1 / Rhythm and Transcultural Poetics
Rhythm and rhythmic processes underlie everything we do. Resonating from inside of us and all around us, rhythms shape the experiences of our day-to-day lives, both conscious and unconscious. In our bodies, physiological rhythms regulate our heartbeat and respiration. When we are in good health, they keep our organs functioning at an appropriate pace. Planetary rhythms regulate and contextualize our experience of time, of the seasons, of days and nights. While geographical and sociocultural factors influence our perception of time and our performance therein, the rhythms of our languages frame our subjectivities. And then there are the rhythms of music and dance, the rhythms of stories and poems, the rhythms of work, the rhythms of travel, the rhythms of noisy randomness…so many rhythms, distinct and overlapping, that pattern our experience of everyday and extraordinary phenomena.
Whether we like it or not, we each fall into our own set of rhythms. Influenced by physiological, biological, linguistic, and sociocultural factors (among others), rhythmic contexts condition our behaviors and experiences. These rhythms fluctuate as we move through time and across distances, but also as we gain knowledge of new languages and cultures. This is why traveling to a faraway foreign destination can be particularly disorienting to travelers.
For starters, the geographic displacement involved in traveling positions us in an unfamiliar location with different natural rhythms. Consider, for example, the first time I traveled from New York City to Accra, Ghana, in May 2006. When I left New York, it was springtime, with average daytime temperatures of around 67 degrees Fahrenheit (19 degrees Celsius).1 The sun rose at around 5:45 a.m. and set at around 8:00 p.m. From what I observed, New Yorkers appeared to be enjoying the warming springtime temperatures and the longer hours of daylight. When I arrived in Accra, it was near the start of the rainy season, with average daytime temperatures of around 88 degrees Fahrenheit (31 degrees Celsius). The sun rose at around 5:45 a.m. and set at around 6:00 p.m., roughly the same time it usually does throughout the year. With the rainy season off to a slow start, the Ghanaians seemed to be looking forward to some relief from the intense equatorial sun and to the cooler temperatures of the rainy season.
Such seasonal and climatic differences were apparent from the moment I stepped off the plane. At around 6:30 p.m., it was a hot and humid (balmy by local standards) night in Accra. It was already dark outside. At the time, I remember making a mental note to try to get up early the following morning to maximize my available daylight. That, of course, was only the start of the adjustments I began to make as I slowly acclimated myself to the natural, linguistic, sociocultural, and other everyday rhythms in Ghana.
In traveling from New York City to Accra, I also found myself adapting to a different pace of life. New York City dwellers (and in particular, Manhattanites) operate at a more frenzied pace than Accra residents do. They tend to hurry through the streets as they go about their business. Their lives are ruled by appointments, schedules, watches, and clocks. Generally speaking, they don't like to be delayed or kept waiting. As a nonnative, I was struck by the sense of urgency that seems to dominate everyday transactions in New York City. At lunchtime, for example, working people are often limited to a one-hour break during which they are expected to complete the round-trip from their workplace to their lunch spot and also find time to eat somewhere in between. Perhaps this is why some of my tensest moments in New York occurred at lunch counters between noon and 2:00 p.m. I distinctly remember one episode at a lunch counter in the West Village on a day when I decided to pay in cash—with bills and change. As I fished around in the bottom of my handbag for the correct change, I could feel people in the line behind me beginning to tense up. After about ten or fifteen seconds, some of them began to sigh audibly, check their watches in frustration, and make exasperated facial expressions to show their annoyance at what they perceived as a lackadaisical pace.
In Accra, people are just as serious about their day-to-day business, but they tend to go about it in a more laid-back and patient manner. Delays in transportation, communication, and transactions are frequent and even expected in Accra. Even so, an Enye shwee,2 or “no worries,” attitude—through which patience, acceptance, and perseverance are valorized—prevails. This cultural tendency toward calmness and patience in the face of delays and adversities is reinforced not only through contemporary social norms, but also through popular proverbs and traditional symbols.3 Among the Ashanti people of Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire, the symbol of the moon (osram) represents faith, patience, and determination. The moon's symbolic properties are represented in a popular Ashanti proverb, “Osram mifiti preko ntware oman” (The moon does not go around the world hastily). The proverb reminds people to be patient and persistent in their day-to-day lives. Another Ashanti proverb reminds Ghanaians not to get upset about mishaps and annoyances like transportation delays and power outages: “Kotoku tew a na mmati adwo” (When the bag tears, the shoulders get a rest).
Although similar proverbs exist in American culture—such as “Haste makes waste” and “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade”—American individual and corporate desires to be the first, the best, the richest, and the fastest are presently trumping the relaxed rhythms prescribed by these proverbs. By contrast, these proverbs and corresponding symbols maintain relevance in contemporary Ghana through frequent representations in Ghanaian media and popular culture. In this respect, they are commonly incorporated into television and radio broadcasts as well as in advertising campaigns. In 2007, during the fiftieth anniversary celebration of Ghanaian independence, the adinkra symbol Gye Nyame (Except God) comprised the zero in the fiftieth-anniversary logo. Inspired by an Ashanti proverb used to explain the origins of the world and spirituality, the Gye Nyame symbol served as a powerful reminder of Ghanaian cultural values throughout the yearlong celebration.
Returning to questions of quotidian rhythms in contemporary Ghana, particularly in view of the values of patience and persistence, Ghanaian patience is put to the test every day on the streets of Accra—in the cars, taxis, busses, and tro-tros4 that transport people from one part of the city to another. Although busses and tro-tros typically service regular routes in and around the city of Accra, they don't always keep to a regular schedule. Most of the time, busses and tro-tros set off for their target destinations only after they have filled all of the available seats in the vehicle. So, unless you are the last person to board a bus or a tro-tro from its departure point, it is safe to say you will have to wait a while—anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours depending on your departure time and target destination. The process is even more complicated for people who are waiting to board public transport vehicles at points along the route. People seeking rides at later stops can board only if there is enough space in the vehicle, that is to say, unless enough of the original passengers have disembarked before reaching the desired point of embarkation. During my time in Accra, it didn't take me long to wise up to the math and probability of such equations, particularly when stuck waiting at early stops along public transportation routes. I remember one day in particular when I had difficulty securing a place in passing tro-tros and busses. I was returning from the STC bus station on the west side of the city in a busy, traffic-congested area. Since there were many of us trying, patiently but assertively, to find seats in passing vehicles and few seats available, I found myself waiting upward of a half hour—with no success. As the traffic rumbled by and people noisily clambered for seats in the packed public transport vehicles, I could feel my American impatience mounting. Rather than give in to frustration, I found it useful to follow a group of enterprising local students on a fifteen-minute walk in the direction of Nkrumah Circle, a popular stop-off point where I was able to secure a seat with relative ease. Enye shwee!
In demonstrating some of the natural and sociocultural factors that influence the expression and reception of rhythm in different geographic locations, I have only begun to scratch the surface. Similarities and differences in local rhythmic patterns reveal themselves through a variety of everyday activities including, but not limited to, greetings, shopping, food preparation, social interactions, and work and leisure activities. Moreover, rhythmic patterns in music, languages, and quotidian sonorities also play important roles in the individual and collective experiences of everydayness. Such resonant rhythmic phenomena frame our perceptions of and reactions to ordinary and extraordinary events. In this respect, we are shaped by the melodies, euphonies, cacophonies, and dissonances that fill our ears and resonate within us each day.
Rather than study the impact of music and sound in society as an ethnomusicologist would, or the influence of rhythm and language in context as a sociolinguist would, It is my aim to investigate the significance of texted sounding phenomena in literature, specifically in novels. In the novels selected for this study—Ousmane Sembene's God's Bits of Wood, Ahmadou Kourouma's The Suns of Independence, Aminata Sow Fall's L'appel des arenes, Simone Schwarz-Bart's Ti Jean L'horizon, Maryse Condé's Crossing the Mangrove, and Patrick Chamoiseau's Solibo Magnificent—writers prominently incorporate resonant rhythmic and musical phenomena into the frames of their narratives. Infusing textual realms with the multiple sonorities of footsteps, heartbeats, and drumbeats along with those of dancing, working, and other forms of music-making, these writers create texted representations of rhythms, music, and sound, and in doing so, establish resonant narrative spaces in which questions of identity are considered through multiple lenses and subjectivities. Commonly overlooked in contemporary literary analysis, particularly with respect to the novel (some noteworthy exceptions include Brown 1957; Delas and Terray 1988–91; McCarthy 1998; and York 1999), these rhythms play an important role not only in enhancing the distinct narrative voice of each individual writer and in shaping the vibrant sonorities of his or her texted universe, but also in developing transpoetic spaces in which sociocultural, linguistic, and aesthetic conventions are shattered, and transcultural communication, negotiation, and exchange take place.
In exploring the possibilities of rhythm and transpoetics in novels, many technical and theoretical questions arise, particularly in regard to the representation of rhythm and music in the text. The principal questions—Can one write rhythm, and, if so, how does one write rhythm?—are interesting in that they concern literary and musical scholars alike. Musicologist Jacques Chailley deemed the question “Peut-on écrire le rythme?” (Can one write rhythm?) so important that he made it a chapter title in his book La musique et le signe (Music and the Sign).
In response to Chailley's question, literary scholars including R. A. York and B. Eugene McCarthy would certainly reply, “Yes, one can write rhythm,” but they may not be able to agree as to precisely how rhythm manifests itself in the frame of the novel. Although York acknowledges that literary studies of rhythm can address “rhythm in the sense of temporal sequence and proportion,” in The Rules of Time: Time and Rhythm in the Twentieth-Century Novel, he focuses his analysis on “certain patterns of symbolism” (York 1999, 16), rather than insisting on the linguistic or musical aspects of rhythm in the novel. From the outset, York points out the possible shortcomings of his endeavor, particularly in view of the methodology used in the study: “The integration of these [techniques] is not rigorous; it may be that future researchers will find a more systematic frame of study” (17). Admitting the limitations of his inquiry, York challenges future researchers to develop more methodical approaches to examining rhythm in the frame of the novel. Nevertheless, he subsequently posits the difficulty of this task and postures the reader as a prospective impasse to the definitive rhythmic analysis of novels: “[I]t may be that the reader's subjectivity is inescapable and that no fully rigorous analysis is possible” (17).
