- Listening for Africa: Freedom, Modernity, and the Logic of Black Music’s African Origins by David F. García
David F. García asks a question that has been hiding in plain sight about the creation of modern Afrodiasporic identity: “When black music and dance sounded and embodied its African origins—whether from recordings and films . . .—exactly, how, why, and for whom were those soundings and embodiments materializing?” (5; added emphasis). This impressive monograph is an archaeology of knowledge via several intersecting fields—anthropology, comparative musicology, folklore, African American, and dance studies—and interrogates the performances of an African past as manifested in Afro-Cuban, Caribbean, and African American contexts. García both analyzes the empirical gaps in this origin story and identifies the cultural and political needs to insert (and assert) an African past against the nineteenth-century European positivism of Comte and Spencer, whose streamlined white evolutionary paradigms had erased “Africa” as an obsolete pre-industrial past within an Enlightenment myth of progress. García excavates the origins of “embodying Africa against racial oppression, ignorance, and colonialism” (124) as it came to be communicated as a new narrative by journalists, political activists, and educators.
In effect, “the jungle” (and the primitive) was claimed conceptually and rejected discursively, as invoked via Katherine Dunham’s dance praxis, Herskovits’s claiming of the African past, Asadata Dafora’s Africanist dance lectures in Harlem, and Paul Robeson’s enactments. García takes Gilroy’s concept of “raciology” to reveal how the tropes of listening, dancing, embodiment, and disalienation (respectively) were “historically invented and socially imagined” in the face of how “modernity [had] catalyzed the distinctive regimes of truth” (5). García’s argument comes from an impressive range of primary sources and archival materials yet in providing the deep backstory of each player the reader can lose the thread of the argument. Yet this is his gambit in excavating a creation story that cautions contemporary academics “to keep in check the seductions of Origin and Authenticity” (126) in all praxis.
The key theoretical moves come through Bakhtin as García posits the black dancing body as a living, mobile chronotope, an embodiment of temporalized and spatialized identity. The three key figures of this era’s raciologic were “the African native, the Negro slave, and the modern American Negro” (125), from which García extrapolates overlapping performative chronotopes “of African pasts and modern presents”: “the jungle and metropolis, primitive nature and modern citizen, anthropological field and scientific laboratory, savage drum and melody-producing instruments, syncopation and rhythm, frenzied ritual dance and artistic choreography” (126). García calls the black body in performance “an oppressed ontology but also a political technology” (126) and these chronotopes of cultural continuity inscribed a new past on diverse audiences: black women’s clubs and colleges, Afro-Cuban civic lectures and academic organizations, anticolonialist groups and labor unions.
Each chapter is a case study riding the slash of modernism/modernity since all these artistic acts were “fraught . . . with contradictory practices stemming from Western civilization’s inscriptions of historical time and space, along with its racial and gendered norms” (25). García invokes Hegel as to this self-conscious creation of the “spirit of a people,” rejecting Herder’s nationalist ethos for a diasporic one. Academics primed an audience to consider a new cultural identity and “to hear the past in . . . recorded products” of Africa or on the radio or to see it “performed by black Cubans and other Black Others in the streets, [and] on stage” (70)—in so [End Page 342] doing, “appropriat[ing] to themselves the ideals of science, modernity, and the nation, making modern life . . . navigable and livable” (78). García then presents the practitioners “as everyday citizens of society in modernity”—among them “[concert baritone] Modupe Paris, Zoila Galvez, Asadata Dafora, Paul Robeson, Kwesi Kuntu, [and] Chano Pozo” (267).
The movement begins with Herskovits, Erich von Hornbostel, Christopher Waterman, and Fernando Ortiz “listening scientifically” for an African gestalt in field recordings—of drumming in...