Jazz Migrations

Jazz legends go all the way back to African music.

Photo illustration by Mark Riechers. Original images by Janine Robinson and Thomas Bennie (CC0)

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Original Air Date: 
July 04, 2020

Music crosses boundaries between traditional and modern, local and global, personal and political. Take jazz — a musical form born out of forced migration and enslavement. We typically think it originated in New Orleans and then spread around the world. But today, we examine an alternate history of jazz — one that starts in Africa, then crisscrosses the planet, following the movements of people and empires -- from colonial powers to grassroots revolutionaries to contemporary artists throughout the diaspora.

This history of jazz is like the music itself: fluid and improvisatory.  

In this hour, produced in partnership with the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes (CHCI) — a global consortium of 270 humanities centers and institutes — we hear how both African and African-American music have shaped the sound of the world today.



During their visit to Addis Ababa, Anne and Steve caught a show put on by a household name in Ethiopia — the boundary-crossing, border-hopping jazz virtuoso Meklit Hadero.


Valmont Layne grew up under apartheid in South Africa. Music, along with protest movements, radicalized him. He tells Anne and Steve that South African jazz became a musical current that’s traveled across oceans, spreading ideas about freedom.


Political repression and censorship forced a generation of Black jazz musicians out of South Africa and into clubs in Europe and the US. But jazz critic Gwen Ansell says some musicians remained, and they left a legacy of unforgettable music.

A show at Fendika in Addis Ababa.

To unpack the history of African musical migration, you have to go back to European colonization, says musicologist Ron Radano. He's been rewriting the history of race and Black music, and he says, "We are all African when we listen."

Show Details 📻
July 04, 2020
March 06, 2021
October 09, 2021
March 05, 2022
December 17, 2022
March 09, 2024
Full Transcript 📄

Malaku Balai (00:06):

[Amharic 00:00:06].

Anne Strainchamps (00:09):

On the second Friday of every month, [Malaku Balai 00:00:12] steps on stage at [Fentecka 00:00:14], the legendary jazz club he runs in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and he welcomes guests to [Ethio 00:00:20] Color Night. That's when three generations of local musicians come together to play. Malaku does the introduction once in Amharic and again in English.

Malaku Balai (00:30):

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming. I hope you understand what I'm saying. I see. I hope you enjoy this taste of jazz and of course you see funky [inaudible 00:00:42]. Thank you. Enjoy!

Anne Strainchamps (00:44):

Welcome to a special edition of To The Best of Our Knowledge, the second episode of Ideas From Africa. I'm Anne Strainchamps.

Steve Paulson (00:53):

And I'm Steve Paulson. Fentecka is a small club tucked behind a green corrugated metal wall. The audience and musicians are packed together in a tiny space. I was actually sitting on the floor just a few feet from the band. They're playing a mix of modern and traditional Ethiopian instruments. There's a bass, flute, an assortment of drums. Also a masenqo, a kind of violin that has just one string and a [crawer 00:01:31], a handheld wooden lyre. And the music? It sounds like this.

Anne Strainchamps (01:47):

Today we're talking about how music crosses boundaries between traditional and modern, local and global, political and personal.

Steve Paulson (01:58):

Take jazz, a music born out of forced migration and enslavement. The usual origin story begins in New Orleans, where various musical cultures converged and eventually morphed into something we now think of as jazz, which then got exported around the world.

Anne Strainchamps (02:15):

But today we'll unpack an alternate counter-history of jazz, one which begins right here in Africa and then crisscrosses the planet following the movements of people and empires from colonial powers to grassroots revolutionaries to contemporary artists all over the diaspora. This history of jazz is like the music itself: fluid, improvisatory, working both within and against boundaries.

Steve Paulson (02:44):

Tracing this global movement of jazz, you can hear how both African and African American music have shaped the sound of the world today.

Anne Strainchamps (02:57):

Two nights later across town, we caught another jazz show with an artist who's a household name in Ethiopia: Meklit Hadero. She is herself an example of boundary crossings. She was born in Addis Ababa but she's lived in the US since she was two. The night we saw her, she was playing a sold out show broadcast on TV to five million people.

