restricted access Continental Riffs: Praisesingers in Transnational Contexts
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PAULLA A. EBRON Continental Riffs Praisesingers in Transnational Contexts African music was and remains a music of encounters. —Manu Dibango African music: the primordial sound of the global imagination. Yet “African music” is only as primordial as the history of intercontinental audiences and the transnational music industry. African music is particularly indebted, these days, to the music industry, which facilitates musicians ’ ability to record and thus to establish their reputations. At the same time, African music is spread through projects of nationalism that allow audiences to hear the music as authentic and signi‹cant. The nationalisms of the continent as well as the nationalisms of the diaspora call out to musicians to play the sounds of their cultural and political projects. Nationalisms—whether continental or diasporic—both enliven and contain the music, inviting listeners to hear within certain political agendas . For its part, the music industry celebrates its own power to re-create all global diversity in its own image; even detractors, who see musicians as caught in the industry’s shackles, imagine these producers as an all-powerful force. Still, the music itself manages to escape the grasp of both producers and meaning-makers. Musicians are able to negotiate a creative space of encounter that expands nationalisms and sometimes undermines them and that makes use of industry opportunities even as it opens up the industry in new directions. To say that African music is a music of encounters is to see the meeting of musicians, producers, and audiences across continental riffs as a primary means of understanding the music. That is the approach I take in this essay. This essay considers a form of music that is much valued for its traditional valences: the music of West African praisesingers and, in particular, Mandinka jalis, the oral historians, poets, singers, and instrumentalists 289 who trace their art to the thirteenth-century Malian Empire. Jali music may be traditional, but it is popular now because it has recently experienced a revival. In countries such as the Gambia, it is the music of the state as well as, to some promoters, the music of the people. In North America, it is the music of African roots. In the global music industry, it is woven in and out of varied folk and urban musics to inform the sound of cosmopolitanism . Contemporary jali music emerges from the encounters that take place within these various performative niches. Indeed, all internationally circulating “African music” emerges from such encounters, in which “imagined communities” of audience create the continental signi‹cance of the sound, while music industry entrepreneurship extends and multiplies these audiences. In this essay I argue for the importance of three particular performative niches in the shaping of contemporary jali music created, respectively, by West African state-making, the African American search for roots, and the world-music industry. Each niche generates a characteristic “structure of feeling,” to use Raymond Williams’s evocative phrase.1 Audiences are formed through a particular structure of feeling that makes it possible to appreciate the sound with more pleasure. As Williams de‹nes it, a structure of feeling is a formation that has not achieved the status of hegemony —the taken-for-granted status of “commonsense” power—but that nevertheless asserts a hold on a community’s imagination.2 It makes sense out of ways of life. Such structures may not be supported by of‹cial pronouncements , but they create common attitudes and interpretations of public life; although they are sometimes in con›ict with of‹cial ideologies, they are not exactly alternatives to them because they reside more in the interpretation of everyday practices than in declarations. Diverse structures of feeling may thus sit side by side, overlap, or blend without raising of‹cial comment. The concept of structures of feeling is particularly relevant to the study of the popular arts. One understands how to participate in music, song, or dance only to the extent that the performance catches on to a structure of feeling. Only then does music, for example, move us; it does not itself offer automatic access to the interpretive frame in which audiences come to hear it. In the case of jali music, the music becomes “African” through structures of feeling; the musicians become “African”—in the sense of being representatives of the continent—through their engagement with the communities of listeners that each of these performative niches offers them. The music itself can stimulate more than one way of hearing, that is, BLACK CULTURAL...


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Subject Headings

  • Arts, Black.
  • Blacks -- Intellectual life.
  • Popular culture -- United States.
  • Popular culture.
  • African American arts.
  • African Americans -- Race identity.
  • Blacks -- Race identity.
  • African Americans -- Intellectual life.
  • Performing arts -- Social aspects -- United States.
  • Performing arts -- Social aspects.
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