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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Reading over the latest exchanges, I found myself wanting to engage a bit more with the thread Huon started by mentioning Bahktin. Then I suddenly noticed how I was formulating the question, "What more can Bahktin tell us about Nii Noy?"

Why not, "What can Nii Noy tell us about Bahktin?" Or, better yet, "Can we imagine a conversation between Nii Noi Nortey and Mikhail Bahktin?"

It may be an incredible overstretch, but I find myself wishing I could hear them talk about soul, "soul" being a very big term in both Russian and Black American (African, too?) descriptions of difference between themselves and others. Would Nii Noy hear soul in the rhythms of Pushkin's poetry? Would Bahktin see soul in Nii Noy's sculpture? Would he hear it in Nii Noy's music?

What an jam session that would be. 

With a tip of the hat to Jacob Lee who provided the link, Groove in G. Think of what these musicians are doing, compared with what Nii Noy is doing. How does the acoustemology differ, if it does?

" 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. "


 I wanted to make sure this reply doesn't get lost in the medley - thanks to Keith and John for introducing these new themes. That piece you added John has a bit of a Ry Cooder feel to it to me. It makes me wonder about our expectations about 'world music' and how these are formed. But maybe that is too much of a jump.

In a curious way, the Play for Change Grove in G session reminds me of an older type of ethnology.We are invited to consider the pan-human appeal of music expressed through culturally specific instruments in music that itself has a cooly distanced, could be this, could be that, feel to it.  We see people in exotic settings, playing exotic instruments. Yes, their names appear briefly, but our memories of them will slip easily into stereotypes, the Spanish guitarist, etc. With similar good intentions, it remains very different, indeed, from "a way to perform a anthropological ethics of listening to and retelling Nii Noi’s stories, amplifying his history of listening" [emphasis added].

Firstly, I have to say that I was completely moved by the character of Nii Noi. The singularity of his person is amazing. And I would add that the alternation between the film and the chapter of the book for the session really amplified the feeling of polyphony and dialogism of media.

I was strongly hooked by Nii Noi´s statement about cosmopolitanism as a ‘going beyond one´s own horizon’.  Then, I would like to know from Steve Feld:

How do you understand this ‘going beyond’ inside the notion of cosmopolitanism?

Is cosmopolitanism through aesthetics an approach based on the singularity of  specific individuals (the ‘gifted’ ones) or is it a shared process (as it seems that your book include Ghanaba, Nii Otoo Annan, panafricanism and diaspora )?

I enjoyed your chapter very much, Steven. I didn't want to approach NNN through the usual conceptual suspects first, especially not through cosmopolitanism or Bakhtin for that matter. And I noticed that he made fun of the word. This became more obvious from your text where the class origins, education in the social sciences etc that he effaces in the film are revealed.

I was stopped short by the phrase picked up by Simone: "going beyond your little horizon. (Followed by) And hoping that outside of that little horizon of yours there's still sense and meaning". Now it is true that horizon means a limit separating what you can see from what you can't, as well as the line dividing land or sea from sky. But division is a process of separation and integration. The original Greek phrase was horizōn kyklos, "separating circle", reintroducing the idea of the whole before it is divided or limited.

I mention this because Kant once described his method in teaching anthropology to students (so that they could become cosmopolitans) as horizon thinking mediated for his audience by vivid anecdotes closer to their own lives. I always took this to be about opening up their restricted vision without swamping them with the vastness of it all. And this is my own experience when looking out at the Indian Ocean from Durban beach. The line between sea and sky is usually blurred and so is that between what is visible (the offing or close to hand) and what is not (faraway). I imagine India on the other side and it feels like the opposite of my own little horizon.

NNN's observation assumes a perspective rooted in one place, which would certainly apply to Kant, but not to the Middle Passage and its offspring, the multiple perspectives of Panafricanism. Ghana's highlife in the independence years came from musicians who travelled to New Orleans, Cuba and Brazil, as NNN has in his own way. The great Panafricanist writers such as Dubois, James and Fanon considered themelves to be educated members of western civilization who were distinguished from the rest by being targets of that civilization's savage racism. No problem for them with acknowledging Beethoven (and not just because he might have been black). The condition for their ability to go beyond it all was movement as well as oppression.