Meklit Hadero (03:23):

That night, my band and I performed at [Tobea 00:03:27] Poetic Jazz. It happens the second Wednesday of every month at the [Ross 00:03:33] Hotel in Addis Ababa and it sells out every single time.

Speaker 5 (03:40):

[foreign language 00:03:40].

Meklit Hadero (03:47):

A thousand people get there three hours early, wait in lines that stretch around the block, to hear jazz and poetry. That, to me, is just an amazing fact.

Meklit Hadero (04:05):

The first time I went to Ethiopia to perform, it was just me and a guitar and I was tentative. I had founded, at the time, a collective of Ethiopian diaspora artists. My idea was we have this experience of our version of Ethiopia as diaspora young people having been filtered through the lives and experience of our parents. "Will they accept me? Will there be a space for me here to create our own relationships to the culture?" We just had to go and we had to go again and again. That was that experience, that very, very first experience. That's when the love seed began, let's say. But when you get up on a stage you have to be so confident in yourself. It has to be a declaration. Your songs have to be a declaration. And I didn't know that yet.

Meklit Hadero (05:30):

My video for the song [Chemachem 00:05:33] came out and my TED talk came out that same year. Both of those things really went viral in Ethiopia. After that time, it was just an open door. The circle of love is just so palpable and real. I was just so grateful for... just so, so, so grateful for...

Anne Strainchamps (06:08):

So with musical roots on both continents, is Meklit's music American, African American, African, or all of the above?

Meklit Hadero (06:19):

I feel like I'm making diaspora music: music influenced by migration and by this life that I've had being from Ethiopia and growing up all over the States. I feel like I'm making hyphenated music always. In the US, it's something you have to struggle for, but actually when you go back to Ethiopia it's like, "They get it. They totally, totally get it."

Anne Strainchamps (06:43):

What do you mean? They get what it's like?

Meklit Hadero (06:45):

They get the hyphenated identity. If you think about it, the diaspora has become so big that everybody has a cousin who lives in Europe or the US. It's a part of having a relationship with a global world. I feel like we're going through so much in the US right now. It's a time that really can leave your heart broken and your fire burning.

Anne Strainchamps (07:12):

I've been really struck by the continual migration of music back and forth, in particular between America and Africa. It just feels like you can really see that movement in Ethiopian jazz.

Meklit Hadero (07:27):

There's a great story from [Mula Tu Atstatke 00:07:29], the creator of Ethio jazz. He went to Berkeley College of Music. He was the first Africa to go to the Berkeley College of Music. He spent a lot of time of New York and he describes being incredibly inspired by the Latin jazz that was created in New York at that time and the Cuban musicians and the Puerto Rican musicians who were transforming jazz. He was like, "Oh yeah, I can do that too with my tradition." Then he went back to Ethiopia and he created Ethio jazz in Addis Ababa and then Ethio jazz becomes this international phenomenon. And the Ethio jazz that I perform is really about that migration from Ethiopia back to the States and what that says. The circle is continual and you can imagine that the circle can keep going. This is only, what, round three in the circle. What's round 10 sound like? That's what I want to know.

Anne Strainchamps (08:27):

I imagine for... A lot of our listeners are probably not at all familiar with Ethiopian jazz.

Meklit Hadero (08:34):

Yeah. When you talk about what Ethio jazz is, you would really be talking about the pentatonic scale systems. The way that Mula Tu Atstatke described it to me, he said his contribution to Ethio jazz was finding a way for the five tone pentatonic scale to sit next to the twelve tone western diatonic scales.

Anne Strainchamps (08:58):

How does that make music sound different?

Meklit Hadero (09:02):

A scale is like a universe.

Anne Strainchamps (09:09):

I love that.

Meklit Hadero (09:10):

Which is very abstract, I know.

Anne Strainchamps (09:11):

No, it's beautiful.

Meklit Hadero (09:20):

It's like when you walk into a room and the room has a certain quality of light, right? It's like, "This is the way this room makes me feel because the light kind of looks like this and I can smell that somebody burned some incense in here." It's like five notes but the five notes have a color and a feeling: a world that you can walk into.

