OACp Seminar with Steven Feld: Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra - Second Chorus, Blow Free

Dear all,

We do things differently here at the OAC, so we are doing a slightly different kind of seminar coming up next week with an illustrious figure in the anthropology of music and sound, Steven Feld. Steven has kindly offered to open a conversation about his book 'Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra' with a chapter made available here for the period of the seminar (FeldSecondChorus.pdf).

Of this chapter, Steven writes:

"Nii Noi Nortey: From Pan-Africanism to Afrifones via John Coltrane," is the second of four "chorus" chapters about specific musicians and these four chapters are the core of the book. The book itself is part of a multi-media collaborative anthropology of/in sound-image project; this includes 10 CDs and 3 hour long DVDs. The DVDs include "Accra Trane Station: The Music and Art of Nii Noi Nortey" (built out of three years of video conversations I did with Nii Noi) as well as 4 CDs of variations on Nii Noi's Accra Trane Station music group (I am both a performer and co-producer on these recordings.) The overall book writes Accra's jazz cosmopolitanism from below as a Bakhtinian polyphonic text, performing the vocality of how I encountered and absorbed cosmopolitanism's many vexed, contradictory, desired, imagined, vernacular practices. I intertwine biography, history, ethnography, and memoir in the writing in order to keep the focus on voice, dialogism, and the lived ironies and nuances of a vernacular cosmopolitanism. The book's setup for all this comes in earlier chapters, the brief introductory "Four Bar Intro: 'The Shape of Jazz to Come' " and longer "Vamp In, Head: Acoustemology in Accra-On Jazz Cosmopolitanism". My initial meeting with Nii Noi and the unfolding of how our mutual passion for the music of John Coltrane led us to play/tour/record/converse together since, forging a particular kind of collaborative anthropology, is revealed in those earlier places. That in the background, the chapter you are posting plunges right into our conversations."

The pdf is being made available courtesy of CAP, the seller of Duke University Press books in the EU, see first link, and for more detail for U.S. readers press the link below:

http://www.combinedacademic.co.uk/img/cms/Subject%20Leaflets/Steven...

https://www.dukeupress.edu/Catalog/ViewProduct.php?productid=48728&...

At the same time we want to share here a collaborative film project Steven has undertaken with Nii Noy and we are hoping that Nii Noy may be able to join us, with a little assistance, over the next couple of weeks. We are looking forward to it.

http://vimeo.com/49738961

Our seminar will begin on Tuesday, 4th June.

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So, welcome to all. This is the first day of some days where we will have an opportunity to talk with Steven Feld about his project with Nii Noy Nortey on Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra. For those who only just found this page, there is a chapter to read and a film to watch (see above). 

Many thanks again, Steven, for making time for this experiment.

The chapter you have given us centres in Nii Noy's journeys to London, Zimbabwe and elsewhere and - as elsewhere in your work - there is an accent on movement within an accoustic space; hence we not only learn about how Nii Noy came into contact with certain sounds, and sound making techniques, but also how those have been woven into his life project. I particularly liked the idea, of course, that Nii Noy came to London to study economics, read books avidly, but found himself building up a musical repertoire - and also a polyphonic ideology of sound, if you will allow that mixed metaphor.

I will later come back to the musical/sound elements that struck me as especially engaging - certain deployments of contrapuntality, polyrhythm and so on. For now I wanted to ask you about Bakhtin and conversation. We are used by now to a view of the anthropological enterprise as an open-ended dialogue; but you and Nii Noy clearly see conversation as having a musical form where, for example, you can, to some extent, take apart a piece like Coltrane's Alabama and recompose it in terms of life in Ghana; and that method then becomes a grounding for some further perceptions and musical-conversational aims.

I am hoping that this is not too loose a formulation, I wonder if you can say something more about the musical sensibility involved here and the kind of knowledge it offers, and whether, or how, it can be understood as a particular kind of anthropological or ethnographic method that you are both engaged in?

Having watched the video and read the chapter, I am deeply, deeply impressed. Why? Because Nii Noy is so much the focus, the one who speaks for himself at length, an artist and a musician with strong local roots and routes that connect him to the whole, wide world, totally, totally human.


Thanks Huon.

"For now I wanted to ask you about Bakhtin and conversation. We are used by now to a view of the anthropological enterprise as an open-ended dialogue; but you and Nii Noy clearly see conversation as having a musical form..." 

