response to Modernity. Preservation of your way of life only really becomes an issue once it’s faced down by a threatening alternative. In Europe, nationalist streams of thought (that emphasised the greatness of your forebears and their culture) appeared entirely concurrent with the scientific and industrial revolutions that was meant to make everything rational and objective…

  6. w&w

    Great post, Boima! You raise a lot of points that ethnomusicologists were discussing in the 80s and 90s — often times around the marketing of “world music” and the constraints created by discourses of authenticity. For some listeners, the real Africa could never be represented by guitars and synths — just “tribal” drums, right? I’m definitely heartened by the kind of approaches that resist and push against false dichotomies between the traditional and the modern. Which reminds me of one of my fave ethno articles from the 90s (1990 to be exact) —

    Christopher Waterman, ‘ “Our Tradition Is a Very Modern Tradition”: Pan-Yoruba Music and the Construction of Pan-Yoruba Identity’

    While I’m uploading ethno pdfs (= the new mp3s!), I may as well add another interesting, relevant article, Tom Turino’s account of how mbira ironically came to be ascendent in / representative of Zimbabwe:

    Tom Turino, “Mbira, Worldbeat, and the International Imagination”

    I mean, if you’re gonna invoke academic discourse about African music, I gotta represent for my field, knamean.

  7. Thanks for the pdf’s Wayne! I’m on those!

    And Birdseed I get what you mean. Especially in reference to myself. A lot of my interest in culture comes from the fact that I’ve lost a lot of it, compared to my brothers or cousins grew up in Africa as children. I’m the one that has the most interest, who has visited as an adult, and who actively pursues the ‘culture.’

    But what many of my elders have expressed to me, elder’s being the bearers of tradition, which in a way has become sort of empowering for myself, (and as pertains to the post) it’s not the song that you sing that you matters, it’s just that you sing.

  8. Pingback: » Traditionally Modern

  9. I’m very inspired by your post, Boima, and the comments (especially your: “Inheritance is not the past necessarily, it is the the things around me as well. “). I don’t have anything groundbreaking to contribute right now, except to say that Timothy Brennan’s Secular Devotion: Afro-Latin Music and Imperial Jazz (2008) touches on some of these same issues. The first chapter is called “World Music Does Not Exist”.

  10. Tradition is the people who are around you, not generally something put in a museum, or captured, like so often happens in the ‘West.’

    Man… I can’t even express how on the mark you are with this statement…

  11. Hey ya’ll thanks for the feedback. Raquel I downloaded that pdf as well, so I got some reading to do!

    I think there’s some style code embedded on this WordPress theme that makes smiley faces. Don’t know how to shut that off.

    And Uchenna, I’m a big fan of your blog! Thanks for droppin’ by! It’s great to have your voice out there representing for West Africans!

  12. Pingback: Audio Poverty » HipLife Hooray!

  13. Pingback: » The Work of Oprah in the Age of Disturbingly Faithful Hypercompetent Reproductions

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