Anne Strainchamps (09:51):

He's been important to you, right? An inspiration? A mentor?

Meklit Hadero (09:57):

I met, gosh, Mula Tu Atstatke in 2011. It was this very important musical moment for me. He came to my show and afterwards he took me aside and he said, "Hey, you don't have to play Ethio jazz like we played it 50 years ago. What's your contribution? Only you can find that, and don't do it like anybody else." It was a very inspiring moment.

Anne Strainchamps (10:27):

Sounds a little intimidating, too.

Meklit Hadero (10:29):

Yeah. Oh yeah. I didn't know what to do with that conversation for years. Finally I decided to really ground the songs in Ethiopian rhythms. If it's the song You Are My Luck, that was based in a [Geraginya 00:10:50] rhythm. Whatever else is going on in the song, if people can dance the Geraginya dance to that song, I have succeeded.

Anne Strainchamps (11:36):

The other song... There are a couple of others I wanted to ask you about. But the song This Was Made Here, it's so interesting. It's never clear where here is. Is it Africa? Is it America? I think it's both. For you, where is here?

Meklit Hadero (11:51):

The first thing I'll answer that with is a story. When I was growing up, my mom, she would always refer to Ethiopia as back home. She would be like, "Back home it's like this, or back home we do this." She just often would never even say the name of our country, Ethiopia, she would just say back home. And then the first time I went to Ethiopia with her she started referring to the US as back home. I was just so struck. But also the song This Was Made Here, it's my refugee story. It's the story of the longing for that home space. I wanted to make music so Ethiopian and so American that it could only have been made here in the US, in this period of time, when the diaspora had grown to this particular size where we could claim a cultural space: a sense of being a deep and important part of communities in Seattle and Oakland and LA and Dallas and Brooklyn. This is a music of a specific time and place, which is hyphenated America.

Anne Strainchamps (14:06):

You're partly describing the diaspora almost as a nation, a country, of its own.

Meklit Hadero (14:14):

I don't think it's a country of its own. It can't be. But it is a mindset. It is a specific state of mind. I actually love the word diaspora because it comes from a Greek word that means that means the scattering of seeds.

Anne Strainchamps (14:28):

I didn't know that.

Meklit Hadero (14:29):

You can hear it in the word spore. In your mind, you can picture a dandelion and somebody blowing a dandelion and there you go. That's what it means.

Anne Strainchamps (14:39):

To me, your most haunting song is Supernova, which begins and ends with a question: "Where did you come from?" Your answer: "From the sky, from a supernova," which is another kind of diaspora that we all belong to.

Meklit Hadero (14:54):

I recent heard that there are the remnants of a thousand supernovas inside all of us. If we want to understand our connections to anything... soil, or a tree, or a building, or anything... you can say, "We came from the same supernova." This is what I want people to feel when they walk away from my concert: that the world is alive with linkages between things that can connect us and sink into a wholeness, a wholeness, a wholeness. That's why I listen to music, because I want to feel whole and music lets me do that. And I want to give that to other people in every song.

Anne Strainchamps (15:54):

Meklit Hadero is an Ethiopian American jazz artist and co-founder of the Nile Project. Her most recent album is the awarding winning When the People Move, the Music Moves Too.

Steve Paulson (16:28):

That feeling that Meklit talks about, of being strengthened by connections across boundaries, that is precisely what the South African system of apartheid was designed to prevent, even in music.

Anne Strainchamps (16:40):

How jazz became part of the anti-apartheid movement next. It's To The Best of Our Knowledge.

Steve Paulson (16:54):

From Wisconsin Public Radio.

Anne Strainchamps (16:58):

And PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (17:04):

This is the second episode of our new series Idea From Africa and we've been talking about how jazz and other popular music grew out of the experience of slavery and forced migration.

Steve Paulson (17:16):

And maybe because of that, has often expressed ideas about freedom.

