Sound and vision blog

09 October 2007

Out of Africa

Listening to the recordings in the African Writers Club section of the ASR site, one is struck by the fact that they come from a distinctly different era. Most of the recordings were made in the 60s and early 70s, but it almost feels as if they could have been made a century ago.  It is not the quality of the recordings – contemporary technology was perfectly adequate to make high-end broadcast material – but the use of language and style that marks them as being from an earlier time.  For example, take Len Dixon’s recitation of a poem by the Mozambique poet Malangatana, which he performs as if he were reciting to Queen Victoria.  There is little in the performance to suggest anything of the poem’s African origin.  As if to compensate, the programme is studded with recordings of recognisably African musical instruments, but these are poorly integrated into the reading, and the programme appears to me to lack any real atmosphere of the place it was created.  I think it’s unlikely that such a recording would be produced in this way today.

With that said, the recordings in the African Writers Club section do convey a great deal about the rich and diverse cultural life of Africa at the time.  They are often very acute about Africa’s relationship to the western world, and the west’s view of Africa.  This was particularly brought home to me by a programme about English Literature teaching in African universities, where both the texts and the critical methods employed could have come direct from the European university syllabus, while African English-language literary resources were almost entirely ignored.  Beyond the purely academic issue (and the students’ understandable desire to read about places and social events they knew from their own lives), the programme gives the listener a clear sense of the larger debate about what it might mean to both create and curate a self-conscious “African Literature”.  It would be interesting to hear what the contributors to the programme might say on the subject in 2007.

These programmes and others in the section left me with a lot of questions. What do these recordings tell us about the time in which they where created?  What do they tell us about Africa, and ideas of African identity? 


I find myself asking these same sorts of questions. David Jennings (Net, blogs and Rock 'n' roll) talks about an avid file sharer for whom "the music files themselves are not as important as the combination [i.e. playlist] in which they are presented". This is similar to the discographer/collector's interest in ordered lists of recordings and our various preferred library/archival arrangements of the collection. If the impression conveyed by such presentations exceeds the sum of the individual recordings then new meanings and a degree of understanding may follow. If not, then all we're left with, I think, is nostalgia, a vague taste of the past.

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