Literary scholar B. Eugene McCarthy offers a different methodological approach in addressing questions of rhythm in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. In his analysis, he primarily examines rhythm and repetition in Achebe's language rather than focusing on symbolic motifs as York does. Exploring the connections between Nigerian Igbo orality and English writing, McCarthy proposes “a way of reading and of understanding the novel through the concept of rhythm, within the oral tradition” (McCarthy 1998, 41). Although, for the most part, McCarthy avoids discussing symbolic rhythmic motifs in his inquiry, instead focusing on the linguistic and stylistic dimensions of Achebe's narrative, at one point in his assessment, he mentions the importance of drumming, drummers, and drumbeats in view of rhythmic representations in Things Fall Apart. In the aforementioned passage, McCarthy describes the drums of Achebe's novel as “the rhythmic pulse of the heart of the clan, sounding insistently behind the action” (48). Focusing on the symbolic and operative significance of the drum in these sections of his analysis, McCarthy later observes: “We watch the people drawn in every sense together by the drums…Rhythm is central” (48). By including the sonorities of multiple drumbeats in his discussion, McCarthy effectively expands his field of rhythmic inquiry, establishing a resonant point of correspondence between linguistic, symbolic, and musical rhythmic elements. Although not explicitly explained from the onset, on a practical level, McCarthy's work encourages a broad understanding of the term “rhythm” as applied to explorations of rhythmic phenomena in novels, opening the domain of rhythmic inquiry to a multiplicity of resonant possibilities as expressed in language, music, and symbolism.
As philosopher Henri Lefebvre affirms in Éléments de rythmanalyse (Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time, and Everyday Life), the question of rhythm is transdisciplinary in nature, requiring examination from a variety of perspectives and academic disciplines (Lefebvre 1992, 35):
Le rythme réunit des aspects et éléments quantitatifs, qui marquent le temps et en distinguent les instants—et des éléments ou aspects qualitatifs, qui relient, qui fondent les ensembles et qui en résultent. Le rythme apparaît comme un temps réglé, régi par des lois rationnelles, mais en liaison avec le moins rationnel de l'êe humain. Aux multiples rythmes naturels du corps (respiration, coeur, faim et soif, etc.) se superposent non sans les modifier des rythmes rationnels, numériques, quantitatifs et qualitatifs. (17–18)
[Rhythm brings together quantitative aspects and elements, that mark time and distinguish instants—and qualitative aspects, that link, that found the groups and that result from them. Rhythm appears as a regulated time, governed by rational laws, but in connection with the least rational of the human being. On the multiple natural rhythms of the body (respiration, heart, hunger, and thirst, etc.) are superimposed not without modifying their rational, numerical, quantitative, and qualitative rhythms.]
In considering Lefebvre's characterization of rhythm and rhythmic analysis, it becomes apparent that rhythm is not exclusive to the domain of music, nor is it confined to the realm of audible sounds. For Lefebvre, the ideal rhythmic analyst attempts to experience rhythm with all of the senses in a moment of “lived temporality” (33). Every note, every sound, every noise has its importance as does every smell, every taste, and every sensation. Following this protocol, that of opening oneself up to the totality of the experience of rhythm, Lefebvre suggests that the rhythmic analyst “parviendra a ‘écouter’ une maison, une rue, une ville, comme l'auditeur écoute une symphonie” (35) (will come to “listen to” a house, a street, a city, like the listener listens to a symphony). Expanding upon this idea, it becomes clear that the rhythmic analyst should equally be able to listen to a novel.
Like Lefebvre, linguist Henri Meschonnic views rhythmic analysis as a vast domain with seemingly unlimited possibilities. In Critique du rythme (Critique of Rhythm), Meschonnic problematizes the term “rhythm,” in keeping with poet Paul Valéry's assertion: “Ce mot ‘rythme’ ne m'est pas clair. Je ne l'emploie jamais” (Valéry 1915, 1281). (This word “rhythm” is not clear to me. I never use it.) After an exhaustive examination of etymological, dictionary, and encyclopedic definitions, Meschonnic considers varying interpretations of the term “rhythm” as well as multiple definitions in the fields of linguistics, poetics, music, literature, and philosophy, among others. Nevertheless, rather than proposing his own definition for the concept, Meschonnic challenges critics to go beyond the limits of conventional definitions when considering rhythmic phenomena: “La critique du rythme implique d'excéder la définition du rythme” (Meschonnic 1982, 172) (Criticism of rhythm involves exceeding the definition of rhythm). For our purposes, Meschonnic's assertion is important in that it encourages us to explore rhythmic phenomena and possibilities from multiple perspectives and approaches—in music, in literature, in everydayness, in everything.
Upon accepting the possibility of listening to a novel in a manner that goes beyond the vocalization or subvocalization of written words, it is important to consider ways in which readers come to perceive the sounds that resonate from a given text, or, more precisely, the ways in which authors succeed in writing rhythm and music in their texts using written language as their only tool. With regard to the processes of reading rhythm or reading music, Pierre Plumery has developed an interesting methodology of classification in that he separates the hearing of the eye or the reading ear from the hearing of the ear itself (Plumery 1987, 20). For the purposes of this study, Plumery's categorization is useful in that it acknowledges the possibility of imaginative hearing in the otherwise silent spaces of texts, whether they be written musical scores or literary texts such as novels. Although he admits that the reading ear hears differently than the listening ear, Plumery argues that this unconventional type of listening is significant in that it presents new possibilities to the reader and writer alike.
L'oreille entend autre chose et autrement que ce que l'oeil peut écouter et voir dans les textes que nous lisons. Qu'advient-il d'un texte quand nous le mettons en posture musicale, quand nous le considérons à partir des fonctions musicales qu'il peut remplir et non uniquement à partir des fonctions habituelles de signification de communication? (21–22)
[The ear hears other things and in a different way than that which the eye can hear and see in the texts that we read. What becomes of a text when we put it in a musical posture, when we consider it from the musical functions that it can fulfill and not exclusively from habitual functions of signification and communication?]
For Plumery, the act of listening to a text allows the reader to go beyond the typical experience of independent silent reading. No longer confined to the limits of signs and signification, the reader is able to transcend the notion of text as communication, and consequently develop more sophisticated or intuitive interpretations of a written text. Without using the term expressly, Plumery promotes the notion of transpoetics presented in this study, and in doing so, favors the consideration of written texts in a manner that respects their resonant potential. Plumery's assertion about the reading ear is significant not only in that it recognizes the possibility of listening to a text, but also in that it insists on this process as a means of escaping the limits of semiotics and structuralist thought.5 In this respect, for Plumery, there is not one single meaning, purpose, or intention for any given text; rather, there are infinite possibilities accessible though the opening of the imaginative hearing ear.6
Much of what Plumery has to say about the act of reading as a listening experience, an active process through which the reader constructs an imagined sonorous universe with multiple meanings and limitless possibilities, connects with what Meschonnic suggests in describing reading as a process of lecture-écriture (reading-writing) (Meschonnic 1970, 176). Designed in part as an alternative to Martin Heidegger's notions of reading as a labor-intensive process through which the reader seeks to determine the intentions of the writer as manifest in the text (Heidegger 1971), Meschonnic's model proposes the act of reading as an active creative experience through which the reader develops a text that goes beyond the black and white of the written page. As such, with lecture-écriture, each reading experience is a singular event situated in a specific moment in time and in space. No matter how many times the process is repeated, no matter how many times a text is reread, the end result is never the same. Inevitably unique with each repetition, much like a musical or theatrical performance, for Meschonnic, the act of reading is a singular event, producing different outcomes with each lecture-écriture.
In assessing the role of rhythm and music in the texts selected for this study, Meschonnic's ideas about lecture-écriture are significant, not only in that they acknowledge the resonant and boundless possibilities of a written text, but also in that they contribute to the disintegration of the binary modes of categorization that, stubbornly persistent, continue to dominate contemporary criticism across multiple academic disciplines. Blurring the boundaries that attempt to polarize writing and reading, oral and written, traditional and modern, and Occidental and Oriental, among countless others, the process of lecture-écriture enhances the potential of a written text in that it directs attention toward the spaces in between and beyond any two categorical poles. Rather than insisting on the concepts associated with the binary poles themselves, the lecture-écriture approach favors the nebulous territory that occupies the in-between and beyond spaces of limiting polarized constructs, encouraging the reader to recognize the text as a domain of multiple meanings and possibilities. These trans, across, or in-between spaces play important roles not only in shaping the reader's reception or perception of a written text, but also in providing writers with a subversive expanse in which conventional dominance hierarchies (political, economic, linguistic, or otherwise) are rejected in favor of alternative schemas that promote autonomy in creation, communication, and identification.
In addressing questions of identity presented in the novels selected for this study, rhythm and music play an integral role in asserting the significance of the conceptual trans spaces. Instrumental in this configuration is the allegory of the drum. A ubiquitous presence, drums, drumming, and drumbeats are not limited to the implicit rhythmic structure of the novel. Rather, the sonorities of multiple drumbeats resonate through integral representations of music and dance as well as portrayals of the subtle quotidian rhythms that comprise and accompany work and chores. Although the rhythms of drumbeats are perceptible throughout these novels, at certain moments, the signifiers tambour (the general French term for drum), ka (a Creole term for drum), and tam-tam (a French term for African traditional drums), as well as numerous interlinguistic synonyms, are explicitly evoked as a means of representing important social and symbolic functions of drums and drumming in a variety of historical and cultural contexts. Although the sonority of drummed polyrhythms traverses each of these novels, the rhythmic presence of the drum adapts itself to the specificity of each text and of each context. As such, in considering the resonant musical qualities of God's Bits of Wood, The Suns of Independence, L'appel des arenes, Ti Jean L'horizon, Crossing the Mangrove, and Solibo Magnificent, it is important to avoid universalizing tendencies that suggest some sort of inherent homogeneity among the six novels. Although each text resounds with prominent rhythmic and musical elements, each text reflects an individualized aesthetic that draws from a unique configuration of sociocultural, historical, linguistic, and aesthetic influences. In this respect, Sembene, Kourouma, Sow Fall, Schwarz-Bart, Condé, and Chamoiseau craft distinct transpoetic works that combine a variety of oral, written, and musical styles from diverse historical, social, and aesthetic contexts.
Beyond culture, beyond history, beyond language, their primary point of commonality lies in the trans of transpoetics (and, as we will later explore, transculture). Through the salient incorporation of rhythmic and musical elements in their texts, these writers shatter the binary opposition that attempts to divide oral from written, thus creating an alternative relativizing universe in which identities can be autonomously (re)negotiated and (re) constructed. In between and beyond the domains of oral and written, music occupies a fluid conceptual space that denies concrete definitions and sharply delineated boundaries. This is why, when contemplating contextualized musical phenomena—in texts, as recordings, or in performance—it is impossible to derive a precise series of fixed relationships in connection with the musical work.
