Book review…Tsitsi Ella Jaji, “Africa in Stereo: Modernism, Music, and Pan-African Solidarity”

My review of Tsitsi Ella Jaji’s excellent new book was just published in Africa: The Journal of the International African Institute. I’ll post a pdf to my academia.edu page soon, but until then, here’s the complete text and citation.

Mark Lomanno. 2016. “Book Review. Africa in Stereo: Modernism, Music, and Pan-African Solidarity. By Tsitsi Elli Jaji.” Africa—Journal of the International African Institute 86/1 (February): 182-184.

TSITSI ELLA JAJI, Africa in Stereo: Modernism, Music, and Pan-African Solidarity. New York: Oxford University Press (hb $99, ISBN: 9780199936373). 2014, 272 + xi pp.

An updated expansion of her doctoral dissertation in comparative literature from Cornell University, Africa in Stereo is the first monograph published by Tsitsi Ella Jaji, a professor of English at [Duke University], poet, and musician, who draws liberally on these various vocations and expertise in this work which examines African and Afro-diasporic critical–and primarily sonic–engagements with modernism in the twentieth century. Jaji’s text outlines how collaborative music practices in the diaspora have inspired African writers and artists seeking to articulate their own, self-determining visions of present and future life in response to legacies of slavery and colonialism: “Neither peripheral nor alternative, the forms of modernism…are collaboratively worked out among black subjects on the African continent and abroad, subjects who share interrelated legacies of exclusion from the supposed ur-modernity of the West, as well as virtuosic repertoires of (re)-invented traditions that mark their modernist cultural productions….Africa in Stereo offers a new term, stereomodernism, as a useful heuristic for analyzing texts and cultural practices that are both political and expressive, activated by black music and operative within the logic of pan-African solidarity.” (14) In fact, Jaji suggests that, for people of trans-Atlantic African Diaspora, advancing political causes can sometimes be accomplished more efficaciously through music and its deceptive jouissance than through other more normative channels. It is this potential on which the artists and writers—primarily from Western and South Africa—Jaji discusses “have viewed artistic excellence on a global stage as a crucial tactic to demand the end of their modern subjection and the recognition of their modern subjectivity with all of its inherent human rights.” (14)

Jaji adopts this perspective for the purposes of identifying and amplifying a sonic politics of solidarity, activating pan-Africanist approaches to positive political and social change that, rather than masking difference behind tactics of strategic essentialism, instead highlights and celebrates those differences, responding “in joyful creativity.” (9) Amid this discussion of collaborative and dialogic aesthetic politics, Jaji emphasizes the importance of listening. In fact many of the texts and performances Jaji studies begin with the act of listening and are realized through the reactive and empathetic agency of diasporic solidarity: “[t]hese media forms are as much technologies of solidarity as the music itself. Through them, the essential work of listening brings affiliation, affinity, and negotiated resolution into acoustic liveness, fully resonant (or equally important, muffled) across geographic, ethnic, linguistic, and technical fissures.” (17) And although she attributes significant power for collective subversion to the sonic, Jaji is not calling for replacing previous, ocular-centric models of modernity with one based solely on aural perception. Rather she asserts that “[l]istening acutely does not diminish the value of the visual or other senses, but rather trains our attention upon the circulation of meanings among the senses, reminding us of how artificial it is to imagine that each sense is autonomous. This sense of listening as opening up other sensory and imaginative channels resonates in stereomodernism as an account of how music activates other fields of cultural production.” (19) Furthermore, Jaji is not suggesting uniformity or even harmonious interactions among the art and artists outlined in Africa in Stereo. While she foregrounds the critical importance of diasporic solidarity and the interactions that propagate it, she does so with the understanding that “practicing solidarity is hard work [and] offers us an opportunity to consider pan-Africanism not so much as a movement that has or has not succeeded, but as a continuum of achievements and apparent failures that can only be understood in toto.” (18) The “serious play” and work of diasporic solidarity does not follow that expeditious and well trodden routes paved by high modernism, but rather a plethora of roughly hewn and improvised approaches to modern subjectivity that allow for creative resolution and working out of apparent failures by those whom Modernity had already failed.

Inasmuch as Jaji explores the interplay among many authors and artists whose literature, poetry, music, and film form a dense but highly resonant and referential polyphony throughout Africa in Stereo, she further reinforces the power of their achievements and her arguments by employing a similar approach in her presentation of the text, augmented as it is by a companion website of contextual information, audio clips, and hyperlinks to cited websites. The polyvocality of Africa in Stereo is accented still more by the arrangement of the text on the page, where these multiple sources intermingle with footnotes (rather than endnotes) and ample quotations (always appearing in their original language before the author’s bracketed translations). In short, Jaji has demonstrated an artistic style to textual arrangement informed by and emblematic of the stereomodernism she theorizes: she amplifies the probity of her arguments by mirroring the salient aspects of her objects of study in the monograph’s surface structures. It is most fitting that Jaji ends Africa in Stereo with a discussion of the Colossi of Memnon, the mythological singing statues of Ethiopia, about which she writes “[o]ccasionally, things shift into place, and for a moment stones sing.” (247) Given her attention to the aesthetics of the page, I would most assuredly include this monograph in this tradition: for its attention to and recurrent replication of the sonic power of text, Africa in Stereo sings. In this way and in many others, Jaji has written an innovative monograph that foregrounds the probative value of interdisciplinary and intermedia scholarship. Hopefully Africa in Stereo will inspire subsequent works in the fields of comparative literature, media studies, and the fine arts that emulate Jaji’s approach to imaginative, rigorous diversity in both subject matter and methodology.

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