I think that there was a big Bakhtin moment in Anthropology in the late 80s and early 90s, and then it went quiet, like a lot of impact from linguistic theory, and philosophy of language went quiet while anthropologists attended more these last 20 years to a world of increased/increasing inequities, horrors, anxieties, and meanness. I think what was missed there was really a chance to shift the focus from Bakhtin as a language philosopher (dialogism, heteroglossia, intertextuality) to Bakhtin as a social theorist, to someone who spoke/speaks to many big anthropological issues: memory, ethics, aesthetics, creativity under constraint, improvisation, agency, the everyday, among them.

I started the book with a quote from Bakhtin's foundational work (1929) on dialogue: "The artistic will to polyphony is the will to the event."  For me a life like Nii Noi's, of cosmopolitanism from below/outside, is very much about the agency of that "artistic will to polyphony," to be a voice among a history of voices, to resonate, to amplify, to participate (in his worlds) 'beyond your little horizon.' That is his "will to the event" his will to live life as a contemporary actor who can put himself onto the world stage with visual artmaking, with soundmaking, and in conversation with an anthropologist who shows up on his doorstep and finds, within moments, a fellow traveler on the diasporic train called jazz. Nii Noi's ability to bring Coltrane, Beethoven, and Osei Tutu into and sonic and visual and verbal conversation with Malcolm X, Karl Marx and Kwame Nkrumah, with a Bob Marley and Frantz Fanon sidebar, strikes me as a very powerful kind of vernacular cosmopolitanism that connects the "will to polyphony" to the "will to the event."

From the inspiration of Bakhtin, Foucault and others I call the kind of work I'm doing here by the term "acoustemology." That term joins acoustics and epistemology to ask how sound and sounding is a way of knowing and acting in the world. My method is simply listening to histories of listening. I am listening to Nii Noi's voice and conversing with him in this chapter through listening to his history of listening. What and how he knows about the world, how he imagines his agency and creative capacity to act in the world, these are deeply grounded in his ways of listening, his attentiveness to sound as a shaping force of history, power, difference. So this is a way of connecting an anthropology of/in music and sound to a larger set of theoretical questions we face in the study of (among other things) postcolonical subjectivities, vernacular cosmopolitanism, and contemporary modernities. 



John McCreery said:

Having watched the video and read the chapter, I am deeply, deeply impressed. Why? Because Nii Noy is so much the focus, the one who speaks for himself at length, an artist and a musician with strong local roots and routes that connect him to the whole, wide world, totally, totally human.




Thanks John.

As an experiment that focuses on agency via voice, vocality, intervocality, there is plenty of my voice in the book here and there, but in the main encounter sections I took the decision to use numerous means to bring out the articulateness of my interlocutors. As Nii Noi had already written a thesis, published some journalism, interviewed other musicians, and read many musical biographies, he was familiar with many genre conventions of representing voice, so was very comfortable with the chapter coming largely from our video conversations over 3 years. And he also did some "dialogic editing" of the chapter, both providing comments and footnotes. 



John McCreery said:

Having watched the video and read the chapter, I am deeply, deeply impressed. Why? Because Nii Noy is so much the focus, the one who speaks for himself at length, an artist and a musician with strong local roots and routes that connect him to the whole, wide world, totally, totally human.

From the chapter I recall a discussion in which cosmopolitanism is contrasted with what I might be inclined to call nativism. I seemed to hear an oscillation between a desire to become a presence on the global stage and strong self-identification as African, Ghanian, Asante. That set me to thinking about where I have seen a similar double movement, on the one hand toward assertion of universal value and on the other celebration of local roots. 

Serendipitously, I have for the last three years been a member of a Japanese mens chorus whose oyabun (boss/parent/chief) is Saegusa Shigeaki. Saegusa is both intensely Japanese, obsessed with themes of self-sacrificing death, and musically cosmopolitan. He has composed operas on the themes of Chushingura (The 47 Ronin) and Kamikaze, also a Requiem and a song cycle Saigo no Tegami (The Last Message) based on a collection of last letters from individuals who died in WWII. The authors of the letters include French, Japanese, Italian, Bulgarian, French-Armenian, German, Korean, Chinese, American, and Polish Jewish individuals. The chorus has sung the Requiem at the Duomo (Cathedral) in Milan and St. Peter's Basilica. Saigo no Tegami has been performed in Tokyo, at a meeting of the International Red Crescent, Red Cross in Geneva, and, most recently in Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad). 

Having also worked in advertising, I find myself noting that another familiar site for this sort of double movement, oscillating back and forth between the assertion of universal value and claiming particular local roots, is luxury goods branding: wine, single-malt scotch, British suits or Italian shoes, for example. 

And then, of course, there's the art world, where "Art" with a capital A claims universal significance, while simultaneously that universal significance is always located in artistic inspiration associated with particular artists, times or places. 

