In much of Africa, it is still word of mouth — not television — that carries the information payload. Sub-Saharan oral culture circa 2000 has evolved into a tumultuous blend of gossip, radio patter and music. Denizens of Dakar, Douala and Luanda — where TV and movies are rare — stroll along with portable radios cradled in their arms. Keening voices and hothouse polyrhythms blare from shops, market stalls and homes, mixing with the sounds of day labor, traffic jams, playing children and streetside conversation. Even in the sprawling urban centers, music is much more than entertainment — the issues of the day (AIDS, emigration, polygamy and corrupt politicians) are communicated through popular and traditional song.
“Music is the most important medium for communicating information and ideas,” says London-based musicologist Lucy Duran, who spoke recently at the “Globalization and African Popular Music” symposium, held as part of the UCLA Department of Ethnomusicology’s “Year of African Music 1999-2000.” A series of free concerts, lectures, artist residencies and workshops, this program is aligned with an unprecedented joint effort by three area museums: UCLA‘s Fowler Museum of Cultural History, the L.A. County Museum of Art and the California African American Museum. “This is a unique collaboration,” says Doran Ross, director of the Fowler and prime instigator behind the program. “There have never been three museums in one town that have agreed to do exhibitions on extremely closely related topics and keep them up for most of the school year.” The trio of exhibitions, known collectively as “The Heritage of African Music,” explores how music permeates the everyday lives of most Africans, and how African and diasporic musics have profoundly influenced the global soundscape, as well as showcasing the startling beauty of the instruments themselves.
Ross traces the roots of the event to a gift, made by Helen and Dr. Robert Kuhn in the early 1990s, of about 150 African musical instruments. “The idea of doing an exhibit built around these instruments seemed like a natural one,” he explains. “But as I started thinking about it more, it seemed to be a perfect opportunity to develop a collaborative project that involved other institutions in town.”
Ross invited Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje, UCLA professor of ethnomusicology and organizer of the department’s African-music year, to provide some of the initial structure for the project. “We needed to demonstrate to the public that there‘s more to Africa than just Ghana, Nigeria and Zaire,” says DjeDje. “The lay public doesn’t know very much about East Africa, and they don‘t know that much about the xylophone tradition among the Mande people, for example, although these are things that are common knowledge among ethnomusicologists. I would like us to attempt to look at Africa holistically and make connections. And rather than just focus on the traditional culture, I think it’s important to deal with the contemporary culture.”
The Fowler‘s “Music in the Life of Africa” multimedia installations convey five contextualized themes — politics and royal celebration, religion and the spirit world, family and community life, work, and recreation, the latter area including a hands-on zone with scores of instruments. “It’s wonderful to have the integration of so many different forms of representation, so many different types of media,” says noted ethnomusicologist Paul Berliner, who helped kick off the program with the Soul of Mbira group from Zimbabwe. “It‘s so important not only to see the instruments but to hear performances, to be able to watch people perform, to have clips in which people are interviewed and tell their stories, represent their own music and talk about music in their own lives.”
Installations range from elaborate presentations to an individual image suggesting a story. “There’s one little photo I took that people might overlook,” Ross explains. “It‘s the first photo on the left-hand side as you walk into the exhibit. It’s a busker in a shopping mall in South Africa, a black man wearing this elaborate headdress, playing a guitar, who had a foot-activated drum and tambourine that moved off that. Simultaneously, a set of images scrolled on paper across a sort of makeshift TV screen. On top of the TV was a merry-go-round–like cylinder with a whole series of other messages. The man was singing in Xhosa and beating the drum, and you watched his messages go by, messages that dealt with AIDS and crime in South Africa and all the problems with violence — it was extraordinarily rich.”
Many distinct and conjoined treasures are included in the collections. A taisho-koto, a modified Japanese instrument on which one strikes typewriter keys to pluck the strings, rests alongside the oud, violins, accordion, ney flute, hammered zither and the like in the Fowler‘s exhibit on taraab music — a hybrid of African, Arab, Asian and European elements popular on the Swahili coast of Kenya and throughout Tanzania. For reasons of drought and practicality, fiberglass resonators have replaced the gourds historically used to encase the mbira thumb-pianos of the Shona of Zimbabwe, as seen in another Fowler installation. Among the exquisite carvings of Ghanaian artist Nana Osei Bonsu at LACMA is a 4-foot-tall sculpture, made in the 19th century by an unknown artist from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It represents a drunken slave-ship captain sitting on a stool with a glass in one hand and a bottle in the other, with the actual drumhead placed tellingly on top of his head. Also at LACMA, a Grebo harp-lute from Liberia uncannily resembles a banjo, the African roots of which are detailed at CAAM.
Despite the breadth of the collective exhibitions, certain content gaps raise some questions: Would it have been out of place for LACMA’s otherwise stunning exhibit (“Music for the Eyes: The Fine Art & African Musical Instruments”) to include some artifacts from contemporary culture? (An electric guitar from a Congolese or Malian band could have been displayed alongside a traditional instrument, such as a likembe thumb-piano or balafon xylophone, with blurbage about how folkloric riffs and rhythms mutated into urban dance sounds.) Couldn‘t CAAM, which does a fine job of showing the African-American legacy — from minstrelsy to mack daddyisms — in its “Rhythms of the Soul: African Instruments in the Diaspora” installations, have enhanced the Caribbean and Latin American displays with more memorabilia on Jamaican reggae, Cuban son, Brazilian samba and the regions’ other Africa-rooted pop musics? Why isn‘t there any acknowledgment of the fertile musical soil of Ethiopia? And what’s up with the whispery speaker volume heard in several installations? Turn it up, please.
Many Angelenos think of Africa as nothing more than a place of war, disease and famine; “The Heritage of African Music” festivities will hopefully bring some clarity to these perceptions. “The images you always have of Africa are very, very negative,” says UCLA‘s DjeDje. “Yet this music has a universal kind of appeal. These shows celebrate the greatness, the contribution, the beauty and the impact that it’s made on world culture.”