I mentioned before that I would like to explore the relationship between Panafricanism and cubism. By following the African diaspora around the unholy North Atlantic quadrilateral of Europe, Africa, America and the Caribbean, I had glimpses of what cubism might mean as a method. Breaking objects up and reassembling them from multiple perspectives in an abstract whole; being able to see a diagram or map of points in abstract space from several positions at once through an act of the imagination. NNN's sculptures seemed cubist to me, especially when he sought to represent the historical link between cars and jazz. And I am unsure how this relates to music as a form of expression.

I am sure that this all leads eventually to the question of world citizenship, to cosmopolitanism as a method; but I didn't want to start there. I wanted to learn from NNN in a less preconceived way. Method is an interesting Greek word too. It is literally before or after (meta) the road (hodos). Preparation for a journey or its destination. Actually both. Which leads me back to the dialectic of horizons or divided circles -- both the limit of our vision and an inducement to think beyond it.

I was struck by NNN's desire to reach people whose imagination was not as formed by literacy as his own once was. His use of A-Z mnemonics, for example. I wondered if we could do something here as well as confirm our academic sensibility, to see if he could teach us how to break out of the limits that define the OAC, for instance.

I enjoyed this chapter so much... it got my blood pumping.  So much to think about and digest.  This quote from Nii Noi, when he talks about how he moved (or was moved) from a conventional academic/proffesional path into a musical one stood out so powerfully:

"Later, I realized music was more liberating than going on to do economics. So I had no option, you know, because I noticed the liberating factor in the music, because I became more informed about the cultures of the world through music than through economics.’’

Steven Feld ends the chapter by musing on this as an open ended question - the way in which music acts as an alternative educator to books.  So in this way, as NNN points out, people who are 'uneducated' in terms of conventional understandings of this term are in fact highly engaged with the currents of history and their place in the world through their engagement with music.  I think about the ways in which hip hop did this, creating a sonic library of cultural critique and historical observations.  Without doubt an educator of note.  Like Keith, I was hit by NNN's interest in reaching people whose imaginations were not as formed by literacy as his own, and what the academy can learn from this. 



John McCreery said:

"Can we imagine a conversation between Nii Noi Nortey and Mikhail Bahktin?"...What an jam session that would be. 

 

I'm sure you are right John. And I'll take some work by Bakhtin next time over to Accra to visit with Nii Noi. I'm sure Nii Noi would be particularly interested in the ideas of intertextuality and dialogism in the context of his thoughts about improvisation, recycling, and bricolage as essential survival skills for contemporary African artists. Nii Noi's constant attempts to find connections, to search out the ways sounds and images resound from one setting to the next. After reading the book he asked me about a little about Bakhtin, specifically if Bakhtin was aware of Martin Buber, a philosopher he has read. Bakhtin will also be interesting for him because Nii Noi is keenly interested in cold war Soviet history and what it means for Ghana; he has explored the presence of a number of lineages of socialist thought in the speeches and writings of Kwame Nkrumah.



Simone Toji said:

I was strongly hooked by Nii Noi´s statement about cosmopolitanism as a ‘going beyond one´s own horizon’.  Then, I would like to know from Steve Feld: How do you understand this ‘going beyond’ inside the notion of cosmopolitanism?

Thanks Simone. I understand this "going beyond" in the case of Nii Noi in three ways. The first is about thinking with and thinking through materials that reach far beyond those of one's own environment or making. The second is about resisting the restrictions of postcolonial subjectivity that reproduce, extend, or otherwise trap one in accepting colonial ways of doing things. The third is about openness to surprise, to possibility, to expand the repertory of action and reaction, to embrace in spiritual and material ways the unknown. 



Keith Hart said:

I enjoyed your chapter very much, Steven. I didn't want to approach NNN through the usual conceptual suspects first, especially not through cosmopolitanism or Bakhtin for that matter. And I noticed that he made fun of the word. This became more obvious from your text where the class origins, education in the social sciences etc that he effaces in the film are revealed.

Thanks Keith. First off: I've continued to think about the way Nii Noi trips on the pronunciation of the word "cosmopolitanism" in the film (when I ask him, point blank, "can I call you a jazz cosmopolitan?") and puts it back to me with a remark about the concept must be coming from me because it is such a big word.

Juxtapose that hint of playfulness with a more directly vexed and reluctant riff on cosmopolitanism. Nii Noi came to the US to teach and perform with me for a couple weeks when the book was released in April 012.  Aside from phone and email after, our next direct encounter was in December 2012 when I went back to Accra. (This from my diary of our first meeting then):  

“One cruel motherfucker!” (Big laugh). As Nii Noi takes my book from his shelf and waves it at me in a "hello" gesture I can see how much eight months of local humidity has curled its pages. He thumb-flips through it and looks right at me: “Cosmopolitanism is one cruel motherfucker, Prof, I’m telling you!” (Even bigger laugh).