Not quite sure where this leads us. Any ideas?

From the inspiration of Bakhtin, Foucault and others I call the kind of work I'm doing here by the term "acoustemology." That term joins acoustics and epistemology to ask how sound and sounding is a way of knowing and acting in the world. My method is simply listening to histories of listening. I am listening to Nii Noi's voice and conversing with him in this chapter through listening to his history of listening. What and how he knows about the world, how he imagines his agency and creative capacity to act in the world, these are deeply grounded in his ways of listening, his attentiveness to sound as a shaping force of history, power, difference. So this is a way of connecting an anthropology of/in music and sound to a larger set of theoretical questions we face in the study of (among other things) postcolonical subjectivities, vernacular cosmopolitanism, and contemporary modernities. 

Steven, my guess is that it may well be worth unpacking the concept of 'accoustemology' a little further at this early stage; it being the kind of word that, like cosmopolitanism, can evoke attraction and distrust in equal measure, but not necessarily, understanding.

I take it that, on the analogy with epistemology, which considers the scope and limits of our capacities to know in general, accoustemology asks us to think about the scope and limits of our abilities to hear and to listen. Because of the strong pull towards the 'epistolary' - the written - epistemology may press us in unconsidered ways to think of knowledge as something written down. In contrast, you are pointing us toward our abilities to hear, and to know what kinds of noises/sounds we are hearing or listening to. So, one of the issues then becomes the question of how (the degree to which) cosmopolitanism is an ability to hear / recognise new (accoustic) potentials. Is that a fair justification of your deployment of that word or is there something missing?

The mention of Bakhtin sent me scurrying for one of my favorite references. A quick Google search turned up something I wrote on OAC a year ago, which speaks, albeit indirectly, to many of the themes that Steven articulates.

In Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism, the philosopher Stanley Cavell observes that conventional models of learning assume travelers all climbing the same peak. Those higher up the slope have a duty to lend a hand to those lower down and the right to insist that they follow instruction based on superior “been there, done that” knowledge. Cavell proposes an alternative view in which we are all learners traveling across a great plain to multiple destinations. When our paths cross, we may offer to share what we have learned and seek to learn from the other. But neither side can insist that the other do what they are told. The great teacher is a great model of whatever it is that he or she teaches, but the choice of whether to follow the example is left up to the student.

To me, this proposal fits nicely with the observations of Mikhail Bakhtin in his “Letter to Novy Mir” that all true cultural understanding involves dialogue. It must since those on both sides have their own blind spots, which only the other can see.

There are, of course, circumstances that modify these views. A parent dealing with a two year-old can only get so far by attempting to engage in a conversation of equals. The same is true of socialization processes with highly specific goals, what goes on in military boot camps or basic science courses, for example. There is nothing to be gained on either side by debating whether recruits should stand at attention or how an often repeated experiment should be performed.

On the whole, however, what Cavell and Bakhtin suggest to me is that the best relationship in both business and fieldwork is collegial. People on both sides recognize that there is something to be learned from the other. There is mutual respect and a willingness to reserve judgment. Leaping to conclusions is not allowed.

When I ask myself what made Vic Turner a great field anthropologist, I need only to remember interacting with him. He had the uncanny gift of treating everyone he spoke with, from the lowliest undergraduate to the most distinguished senior professor as if what they were saying was of the utmost importance and had his full attention. That’s a mentor I wish I had it in me to better emulate.

Thank you so much for this, Steven. I have seen the movie twice and decided to respond to that directly rather than read your text. That will come later. Whenever I am moved by art, I want to try to understand the artist's method, at least for my own purposes. Nii Noy Nortey offers many clues to his method, sometimes a lot more than that. I need more time to boil this all down to a soundbite or two. There are words buzzing around my skull: musician, rhythm, sculpture, art, traditions, extend, expand, share, complement, create, new, world, Panafrican, 1950s, past, future. Some that he didn't use (but I might): poetry, cubism, montage, collage, story, language.

I am currently trying to renew my own engagement with Panafricanism. I have made ten video lectures on Africa in world history, featuring Dubois, Diop, Rodney, Fanon, James and the gang. At the end of the month in Lisbon, I will take part in a panel organized by CODESRIA on "Panafricanism and social science". This is something of an oxymoron for me, not least because the social science idea has failed. But I will give a riff on "The souls of black folk" which is still for me the most beautiful book in the tradition. And, talking of tradition, that old conservative Tom Eliot has a lot to say about that. (From memory) "The great poet immerses himself in his own tradition and then writes the next poem that is necessary to move it along".

