Notes 60.2 (2003) 422-425
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Music Is the Weapon of the Future: Fifty Years of African Popular Music. By Frank Tenaille. Photographs by Akwa Betote. Translated by Stephen Toussaint and Hope Sandrine. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2002. [xiv, 205 p. ISBN 1-55652-450-1. $18.95.] Illustrations, glossary of musical genres and styles, glossary of instruments, bibliography, discography, index.
Frank Tenaille chooses Fela Kuti's provocative proclamation "Music Is the Weapon of the Future" as the title of his book Fifty Years of African Popular Music. Through thirty vignettes, serving as exposés of over sixty musicians and groups from twenty-eight countries, Tenaille explores [End Page 422] life histories and genres of over half a century of popular music in Africa. It is an ambitious project, serving as an interesting overview of musical trends and situating characters in a light that attempts to reveal not only their private lives but also the context within which they worked.
One of the strongest points of the book can be found in the substantial and useful appendices where Tenaille offers an outlay of musical areas, a succinct yet comprehensive list of musical genres and styles, a glossary of instruments, a representative discography, and a selected bibliography divided into sections on music writings, dance writings, newspapers, magazines, films, and radio stations. Any reader unfamiliar with the music of Africa will find these appendices valuable as a resource.
Within the chapters of the book, however, the breadth of information covered does not give the reader a chance to absorb the passion of the lives of the musicians, to unravel the political complexities of the situations in which they find themselves, or to develop a compassion for their cause, if they have one. Two- or three-page summaries of life stories necessarily rely on a level of generality about African politics that limits the possibilities of realizing the purpose of the book: to reveal music as a weapon in complex political environments. While the broad spectrum of information lends itself to numerous opportunities in which to show how music can be a powerful tool of resistance, protest, or dissent in societies, these opportunities are mostly lost in a barrage of somewhat disjointed information rather than tied together to illuminate prominent themes. Many of the artists dealt with (and many others not) offer the prospect of showing music as capable of reevaluating issues of identity through musical forms, mediating conflict through musical structures, or mobilizing change through musical messages. Music can achieve a level of nonviolent commentary through forms of revival, reconstruction, and revolution that few other types of "weaponry" can manage, and yet the book does not really engage the reader with this musical potential.
Of all continents where music is used as a weapon in the face of political upheavals, struggle for identity, and mobilization of social change, Africa presents a particularly fruitful site. Tenaille's selection of countries and characters to highlight is both contentious and disappointing, not only because of its glaring omissions, but also because it does not best represent the most prominent and influential characters using music as a weapon on the continent. While his treatment of certain countries (especially French-speaking ones) is solid, he omits north-African musicians and styles and deals only scantily with those of the south, a region where the phenomenon on which he wants to focus is particularly rich. Regarding the individual musicians within his selected countries, he highlights the more obviously prominent, successful, or colorful individuals whose music represents commercial success, mass popularity, or respected artistry, rather than determined political influence, social mobilization, or passionate missions. The selection, regrettably, does not live up to the title, and in numerous cases the reader is left to wonder, even in the wake of impressive stories, what happened to music as a weapon? Many of these stories stress artistic prowess rather than musical weaponry, such as the sections on Rakoto Frah, the flute master of Madagascar, and on Doudou N'Diaye Rose, the drumming prodigy of Dakar.
Probably the most disappointing...