 Is the once-supposed incommensurability of being African and avant-garde just a special case of the once-supposed incommensurability of being rooted and cosmopolitan? Is this what Frantz Fanon called the “always impossible,” the way colonialism grinds into the postcolony as a machine for epistemological violence and categorical oppression? 

I ask Nii Noi  about his recent gigs, especially his appearance at Accra’s first “Afro-Jazz” festival. He just shakes his head. “We were confusing, you know.” Then, looking off blankly into space, he mimics the voice of a clueless bystander:  “Why is he mixing mbira (Zimbabwean finger piano) and odonno (under-arm pressure drum) with jazz drums and those afrifones (Nii Noi’s inventions – African winds with saxophone mouthpieces)?” Change of voice. “You see, Prof, it wasn’t what they knew as jazz or Ghanaian…no way, man, no way…” (Brief smile).

How could it feel to be a much-too-creative Rastaman of little use to official state arts? I mean, more than fifty years after independence, why does the Ghana government overwhelmingly valorize half-naked “traditional” dancers and drummers ahead of anyone who has mastered reggae, avant-garde jazz, or postmodern sculpture? Is cosmopolitan artistic practice just a machine for becoming more marginal? 

More on your very productive riffs on "horizon" & Kant, as well as cubism, and mnemonics shortly.



Dominique Santos said:

 Like Keith, I was hit by NNN's interest in reaching people whose imaginations were not as formed by literacy as his own, and what the academy can learn from this. 

Thanks Dominique. And thanks Keith on this issue too. Nii Noi often refers to himself not as an artist but as a librarian. He calls his residence and atelier the Anyaa Arts Library. The presence of books, magazines, posters, shrines, sculptures, sounds, performances, lectures, puppet shows, and other events there speak to his Rasta emphasis on devotion to one's immediate local community. So he teaches and connects people to materials with/from which they can learn. And he is very aware that listening and touching and looking and sounding (especially through storytelling) are important skills that he can help cultivate as a librarian. So what Nii Noi does with his library is an ethical performance of care for community, care for knowledge production, and an explicit vision of working outside the official settings called educational. At the same time he has a job, a day or two a week, teaching music at an elite "integrated arts" elementary near the University of Ghana. Through that he develops his network and retunes his outreach for a very different audience. He sees no contradictions in these activities and tells me that one informs the other, that one critiques and extends and enhances the other. 



Keith Hart said:

Kant once described his method in teaching anthropology to students (so that they could become cosmopolitans) as horizon thinking mediated for his audience by vivid anecdotes closer to their own lives. I always took this to be about opening up their restricted vision without swamping them with the vastness of it all. And this is my own experience when looking out at the Indian Ocean from Durban beach. The line between sea and sky is usually blurred and so is that between what is visible (the offing or close to hand) and what is not (faraway). I imagine India on the other side and it feels like the opposite of my own little horizon....

I was very excited to read this Keith and relayed it to Nii Noi in conversation today. He said "You see Prof, it's like the picture you used in the beginning of the book. The sky connects the road and the sea. The sky connects Africa and the diaspora. The sky connects the living and the ancestors. The sky connects the harp and the phone tower. Just like you were summarizing in the picture. I gotta check out Kant again! This is deep!!" So: TBC - I knew this would excite Nii Noi's imagination too.

Re the picture: The Duke UP pdf does include that frontispiece and what I wrote about it. And I think it is really interesting that Nii Noi connected you Keith "looking out at the Indian Ocean from Durban beach" with "horizon" as an articulation of sea and sky relating the vastness of experience to the vastness of wonder.

Re connecting Panafricanism and cubism: I would agree that aspects of the sculptures exhibit cubist forms but I am more struck by the way the key aspect of the sculpture is the way the pieces are always transitional, Nii Noi assembling them anew each time and refusing to be bound by formal closure. The dynamism he seeks in sculpture is quite parallel, indeed fused with the dynamism he seeks in sound performance. So what seems cubist is a tendency that likely comes from that lineage in West African carving and asemblage, but that has as considerably more fluid emphasis --like so much of Nii Noi's thinking-- on movment. We made a 10 minute film more recently just about this. It is titled PYRASONIX: THE SOUNDING SCULPTURE OF NII NOI NORTEY and it is at my vimeo channel:    http://vimeo.com/50123355

 

 

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