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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Steven Feld said:

Nii Noi 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.This is deep!!"

I am proud that Nii Noi was excited by something I said. The exchange brought back to mind one of David Lynch's lesser movies, the straight story (1999). Unlike Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire which are wonderful and horrifying, this is a feel good movie (based on a true story) about an old man, Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), who drives his motorized lawnmower and a trailer across state into the next one to see his estranged brother (Harry Dean Stanton, my favourite film actor) who is ill and may be dying. He leaves behind his daughter (Sissy Spacek) who some think is simple-minded, but he doesn't. Heart-warming may be a better word for the movie.

He meets all kinds of people on the road, is always open to them, never quick to force himself on them. It turns out, to my mind, that the journey unites family, society and the universe, the only three levels of existence that matter, especially when taken together. Family is home with his daughter (and the grass!), but also his brother faraway. Society is the road, the people we encounter through movement, by going somewhere (at least American society and its music are a road movie). But what unifies everything and opens up an infinity of wonder is the night sky which he contemplates from the stoop at home or from his bivouac on the road -- the stars!! So that's it, all you need to know -- family, the road, the stars.

And this is what makes cosmopolitanism such a hard word (apart from being Greek and six and a half syllables). I like to define a patriot along non-nationalist lines as "someone who loves where s/he comes from" (a proposition to be discovered in the course of a lifetime), unlike the emigrant or settler who leaves somewhere behind to become someone else. Yet cosmopolitans are often depicted as belonging everywhere and nowhere. That certainly can't be said of Panafricanism and perhaps it shouldn't be said of cosmopolitans. But this world isn't everything either. There are also millions of stars in the night sky (if the city lights haven't made them invisible).

Just a note on formatting a reply to someone else's comment. It is hard when using the visual editor to separate the quote you are replying to from your own entry. One should appear in italics, the other as normal. Click on HTML in the menu bar and it will show everything in html. Make sure that </div></blockquote> come between the quote and your comment.

 But this world isn't everything either. There are also millions of stars in the night sky (if the city lights haven't made them invisible).

That reminds me that Kant was convinced that there was life on other planets, but he was also worried that when we populate other planets in our imagination we tend to be constrained to make these alien beings look like ourselves.

I like how, in your book, Steven you have begun with what is, in a sense, an arbitrary connection - you and Nii Noy both happen to admire the sounds of John Coltrane. That unevenly shaped starting point - 'preparation for the road' (as Keith has explained) - then allows you a certain freedom of imaginative (and lived) association thereafter.

You seem to be suggesting that anthropology can be a conversation that starts from any position (or key?), building outward and onward from immediately adjacent material toward some temporarily localised insight into the human - in your case into the human potential to hear and to sound in a given place and time under certain kinds of historical constraints. I note how you describe adapting your notion of acoustemology to the realisation that we don't hear according to a closed regime - rather, there is a process of opening beyond the immediate horizon, incorporating new sound schemas, previously unrecognised noise potentials.

Simone picked up the question of whether the cosmopolitan is often, or best, imagined as someone exceptional. In that regard, I wanted to touch on, if only briefly, a recurrent criticism of cosmopolitanism as it is talked of by anthropologists. I explored one aspect of this tentatively over a decade ago in a chapter of my Ethnography of Cosmopolitanism. The criticism has been that cosmopolitanism is for elites - and that seeing cosmopolitanism elsewhere is usually a result of a projection by the romantically-minded, well-positioned, anthropologist onto local conditions. In response to this, I should say that, in my case, it was my friend Aunt Erica, my Jamaican landlady - by no means an elite person (though wielding some power on her street in Jamaica) - from whom, in conversation, I initially took the idea that when anthropologists talk about 'migration' this can be a cosmopolitanism for the person involved. And later I realised you don't even have to move to engage in cosmopolitan imagining.

So, to me there is no reason to see cosmopolitanism as a matter solely for elites or of exceptional people (I think this is a dangerous illusion in fact). However, in a way, Nii Noy is exceptional and he does belong to an elite sector of his (and world) society (as do I, you and others involved in this conversation). So, I wonder if you can comment on the issues of hierarchy and equality involved in your friendship and your conversation, perhaps especially in connection to your joint fascination with the sound world.