In Penser la musique aujourd'hui (Boulez on Music Today), Pierre Boulez elaborates on this concept, arguing that music denies absolutes, particularly with regard to structural relationships and their determining criteria: “L'univers de la musique, aujourd'hui, est un univers relatif; j'entends: où les relations structurelles ne sont pas définies une fois pour toutes selon des critères absolus; elles s'organisent, au contraire, selon des schémas variants” (Boulez 1963, 35). (The universe of music, today, is a relative universe; I mean:7 where structural relations are not defined once and for all according to absolute criteria; they are organized, on the contrary, according to variant patterns.) For Boulez, music is important primarily because it changes the ways in which relationships are constructed and developed. Necessitating perpetual variability and forcing constant (re) negotiation, music prevents the establishment of definitively structured relationships, including those existing within the constraints of polarized systems as well as those determined by other inequitable or hierarchical modes of classification. By toppling the power structures that impose the taxonomy of clearly defined relationships and fixed identity typographies, music becomes a powerful tool that relativizes everything, and, in doing so, challenges dominant modes of thinking by creating alternative autonomous spaces for identity negotiation and configuration.
Insisting on the ambiguous trans or in-between spaces that defy precise and enduring definitions, music operates as a transpoetic mechanism in the frame of the novel, one that activates the text as a transpoetic space. A place where poetic, aesthetic, and stylistic conventions are endlessly deconstructed and reconfigured, where identities and relationships are constantly called into question and (re) evaluated, the transpoetic space appropriates aesthetic and identificatory autonomy for writers and readers alike. In conceiving the text as a transpoetic space, the ubiquity of rhythm and music is instrumental for a number of reasons. First and foremost, music is not fixed in nature. Rather, music relies on the singularity of performances, collaborations, and improvisations. Since performance production and participation conditions are inevitably variable, musical interpretations are never the same no matter how many times they are repeated, even when playing well-known songs or reading from established musical scores. Furthermore, listening conditions are equally unpredictable and changing. Whether experiencing a live performance or listening to an audio recording, countless variables—including, but not limited to, the listener's mood and mind-set, the listener's activities and actions, and external factors like background noise—influence a listener's perception and reception of music.
In addition, there is the problem of reading and writing music. Charles Seeger points out the limits of musical transcription, both prescriptive (rendered before a performance) and descriptive (produced after a performance), in “Prescriptive and Descriptive Music Writing.” In the essay, he identifies three “hazards” “inherent” to the practices of musical notation. The first, which deals with the nature of the writing itself, is also relevant to the exploration of narrative representations of musical phenomena: “The first [hazard] lies in an assumption that the full auditory parameter of music is or can be represented by a partial visual parameter, i.e., by one with only two dimensions, as upon a flat surface” (Seeger 1958, 184). In signaling the problems and discrepancies common to visual representations of music, whether transcribed using texted linguistic elements or musical notations, Seeger emphasizes the inconsistencies involved in writing (or writing about) musical phenomena. Seeger's observations about the reading experience of texted music, whether prescriptive or descriptive, suggest a high degree of variability and a vast domain of performance possibilities for a given musical text.
Furthermore, music—or, more specifically, instrumental and drummed music, often referred to as absolute music—refuses to be contained within the limits of unyielding binary categories, most notably those that divide oral from written. Resisting inclusion in either one category or the other, instrumental music occupies a space in between or even outside of the two poles. As Titinga Frédéric Pacere argues in Le langage des tam-tams et des masques en Afrique: Une literature méconnue (The Language of Tam-tams and Masks in Africa: A Neglected Literature), instrumental and drummed music comprise their own separate category, distinct from oral and written literature, one that he names “instrumental literature” (Pacere 1991, 83). In arguing for a field of study he names la béndrologie (bendrology), a domain that incorporates “la science, les études méthodiques, les méthodes de pensée, de parler, des figures de rhétorique relatives au tam-tam Béndré et donc en fait à la culture de ce tam-tam, voire à la culture des messages tambourinés notamment d'Afrique” (12) (the science, methodical studies, methods of thinking, of speaking, rhetorical figures relative to the Bendré tam-tam, and thus in fact to the culture of this tam-tam, or even the culture of drummed messages notably from Africa),8 Pacere considers the connections among oral, written, and instrumental genres, but nonetheless insists on the distinct characteristics of instrumental literature. Keeping the cultural specificity of West African drumming traditions in mind and placing particular emphasis on his native Burkina Faso, Pacere explains why instrumental literature refuses alignment with oral and written categories:
La littérature du tam-tam…n'est pas une littérature écrite; l'absence de caracteres figés, matériels, dans un contexte de milieu analphabète, l'atteste, l'impose. Cependant aussi, il ne s'agit pas d'une littérature orale et c'est à tort qu'on fait relever la littérature des tamtams, et de l'Afrique non entrée dans l'écriture, de la tradition orale. (82)
[Tam-tam literature…is not a written literature; the absence of fixed characters, in a context of an illiterate background, attests to it, imposes it. However also, it is not a question of oral literature and it's wrongly that people associate tam-tam literature, and that of Africa not entered into writing, with the oral tradition.]
In his refusal to equate instrumental literature with oral literature, Pacere relies on the etymology of the word “oral.” Derived from the Latin word oris, a term meaning “of the mouth,” Pacere argues that “oral” should be used only in characterizing vocal genres, whether they be musical, narrative, or otherwise. For this reason, he prefers the category of instrumental literature to describe instrumental or drummed musical texts. According to Pacere, instrumental literature communicates its own messages, just as oral and written literature do, whether standing alone or serving as an accompaniment to oral genres or other performing arts such as theater or dance. For the purposes of this study, Pacere's distinction is significant in that it recognizes the potentiality and the power of instrumental or drummed music, particularly with respect to its expressive, evocative, and communicative capacities.
In discussing the roles of the drums and drumming in West African cultural contexts, Pacere argues that the importance of music is manifest in its message, not its melody: “La musique n'est donc pas mélodie mais message; peu importe que l'oreille s'y conforme ou pas; les seuls interlocuteurs visés sont l'esprit et le coeur, voire le corps, en cas de transmission des mouvements” (87). (Music is thus not melody but message; little does it matter if the ear complies with it or not; the only target interlocutors are the spirit and the heart, or even the body, in the event of the transmission of movements.) Favoring function in tandem with form, Pacere argues that, as far as the transmission of instrumental music is concerned, the hearing ear is not necessary. Preferring the spirit, the heart, and even the body as receptors, Pacere equates musical comprehension with the sensorial and physical experience of rhythm, much like Lefebvre does. Although Pacere's text deals with the roles of drums and drumming in specific geographic and cultural contexts, namely those of multiple communities in West Africa, his characterization of instrumental literature as a distinct genre and his insistence on the importance of its communicative capacity can be applied in describing music and rhythms cross-culturally. We will revisit these topics in addressing questions of tradition and cultural specificity in West African contexts, particularly in considering the works of Sembene, Kourouma, and Sow Fall in chapters 2 and 3. Nevertheless, for the time being, it is important to keep in mind Pacere's contribution in creating an alternate system of categorization that refuses a polarized separation of the concepts of oral and written, and that functions on aesthetic and operative levels.
By breaking free of the limiting binary construct that succinctly separates oral from written, Pacere encourages approaches that deviate from Western philosophical and critical traditions. Doing so in a way that differs from such modes of thinking without directly opposing them, Pacere further neutralizes other polarized constructs, including those that attempt to separate Occidental from Oriental, Northern from Southern, and traditional from modern. Designating an alternate theoretical space that favors the limitless possibilities enabled by the intermingling of written, oral, and instrumental literatures, Pacere's text is fundamental to the understanding of the power of instrumental and drummed music. Resonant as a communicative medium free of oral signifiers and written words, Pacere's conception of instrumental literature contributes to the perception of drums and drumlike instruments as transpoetic mechanisms.
Whether standing alone, resonant as a sounding drum (or any of its metaphorical equivalents including the sounds of heartbeats, footsteps, and those of people working), or serving as an accompaniment to vocal and instrumental performances, the drum serves as a fundamental transpoetic mechanism in the texts examined in this study. Drums, as instruments of musico-social performance, possess sonorities that burst the silent structure of the text, transfiguring it, and in the process, appropriating spaces in which alternative aesthetic and sociocultural conventions are negotiated and performed. In keeping with Mikhail Bakhtin's assertion that the novel is an ideal space for multiple languages and genres to intermingle,9 drums serve to augment and accentuate the novel's transpoetic capacity, moving beyond the confines imposed by the choice of a single language, a single culture, or a single genre. Even when their rhythms are not explicitly evoked or described, the drums’ ubiquity underlies every mention of music, song, and dance in the novel, which, in turn, increases the aesthetic complexity and communicative possibilities of the written text.
In Introduction à La drummologie (Introduction to Drummology), Georges Niangoran-Bouah affirms this assertion, focusing, like Pacere, on the expressive and communicative dimensions of drums and drumming in West African cultural contexts: “Le tambour symbolise la musique, la danse et le chant…[Il] reste présent dans toutes les manifestations musicales; même utilisé comme simple instrument accompagnateur, il a son mot à dire” (Niangoran-Bouah 1981, 25). (The drum symbolizes music, dance, and song…It remains present in all musical manifestations; even used as a simple instrument of accompaniment, it has its word to say.)
Like Pacere, Niangoran-Bouah insists on the importance of instrumental and drummed music, paying particular attention, once again, to drums as they function in West African cultural contexts, primarily in his native Côte d'Ivoire. In spite of their similarities, there are some important distinctions between Pacere's bendrology and Niangoran-Bouah's drummology. Although both writers are based in West Africa, Niangoran-Bouah's text is more inclusive in that it considers drums and drumming from multiple locations and traditions, suggested by the term “drummology.” Pacere's concept of bendrology, on the other hand, seems narrower in focus since it was born out of the languages and drumming traditions of the Mooré peoples. Even so, the ideas of both Niangoran-Bouah and Pacere can be expanded upon in exploring and comparing the traditions, languages, and practices of drums and drumming in African cultural contexts. The second primary difference results from the categories designated by the two theorists to characterize drumming languages and literatures. Although Pacere takes care to distinguish instrumental literature and music from oral genres, Niangoran-Bouah allows instrumental and vocal categories to intermingle since, as he sees it, the drum is inherently manifest in music, dance, and song in West African performance and participatory practices. In Oral Literature in Africa, Ruth Finnegan provides a similar characterization, describing the multiple forms and functions of drum languages and literatures, yet classifying them as a part of her conception of “oral literature” (Finnegan 1970, 499).
