African Art Music and the Challenge of Postcolonial Composition

Kofi Agawu, The Graduate Center, CUNY

Africa's art music tradition is not as widely known as it might be. For many people, African music typically indexes "traditional" music of ostensibly ancient origins or varieties of modern "popular" music. And yet, since the middle of the nineteenth century, Black Africans have routinely composed and performed for non-participating audiences such items as art songs, choral anthems, piano pieces, folk operas, and music for large and small ensembles. How might we explain the invisibility of this tradition in the competing discourses of music studies today?

Drawing from a larger study in progress, I propose in this talk to lay bare some of art music's enabling conditions, starting with its birth out of the twin forces of missionization and colonization. Then, dwelling on a handful of examples from West Africa, I show that African art music evinces a distinct profile based on historically new patterns of co-presence among a work's parameters.

In making a case for African art music, I will touch on contemporary debates about hybridity, essentialism, and decolonization, hoping not merely to disturb cosmopolitan views about art music from the South but to point the way towards a critical practice attuned to the specificities of the post-colony.