Valmont Layne (17:22):

I don't know how it happened. I guess it's word of mouth. Something like R&B music. Back then it was something you couldn't get access too easily so people used to have these little informal networks where you could get the Earth, Wind & Fire records or Michael Jackson, whatever. You couldn't get the stuff on the radio. I remember there was one program which was allowed on the radio which played black music from America. Otherwise, the state told you what you could listen to and most of what was on the radio was stuff that we would not identify with as black youth. Just getting access to music from outside, I guess because they imposed restrictions on it, it suddenly became desirable.

Anne Strainchamps (18:35):

This is historian Valmont Layne. We met him a conference at the University of Addis Ababa and after we had lunch in the cafeteria we sat down and asked him about his own musical history.

Steve Paulson (18:46):

And he says when he was growing up, black music, wherever it came from, could be dangerous. It was the soundtrack for his generation's revolution.

Valmont Layne (18:57):

I grew up in Cape Town in District Six initially and then on what's called the Cape Flat, which was the outlying townships to which people had been banished. I'm designated as colored under the old system, which means that I'm a minority within a black majority. I was born in 1966, which was also the year that the South African apartheid state declared the District Six a white area. I'm of a generation that became radicalized because of it and eventually the generation that drove apartheid out. I often think of images of other places where war is happening in a sense, like Palestine and so on, where [inaudible 00:19:37] where kids grow up or play cowboys and crooks among broken buildings. That's my memory of the place.

Valmont Layne (19:43):

When I was 10 years old, the 1976 riots happened. I remember kids were being shot and there was a lot of violence. From the window of our apartment I could see the teenagers of the time learning to make petrol bombs and then running out to go and find cops to throw it at. Our band started because some of the kids that could play the guitar and sing decided, "We need to write songs that speak about what's happening." So we would take a famous song by Elvis Presley, for example. Jailhouse Rock became Mandela's Rock. So, "Let's rock around the clock, everybody. Let's march through Mandela's cell." Or It's Now or Never. "Give us our rights. We'll fight forever. Release Mandela, our great leader." I was learning to play the guitar in the early '80s and by 1985 I was a soloist. I performed some regional stuff. The song that was recently revived, it was also a tribute to Mandela, called Nelson the Island, which became one of the signatures of our band.

Valmont Layne (21:09):

I guess I was also a teenager, so I was asking questions naturally, but as a young person I'm also beginning to realize that there's a whole body of experience, of music, that I have no access to because it's been forced into exile. Jazz... Remember, the vision of apartheid is to ruralize black life. Apartheid created this idea that black people can only ever be tribal, so they need to live in their tribal homelands. "If you got black people, they have no business being in cities unless they're there to work on a temporary basis. Jazz creates all kinds of false hope for black people. They should be not be aspiring to living in cities or being sophisticated or studying mathematics," or all kinds of other things. South African jazz was literally uprooted from South Africa and it landed in New York, it landed in London, in Zurich, in other places.

Valmont Layne (23:04):

The 1976 generation is, of course, the generation of people like Cyril Ramaphosa, who is now the president of South Africa. The generation after that, which is my generation I guess, is the explosion that happened around 1985. The kids who were out on the streets had already internalized what black consciousness was teaching, so they were radicalized in cultural terms. We articulated our anger in Afrikaans: street Afrikaans. Not the Afrikaans of the educated white elite but of the black majority. Remember, in 1976 kids were rejecting Afrikaans. In 1985, kids... I guess in analogies with the queer, where being queer was an insult and then later on it became a term of mobilization, Afrikaans became a language of mobilization. For me, that was amazing.

Valmont Layne (24:23):

The Genuines, this punk group, they had an album called [Guma 00:24:27]. Guma music, guma, is a word that has been attached to the music of the slaves. Cape Town is unique because it is one of the few places on the African continent where slaves were being imported from other places. Unlike the rest of the continent, where slaves are being exported to the United States, to the Americas, Cape Town was importing slaves and building an economy based on slavery. So guma is the music of the colored people and when I listened to The Genuines, this punk group, they'd guma music and the sensibilities... Often it's intangible sensibilities. It's in language. It's in mannerism. In the peculiar local expression. They're making an argument for guma music as part of a broader South African vision. They're saying, "This is not something that is only applicable to colored people. This is something with which we can have a much broader global canvas." As long as you are speaking within your community with a sense of integrity, you can do anything with any kind of music.