Nevertheless, in comparing Niangoran-Bouah's drummology to Pacere's bendrology, these categorical distinctions are rather inconsequential, as Albert Ouédraogo suggests: “En fait bendrologie et drummologie participent de la même veine, nonobstant que Pacere reproche au mot drummologie son caractère inauthentique et extraverti” (Ouédraogo 1998, 157). (In fact bendrology and drummology contribute to the same vein, notwithstanding that Pacere reproaches the word drummology for its inauthentic and extroverted nature.) For Ouédraogo, the points of commonality that connect Pacere's bendrology and Niangoran-Bouah's drummology are more significant than the subtle differences that distinguish them. In this respect, the fact that both concepts identify drums, drummers, and drumming as important objects of study in West African cultural contexts connects the two disciplines in a manner that renders their differences insignificant. Urbain Amoa conveys a similar perspective in Poétique de la poésie des tambours (Poetics of Drum Poetry): “Ce qui, dans ces deux ‘sciences,’ nous intéresse n'est ni leur scientificité, ni la pertinence de la définition des concepts: c'est plutôt le substrat linguistique qu'elles offrent et que l'on appelle tantôt texte tambouriné, tantôt discours des tambours” (Amoa 2002, 89). (That which interests us in these two “sciences” is neither their scientificity nor the pertinence of the definition of the concepts: it is rather the substrate linguistics that they offer and that is sometimes called drummed text, sometimes drum language.)
As Amoa points out, in presenting their respective theories of bendrology and drummology, both Pacere and Niangoran-Bouah insist on the importance of drums as communicative devices through which aesthetic, historical, and sociocultural information can be transmitted and shared. Moreover, drum languages offer operative alternatives to oral and written forms of expression, breaking free of binary categorical tendencies while affirming subjective autonomy and increasing aesthetic and functional possibilities.
In regarding the drum as a messaging mechanism, Niangoran-Bouah goes so far as to accord the drum its own subjectivity, suggesting that the drum is constantly communicating with listeners, regardless of whether it stands alone or accompanies other instruments. In presenting this possibility, Niangoran-Bouah suggests, “il a son mot à dire,” a phrase that can be interpreted as it has its word to say, or even, he has his word to say when translated from the French. Niangoran-Bouah's personification of the drum reveals much about the importance of the instrument in West African cultural contexts, a theme this study revisits in discussing the works of Sembene, Kourouma, and Sow Fall. Resonant within West African geographical regions and sociocultural contexts, drums serve as powerful mechanisms charged with a variety of emblematic implications and social functions.
In his collection of African folktales La nuit des griots (Night of the Griots), Kama Kamanda goes so far as to present the tam-tam as an omnipotent instrument—one that resonates with the power of pure possibility. In his rendering of the folktale “Le tam-tam,” Kamanda retells the story of a lumberjack who finds “un vieux tam-tam cassé, abandonné” (Kamanda 1996, 197) (an old tam-tam broken, abandoned) as he walks through the brush. Curious, the lumberjack retrieves the tam-tam, deciding to take up the musical craft. As he begins to play, the lumberjack immediately recognizes the power of the tam-tam, manifest in its immense resonant potential. As he continues to play, the lumberjack-drummer is equally concerned with the aesthetic, spiritual, and philosophical implications of his art: “Il comprit que, telle la terre, ce tam-tam pouvait tout donner; comme elle, il pouvait également tout reprendre” (198), (He understood that, like the earth, this tam-tam could give everything; like it, it could equally take everything away.) As Kamanda describes, when played with good intentions, the tam-tam brings love, luck, and happiness to the drummer and the people for whom he plays. In this light, when he plays with a generous spirit and an open heart, the lumberjack-drummer experiences the realization of his dearest hopes and wishes. Nevertheless, as an instrument of seemingly boundless possibility, the drum provides nefarious prospects as well as positive ones, particularly when the instrument is played with ill intentions. In Kamanda's tale, a tragic end befalls the lumberjack drummer when, in his final performance, he takes up his drum in anger.
As Kamanda's version of the tam-tam tale suggests, in many African sociocultural contexts, the drum is a powerful symbolic device, at times serving as a point of correspondence between physical and spiritual domains. Beyond its capacities as a musical instrument, the drum represents a force in itself, serving as a medium for accessing realms of unknown possibilities. For this reason, as Kamanda illustrates, in many African traditions, it is important to respect the power and possibility of the drum, to approach the instrument with an open heart and good intentions. This holds true for both drummers and their listeners.
Not limited to aesthetic categories, drums allow for limitless possibilities in function and in form. For Niangoran-Bouah, who is primarily concerned with the sociological and historical aspects of drums and drumming, drums act in a multitude of capacities and also can serve as social leveling devices. Omnipresent, their rhythms penetrate all levels and all aspects of society, as he affirms: “Le tambour n'est ni en haut, ni au milieu, ni en-bas, il est partout à La fois” (Niangoran-Bouah 1981, 151). (The drum is neither at the top, nor in the middle, nor at the bottom, it is everywhere at once.) In contemporary drumming contexts, Niangoran-Bouah's premise is apparent as increasingly, people who were once denied access to art of drumming and to the knowledge of drummed languages—including, but not limited to, members of certain nongriot or nonroyal social classes or castes (as in Senegal or Mali, for example) and women (throughout the West African region, at least in formalized or ceremonial drumming contexts)—are now taking up the practice, and in some instances gaining the status of master practitioners.10 What is even more striking is that drummers are increasingly studying geographically, aesthetically, and culturally diverse drumming repertoires. Not limiting themselves to the drum languages and rhythms representative of a single geographic location or ethnic group, African drummers are using their knowledge of diverse rhythms as a means of bridging local and international divides.
Similarly, in the Caribbean and the Americas, drummers are succeeding in negotiating the divides imposed by typographic aesthetic, sociocultural, geographic, linguistic, and gender-based categorical criteria. One prominent way in which such practices are gaining momentum is through the women's drumming movement, which seeks to encourage cross-cultural understanding through the knowledge and experience of drummed rhythms and drumming practices. Women's drumming activists such as the self-described “drum amazon” Jamaican-born Afia Walking Tree and African American djembéist Edwina Lee Tyler are promoting their ideas locally and globally through performances, workshops, conferences, and nonprofit work. As a result of their efforts and those of other like-minded musicians, we are witnessing an effacement of the categorical boundaries that attempt to separate drummers according to criteria including but not limited to nationality, ethnicity, social class, and gender. Furthermore, this investment in communication across aesthetic and sociocultural divides results in a reinvestment in and reevaluation of traditional music practices while nurturing hybrid and innovative musical styles.
Bayo Martins, a Nigerian musician and critic who concerns himself with examining the seemingly limitless roles of drums and drumming in African cultural contexts, embraces a similar approach in The Message of African Drumming. A drummer himself, Martins is cognizant of the multiplicity of social, political, linguistic, and aesthetic functions drums can fulfill for African peoples and global citizens, as are Pacere and Niangoran-Bouah. What is striking, however, about Martins's analysis is what he has to say about drumming in view of the quest for individual identities. Whereas many critics focus on the collective dimensions of West African drumming practices, Martins is careful to insist on the importance of individual factors as well: “In traditional African society the uses of drums are manifold and innumerable. Drums are used for praise and chanting, to console and soothe distress and to give joy to people. They also serve as a means of communication, object of authority and above all, as a medium for man's quest of discovering the innermost self, the I” (Martins 1983, 28). Presented in a passage listing examples of what he describes as the “manifold and innumerable” uses of drums in traditional African societies, Martins acknowledges the significance of drums not only for collective social groups and cultures at large, but also in connection with individuals and their respective quests for autonomously configured identities. In Martins's view, the drum—described as a “medium for man's quest of discovering the innermost self, the I”—becomes an important mechanism, one through which individual identities are explored, negotiated, and revealed. This assertion is significant for a number of reasons, primarily because it exposes the multifaceted nature of the drum as medium. No longer limited to the functional domain of the collective, a means of reinforcing shared sociocultural, communicative, and aesthetic values, Martins opens the drum to realms of individual subjectivities, and in doing so, recognizes the drum's potential to influence different people in seemingly boundless possible ways.
Since questions of identity are fundamental in approaching the texts examined in this study, Martins's ideas about the drum as a mechanism through which one investigates and discovers the self remains in the foreground in investigating the roles of rhythm and music in the novel. Although Martins is primarily concerned with the prominence of the drum in West African cultural contexts, his ideas connecting the drum and the individual are applicable in a variety of geographical and cultural settings. As such, the motif of the drum as a medium through which identities are questioned, constructed, and reevaluated plays a central role in dealing with the texts analyzed and interpreted in this study, regardless of a writer's sociocultural, linguistic, and geographic origins and irrespective of his or her present location.
Even so, in considering the role of drums and drumming in Caribbean cultural contexts, it is often easier to find arguments that emphasize the importance of individual aspects rather than collective values in connection to locally produced music. For example, in his essay Poétique de la Relation (Poetics of Relation), Édouard Glissant makes a point to distinguish Antillean drummed music from African drummed music not only in terms of aesthetic criteria, but also in terms of the cultural values it performs and the social aspects it promotes:
En Afrique, le tambour est un langage qu'on organise en discours: il y a des orchestres de tambours où chaque instrument a sa voix. Le tambour est un partage. Aux Antilles, c'est le plus souvent un solitaire; ou un accompagnement. Les orchestrations tambourinées sont rares, et jamais aussi completes ni totales. Comparé à l'africain, le tambour antillais me donne l'impression d'un filet. Son rythme est moins variable. Je n'en conclus pas à une ‘décadence’; les rythmes antillais ont leur personnalité. Mais peut-être à une défonctionnalisation de l'instrument, qui ne correspond plus à des moments de l'existence collective, rassemblés dans la communion de l''orchestre’. (Glissant 1990 386–87)
[In Africa, the drum is a language that is organized in speech: there are drumming ensembles in which each instrument has its voice. The drum is a sharing. In the Antilles, it's most often a loner; or an accompaniment. Drummed orchestrations are rare, and never as complete nor total. Compared to the African, the Antillean drum gives me the impression of a net. Its rhythm is less variable. I am not drawing the conclusion of “decline”; Antillean rhythms have their personality. But perhaps a defunctionalization of the instrument, that no longer corresponds to moments of collective existence, gathered together in the communion of the “band.”