Thanks Keith and Huon especially for this exchange on cosmopolitanism. I take the position that Huon espouses in this quote below, in fact devote serious space in the book's last chapter to riff on this, in the context of the book's 2 chapters about more educated people (Guy Warren, Nii Noi) and two on working poor (Nii Otoo Annan, the La Por Por group). I am concerned with engaging some of the distinctive ways that all engage the world beyond their literal borders knowingly and creatively through sound. And, yes, as Huon suggests, I simply try to find points of encounter, conversational or musical contact and let the ethnographic and historical play out from there as a kind of inter-biographical adventure. I follow Jim Clifford's 1997 piece that argued both against imagining cosmopolitanisms as elite or cosmopolitanism theory as elitist.For me here the issue is never about cosmopolitanism as a big abstract category. It is about how I can (as an anthropolopgist, writer, musician, friend) engage Nii Noi's desires for expansive agency, his creative synthesis of sonic/artistic world forms, his reading and thinking about Pan African/diasporic history, his sounding/speaking about the always intertwined nature of spirituality and politics, and how I can render the density and complexity I find there into some kind of legible story about a contemporary life being lived in a decidedly African but always global modern. Nii Noi's cosmopolitanism is discrepant or vernacular or alternate in many of the senses discussed by numerous theorists the last 25 years, many of whom seriously extend and develop Clifford's riff. What I try to do in the writing (particularly of the Coltrane/Beethoven/Tutu triangle) is just to make clear how I hear the ironic, vexed, and reluctant melody and tempo of this performance of cosmopolitan reach and grasp. 

Huon Wardle said:

So, to me there is no reason to see cosmopolitanism as a matter solely for elites or of exceptional people (I think this is a dangerous illusion in fact). However, in a way, Nii Noy is exceptional and he does belong to an elite sector of his (and world) society (as do I, you and others involved in this conversation). So, I wonder if you can comment on the issues of hierarchy and equality involved in your friendship and your conversation, perhaps especially in connection to your joint fascination with the sound world.

Huon Wardle said:

" 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.

Thanks Huon, hope it is OK to "go backwards" here, as I also don't want this to get lost, as you put it. 

Nii Noi Nortey asked me to join him and Nii Otoo Annan as Accra Trane Station. That meant that I could conduct an inquiry into the Africa in Coltrane and Coltrane in Africa stories as a player as well as listener and scholar. On a deeply musical level it involved learning to play a local instrument, ashiwa box bass. I then could observe how Nii Noi and Nii Otoo responded when I used it very locally, playing bell or drum parts, as well as when I changed it, both further Africanizing it (making it into a two handed bass mbira) and further diasporizing it (playing Afro-Latin or jazz bass figures on it).

Beyond that, it also meant that I would labor with them –do gigs, tours, recordings, interviews- and get a deeper sense of their subjectivity as musical workers. It meant that I would learn more about how they are always positioned multiply, as Ga-speakers and Ghanaians who are not limited or contained by that; as players of “black world music” who are not limited to or by that either; as cosmopolitans who are simultaneously rooted locals and non-elite travelers; and as musicians subject to particular jealousies and difficulties at home because they happen to occasionally work with a white man and happen to get some international attention in the deal.

So playing with Nii Noi and Nii Otoo was revelatory on every level, sonic and musical, creative and collaborative, ethical and social. And it was their openness to a stranger, the stranger that is me, and my response to their embrace, that is audible in the Accra Trane Station recordings and the way I attempt to render Nii Noi and Nii Otoo’s stories in Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra.


Stephen, I suspect that you cover this topic in the book but would like to ask here: How did Nii Noi Nortey meet Nii Otoo Annan and how would you describe their relationship now? You describe one as "educated people" and one as "working poor." How does this affect their relationship?

Also, both the anthropologist and the social network analyst in me would like to know more about how you came to meet Nii Nii Noy. Nii Noy is such a strong figure in the foreground of the account that the conditions that made it possible for you to meet and the occasions that brought you together blur into the background—which is, after all, where culture lives.

Thanks John.

The story of how Nii Noi meet Nii Otoo is presented in the film; they played together from about 1990 in different configurations initiated by Nii Noi: the groups Mau Mau Muziki, African Sound Project, Accra Trane Station. Currently Nii Otoo is working both as a bassist and percussionist in various highlife and popular music groups. Nii Otoo performs on the Accra Trane Station CDs we made during the main period of work together: Tribute to A Love Supreme [2005]; Meditations for John Coltrane [2006]; Another Blue Train [2007]; Topographies of the Dark [2008]. Nii Noi does not have a regular ensemble at the moment; he is working with puppeteer/musician J.C. Abbey on a new project that involves political and cultural history presented through sound, sculpture, and puppets. I am working with them on a film about this now. I did 2 collaborative CDs with just with Nii Otoo Annan; Bufo Variations [2008] and Ghana Sea Blues [2012]. The chapter after the one about Nii Noi focuses on Nii Otoo Annan and speaks very much about class issues in the formation of his career and orientation. All 6 of these CDs I've mentioned are sampled on the book's companion CD, also titled Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra [2012]. All are published by VoxLox, www.voxlox.net.

