Feld, Steven 2012 Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra: Five Musical Years in Ghana, reviewed by Max Ritts
Steven Feld, Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra: Five Musical Years in Ghana,
Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2012, 311 pages, $23.95 paper, ISBN 9780822351627 (http://www.dukeupress.edu/Catalog/ViewProduct.php?productid=48728)
Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra is almost too many things — a memoir, a biography, an ethnography of experimental jazz in Ghana. Through the lens of acoustemology — “the agency of knowing the world through sound” (page 49) — it traverses questions of art, class, nationhood, and cosmopolitan citizenship. Yet it manages beautifully in its excesses, testament both to the creativities of its author and the creativities of his interlocutors. Feld’s new book is a celebration of storytelling as ethnographic form and a compelling portrait of cosmopolitanism as situated musical experience.
Each chapter focuses on a different “jazz cosmopolitan” and uses the engagement to broach larger themes. In Chapter 1, we meet Ghanaba, a bandleader who reclaimed his heritage after a disenchanting experience as an African session-player in Black America. Ghanaba’s anger toward the culture that gave him jazz is one of the cosmopolitan contradictions the differential opportunities of race and citizenship enable. Feld traces Ghanaba’s changing worldview across time and place, exposing his “cosmopolitics of listening broadly” (page 41) as a series of connections and disjunctures, a dialectic of personal eccentricity and the constellated histories of Be Bop and Ghanian Nationalism.
In Chapter 2 we meet Nii Noi Nortey, a saxophonist and sculptor of personal shrines to John Coltrane. Alongside Noi’s devotion to Coltrane is his fascinating conviction that Beethoven was black: “Nii Noi simultaneously universalizes and Africanizes both Coltrane and Beethoven,” writes Feld (page 113). If Noi’s story serves to accentuate the world-affirming qualities of jazz cosmopolitanism, its successor concurs with a firm counter-grip. A lowly upbringing denied Nii Atoo (Chapter 3) the formal education exhibited in Noi’s musings, so the spatial freedoms of his drum-kit were needed to consolidate his acoustemological queries. To elaborate on this claim, Feld deploys his own compositional talents alongside Atoo’s. Field-recordings of vocalizing Accra street toads (“musical companion species”) become a compositional “calculator, stimulus, and click track” for Atoo’s playing (page 132). The performance of place emerges as a “polyrhythmic math” that generates “hundreds of rhythm families and structures of variation” (page 132). It’s a wonderfully creative tactic on the anthropologist’s part, and a successful demonstration of how relational ontology can move critique past the nature-culture binary.
Chapter 4 considers a group of jazz cosmopolitans: the “Por Por,” a Union of Accra truck drivers who recontextualize squeeze-bulb car horns to make funeral music for their fallen comrades. This chapter recalls Feld’s well-known Papua New Guinea work (Feld, 1990; 1996), where he explores sonic patterning as a place-making response to a visually impenetrable jungle environment. Immobilized with flats on dark suburban roads, honking allowed Por Por drivers to scare off predatory animals and energize the labor necessary to pump their tires. Foregrounded here is Feld’s keen interest in The Black Atlantic, Paul Gilroy’s (1993) term for the spectral space of memory and exchange that configures African identities on both sides of the ocean. Prideful connections with New Orleans funerary jazz pulse through the sounds of the Por Por: an intersubjective presence and a musical intimacy uniting distant geographies.
Feld’s ability to explore meaning-making across different media (he is an accomplished bassist and film-maker in addition to being an anthropologist) offers him many advantages. As well as supplementing his knowledge-base, these talents permit the trading of various sonic practices with his interlocutors — live performances, studio-productions, improvisatory jams. Readers may want to consider some of this output, as Jazz Cosmopolitanism is only one facet of Feld’s larger multimedia project. While the showcasing of these works in the book occasionally veers towards self-indulgence, like the musical genre they convoke, the excesses are largely fitting. Regardless, it is Feld’s use of stories as analytic frames that generates Jazz Cosmopolitanism’s successes. He carries proud debts to the structural linguistics of Roman Jakobson, the social habitus of Pierre Bourdieu, and the carnivalesque of Mikhail Bakhtin: “That focus on voice insists,” writes Feld, “on how cosmopolitanism is produced and circulated in storied encounters. Repeating, retelling, reciting, reviewing, and reworking their content in multiple forms of dialogic auditing and editing” (page 202).
What might geographers in particular take from this? The Feldian coinage, acoustemology, for starters. A unification of relational ontology and epistemology, acoustemology holds promise for several disciplinary strands — cultural, urban, and feminist geography, among them. Rather than replace the visual, thinking through acoustemology unsettles Modernity’s hierarchy of the senses and permits a deeper attention to the co-productions of place-making. Speaking of place, we might note Feld’s rather unfortunate inattention to Accra’s broader cultural landscapes. This is perhaps the book’s sole empirical fault. Jazz Cosmopolitianism eschews the sort of tableau which could provide context for the particular status of Accra’s jazz scene within the city. This limits the book’s pedagogic value somewhat, though it hardly diminishes the richness of its ethnographic portraiture.
In his sweeping Conclusion chapter, Feld reflects on how the musicians he has sought to portray are united by undercurrents of loss too large to put into words. “To understand Accra’s jazz cosmopolitanism,” he writes, “returns us again and again to the acoustic motions of the Black Atlantic sound, to sonic shimmerings, the audible diasporic intimacy of place as washings in and out of race” (page 219). One wishes Feld would engage a few more commentators on these claims, just to be sure; but in the depth of his engagement and the generosity of his prose, he is deserving of much praise. Not simply to document musical particularity, Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra strives to capture a universal feeling, a lament for the repetitions of history and the passing of time (“washings in and out of race”), borne through what may be our truest companion: not kin, but art, and “the need to fill out with sound the overlarge and rather empty human soul” (Coetzee, 1999, pages 3-4).
Max Ritts, Department of Geography, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada
Cotezee JM, 1999 Disgrace (Penguin Press, London)
Feld S, 1990 Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics, and Song in Kaluli Expression (Univeristy of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia)
—– 1996, “Waterfalls of Songs: An Acoustemology of Place Resounding in Bosavi, Papua New Guinea,” in Senses of Place. Eds S Feld, K H Basso (School of American Research Press, Santa Fe) pp 91-136
Gilroy P, 1993 The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double-Consciousness (Harvard University Press, Boston, MA)