By characterizing the drum in the African context as a sort of shared discourse between multiple instruments and individuals, Glissant evokes the complexities and the richness of African drumming traditions. Emphasizing collectivity in the experience of rhythm and music, he suggests that the drum serves as a sacred unifying mechanism, one that unites players and listeners in a sort of communion, a “moment of collective existence.” In contrast, Glissant portrays the Antillean drum as a solitary instrument or a mere instrument of accompaniment. While he acknowledges that Antillean drumming has its own merits, its own “personality,” he claims that it lacks the completeness and totality of African drumming, that it fails to foster the same sense of undeniable collectivity, of inseparable community. Rather, Glissant proposes a sort of “defunctionalization” of the drum—one that refuses the sociocultural, linguistic, and political conventions traditionally assigned to the drum in the African context.
For Glissant, the drum becomes a solitary instrument once it is introduced into the Antillean context—one that is played by and speaks to individuals. Denied the sense of collective identity typically associated with African representations of drums and drumming, in Glissant's view, the Antillean subject is forced to play, to listen to, and/or to identify with the drum on an individual level. Although Glissant does not go so far as to make the same assertion Martins does in defining the drum as a “medium for man's quest of discovering the innermost self, the I,” he establishes an important connection between the drum and the individual, one that can be related to Martins's claim. In this respect, in describing the purported defunctionalization of the drum, Glissant suggests a process by which the subject is excluded/freed from the comforts/constraints of collective conventions, which in turn exposes the subject to the possibility of exploring the self.
Although Glissant's remarks about the defunctionalization of the drum and his insistence on the prominence of the individual in the Caribbean context are appropriate for this study, perhaps he is too quick to reject the presence of cooperation and collectivity in Caribbean music and drumming. It is therefore important to recognize that while the interests of the group and the individual appear to lie at opposite ends of a binary configuration, the two concepts are far from mutually exclusive. As Martins adeptly illustrates in The Message of African Drumming, the drum can simultaneously address both players and listeners on group and individual levels, at least concerning drumming in multiple African cultural contexts. In terms of examining the role of the drum in Caribbean contexts, other critics, including anthropologist Kenneth M. Bilby, argue similar points, accepting the coexistence of collective and individual values in Caribbean music.
In The Caribbean as a Musical Region, Bilby traces the history of music and explores the multiple functions of music in Caribbean societies. At the heart of his discussion is the concept of creolization, which Bilby describes as a process by which diverse European, African, local, and other international influences intermingle to create distinct linguistic, aesthetic, and sociocultural products. Although specific cultural influences can be detected, both seen and heard, in examining phenomena produced through creolization, such nouveautés are not derived from a single source or set of sources. Rather, they result from an intricate process of communication, collaboration, and synthesis. As Bilby explains, while Caribbean music bears similarities to both European and African musical styles, “It is not simply a matter of ‘African rhythm’ married to ‘European melody’” (Bilby 1985, 20). Distinct in style and in functions, Caribbean music is innovative, interactive, and inventive, a creative integration of the diverse musical influences and cultural traditions that have contributed to its development.
Rather than insisting on either/or characterizations to describe Caribbean music in comparison with other regional or national styles, Bilby recognizes the dynamic nature of Caribbean music in form as well as in function. Noting multiple emphases on “individual expressiveness” and “collective interaction” as well as on “improvisation” and “experimentation,” Bilby argues that “Caribbean musical cultures…are distinguished by their receptivity to new combinations of ideas and influences,” adding, “whatever else may be said about Caribbean music, it remains always ripe for change” (24). Fluid and dynamic, as Bilby explains, Caribbean music is open to possibility in style and in purpose. Addressing players and listeners on individual and collective levels, it creates a space in which people are free to negotiate relationships with themselves, each other, the world, and with the music they hear. Drawing from Caribbean cultures and culture at large, but also respecting individual originality and expressiveness, as Bilby and Glissant maintain, Caribbean music also plays an important role in creating spaces for autonomous identity negotiation and configuration.
As Léna Blou explains in Techni'ka, even when inspired by or grounded in traditional rhythms or performance protocols, the degree of improvisation, invention, and interplay involved in many Caribbean musical and performance genres amplifies dimensions of identification and relationality among musicians, dancers, singers, and spectators. In her work, Blou defines five relational spaces in which the collaborative performance of the music coincides with collective and individual identifications-in-process. Contextualized in the performance context of the Guadeloupean swaré-lé-woz—in which musicians and performers combine traditions and innovations in an improvisational forum of music and dance that Blou characterizes as a mix of “étrangeté et fascination” (strangeness and fascination)—for Blou, the five relational spaces of Caribbean performance exist in the vocal space (in which singers, storytellers, and audience members interact), the resonant space (in which the tambouyé drummers communicate through gwo ka rhythms and tones), the corporeal space (in which the bodies of individual dancers perform and interact in a collective space), the relational space (in which the circle of performers and participants connect on conscious, subconscious, physical, and spiritual levels), and the convivial space (in which food, drinks, music, movement, emotions, and intensity are shared until the early hours of dawn) (Blou 2005, 21–22). In designating gwo ka performance experiences as relational forums, Blou exemplifies the gwo ka experience as “une danse de survie, de l'inespéré, de l'inattendu…Danse de résistance, de résilience, de l'adaptation: Danse de la vie” (17) (a dance of survival, of undreamed [of possibilities], of the unexpected…Dance of resistance, of resilience, of adaptation : Dance of life). Grounded in the specificity of local aesthetic, historical, linguistic, and sociocultural criteria while open to international, multilingual, and transcultural influences, the gwo ka performance serves as a useful model for musically mediated identity negotiation and configuration. For Blou, Caribbean performance traditions as innovations provide meaningful, productive forums in which identities are improvised, auditioned, performed, and (re)positioned by the community of participants and performers. As we will see, such relational strategies can also play out in the transcultural transpoetic space of the text.
Rhythm and Transculture
Before discussing the importance of music and rhythm in connection with transcultural transpoetics in the works of Sembene, Kourouma, Sow Fall, Schwarz-Bart, Condé, and Chamoiseau, it is first necessary to define the concept of transculture. As with the trans of transpoetics, the trans of transculture insists on in-between conceptual spaces, calling attention to relationships between and among disparate cultural entities. As for the word culture, a concept identified as problematic by anthropologists, literary critics, and cultural studies scholars alike (see Clifford 1988; and Rowe 1998), it is useful to draw upon Ulf Hannerz's notion of a culture as a dynamic system, one that is open to a constant flow of communication and exchange. In “The World in Creolization,” Hannerz explains his concept of culture and simultaneously addresses the dangers of viewing a culture as a singular and intact homogeneous entity:
“A culture” need not be homogeneous, or even particularly coherent. Instead of assuming far-reaching, cultural sharing, a “replication of uniformity,” we should take a distributive view of cultures as systems of meaning. The social organization of culture always depends both on the communicative flow and on the differentiation of experiences and interests in society…[P]eople are also in contact with (or at least aware of) others whose perspectives they do not share, and know they do not share. In other words, these perspectives are perspectives toward perspectives; and one may indeed see the social organization of a complex culture as a network of perspectives. (Hannerz 1987, 550)
By placing the term “a culture” in quotation marks, Hannerz problematizes the word “culture” itself, but nonetheless surrenders to its ubiquity in seeking to redefine the term rather than suggesting a new word or expression. Fluid rather than fixed in nature, a culture is constantly shifting and transforming, which makes it difficult or even impossible to accurately describe a specific cultural group or to identify cultural absolutes. While, at first glance, this lack of precision and definition of the term “culture” may seem problematic, it is important to progress beyond the taxonomic tendencies that encourage us to categorize and simplify, particularly in dealing with cultural phenomena. When regarded in this light, the ambiguity of culture and cultures in themselves opens up a realm of pure possibility, a space in which a perpetual flow of communication, collaboration, and negotiation takes precedence over rigid characterizations and static descriptions.
In “Une interculturalité vécue” (A Lived Interculturality), Albert Memmi presents a similar notion of culture, but takes his ideas a step further in arguing for the universality of the intercultural in view of all cultures and cultural systems: “[L']illusion est de croire qu'une culture est un systeme imperméable et autonome. L'histoire d'une culture est celle de ses contaminations et de ses mutations. Toute culture est interculturelle” (Memmi 1985, 35). ([The] illusion is to believe that a culture is an impermeable and autonomous system. The history of a culture is that of its contaminations and its mutations. Every culture is intercultural.) Rather than insisting on “communicative flow” and “experience,” as Hannerz does, Memmi describes culture as being comprised of a limitless series of “contaminations” and “mutations.” Blurring the boundaries that distinguish cultures from one another and the divides that separate them, the processes of contamination and mutation refuse any sense of cultural purity and deny all claims to the existence of cultural totality. With cultures inextricably linked with one another, bearing multiple influences across time, for Memmi, “every culture is intercultural.” In making this assertion, Memmi relies on the importance of individual perspectives and subjectivities rather than that of a homogeneous or collective cultural whole. By suggesting: “L'interculturalité est pour moi une expérience vécue, une donnée de mon histoire personnelle” (Memmi 1985, 35) (Interculturality is for me a lived experience, an element of my personal history), Memmi favors a model in which individuals are accorded the power to negotiate cultural identities, rather than receiving them as prescribed definitions from an outside authority.
In view of Hannerz's description of culture and Memmi's characterization of interculturality, the difficulties of defining culture and cultural phenomena further reveal themselves. Nevertheless, in spite of these problems, in their respective models, Hannerz and Memmi create conceptual spaces for boundless possibility, specifically with respect to cultural change and transformation and to individual experience and identification. It is in these blurry conceptual spaces that the nature of transculture reveals itself. A point of connection, communication, and exchange, the transcultural space allows for the negotiation of individual perspectives and collective value systems across geographical borders and historical epochs. Perpetually shifting, constantly changing, the transcultural space is particularly effective in the frame of the novel, a genre that lends itself to a multiplicity of possibilities in form and in function.