Valmont Layne (25:58):

The idea of being able to party to music that was being made by people in our own community, in the language that we spoke, I think that, more than anything, inspired me to take part in the struggle.

Steve Paulson (26:17):

Valmont Layne is a former curator at the District Six Museum and he's a Next Generation Fellow at the Center for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape.

Anne Strainchamps (26:29):

Under apartheid, there was only one kind of music black musicians were supposed to make: traditional, meaning tribal, or at least a white conception of what tribal.

Steve Paulson (26:40):

Apartheid forced a generation of jazz artists out of South Africa and into clubs in Europe and the US.

Anne Strainchamps (26:47):

Gwen Ansell is a writer and jazz scholar who's been documenting the South African jazz scene ever since she first encountered it in the late '60s. She became friends with, and personally interviewed, many of the major players, both those who left and those who stayed.

Gwen Ansell (27:03):

A lovely story is that of the multi-instrumentalist [Deco Caba 00:27:07]. He was doing a recording session with a band for the South African Broadcasting Corporation and the producer said to the piano player, "I don't want you doing anything else. Just stay on that one note. Go ting, ting, ting, ting." And Deco said, "That was the point when I realized I could no longer stay with this degenerate artistry." He didn't get out until a few years later, but that was when his decision was made.

Gwen Ansell (27:45):

All kinds of hideous and identity-erasing horrors were perpetrated on them when they performed. There are fairly famous cases of black musicians being forced to perform behind a screen while a white musician mimed their instrumentalism in front of that screen. If you can imagine the psychological impact of eraser that that had on black musicians, it is, looking back on it, truly horrifying.

Anne Strainchamps (28:18):

You call it a form of symbolic annihilation.

Gwen Ansell (28:22):

It is indeed.

Anne Strainchamps (28:27):

Gwen, when did you start listening to jazz in South Africa?

Gwen Ansell (28:31):

My history's a slightly weird one. I'm not South African by birth and I started listening to South African jazz in Oxford, where I was at university. I think the first black South African jazz I ever heard was a combo with a front [Dudu Puquana 00:28:46], the saxophonist, and [Mongesie Feza 00:28:48], the trumpeter. Those people would've been titans wherever they were born and wherever they were making music.

Anne Strainchamps (28:58):

Those were some of the original members of The Blue Notes, weren't they?

Gwen Ansell (29:01):

They were indeed, yes.

Anne Strainchamps (29:03):

From what I've read, they kind of set Europe on fire.

Gwen Ansell (29:08):

Very much so.

Anne Strainchamps (29:12):

Somebody you interviewed said it was because they were so comfortable in the free space. I love that idea of the music itself, free jazz, providing this free libratory space.

Gwen Ansell (29:27):

Let me tell about what another South African musician who worked on the free scene in Europe, a percussionist called [Tebae Lepara 00:29:34], said when I interviewed him. He basically said, "You know this stuff of sitting round in a circle and just improvising? We've been doing that back home in our communities for generations. It was nothing new to me. These European musicians seemed to think it was some big deal but it was nothing new to me."

Anne Strainchamps (29:54):

Those years, I think those are the years that people have called the dead years. There's this story that jazz was shut down in South Africa.

Gwen Ansell (30:02):

I contest that very strongly. Not everyone left the country. It was very much an underground and risky enterprise. I can't count the number of young musicians who talked to me about going to so-and-so's place and so-and-so's place would be either a formal or an informal drinking spot where musicians played, where older musicians mentored younger musicians. Winston [Muncuncu 00:30:28] is a very good example of that.

Anne Strainchamps (30:30):

Tell us his story.