As you guess, my initial meeting encounters with Nii Noi (and Nii Otoo) are told in detail the book's very first chapter - "Acoustemology in Accra." We in fact met just days after I first arrived in Accra, introduced by Joe Nkrumah, an artist curator and conservator retired from the National Museum; I was introduced in turn to Joe by an artist/diplomat who was working with him to launch the Foundation for Contemporary Art-Ghana. When we met Nii Noi asked where I was from. When I responded "Philadelphia" he said "the city of John Coltrane, the man who saved my life."  Shocked, I replied, "mine too." And that was the beginning of the conversations, the filming, the playing together, touring, visiting, and ongoing projects, like the one about puppet theatre and cultural politics. 


John McCreery said:

Stephen, I suspect that you cover this topic in the book but would like to ask here: How did Nii Noi Nortey meet Nii Otoo Annan and how would you describe their relationship now? You describe one as "educated people" and one as "working poor." How does this affect their relationship?

Also, both the anthropologist and the social network analyst in me would like to know more about how you came to meet Nii Nii Noy. Nii Noy is such a strong figure in the foreground of the account that the conditions that made it possible for you to meet and the occasions that brought you together blur into the background—which is, after all, where culture lives.

Stephen, thanks. These personal details are very valuable. What I was thinking of was the broader background, the technologies and institutions that create and sustain the worlds in which Stephen Feld can travel to Accra and be introduced to a local celebrity by a retired curator from the National Museum or, in my own case, be invited to a business anthropology conference in Shanghai with my air fare paid for by a university located in Western Hunan in the capital of the Miao Autonomous Prefecture. 

Re Nii Noi and Nii Otoo, I was struck by the "Nii" in both names, which in my part of the world (East Asia, China and Japan in particular) the Nii would be a shared surname and indicate some, possibly very distant, kinship relation and how that might intersect with the difference described as "educated" vs "working poor." 

Thanks John. I didn't go to Ghana with a grant, for research, or with a specific project in mind. I went to help a graduate student do some filming, just an informal 2 week trip, look and see and hear, with the hope to be introduced to some artists and musicians. I was doing a project in Europe (still in process - long in interruption) on the history of bells and the making of acoustic senses of place. What came about as a result of meeting Nii Noi was a complete accident and it continues that way until now - no grant support, no formal research visa, no institutional structure involved. We made cds and films and various collaborations for 4 years and I had no intention to write an academic book about any of this, indeed din;t write a word (except liner notes) for almost 5 years. I was perfectly content with the cds and films. Then I was invited to give the Bloch Lectures in Music at Berkeley in 2009, and that's how the book was written -after all the other work was done- as verbal +sound/image presentations. I decided to keep the vocal form and do a book after Nii Noi and others in Accra read the substance of the Bloch Lectures. 

Re: Nii, this word is a male honorific in the Ga language (although it can also be used to mean "grandfather"). Nii Otoo Annan and Nii Noi Nortey are not related. 

John McCreery said:

Stephen, thanks. These personal details are very valuable. What I was thinking of was the broader background, the technologies and institutions that create and sustain the worlds in which Stephen Feld can travel to Accra and be introduced to a local celebrity by a retired curator from the National Museum or, in my own case, be invited to a business anthropology conference in Shanghai with my air fare paid for by a university located in Western Hunan in the capital of the Miao Autonomous Prefecture. 

Re Nii Noi and Nii Otoo, I was struck by the "Nii" in both names, which in my part of the world (East Asia, China and Japan in particular) the Nii would be a shared surname and indicate some, possibly very distant, kinship relation and how that might intersect with the difference described as "educated" vs "working poor." 

Thanks Stephen. One of the things that I have been thinking about is the relationship between large scale systems (technologies, institutions) and the serendipitous critical paths revealed by biographies. In another context I have been talking about Albert-Laszlo Barabasi's Bursts: The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do.Barabasi is a physicist turned network analyst, and his central claim in the book turns conventional social science thinking on its head. We have long believed, he says, that humans are individually unpredictable but predictable in masses (the idea behind, for example, Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, if you happen to be an SF fan). The truth is the opposite. Most of us, most of the time, live predictable lives based on daily routines and habits; but mass behavior is like the weather, so prone to complexity that prediction more than a few days in advance is virtually impossible. 

Barabasi goes on to observe that, in the past, social scientists were forced to work with small samples of human populations (as a physicist he means up to a few thousand or so) and attempt to generalize from "average" behavior. Now, however, we live in the world of credit cards, CCTV cameras, online marketing and e-commerce, in which individual behavior can be tracked in detail—a recent case in point is the PRISM system run by the US National Security Agency that is causing such a flap in the news just now. 

But closing the circle and coming back to you and Nii Noi, Barabasi observes that to security organizations, it is people without predictable routines who are seen as dangerous. He tells the story of a performance artist whose passport has him traveling within the span of a few months to Africa, Japan, the former Soviet Union..... It takes him nearly five years to get himself taken off "possible terrorist" lists distributed to airport security officials. 