In considering the novels selected for this study, this premise is of particular importance in determining how Francophone11 writers negotiate the balance of power in relation to French language and culture in the postcolonial era. Presently, French maintains the status of “langue officielle” (official language), and its application concerns such matters as politics and the law in former colonies such as Senegal and Côte d'Ivoire as well as in officially recognized French departments including Guadeloupe and Martinique. Although West African and Caribbean Francophone writers choose to write in French for a variety of reasons, most of them insist on shifting the balance of power in dealing with the French language and its prescribed culture and authority. Oftentimes, this redistribution of power is achieved through the use of linguistic devices and stylistic techniques. Generally referred to as localization or indigenization strategies (see Zabus 1991), such techniques incorporate elements from local languages, oral genres, and literary traditions into the frame of literature written or performed in another, usually politically dominant, language.
Even Kourouma, who consistently champions the countless possibilities for intercultural exchange and communication among members of the francophone community, acknowledges the difficulties of reconciling the poetics of African languages with those of standard French. In his native Cote d'Ivoire, French is the official language, but there are also around seventy-eight national languages including Baoulé, Senoufo, and Yacouba. Although Côte d'Ivoire's New Constitution of 2000 includes a clause that protects the promotion and development of national languages (Article 29), some languages including Beti, Plapo Krumen, Kodia, Jeri Kuo, and Deg are in peril due to dwindling speaking populations.12 Although, according to linguist Jacques Leclerc, Côte d'Ivoire is one of the most “francophonisé” (francophonized) countries in Africa (40 percent of the population can speak French), local languages with larger populations seem to be faring well due in part to de facto language practices. As Leclerc explains, Ivoirian languages and French tend to be used according to specific social criteria. In this respect, Ivoirian languages are used for day-to-day conversational purposes at home and in villages, whereas French, in addition to its political, legal, and educational functions as the official language, is used for professional and social advancement in major cities like Abidjan and Yamoussoukro.13
Choosing to write in French as a means of addressing a global francophone community, Kourouma nonetheless points out the problematic dimensions of French language governance in Francophone West African nations. In “Écrire en français, penser dans sa langue maternelle” (Write in French, Think in One's Maternal Language), Kourouma explains why, although he opts to write his novels in French, he is nonetheless at odds with the dominance of the French language in Francophone African countries:
Mon premier probleme d'écrivain, d'écrivain francophone, est donc d'abord une question de culture. De culture, parce que ma religion de base étant l'animisme, l'animisme africain, je me bats dans une grande confusion de termes avec les expressions françaises que j'utilise…On conviendra qu'il y a quand même un problème pour nous Négro-Africains qui avons pour langue nationale le français. Problème, parce que notre langue nationale n'a pas de mots précis pour nommer notre Dieu et notre religion. (Kourouma 1997, 115)
[My first problem as a writer, as a Francophone writer, is thus first a question of culture. Of culture, because my religion, the base of which is animism, African animism, I fight in a great confusion of terms with the French expressions that I use…One would admit that there is, even so, a problem for us Black-Africans who have French as a national language. Problem, because our national language does not have the precise words to name our God and our religion.]
Beyond questions of religious, philosophical, and cultural autonomy and expression in Francophone West Africa, Kourouma also indicates the potential problems of French linguistic dominance in political and legal domains: “Dans le français qui est notre langue nationale et qui est la langue administrative, les termes utilisés n'ont pas le même sens pour le juge—qui raisonne en français—et le jugé—qui raisonne en négro-africain” (115). (In French, which is our national language and which is the administrative language, the terms used do not have the same meaning for the judge—who reasons in French—and the judged—who reasons in Black-African [languages].) Indicating problems in political, legal, religious, and cultural domains, Kourouma favors the designation and dissemination of localized varieties of French that correspond to the sociocultural and aesthetic specificities of diverse Francophone localities. While recognizing the dubious nature of French language dominance in postcolonial West Africa, Kourouma all the while acknowledges multiple possibilities for growth and creativity in African languages as they interact with and reappropriate French linguistic forms. “On peut dire que les langues négro-africaines sont en perpétuelle création; elles s'adaptent, épousent les réalités et les sentiments qu'elles sont chargées d'exprimer” (118). (One could say that Black-African languages are in [a state of] perpetual creation; they adapt themselves, espouse the realities and sentiments that they are responsible for expressing.) For Kourouma, the intermingling of quotidian West African expressive imaginaries and authoritative French language realities in Francophone West Africa opens spaces for invention and appropriation that operate in a multiplicity of sociocultural, political and aesthetic domains.
Writers in the Francophone Caribbean face similar linguistic challenges. Like Kourouma, Condé chooses French as an international vehicular language, but still finds fault with French political, sociocultural, and linguistic dominance in the Francophone Antilles. In Condé's native Guadeloupe, which is recognized as a French DROM (Département et Région d'Outre Mer/Overseas Department and Region), French is the official language whereas Guadeloupean Creole, lacking an official government status, remains the primary maternal language. In “Au delà des langues et des couleurs” (Beyond Languages and Colors), Condé expresses her disdain for the Francophone establishment, repeatedly declaring, “[J]e ne crois pas à La francophonie” (Condé 1985, 36) (I do not believe in the Francophonie). Nevertheless, in disputing the presence of the Francophonie as institution, Condé equally eschews other linguistically determined affiliations, most notably Creolophone associations.
On croit souvent que nous, enfants des cannes à sucre, nous avons été bercés par les sonorités du créole, ce baragouin de l'exil devenu langue, par les mythes et légendes, que sa merveilleuse créativité a enfantés. Des images en forme de cliché volent à La rescousse…Mon cou s'étirait dans le carcan des conjugaisons, des accords des participes et de la récitation avec émotion des vers de Corneille. Quand je marronnais le créole, car cela arrivait tout de même, c'était au Carnival quand Pointe-à-Pitre résonnait des battements des tambours gwo-ka…Quelques jours par an, c'est peu, on en conviendra. (36)
[One often believes that we, children of sugar canes, we were brought up with the sonorities of Creole, this gibberish of exile become language, by the myths and the legends, to which its marvelous creativity gave birth. Images in the shape of clichés rush to the rescue…My neck stretched under the yoke of conjugations, of past participle agreements, and of the emotional recitation of Corneille's verses. When I took refuge as a maroon in Creole, because that happened all the same, it was at (the annual) Carnival (celebration) when Pointe-à-Pitre resonated with the beating of the gwo-ka drums. A few days each year, it is little, one must admit.]
For Condé, languages provide a means of communication that, while aligned with collective modes of identification in a given sociocultural context, do not decidedly determine identities or communities. By pointing out lingering and limiting sociocultural clichés based on linguistic criteria, Condé emphasizes the problematic relationships between French and Creole, further complicated by the difficult legacies of abuse and exploitation perpetuated by the French through slavery and colonialism. Refusing to accept prescribed sociolinguistic and cultural protocols, Condé encourages readers to confront the typographic stereotypes that underlie cultural, linguistic, socioeconomic and racial identities. On this note, she challenges individuals to develop relational communities that transcend the categorical limits of language and ethnicity, an endeavor she characterizes as “fraternités dessinées au-delà des langues et des couleurs” (36) (fraternities designed beyond languages and colors).
Much like Condé, critic Paul Gilroy invites readers to reconsider problematic dimensions of socially prescribed identities. Although he deals primarily with Anglophone literary texts and contexts, Paul Gilroy has established a substantial body of critical work that deals with the importance of music in relation to identity, placing particular emphasis on the creation and perpetuation of autonomous identity constructs in black communities. In The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, Gilroy designates a transcultural space he refers to as the “Black Atlantic.” Characterized in part as “a non-traditional tradition, an irreducibly modern, ex-centric, unstable, and asymmetrical cultural ensemble that cannot be apprehended through the Manichean logic of binary coding,” the Black Atlantic concerns itself “with the flows, exchanges, and in-between elements that call the very desire to be centered into question” (Gilroy 1993, 198, 190). Inspired by the Atlantic Ocean—the vast divide that simultaneously separates and unites Europe, Africa, and the Americas—Gilroy breaks up the precise geometry of triangular and binary relationships, envisioning a mutable viscous space that blurs the linear connections and dominance configurations established by hegemony and hierarchy. An apparent and important inspiration to my own model of transcultural transpoetics, the Black Atlantic recognizes the complexity of communication and exchange among diverse peoples and cultures across distant spaces and disparate epochs.
In acknowledging the similarities between the transpoetic transcultural space and the Black Atlantic, the question arises: Why not simply refer to the transpoetic transcultural space as the Black Atlantic? Wishing to avoid the trappings of color-coded identities, and in particular, the binary model that emerges when black is viewed in opposition to white, I aim to promote a more neutral model that recognizes the multiple racial, linguistic, and cultural identities present in a “mosaic” identificatory model, much like the mosaic configuration suggested by Jean Bernabé, Patrick Chamoiseau, and Raphaël Confiant in their Éloge de la Créolité (In Praise of Creoleness). Although Gilroy does indeed warn of the dangers of “the continuing lure of ethnic absolutisms in cultural criticism produced both by blacks and whites” (Gilroy 1993, 3), his decision to include the word “Black” in the title of his model seemingly does little to discourage such tendencies.
As for alternative models designed to represent and explain the complex networks of communication and exchange among different cultures, languages, and locations, specifically Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's Rhizome (presented in Mille Plateaux) and Édouard Glissant's Relation (discussed in Poétique de la Relation and Traité du tout-monde), they too seemed inappropriate in attempting to accurately represent transpoetic transcultural phenomena in literature. Although both the Rhizome and the Relation are considered more extensively in chapter 3, it is important to take a moment to elucidate why I insist on creating the designation of transpoetic transcultural space rather than opting to use preexisting terminology.
Written as an alternative to roots-derived single-source models for identity configuration, Deleuze and Guattari's Rhizome allows for a multiplicity of identificatory influences from numerous sources. Characterized as “acentré, non hiérarchique et non signifiant, sans Général, sans mémoire organisatrice ou automate central, uniquement défini par une circulation d'états,” (Deleuze and Guattari 1980, 32) (acentered, nonhierarchical, and nonsignifying, without General, without organizing memory or central automation, uniquely defined by a circulation of states), the Rhizome allows for increased freedom and possibility in identification. Although innovative, influential, and inspiring, Deleuze and Guattari's term “Rhizome” is ill-suited for the purposes of this study for many of the same reasons Glissant delineated in creating his concept of the Relation. Citing the pair's inability to escape from generalizing tendencies resulting from the Occidental/Oriental dichotomy as well as their failure to recognize “other [non-Western] situations” (Glissant 1997, 338–39), Glissant saw the need to create an alternative nonessentialist model, one that could more readily be adapted in describing the diverse peoples of the Antilles and expanded in characterizing individuals and cultural communities around the world. Abstract in nature, Glissant's Relation has no physical manifestation, botanical or otherwise, which, according to Glissant, makes it superior to other relativizing systems. Although I do not wish to argue for the superiority of abstract versus organic in establishing identificatory models, I can understand and appreciate Glissant's resistance to roots-based or Rhizome-based models. As for the Relation, as an identificatory model, it represents a perpetual process that favors mobility and movement, one that is always open to transformation and innovation. As an abstract model, the Relation leaves behind only traces of motion and points of connection, unlike the Rhizome, an organic system that, as Glissant maintains, develops roots “even in the air” (Glissant 1997, 340).