Gwen Ansell (30:32):

Okay. Winston Muncuncu [Gosee 00:30:35] was born in the western cape in a small community called Retreat. He went off to do his initiation, as all young men in the Xhosa-speaking community did and, as was told to me, when you came back from that you'd either form a band or you'd form a sports team. Winston Muncuncu's most famous recording is a recording called [Yaka Lingcomo 00:31:03], "the bellowing bull," which was a nice rural, tribal-sounding title that didn't upset the censors. But Muncuncu himself said to me that after shows people would come up to him and they'd say, "Don't worry, [broany 00:31:24]. We know what you're singing about." This song, he said, was for the black man's pain. So the bellowing bull was the bull being led to slaughter. For many South African horn men, the horn was an extension of their human voice anyway. It wasn't that they saw singing and playing as two completely separate things. And in the parts where Muncuncu features, there is this astounding, roaring, anguished cry from his saxophone.

Anne Strainchamps (32:08):

I know that became one of the most important and transformational albums of South African jazz. Winston Muncuncu himself, I think, never got paid for it.

Gwen Ansell (32:19):

He did eventually get some small grudging payments, but I think we have to make it very clear the way the white studios were run. Black musicians came in at night. They were given one take. And I know that on one of the tunes on one of the albums that the group made at that time, the pianist, Ibrahim [Kahlil Sehab 00:32:39], still can't bear to listen to one of those numbers because there was an error and he wanted the time to go back over it and deal with it and the engineer said, "No. Your time's up." And basically, the engineers would say really dismissive things like, "I want to get home. Finish up. Hurry up now. Why are you wasting time?" Again, no dignity, no recognition of their creativity as artists. That was what they lived with.

Anne Strainchamps (33:04):

Wow. Was it dangerous even to go to a recording session? I mean, it would've been after curfew.

Gwen Ansell (33:11):

You'd probably be okay if you arrived while it was still light. It was going home that was when were you likely to be picked on and hassled. This is part of the political assertiveness of South African jazz, is it's an occupation at night when black people are supposed to be imprisoned in their homes in their townships. But if alongside that you were seen to be engaged in politics, or your music sounded too suspicious, or you actually were engaged in politics... because many South African jazz musicians very courageously led double-lives and actually assisted the struggle... then of course it became even more dangerous, although the most famous musical martyr is not, in fact, a jazz musician but a choral musician, [Wesil Lemeny 00:33:56], who actually sang his own compositions as he walked to the gallows. But yes, it was not a safe life.

Anne Strainchamps (34:05):


Gwen Ansell (34:06):

It is so inspiring that people were able to create music of the beauty of, let's say, Yaka Lingcomo under those conditions.

Anne Strainchamps (34:24):

Often it seems to me the underlying assumption is that jazz started in America and then people in other countries grafted on some of their own culture's musical ideas, but I'm sure that that's exactly right because I think there are plenty of people who would say, "No, jazz is African."

Gwen Ansell (34:43):

I don't think that is right. I don't think that is right. Certainly, when I have interviewed South African musicians about what they heard and identified with when they heard early American imported records, the constant refrain is, "It sounded a bit like our music here." Jazz, as it's mainstream recognized, is certainly an American phenomenon because it marks the coming together of those influences with the western influences, the western instruments, but that's not where it started. Jazz is an African music. It's a music that came from Africa, went to America, and, in the case of South Africa, came back to Africa again.

Anne Strainchamps (35:35):

Writer and jazz scholar Gwen Ansell talking from her home in Johannesburg. She wrote a landmark history of jazz under apartheid called Soweto Blues, and if you want to hear more of those classic tracks or hear what younger jazz artists are doing in South Africa today we made a playlist for you. It's on our website: ttbook.org.

Steve Paulson (36:01):

Coming up: how African music shaped the sound of music around the whole world.

Anne Strainchamps (36:06):

It's To The Best of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Steve Paulson (36:24):

If you want to unpack the complete history of African musical migration, you have to go way back to the beginning of European colonization. And if you're thinking, "We'll never know what that sounded like," that's not entirely true as musicologist Ron Radano recently discovered.

Anne Strainchamps (36:44):

The story begins around the turn of the century. Germany is occupying portions of Africa, mining and extracting rubber, diamonds, gold, and also music.

