- Peculiar AnimationsListening to Afro-Atlantic Music in Caribbean Travel Narratives
When Michel-Rolph Trouillot theorized the way structures of power impede the production of history, he emphasized the language of aurality. His framework, and particularly the metaphor “archival silence,” has become emblematic for scholars studying the Atlantic world, helping to galvanize an effort to fill in the gaps in the historical record through new forms of evidence and innovative methods of interpretation. Yet the term archival silence entails an irony that is not always appreciated: that is, the very events that regimes of power “silenced” were, in fact, often noisy activities.
Silence is, after all, a matter of listening. For if you sit silently as you read this essay, there will still be sound: the barely perceptible rhythm of your heart beating, the hum of an air conditioner, footsteps falling in the hallway, the tick of a clock, or the vibrating of your phone that has been set to “silent.” In order to experience silence, one must actively not listen to intruding noises. So it was for the authors of colonial documents who chose to listen to some people and not others, and so it is for us as researchers, as we tune into particular kinds of information when interacting with objects of study. The imprints of the audible world are abundant in the written word, and studying them requires methods of interpretation grounded in listening, which is a historically and culturally contingent practice. In this essay, I contest the premise that historical sounds are elusive and irrecoverable by showing how literary texts encode musical performance. In so doing, I uncover an archive of early Afro-Atlantic musical life in Caribbean travel writing that is far from silent.
There is a long-standing tradition of scholarship on sound and music in African-American arts and letters of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but earlier eras typically fall beyond the scope of this work, largely [End Page 623] because of a perceived scarcity of records.1 In fact, there is a trove of information about early African diasporic musical life to be found in Caribbean travel literature.2 Authors such as Richard Ligon, Jean-Baptiste Labat, Sir Hans Sloane, John Gabriel Stedman, and many others reported on their fascination with African music, and in so doing, created some of the only records of African-diasporic music prior to the nineteenth century. Sloane’s A Voyage to the Islands of Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica (1707, 1725) and Stedman’s Narrative, of a Five Years Expedition, against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796) are especially revealing because of the authors’ efforts to represent what they heard in musical notation. As colonial elites, these writers were far from ideal witnesses to slave society, but their writing nonetheless records critical information about a revolutionary arts movement.
Until now, literary scholars largely have failed to address the musical episodes in colonial travel narratives. Much of the existing research comes from historians and historical musicologists who have discussed the literature insofar as it documents Afro-Atlantic musical practices.3 These preliminary studies invite a literary scholars’ attention to the rhetorical properties of particular texts and the genres in which they are carried out. This essay examines notation as a form of textual authorship that mediates, but also documents, the music of enslaved Africans in the Americas. The ambiguities of musical notation require rigorous and diversified scrutiny, particularly of the sort that literary analysis can provide. I argue that these passages, particularly when coupled with narrative explanation and visual illustration, preserve audible records that allow readers to hear echoes of performances that would otherwise remain lost to history.
At stake in this work is a broader imperative to study sound-based intellectual traditions as substantive in their own right, an effort that dovetails with the ongoing movement to amplify the experience of enslaved cultural producers within early American literary studies. While few enslaved and free African diasporans had access to alphabetic literacy—not to mention opportunities to compose and publish original works—many participated in expressive genres that circulated widely across the plantation societies of the early Atlantic world. Accordingly...