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KenteClothtoJazz.pdf


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7
Musical retentions and relations in the Africa¡ diaspora are lifeways
that, like language families, traverse time and space to form cultural continuities of long historical longevity and great geographic diffusion. Depending on one's perspective, one can focus on either similarities or differences between African-in-fluenced cultures. Chapter 3, fur example,
highlights links between Africa¡-influenced cultures in the United States
and Cuba, while chapter 4 contrasts the ways Afro-diasporic creativity is
perceived il dre United States and the Dominican Republic. Without arguing that the many African-influenced cultures are identical, this chapter
looks at aesthetic links between jazz and other African-influenced musics.
This approach necessitates a certain arnount of generalizing, and I follow
Ghanaian etìnomusicologist Kwabena Nketia's observation that African
(and African-influenced) musics "form a network of distinct yet related traditions which overlap in certain aspects of sryle . . . and share common features. . . . These related musical traditions constitute a family."ó
Attracting scholars from a wide array of academic disciplines, interdisciplinary research on music has blossomed in recent years. The excellence of
musical scholarship produced by anthropologists and literary critics demonstrates that a bacþround in musicology is by no means necessary for
thinking about music. Coming from a performance background, however,
I am often struck by the absence of attention to style and aesthetics in much
academic writing about music. Verbal discourse, of course, is inherently
disadvantaged when it comes to treating musical experience, which evades
the bou¡daries of rhetoric. For this reason, I shall resort to other types of
discourse, other modes of knowing. This chapter aims to capture thefeelof
African-i¡fluenced musics by using pictographic tools and appeals to synesthesia, kinesthesia, and metaphor.T

I now invite you to don differendy hued spectacles, for we will change
focus. Instead of looking at social life and power relations, we will muse on
the musical experience.
I(ente
One of the founders of the field of etånomusicology, Charles Seeger,
pointed out that musical knowing is not the sarne as verbal knowing, adding that there is no way out of this "linguo-centric predicamenC' except to
acknowledge drat it is inherent to the "musicological juncture."8 FIe
warned against assuming that a verbal medium can represent aural experifrãm verbal discourse
.n... HJhid not, however, advocate turning
"way
about music nor from other modes of musicological discourse such as notation and analysis. He made a distinction between prescriptiue notøtion,

rA7,7, c.oNscrorlsNr¡ss

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which faci-litates musical performance, and descriptive notøtion, an analytical tool that translates sound into a visual medium.g Even written texts
about music are a q4)e of descriptive notation: they represent music in a
medium that is visual (as well as verbal). The purpose of descriptive noration is not to depict every aspect of a musical sound; this would only overload the senses with too much information. Instead, the objective of descriptive notation is to describe particular ø.spects of a sound. To this end, I
will present several systems of musical notation as hermeneutic clues into
Afro-diasporic aesthetics. ro
European musical thinking organizes musical time according to numerical patterns calfed rneters. Middle Eastern and South Asian notions of musical time also assign numbers to regularly occurring rh¡hmic pafterns.
Rural African and Caribbean musicians, however, do not customarily attach numerical values to music. Because much West African musicll can be
anúyzed in terms of simultaneously occurring meters, African and AfroCaribbean rhythms are often called "polymetric." Flowever, Igbo etlrnomusicologist and composer Meki Nzewi, whose insights are foregrounded
in this chapter, argueq that dre notions of "polymetricity and polyrhythmicity are aberrations of Africa¡ musical thought," that "do not apply to the
feeling, motion, and relational organization implicit in African ensemble
music relationships and structuring. Pursuing them results in shadow casting and impairment of perception."I2
Ethnomusicologists James Koetting and Philip Harland developed the
"Time Unit Box Notation System" (TUBS) to represent African musics
visually. Representing a regular underlying pulse "at a level of precision
heard by a trained observer," TUBS indicates each sound and silence as it
occurs without reference to Western meter.I3 Like a-ll systems of notation,
TUBS is an abstraction: as I shall show later, tåe notion of a level of precision that a trained observer hears is a fiction. Still, it is a usefirl fiction.
TUBS is depicted in rows of boxes, and each box represents a pulse. E-pty
boxes are silent, while boxes fi-lled widr dots or other symbols represent
various sounds. I{ente notøtionis an adaptation of a type of TUBS that fills
the squares in with different colors, each color representing a particular
sound.la The result bears an uncanny similarity to West.African narrowstrip textiles. These textiles are pervasive throughout West Africa; kente
cloth, their Ashanti variant, is known worldwide as a vital symbol of panAfrican identity. Made on men's horizontal looms and consisting of variegated rectangular weft blocks, the strips are sewn together in ways that stagger the blocks to form juxtaposing patterns. Art historian Robert Farris
Thompson relates the visual patterning of these textiles to diasporic musics,
calling t-hem "rhythmized . . . designs virtually to be scanned metrically, in

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