Ron Radano (36:57):

It's a kind of crazy story. Around 1900 in Berlin, a multidisciplinary group of scientists were intrigued by the possibility of recording African music as it was practiced, and what's in large part driving this is a presupposition that in Africa one can find the origins of being.

Speaker 9 (37:25):

[German 00:37:25].

Ron Radano (37:28):

At that same moment, we also see new opportunities of collecting music, of recording. Those who were in charge weren't really the ones who went to Africa but they enlisted missionaries who were traveling to Africa, participants in the military, ethnologists. These recordings then find their way to the laboratories in Berlin.

Speaker 9 (37:58):

[German 00:37:58].

Ron Radano (38:03):

There was this sense that one could measure humanity and mismeasure humanity and try to make judgments about African peculiarity or inferiority or the nature of intelligence. There are some indications that musicians sometimes embraced the possibility of performing. There are other indications where musicians are horrified by this when they realized what had happened: that their voice ended up in a box, that their spirit was stolen, a sense that they lost something that was going to be taken away and brought to Europe. It's certainly consistent with the atrocities that they were experiencing at the time in some places.

Ron Radano (39:07):

The tradition of primitivism begins to emerge in Europe around this time. This fascination with African naturalness and savagery and all the kinds of fantasies that begin to be imposed on Africa suggest that these are not recordings of African music at all. They're a modernist creation of Europe. But they are also not nothing: the fact that we can actually hear musical practices from this time. These recordings are somewhere in between the worlds of Europe and Africa. In a way it's... I don't want to overly mystify it, but I'm not sure what they are. They seem to be in a kind of nether region.

Steve Paulson (40:11):

Ron Radano has been rewriting the history of race and black music for decades. As a fellow at the American Academy in Berlin and at the Institute for Research in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin Madison. He says that today, we are all African when we listen.

Anne Strainchamps (40:31):

For example, scroll through a list of top hits right now and you'll be hard pressed to find a song that is not infused with musical sounds and ideas that originated in Africa.

Steve Paulson (40:42):

So how did that happen? It all goes back to the transatlantic slave trade.

Ron Radano (40:47):

When one looks at musical life of the 20th century, one can hear in it a deep hue of blackness, we can call it: of [Africanity 00:40:58]. The sense of pulse, of very strong pulse...

Steve Paulson (41:07):

Is that another word for beat?

Ron Radano (41:09):

Yeah. It becomes very much a character of African American music as it's developing in the 19th century, but what I think is equally important is the way in which pulse or beat becomes racialized because of an order of discourse that equates blackness with rhythm.

Steve Paulson (41:37):

But there's such a deep irony here because you're talking about traditions in the United States that go back to slavery.

Ron Radano (41:44):


Steve Paulson (41:44):

You're talking about black musicians who were subjugated and yet somehow they became the purveyors of what became the dominant form of music today.

Ron Radano (41:55):

I think that the idea of black music, or as it was characterized at the time as negro music, comes into being when slaves begin to make money playing music. In the 1840s and 1850s there's a kind of explosion of references to what was called negro music. There's this new kind of peculiar music that is being performed by slaves who are being hired out by their owners. Sometimes they'd actually earn a bit of profit from that as well.

Steve Paulson (42:44):

You're saying the slave owners valued the musicality of their enslaved people?

Ron Radano (42:52):

They certainly did. In fact, many slave musicians were performing for white social entertainment. There was a recognition that some slaves were very talented and they, in turn, learned how to perform for white mastery.

Steve Paulson (43:07):

But how does that square with the overall ideology that the slaves were inferior human beings?

Ron Radano (43:20):

Yeah, it is weird, isn't it? My take on it is that the performance of music created a property. The slave, as a property, had been miraculously creating a property of its own. It was kind of the property of the property.

Steve Paulson (43:40):

So the music becomes something else that the slave owner can own.

Ron Radano (43:44):

Yeah. Slave music becomes a very powerful force of cultural production among African Americans at the late stages of the Antebellum period.

Steve Paulson (43:59):

How does this fit in with how white people thought about blackness?