Nii Noy Nortey is a great poet and in his hands Panafricanism lives. An afterthought. What does it mean that western musical instruments retain mostly a fixed form? Those horns he made were marvellous and they seemed to be capable of infinite variation and extension. Extension -- that's the main word.

Oh and I love his vision of history. I get a lot of that from the boys drinking beer in the forecourt of an Accra petrol station -- the big picture. Here the idea that cars and jazz came into the world at the same time and defined an age. You don't get that sort of thing in an anthropology seminar room.

John McCreery said:

From the chapter I recall a discussion in which cosmopolitanism is contrasted with what I might be inclined to call nativism. I seemed to hear an oscillation between a desire to become a presence on the global stage and strong self-identification as African, Ghanian, Asante. That set me to thinking about where I have seen a similar double movement, on the one hand toward assertion of universal value and on the other celebration of local roots. 

Thanks John.

The oscillation you describe is the kind of tension that is discussed in some of the cosmopolitanism literature (e.g. Kwame Antony Appiah) - the idea that it is not contradictory to be rooted and cosmopolitan or nationalist and cosmopolitan. I want to engage that and Paul Gilroy's notion of "multilocal belonging" to hear Nii Noi's work as a performance reaching beyond diasporic intimacy. In other words, I hear Nii Noi's quest to link the musical modernities of African and Caribbean independence movements, US Civil Rights, and Black British multiculturalisms at the sonic conjuncture of 50s-80s highlife, calypso, reggae, blues, rock, soul, free jazz, reggae, free jazz. I hear him speaking and playing an idea of musical citizenship that conjoins ethics and aesthetics. I hear him searching through a soundtrack archive that bridges connects a Pan Africanist pantheon and is equally comfortable routing it through Egyptology and Beethoven. And I certainly hear him struggling with the contradictory allure of essentialism and anti-essentialism.



Huon Wardle said:

Steven, my guess is that it may well be worth unpacking the concept of 'accoustemology' a little further at this early stage; it being the kind of word that, like cosmopolitanism, can evoke attraction and distrust in equal measure, but not necessarily, understanding.

...So, one of the issues then becomes the question of how (the degree to which) cosmopolitanism is an ability to hear / recognise new (accoustic) potentials. Is that a fair justification of your deployment of that word or is there something missing?

Thanks Huon.

Acoustemology figures in my work in many ways. I first developed this idea 20 years ago as a refinement of broader ideas about an anthropology of sound.  This was in the context of  25 years of research on the interplay of sound, ecology, and cosmology in a small Papua New Guinea rainforest community. Knowing through sound and sounding there linked all kinds of routine practical forms of knowing (time of day, season of year, danger, navigation through the forest, hunting, etc.) to co-species relating (humans listening to and making sounds with birds that acknowledges co-presence ancestral/spiritual), to aesthetics (singing to, with, and about forest presences; creating songs that are maps of placenames through forest, etc.) In that context I worked on listening as habitus, on the routine forms of knowledge that come from sound in a place where you often hear something well in advance of seeing it (if you see it at all).   And I tried to link that kind of everyday routine listening acuity with a broad set of aesthetic practices that acknowledged and developed ecological knowledge.

 

In the context of the Accra project, I approach acoustemology in another way.  I try to understand histories of listening and sounding beyond the local as shaping forces of cosmopolitan imagination and practice. Specifically I try – like Jacques Attali did in his book Noise: The Political Economy of Music – to hear sound as both a herald of social formation and as a kind of laboratory, an experimental zone, for amplifying social imaginaries. So acoustemology here is a way to encounter, a way to perform a anthropological ethics of listening to and retelling Nii Noi’s stories, amplifying his history of listening. And it is a way I can call on my own jazz skills and knowledge to engage his musical practices and dialogue with them musically as well as verbally. 

 



Keith Hart said:

...Whenever I am moved by art, I want to try to understand the artist's method...

Thanks Keith. Me too! I met Nii Noi about 5 days after I first went to Accra in 2004. He asked where I was from. I responded "Philadelphia." And he said "WOW! The city of John Coltrane, the man who changed my life. And that was it for me, because Coltrane changed mine too. So I had that moment, the moment of first being moved by Nii Noi as someone who has a story, and then as someone whose artmaking and soundmaking realized dimensions of that story in multiple forms - forms that brought together (as you say or imply), aspects of intellect and act, aspects of thinking and making, aspects of desire for an enlarged spatial participation - that wanting "to go beyond one's small horizon." And then he explained to me that sculptures are not mute. That he can hear them. And then I realized that his method was to make culture and history audible in material forms. And that I could listen to that history of listening and engage both the materiality and sociality of sound through that kind of engagement.

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