Given that I myself traveled within the last two months to London, Lisbon, Western Hunan, Germany and back to Japan....

And given that jazz is all about improvisation.....

Thanks Steven for pulling together so many different strands of your enquiry. Just to remind everyone dropping into OAC that we are into the second week of a seminar on Steven Feld's ethnography of Jazz Cosmopolitanism with a chapter to read and a film to watch. 

Steven, I have been wanting for a while to open up more the music-speech-cosmopolitanism dimensions of your project with Nii Noy. To me, of central importance in what you are doing with this book is to shift the inquiry about cosmopolitan experience into the field of music and sound. You have opened up the idea of acoustemology to look at cosmopolitan change in our listening and sounding (I remember the bells project which was a wonderful expression of a customary field of sound, by the way - how bells become a habitual acoustic dimension of rural environments).

you told us that there was a need now to rethink the acoustic dimension of social experience: to " to hear sound as both a herald of social formation and as a kind of laboratory, an experimental zone, for amplifying social imaginaries."


I personally find this extremely helpful because it allows us a means to join up cosmopolitanism with a current concern with ontology - the reticular 'thinginess' of situated human experience, if you will. 

I want to ask you about jazz again and the notion of the riff and this is said out of curiosity not out of a particular knowledge of music - though I did carry a copy of Soultrane around with me religiously when I was a university student. It strikes me that it would be hard to listen to blues without recognising elements of a nomadic philosophy often expressed literally - 'you gotta move'. Equally, in Jazz, though, there is the development of the riff as art form.

So, I want to ask you to help us think in more detail about music-sound, and specifically about the idea of the riff, in cosmopolitan terms. Bakhtin tells us that language is made up of utterances, not sentences. An utterance is the full account of what the person involved has to say, but is always responsive, attending for a response. There is no more meaning to be found in the sentence in itself than in the phoneme as a sound. In those terms, the riff comes to mind as strikingly similar - it is an intrusion of personal interpretation that is still open-ended, attending for an answer in order that the overall sound organisation can be altered.

You have set us up with Bakhtinian conversation as a way of framing how you understand your relationship with Nii Noy as a cosmopolitan one - you are sounding and interpolating rhythms together in a cosmopolitan field. I want to shift our attention to the whole musical situation. How does the riff fit into an account that includes polyrhythm, counterpoint thought of as social potentials? Is the 'riff' to musical, as 'the utterance' is to idiomatic/vernacular cosmopolitanism?

Thanks John. I'm struck by this:

"...it is people without predictable routines who are seen as dangerous..."

Exactly as DeCerteau points out!

This is precisely the modus operandi of the avant-garde marginals I've met in Accra.

Someone who can turn a sewing spindle into a saxophone bell extender is the kind of unpredictable FORCE  that, say, the music department of the university will view with deep suspicion. "Why would he do that when he knows perfectly well how to play a REAL saxophone?" they ask. They know the answer and it really scares them, to wit: Picasso didn't paint like Picasso because he couldn't paint like Norman Rockwell.

It's Nii Noi's profound originality, his ability to improvise and riff off of the stories of history, culture, art, and politics he has absorbed that provokes fear or suspicion or edge, because nothing there is based on the predictable routines of what it means to be a state-sanctioned "artist" or "teacher" or "librarian" or "musician" in the standard Accra way.


John McCreery said:

Thanks Stephen. One of the things that I have been thinking about is the relationship between large scale systems (technologies, institutions) and the serendipitous critical paths revealed by biographies. In another context I have been talking about Albert-Laszlo Barabasi's Bursts: The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do.Barabasi is a physicist turned network analyst, and his central claim in the book turns conventional social science thinking on its head. We have long believed, he says, that humans are individually unpredictable but predictable in masses (the idea behind, for example, Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, if you happen to be an SF fan). The truth is the opposite. Most of us, most of the time, live predictable lives based on daily routines and habits; but mass behavior is like the weather, so prone to complexity that prediction more than a few days in advance is virtually impossible. 

Barabasi goes on to observe that, in the past, social scientists were forced to work with small samples of human populations (as a physicist he means up to a few thousand or so) and attempt to generalize from "average" behavior. Now, however, we live in the world of credit cards, CCTV cameras, online marketing and e-commerce, in which individual behavior can be tracked in detail—a recent case in point is the PRISM system run by the US National Security Agency that is causing such a flap in the news just now. 

But closing the circle and coming back to you and Nii Noi, Barabasi observes that to security organizations, it is people without predictable routines who are seen as dangerous. He tells the story of a performance artist whose passport has him traveling within the span of a few months to Africa, Japan, the former Soviet Union..... It takes him nearly five years to get himself taken off "possible terrorist" lists distributed to airport security officials. 

Given that I myself traveled within the last two months to London, Lisbon, Western Hunan, Germany and back to Japan....

And given that jazz is all about improvisation.....

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