As for Glissant's Relation, the schematics of the model are ideal in describing both transpoetic and transcultural ideals. Consisting of traces of movement, connection and communication, the Relation refuses the rigidity of fixed characterizations and generalizations. Open to a domain of pure possibility, the Relation provides a vast and limitless expanse in which a multiplicity of elements intermingle, most notably languages and genres, both oral, written, and instrumental. In Poétique de la Relation (Poetics of Relation), Glissant describes the boundless potential of the Relation, particularly as manifest in poetic phenomena:
C'est aussi que la poétique de la Relation est à jamais conjecturale et ne suppose aucune fixité d'idéologie. Elle contredit aux confortables assurances liées à l'excellence supposée d'une langue. Poétique latente, ouverte, multilingue d'intention, en prise avec tout le possible. La pensée théoricienne, qui vise le fondamental et l'assise, qu'elle apparente au vrai, se dérobe devant ces sentiers incertains. (Glissant 1990, 44)
[It's also that the poetic of the Relation is forever conjectural and supposes no ideological fixedness. It contradicts the comfortable assurances tied to the presupposed excellence of a language. A latent, open, multilingually intentioned poetic, caught up with all of the possible. Theoretical thinking, that targets the fundamental and the foundation, that resembles truth, gives way before these uncertain paths.]
Transcending the confines of fixed categories, Glissant's Relation offers the freedom and uncertainty of possibility. Yielding unpredictable results spanning overlapping cultural, linguistic, and aesthetic criteria, Glissant's Relation deals as much with the transcultural as it does with transpoetics. As a dynamic relativizing system, the Relation provides subjects with a conceptual space for autonomous identity (re)configuration on both individual and collective levels. There are no absolutes in the Relation, no standard stereotypes, no stock generalizations. Everything in the Relation is incessantly changing, each moment ephemeral, which in turn perpetuates a constant process of negotiation. Although Glissant's Relation seems to correspond completely with what is characterized as transpoetic and transcultural, for the purpose of this study it has become important to designate terminology one could specifically apply in examining transpoetic and transcultural phenomena within the frame of the novel. Hence, the designation of transpoetic transcultural space(s).
Abstract and ephemeral, music has the power to overcome not only the limits of language, but also those created by geographical borders, sociocultural norms, and aesthetic formats. By injecting the rhythms of music and everydayness in their novels, writers subtly subvert the authority of linguistic, aesthetic, and cultural conventions in favor of the unpredictable and the possible. Resonating at the heart of the transpoetic transcultural spaces crafted by Sembene, Kourouma, Sow Fall, Schwarz-Bart, Condé, and Chamoiseau are the percussive sonorities of drums and drumbeats that underlie their texted representations of music, dance, work, and chores. Open to cacophony, euphony, and all of the in-between aesthetic variants, drums and their percussive variants have the capacity address a variety of disparate rhythmic and musical sensibilities, to appeal to a multiplicity of diverse peoples and cultures, and to convey multiple meanings in the process.
In examining the importance of rhythmic and musical phenomena in view of the performance and negotiation of social values, cultural traditions, and local aesthetic tendencies, it is necessary to acknowledge that not all readers are going to have the same amount of familiarity with or have access to the multiplicity of cultural, linguistic, and aesthetic elements an author chooses to include in his or her text. Nevertheless, even uninitiated readers, those unfamiliar with the rhythms, the instruments, and the music of the texts, can derive meaning from these novels and arrive at some point of understanding, activated by an engagement with the transpoetic and transcultural elements of each text. In Ku sà: Introduction à la percussion africaine (Ku sà: Introduction to African Percussion), Cameroonian poet and musician François Fampou illustrates this point on an auditory level in describing how listeners receive and interpret the complex rhythms of local drumming traditions.
La complexité et les possibilités de communication sont les principales caractéristiques de cette musique inaccessible même aux Africains non initiés. Une musique réservée à quelques personnes de lignée et de descendance bien définies n'a aucune chance de se populariser. Néanmoins, l'aspect purement complexe du rythme aurait pu être accessible à tous. (Fampou 1996, 42)
[The complexity and the possibilities of communication are the principal characteristics of this music inaccessible even to uninitiated Africans. A music reserved for a few people of well-defined lineage and descent has no chance of becoming very popular. Nevertheless, the purely complex aspect of the rhythm could have been accessible to everyone.]
In characterizing African drumming traditions and practices in Ku sà, Fampou insists on their communicative capacities, aesthetic complexities and, of course, the possibilities they present to initiated and uninitiated listeners alike. Moreover, by asserting that the drummed music is inaccessible on certain levels, even to uninitiated African ears, Fampou breaks free of nationalizing or regionalizing tendencies that suggest that there are inherent geographically or culturally determined ways to interpret music (i.e., an African way, a Caribbean way, or a European way). By arguing that certain aspects of drummed music, in this instance its rhythmic complexity, are accessible to everyone, Fampou opens a space for negotiation in which listeners can independently appreciate rhythmic music and derive some sense of meaning from it. As explained earlier, music functions in a similar fashion in the space of the novel. Although a reader may fail to recognize the sound and shape of a particular instrument or coherently understand its intended message or function in a localized context, he or she can still be moved by the rhythmic presence of music and sound in the text, and find therein an interpretive space in which meaning can be negotiated and constructed.
A strong rhythmic and musical presence introduces an interesting set of variables and possibilities into the frame of the novel. As literary critic André-Patient Bokiba suggests in Écriture et identité dans la littérature africaine (Writing and Identity in African Literature), music plays an important role in the novel, first and foremost in that it offers “à l'écrivain une palette d'images beaucoup plus riche, de permettre au musicien de rester présent sur le terrain de la parole littéraire” (Bokiba 1998, 257) (the writer a much richer palette of images [and] allows the musician to remain present in the domain of literary speech). Bokiba's characterization of the novel is interesting in that it insists on incorporating a variety of aesthetic genres, combining musical, literary, and visual aesthetic sensibilities. In this light, for Bokiba, it becomes possible for the writer, the painter, and the musician to be one in the same in the transpoetic transcultural space of the novel.
Although Bokiba's examination of the role of music in the novel focuses on one particular text, that of Congolese writer Sylvain Bemba's Le soleil est parti à M'pemba (The Sun has Gone to M'pemba) many of his ideas about music and literature can be applied in approaching other novels, including those selected for the purposes of this study. In characterizing how the musical presence manifests itself in the frame of the novel, Bokiba describes “une musicalisation des bruits de la vie courante” and “une personnification des sons instrumentaux” (257) (a musicalization of the noises of daily life and a personification of instrumental sounds). He further identifies the importance of what I refer to as texted music as a means of “défense-et-illustration de l'identité culturelle…[qui] entretient une forme de conscience historique…[et sert] comme manifestation de stratification sociale” (257–58) (defense and illustration of cultural identity…[which] maintains a form of historical conscience…[and serves] as a manifestation of social stratification). Although these concepts are addressed and explored at length in later chapters that deal more specifically with examples from the works themselves, at this point, it is important to take a moment to consider Bokiba's ideas about the “personification of instrumental sounds” in view of the multiple metaphors identified for drums and drumming.
Often serving as the figurative pulse of the text, in many instances drums serve as metaphorical hearts, audibly quickening in moments of intense joy, fear, excitement, and anticipation. Similarly, drumbeats can also have soothing effects on their listeners. Their patterned drummed rhythms—comforting like the sure and steady heartbeat of a mother, a father, a friend, or a lover—have the power to dissipate anger, malice, frustration, and negativity. Schwarz-Bart alludes to the soothing nature of familiar music and rhythms in her novel Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle (The Bridge of Beyond), characterizing their sonorities as a grounding force that shapes the everyday realities of her characters. In one particularly poignant passage, Schwarz-Bart describes the comforting effect drummed music has on Télumée, a woman scarred by violence, humiliation, and betrayal at the hands of her estranged husband:
Je demeurai immobile devant le tambour. Les doigts d'Amboise bougeaient doucement sur la peau de cabri, semblant y chercher comme un signe, l'appel de mon pouls. Saisissant les deux pans de ma robe, je me mis à tourner comme une toupie détraquée, le dos courbe, les coudes relevés au-dessus des épaules, essayant vainement de parer des coups invisibles. Tout à coup, je sentis l'eau du tambour couler sur mon coeur et lui redonner vie, à petites notes humides d'abord, puis à larges retombées qui m'ondoyaient et m'aspergeaient tandis que je tournoyais au milieu du cercle…(Pluie et vent, 216–17)
[I remained motionless before the drum. Amboise's fingers softly moved on the skin of the drum, seeming to search there for some sort of sign, like the call of my pulse. Seizing both sides of my dress, I began to turn about like a broken-down top, my back curved, my elbows raised above my shoulders, trying vainly to ward off the invisible strikes. Suddenly, I felt the drum's water run over my heart and bring it back to life, with little humid notes at first, then with large outpourings that sprinkled me and baptized me as I whirled around in the middle of the circle…]
As Schwarz-Bart describes, the rhythms of drumbeats have a rejuvenating effect on Télumée's hardened heart. While at first she is reticent, unwilling to engage with the drum's soft cadences, Télumée ultimately opens her heart to its healing rhythms, letting the sound waves wash over her heart like water. Both reassuring and invigorating, the soothing sonorities of familiar drumbeats coax Télumée out of her self-imposed exile and emotional isolation, drawing her back into the fold of a community of caring and concerned friends.
As Schwarz-Bart demonstrates, Télumée's success in connecting the interior rhythms of her heartbeat with the exterior rhythms of drumbeats signals an important turning point in her character development as well as in the progression of events in the plotline. Serving much like the pulse of the text, explicit texted representations of the rhythms of drumbeats and heartbeats often provide meaningful audible cues that foreshadow imminent changes and transformations. Almost imperceptible when the mind is distracted or the body at rest, the drum's pulse quickens and its beating becomes louder during intense moments, as a heart does, including those of celebration, anguish, and despair. This motif is also apparent in Kourouma's Allah n'est pas obligé (Allah is Not Obliged), a text characterized more by the chilling echoes of gunfire and the haunting sounds of warfare than by the vibrant sonorities of music and song.
