Africa Remix Showcases Music

As snow began to fall last Friday, Harvard graduate students, humanities professors, and music experts gathered at the Barker Center for a conference entitled “Africa Remix: Producing and Presenting African Musics Abroad.”  Keynote speaker Francis Falceto, music curator, and producer of the acclaimed 27-disc “Éthiopiques” CD series, spoke about his effort to bring late-20th century Ethiopian music to the Western world.

The conference, which was a collaboration between the department of Music, the Provostial Fund for the Arts and Humanities, the department of African and African American Studies, the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, the Committee on African Studies, and the Office for the Arts at Harvard, raised a multifaceted conversation about the music of Africa.The defining element of the conference was a conversation about recent developments in the field of African music.

To that end, presenters incorporated music excerpts of globally prominent African artists into their presentations. Each attendee was also given CDs of African music. These included a sampler of songs from Cumbancha, an independent record label specializing in world music, and “Jumbie in the Jukebox,” the second album by Kobo Town, a calypso artist whose music incorporates reggae, poetry, and lyrics about current events.Falceto kicked off the conversation with a discussion of the common misconceptions about music and globalization.

Falceto explained that the audience for African music outside of Africa has grown over his more than 30 years as a producer of Ethiopian music. “[However, African music is] now not as groovy as it was half a century ago,” he said, referring to the changing assortment of instruments used to make the music. According to Falceto, in Ethiopia, technological innovations such as the electronic keyboards that were introduced around 1974 during the Ethiopian Civil War had a significant effect on Ethiopian music. African music is now enjoyed by an audience that comes from beyond the African continent, and Falceto says that the incorporation of new instruments is in part responsible for the resonance it has reached outside Africa.

Falceto and the other presenters also discussed the incorporation of Western influences into contemporary African music. Sarah Hankins, a Ph.D. candidate in ethnomusicology,  explained her research on the presence of Ethiopians in Tel Aviv to address questions of identity in remixed African music. In between clips of music from artists like Groove Ambassadors, a band that plays African music in 10 different languages, and Zvuloon Dub System, an Israeli dub band, Hankins shared how the merging of cultures and the new identity of Ethiopian transmigrants and settlers in Tel Aviv has influenced the emergence of African remixed music in Israel.Remixed African music not only strengthens the identities of Africans living abroad, but also serves as a unifying force within Africa, Hankins said.

Harvard social anthropology Ph.D. candidate Sharon F.  Kivenko  discussed the role of Malian music in political activism. Efforts to establish post-colonial nationalism in the region were stifled by the fall of the Malian government in March 2012, she explained. As creativity became threatened by the religious zeal and war of this time of conflict, Malian artists like Amkoullel have been using music to voice criticism of governmental corruption and to mobilize the Malian people to repair their country. Kivenko shared a clip of “La Paix Au Mali,” a song by Oumou Sangaré calling for peace in Mali.

“Through this song, this woman, who Forbes has deemed the ninth most powerful African celebrity, was not only looking to reach her Malian compatriots or West African neighbors. She is also intending for this song to serve as plea to her international audience,” Kivenko said.  When the conversation was then opened to the audience, an attendee asked whether the influx of foreign influences into African music is a positive change. The attendees who commented agreed that borrowing between cultures has allowed for African music to be shared across continental borders. However, a division emerged concerning whether collaboration was synonymous with appropriation.

Despite this rosy representation of musical harmony, the blending of musical styles is also affected by a diversity of sociopolitical factors. “It’s not that you can’t cross those [musical] boundaries,” said Ingrid T. Monson, a professor of African-American music. “It’s not that you can’t be an honorable mediator. But you better think about the politics and economics and the history of color.”A concert scheduled for the evening of the conference was cancelled due to weather conditions as a result of a historic blizzard that hit New England last Friday. Yet even in less than optimal conditions, the conference was able to foster interdisciplinary discussion about the evolution of African music in the international sphere.

—Staff writer Nzuekoh N. Nchinda can be reached at nzuekohnchinda14@college.harvard.edu.

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