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Reviewed by:
  • The African Imagination in Music by Kofi Agawu
  • Frank Gunderson
Kofi Agawu. The African Imagination in Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. 372pp. Photographs. Discography. Videography. Bibliography. Index. $27.95. Paper. ISBN: 978-0-19-026321-8.

Kofi Agawu’s recent work is a tantalizing tour de force that surveys the depth and breadth of African music and African music scholarship, arranged [End Page 259] according to individual chapters that focus on what he calls the “canonical topics”: “Music and/in Society,” “Musical Instruments,” Language and/in Society,” “The Rhythmic Imagination,” “The Melodic Imagination,” “The Formal Imagination,” “Harmony, or Simultaneous Doing,” and “Appropriating African Music.” Though the majority of the more in-depth case studies feature music cultures from Ghana (where Agawu was born), he admirably does much to avoid the typical academic focus on West Africa. Discussions and examples are provided that cover the entirety of sub-Saharan Africa, including Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, and South Africa. Agawu also provides a reference list of one hundred compact disc recordings that can serve as an accompaniment to the text and “offer opportunities to explore different ways in which the African imagination has been exercised musically” (13). A few items that are not readily available online can be purchased through a companion website. The detailed and informative footnotes in the book are also a delight to read.

In the introduction Agawu asks, “Does African music have a specifiable essence?” (15). He answers in the affirmative and settles on the concept of “groove,” although, as he has argued elsewhere, he points out that the notion of “difference” in African music historiography is problematic. In chapter 1, “Music and/in Society,” Agawu tackles the ubiquitous claim that “there is no word for music in African culture” and discusses music in relation to the human life cycle. The chapter titled “Musical Instruments” provides an overview of European accounts of encounters with African music and instruments and includes a critique of the standard ethnomusicological instrument classification system devised by Hornbostel-Sachs. He points out that local cultures in many cases perceive of instrumental classifications differently, and also provides a welcome inclusion of the human voice as an instrument. A particularly noteworthy discussion in the “Language and/in Society” chapter is that of the historiography and mechanics of “the talking drum.”

As in his previous scholarship, Agawu provides critical analysis of the idea of African rhythm. In the chapter titled “The Rhythmic Imagination” he writes, “The difference between African and Western rhythm, I would argue, is not categorical, not indicative of a radically different way of being in the world. The difference is largely a matter of emphasis and idiomatic preference” (156). The chapter on musical form (an aspect of African music often neglected) includes subsections titled “Call and Response,” Additive Form,” Narrative Impulse,” and Moment Form.” In the chapter on harmony Agawu identifies several types of harmonic arrangements found in African music, including singing in union and parallel octaves, singing under an anhemitonic pentatonic regime, singing in parallel thirds, modality, and triadic successions. He also comments on the inherently communal nature of harmony, pointing out that “to sing with others is to assent to the belief that ‘I am because we are’” (267).

There are a few puzzling omissions in this work. Although the final chapter titled “Appropriating African Music” discusses the ways in which [End Page 260] African musical genres have been appropriated by the West, there is no extended discussion of the reverse phenomenon (i.e., Africa’s appropriation of the West), although the chapter on harmony contains a brief subsection titled “Western Harmony.” Furthermore, the author’s treatment of African diasporan music amounts to a scant half page. These are, however, minor concerns. All in all, this is a much-needed work that will spur in-depth discussions about the core features of African music. The book is geared toward advanced undergraduate and graduate students, preferably with a strong background in musicology, ethnomusicology, or music theory. Nonspecialists, however, will still find much to ponder here. Most important, an African readership will find this to be a very welcoming and useful text.

Frank Gunderson
Florida State University
Tallahassee, Florida


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pp. 259-261
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