Ron Radano (44:04):

There's a sense that what makes black music unique at this moment is a racial condition of black people, namely that they are inherently audible, that one can hear a naturalness resonating forth from the bodies. It shows up remarkably in depictions of the ways in which slaves just seemed to give off sound, remarkable sound, wondrous sound. This identifies a kind of exceptionalism, a black exceptionalism: that only a black body is able to produce sound in this way, which is a mark of inferiority. At the same time, is a mark of a kind of supernatural power too. So I tend to think of black music not really as music at all but as a kind of double value. It's both inferior and superior to the category of music that we tend to understand as a European convention.

Steve Paulson (45:05):

And yet, going back to this notion that there's this deep contradiction here... Again, this music that is born out of subjugation, out of slavery, comes to dominate global pop music.

Ron Radano (45:23):

Once it gets into the commercial markets it really takes off. African Americans were seen as the entertainment class. The go-to musicians often, or increasingly so, were African Americans. As black music enters into recording, we see a kind of new contradiction in that white consumers can purchase these recordings and claim it as their own. Anybody who has a dollar to pay can buy the 78 RPM recording. They can't actually obtain it and bring it into themselves. They can't embody it in the same way because of the legacy of white supremacy that dictates that "You're white and I'm black and that's the way it is."

Steve Paulson (46:24):

So in some ways this sounds like a story of liberation, of triumph. This black musical traditions that had been so controlled burst out and musically take over the world.

Ron Radano (46:37):

There is a kind of triumphalism to it on one hand. There's also a kind of tragedy: that it also magnifies the sense of the tragic conditions under which this music was made in the first place. The very idea of black music as different necessitates ideas of race and a racial division. It also is that same sense of difference that helps to explain the legacies of slavery and the colonization of Africa: the sense that black bodies were not worth the same as white bodies. Indeed, were seen as, in many cases, superfluous. "They're just a superfluous class of labor."

Steve Paulson (47:34):

So to put this whole conversation in some larger context, what you're saying is we really should understand the historical roots of how music is made and how particularly what we have come to call black music has been racialized. What the implications for how we listen to music today? Whether it's jazz or hiphop, is there an ethics to that kind of listening?

Ron Radano (47:57):

We can explore this matter in a number of ways. If we say, for example, listening to hiphop or rap practices as they emerge in the 1980s... Why does hiphop emerge in this way? I would suggest that it is a kind of reordering of musical grammar.

Steve Paulson (48:20):

I would put it rejection of.

Ron Radano (48:31):

Yeah. When Public Enemy came into being, I was startled by how radical this music was and, loving radical music, I was listening attentively. I don't know that being identified as white or black or brown or other should inform criticism and by that I mean that what I'm describing are structures of race and belief systems that are grounded in a greater racial ideology that have informed and shaped the way we think about music. There's a huge history behind any musical recording and a greater context from which it arises, but yeah, I think there are all sorts of ways in which we can think critically about how we listen.

Steve Paulson (49:36):

Ron Radano is a musicologist at UW Madison, and keep an eye out for his forthcoming book Alive in the Sound: Black Music as Counter-History.

Anne Strainchamps (50:05):

Thinking across boundaries is a theme we'll keep exploring in future episodes of Ideas From Africa. It's a partnership with the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes. I'm Anne Strainchamps.

Steve Paulson (50:17):

And I'm Steve Paulson. This hour was produced by Craig [Eely 00:50:20] and the staff of To The Best of Our Knowledge at Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (50:25):

Special thanks to Elizabeth [Georges 00:50:27], director of the Modern Art Museum at Addis Ababa University, and to all the organizers and participants in the Africa as Method Conference.

Steve Paulson (50:36):

Thanks also to Sarah [Gyre 00:50:38], Jason [Rusamalsky 00:50:39], [Iom Ratel 00:50:39], and to the Mellon Foundation.

Anne Strainchamps (50:43):

To hear more Ideas From Africa, visit us online at ttbook.org or chcinetwork.org/ideas.

Speaker 10 (50:50):


Last modified: 
March 08, 2024