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Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra: Five Musical Years in Ghana by Steven Feld (review)

From: Notes
Volume 69, Number 4, June 2013
pp. 746-748 | 10.1353/not.2013.0080

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

In the last few decades, the unprecedented expansion of global networks of culture, trade, and people have fundamentally transformed the discipline of ethnomusicology. Dualistic concepts such as field/metropole, periphery/center, tradition/modernity, and local/global are no longer sufficient to explain the increasingly deter-ritorialized and interconnected nature of contemporary social formations. Of the numerous social theories to emerge in this period, cosmopolitanism has offered one of the most dynamic frameworks for thinking about the nature of musical encounters in a world characterized by the rapid movement of people, things, and ideas. In the last decade, ethnomusicologists have employed the term cosmopolitanism to emphasize the creative ways in which musicians have interacted with global flows of culture in specific places, and used music to establish new allegiances and take advantage of new possibilities. However, cosmopolitanism contains an inherent contradiction between the particular and the universal, which has remained problematic throughout its various applications. Steven Feld’s new monograph Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra: Five Musical Years in Ghana argues for jazz in Accra as the enactment of “musical intimacy,” a dialogue between African urban modernity and the Black Atlantic diaspora. Feld contributes to the growing body of literature on musical cosmopolitanism by utilizing its intrinsic irony with a deftness unmatched in previous work.

This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of Steven Feld’s groundbreaking ethnography of sound as a cultural system in the Bosavi rainforest of Papua New Guinea, Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics, and Song in Kaluli Expression (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982). The concurrent publications of Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra and the third edition of Sound and Sentiment (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012) provide some indication of Feld’s enormous impact on the fields of ethnomusicology, anthropology, and sound studies. Though jazz musicians in an African metropolis may seem worlds apart from the rainforest community of Sound and Sentiment, research on African music has been Feld’s ambition since the 1960s, when he was a student of Colin Turnbull. As such, Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra marks the fulfillment of a lifelong ambition as well as a major advancement for acoustemology, Feld’s innovative sonic epistemological framework of “knowing the world through sound” (p. 49). Feld’s work does not privilege the medium of text; in fact, the book form of Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra represents only one component of a larger series of multimedia sound, film, and textual collaborations with Ghanaian musicians and artists. Listeners and viewers may already be familiar with the artists and works discussed in the text from Feld’s trilogy of documentary films, CD recordings, live musical performances, and sound art installations.

Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra defies the conventions of academic ethnography in its book format as well. Readers may be surprised to find Feld’s narrative voice unburdened by the dense theoretical prose of his earlier work, and focused instead on storytelling. In fact, he seeks to demonstrate the viability of stories, recordings, and film to perform important theoretical work, arguing that “stories clear substantial space for representing contemporary musical biographies at the cosmopolitan crossroads of modern jazz and modern Africa” (p. 10). Each of the stories presented appears as a verbal or musical dialog between Feld and his Ghanaian interlocutors: multi-instrumentalist, artist, and intellectual Nii Noi Nortey; Nii Otoo Annan, Nii Noi’s master percussionist collaborator; Ghanaba, the experimental jazz musician formerly known as Guy Warren; and the La Drivers Union Por Por Group, a group of unionized professional drivers who utilize the squeeze bulb horns of old lorry trucks to perform at the funerals of union members. A companion CD anthology featuring recordings of all the artists discussed in the text is available separately at the VoxLox Web site, http://voxlox.myshopify.com/ (accessed 1 January 2013).

Feld has imagined the chapters as components of a jazz arrangement, with the theme of jazz cosmopolitan as the “head” and a series of “choruses” devoted to specific musicians. A “Four-Bar Intro” gives us a brief history of Feld’s multimedia projects in Ghana, and “Vamp In, Head” provides a narrative introduction to each of the Ghanaian musicians whose stories comprise the book. In “First Chorus, with Transposition,” Feld...

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