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Political beats

Gwen Ansell

Two books take a fresh and wide-ranging look at the theme of music-making and politics.

Musical Echoes by Carol Ann Muller and Sathima Bea Benjamin (Duke University Press)

Music & Politics by John Street (Polity Press)

They’ll probably be waving their Breitling-clad wrists in the air to globalised R&B at the continuing celebrations for the ANC’s 100th birthday. But in 1912, when the party was founded, they were bopping to Reuben Caluza’s “We Cry for Our Land. Zulu, Xhosa and Sotho Unite! We are mad over the Land Act. A terrible law that allows sojourners to deny us our land.”

From Die Stem to the improvised lyrics of the Federation of South African Trade Unions worker choirs, from the SABC’s banning of Thelonious Monk’s Crepuscule with Nellie to the judiciary’s banning of Dubul’ ibhunu (the one case Julius Malema should have won), there’s never been much doubt in this country that music and politics are at least sisters.

It’s not been so elsewhere. Internationally, and particularly in the United States, scholarly establishments have until fairly recently fastidiously avoided sullying musicology with any study of the politics of music-making—let alone of the political discourse of their own avoidance. And in that context, both Carol Ann Muller’s and John Street’s books are timely and fresh.

Muller’s biography-plus, of and with Sathima Bea Benjamin, is ­welcome for many reasons; first and foremost because it spotlights a ­brilliant architect of song who is far less well known than she should be. But Muller goes further. She ­challenges still dominant androcentric and Amerocentric jazz discourses, ­offering alternative frameworks that allow us to consider the dynamics of race, class and gender within whose maelstrom Benjamin shaped her sound.

Call and response
Since an early draft, which I read in 2008, Muller—professor of music at the University of Pennsylvania—has reshaped her material significantly, framing Benjamin’s experience as the “call” and her own contextualisation and analysis as the “response” of each chapter. What could have been simply another biography based on interviews is transformed into a series of wide-ranging and insightful conversations. Such a structure challenges another dominant discourse in music biography: the writer as the custodian and interpreter of the musician’s life.

Within Muller’s framework, Benjamin is the expert on herself. Within—to take only one historic example—Ross Russell’s framework, the Charlie Parker of Bird Lives!, was most definitely not. The Bird was carved to fit Russell’s stereotype of the black jazz outlaw.

In that sense Muller’s framework is challenging, calling out facile assumptions. But it also gives the text a swing and a rhythm that should appeal to readers well beyond the world of academic musicology. It’s a book about the kind of politics that interests everybody—about who holds and who contests power: in a police state; in an international music scene; in a band; in a critical discourse; in a family.

It’s in this consideration of jazz as lived experience that Muller’s book intersects with John Street’s. Street—former live-music critic for The Times of London and now professor of politics at the University of East Anglia—isn’t the first to tackle the theme of music and politics. But many previous analyses—such as Reebee Garofalo’s Rock the Boat —have been dominated by, for example, consideration of the political content of lyrics, or the activities of musicians in struggles against oppression.

Although Street does not ignore these, his focus is broader: on the multiple dimensions of music as praxis.

Unashamedly evangelising
It’s a brilliantly wide-ranging survey of both scholarly study and practitioners’ experience. Street travels from music history and debates about prizes and star ratings to the role of music in the political imagination. He is unashamedly evangelising for the importance of music in its power to move us. Looking at the reasons why music has this quality, he finds them not only in content, but even more strongly in the experiences of creating, playing and listening.

Street’s enthusiasm makes this a book you’ll want to debate with—I’d love to query his neglect of Gramsci, who wrote so much that is pertinent—and that’s one of its strengths.

It’s a pity, though, that the tone veers uneasily between the humanity of the journalist and the dryness of the academic.

Musical Echoes will be launched in South Africa on Wednesday January 18, as part of the Rhodes University international conference Histories, Aesthetics and Politics of Jazz

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