Decolonizing the Musical Mind

A few weeks ago, I started re-reading Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s “Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986) and for some reason this time reading it brought me back to the time when I quit playing the cello (right out of music school). A couple weeks ago, I mentioned here on my page, that I was slowly saying farewell to most Western Music (I’ll have to qualify that at another time). I mentioned some of those reasons in my latest blog post a couple months ago, and was in the middle of a couple of posts clarifying some things (one of which is this post).

The featured image above is from Chapter 1 of Ngũgĩ’s book a section devoted to illustrating the state of literature in Africa at the time by highlighting the some events from a conference on African Writers of English in Kampala in 1962. The featured image above has text that reads:

The discussions on the novel, the short story, poetry, and drama were based on extracts from works in English and hence they excluded the main body of work in Swahili, Zulu, Yoruba, Arabic, Amharic and other African languages. Yet, despite this exclusion of writers and literature in African languages, no sooner were the introductory preliminaries over than this Conference of ‘African Writers of English Expression’ sat down to the first item on the agenda:.’What is African Literature?’

The debate which followed was animated: Was it literature about Africa or about the African experience? Was it literature written by Africans? What about a non-African experience? What about a non-African who wrote about Africa: did his work qualify as African literature? What if an African set his work in Greenland: did that qualify as African literature? Or were African languages the criteria? OK: what about Arabic, was it not foreign to Africa? What about French and English, which has become African languages? What if an European wrote about Europe in an African language? If … if … if … this or that, except the issue: the domination of our languages and cultures by those of imperialist Europe: in any case there was no Fagunwa or Shabaan Robert or any writer in African languages to bring the conference down from the realms of evasive abstractions. The question was never seriously asked: did what we wrote qualify as African literature? The whole area of literature and audience, and hence of language as a determinant of both the national and class audience, did not really figure: the debate was more about the subject matter and the racial origins and geographical habitation of the writer.

These are some of the questions I’ve asked of music over the past three decades. I’ll probably relate personal examples elsewhere, but needless to say, I think music can tell stories (even if only in an indexical way) that contrasts with the kinds of narratives we’re used to in linguistic communication. When language is involved, the kind of story that the music can tell may or may not be congruent with the language narrative. Hell, the music may not be congruent with itself for that matter if the history of Orientalism in music is any indication.
As I say my more formal farewell to Western Music, I realize that’s kind of what I’ve been slowly building towards the past couple of years. My Hanuman: The Monkey King project; Raqs Maqom; Sulh; building my own Yaybahar; and other recent musical pursuits have just been naturally moving me away from musical styles indigenous the Western World. And that’s where the conundrum begins. To echo Ngũgĩ’s text and the questions from the African Literature conference (substituting “music” and “America” for “literature” and “Africa”):
  • Is it music about America or about the American experience?
  • Is it music written by Americans?
  • What about a non-American experience?
  • What about a non-America who composes American music: did his work qualify as American music?
  • What if an American composed an Arabic waslah or a new love song to be accompanied by the tsii” edo’a’tl (Apache fiddle): did that qualify as American music?
  • Or are contemporary American musical styles the criteria?

etc. etc. “the domination of our [American music(s)] by those of imperialist English [or European-American immigrants].

The world is far too diverse and we have far too much access to others musics. Most importantly (for the purposes of American culture), the White Euro/Anglo-American culture is slowly losing its majority status. It’s time to let other musics rightfully take their place as legitimate American music. There are more than enough people still privileging White Euro/Anglo-American music. I don’t need to be one of them. It’s time to decolonize my musical mind.


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