In the passages in which Kourouma makes mention of drums and drumming, the rhythms serve to accentuate the decadence of the rebel faction's lifestyle. In narrating the atrocities committed by warring rebel factions in Liberia and Sierra Leone in the 1990s as experienced through the eyes of a twelve-year-old small soldier, Kourouma interweaves the noises of tam-tams and machine gunfire, resonantly framing a climate of intense emotions amid extreme chaos. Transcribed on the written page, the tam-tam rhythmically heightens the intensity of the soldiers’ emotional responses, fueled by excessive amounts of palm wine and hashish, and driven by the obsession and insanity of the thirst for control amidst so much anguish and instability. The intercalation of drumbeats and gunfire is particularly apparent in one passage that describes the ambiance at the rebel camp after the death of one of their own, a ruthless child soldier named Captaine Kid.
On est arrivés dans le camp retranché. Comme tous ceux de Libéria de la guerre tribale, le camp était limité par des crânes humains hissés sur des pieux. Le colonel Papa le bon pointa le kalachnikov en l'air et tira. Tous les enfants-soldats s'arrêtèrent et tirèrent en l'air comme lui. Ça a fait une véritable fantasia. (Allah n'est pas obligé, 62)
[We arrived at the camp position. Like all those of Liberia's tribal war, the camp was bordered by human skulls hoisted up on stakes. Colonel Good Papa pointed the kalachnikov in the air and fired. All the child soldiers stopped and fired in the air like him. It made for a veritable fantasia.]
Amidst a symphony of machine gunfire, the Colonel and his young battalion commemorate the life of their fallen comrade. As they fire their guns into the air, the harsh sonorities of the raucous overlapping successions of shots audibly augment the madness and mayhem of their funerary celebration.
Later on in the evening, long after the excitement of the machine gun symphony has faded, Kourouma evokes the rhythms of tam-tams. In shifting from the sonorities of machine gunfire to those of drumbeats, Kourouma effectively signals a significant emotional transformation, as one soldier's thoughts shift from honoring the life of Captaine Kid to seeking vengeance for his death:
Et les tam-tams reprirent de plus belle, de plus endiablé, de plus trépidant…
C'est vers quatre heures du matin, totalement soûl, que [le colonel Papa le bon] se dirigea a pas hésitants vers le cercle des femmes. Et là [il] se saisit vigoureusement d'une vieille qui était elle aussi à demi endormie. C'était elle et pas une autre qui avait mangé l'âme du brave soldat-enfant Kid. (Allah n'est pas obligé, 65)
[And the tam-tams picked up again more beautiful, more furious, more pulsing…
It was around four in the morning, totally drunk that (Colonel Good Papa) headed with hesitant steps toward the women's circle. And there (he) vigorously seized an old woman who was also half-asleep. It was her and not another that had eaten the soul of the brave child-soldier Kid.]
While losing himself in a stupor propelled by excessive amounts of palm wine and drugs, the colonel is suddenly compelled to act. Moved by the rhythms of the tam-tams, which Kourouma characterizes as both beautiful and furious, the colonel's motivation abruptly changes from one of remembrance to one of retribution. Increasing in intensity, the rhythms of the tam-tam, “more beautiful, more furious, [and] more pulsing,” quicken like that of a pulse in a nervous or excited state of anticipation, audibly echoing the interior rhythms of the Colonel's heart as he prepares to seek vengeance for the death of Captaine Kid.
As demonstrated in the aforementioned passages from The Bridge of Beyond and Allah Is Not Obliged, drums and other percussive devices tend to serve as a signals of change or transformation, designating important turning points in the texts we will consider in this study. Often evoked in descriptions of social rites that mark ritualized transitions from life to death and youth to adulthood, among others, drums often emphasize important moments in the development of a novel's principal characters. Not exclusive to character development, texted representations of drums and drumming are also implemented to signal substantial shifts in plotlines. Received by the reader, the rhythmic variations create a climate of anticipation, suggesting inevitable yet often unforeseeable turns of events. In The Bow and the Lyre, Octavio Paz explains how transitions in rhythmic processes operate in fostering a sense of expectation, perceptible by readers and listeners alike:
[R]hythm is something more than measure, something more than time divided into parts. The succession of beats and pauses reveals a certain intentionality, something like a plan. Rhythm provokes an expectation, arouses a yearning. If it is interrupted, we feel a shock. Something has been broken. If it continues, we expect something that we cannot identify precisely. Rhythm engenders in us a state of mind that will only be calmed when “something” happens. It puts us in an attitude of waiting. We feel that the rhythm is a moving toward something, even though we may not know what that something is. (Paz 1973, 45–46)
In Paz's view, rhythmic patterns establish “a certain intentionality” that, when altered, generates shifts in purpose and/or direction. Detectable both in reading and in listening activities, such rhythmic variations give rise to an intuitive sense of anticipation that is appeased only when “‘something’ happens,” when change occurs. In this respect, for Paz, rhythm and, more precisely, rhythmic changes inherently function as signals of transition and transformation. When offered as an explanation for texted moments of rhythmic variation, Paz's reasoning helps to elucidate why representations of drums, drumbeats, and other percussive devices, when transcribed in the frame of the novel, often serve to foreshadow important changes in the plotline or character development.
On a practical level, drums function as important modes of communication that operate on multiple interpretive and aesthetic levels. As earlier suggested by Fampou, the communicative capacity of drums is almost limitless. In some instances, particularly in reference to many West African drumming traditions, drums can be used signals to communicate specific messages across vast distances using drummed languages. In other instances, drums can serve as speech surrogates, imitating the rhythms, inflections, and tonalities of verbal languages (see Nketia 1971).14Acknowledged as languages (and literatures) in themselves by Pacere (1991) and Niangoran-Bouah (1981) among others, such drummed languages are perpetuated by highly skilled drummers who not only transmit complex messages across distant spaces, but who also preserve important historical and cultural information and pass it on from generation to generation in the form of sounding rhythmic arrangements.
In other cases, the communicative capacity of drumming takes on more fluid and interpretive dimensions, as Martins suggests in his characterization of traditional drummers in The Message of African Drumming: “Unlike the school of thought which views drumming as playing for art's sake, the drummer is socially, culturally and politically involved. Traditionally, through the drums, the drummer can monitor public conscience and act as its social critic. Ideology therefore is a major aspect in traditional drumming. The personality and the character, which assume a focal role, must then relate to a specific ethnicity and culture if they are to be accepted as authentic by the mass-population” (Martins 1983, 11). In describing the multiplicity of roles a traditional drummer can and should fulfill in African cultural contexts, Martins touches upon the dual importance of creativity and cultural authenticity in drumming. In this respect, a drummer not only preserves ties to important sociocultural traditions but also contributes his own innovative perspectives and aesthetic sensibilities to his art.
Not unique to African drumming and musical traditions, drums can also serve as expressive communicative mechanisms in Antillean cultural contexts. Although Antillean drummers do not traditionally utilize drum languages to communicate complex messages from one location to another as some African drummers do, Antillean drumming genres can nonetheless function in ways that convey thoughts, feelings, and impressions to their listeners,15 while creating spaces for subjective improvisations and responses for performers and participant-spectators alike. Underlying a vibrant blend of musical tradition and innovation, drums communicate a wealth of information and emotions in Antillean contexts. Perhaps Daniel Maximin says it best when he characterizes Antillean music as a language in its own right, one that rivals the expressive powers of spoken languages like French or Creole. Directly addressing each and every inhabitant of the Antilles using the singular informal French pronoun tu, Maximin affirms: “Oui, tu es d'un peuple originaire de deux ou trois langues maternelles: la musique, le créole, le français” (Maximin 1985, 34) (Yes, you are of a people native to two or three mother tongues: music, Creole, French). Although—as Schwarz-Bart, Condé, and Chamoiseau remind us—French and Creole remain on unequal footing in Guadeloupe and Martinique, specifically in view of political and socioeconomic categories, by invoking the language of music, Maximin subtly reminds us that music has the power to displace Western dominance hierarchies and to subvert polarizing constructs. Linguistically and aesthetically charged, music allows for the creation of sounding relational spaces in which individuals are called to (re)consider and (re)negotiate the ways in which they identify with and relate to one another in performance and extramusical contexts.
In both West African and Caribbean cultural contexts, drummed and instrumental music have the power to communicate ideas and emotions in a manner that transcends the limits of spoken and written language. In this way, the drum speaks without grammar and without words. Once perceived, once heard or felt, the music's resonant vibrations engage listeners (both willing and unwilling) in a sort of dialogue. As they receive musical information, listeners acknowledge the music and respond to it by reacting in some way or another such as dancing (in accord or in disaccord with the music), clapping, smiling, crying, or covering their ears. Even the act of hearing music and processing it as background noise engages the listener and qualifies as a response.
In recognizing the communicative capacity of drummed and instrumental genres, it is important to acknowledge the variable quality of the rhythmic information and messages transmitted through music. Dependent on multiple factors including location and time as well as the moods and mind-sets of both musicians and listeners, musical meaning is neither fixed nor limited to a series of set interpretations. Much like a reader who determines his or her own reading of a text through the process of lecture-écriture, a listener engages in a similar process each time he or she listens to a musical selection. With music, this process is further complicated since musicians do not always write or compose the musical pieces they perform. In these types of situations, musical selections are doubly interpreted, first by the musician and then by the listener, which, in turn, increases the variable quality of music and what it communicates. In Sounds and Society, sociologist Peter Martin supports this premise, arguing that there are no authentic interpretations of musical selections: “[D]isputes about the ‘real’ meaning of music or the relative value of different genres never seem to reach resolution. We can see too why different and incompatible interpretations may nevertheless coexist, and why accepted meanings change over time” (Martin 1995, 67). Martin's observations are important, particularly in that they acknowledge the fact that “different and incompatible interpretations” of musical information can and do “coexist” much in the way that the terms “cacophony” and “euphony” could conceivably be used by listeners in characterizing a single piece of music. He further suggests that musical “meanings change over time,” allowing for revision and reinterpretation in shifting from one sociohistorical context to another.
Martin's observations are particularly useful when considering the labels critics, listeners, and readers often use to categorize musicians and writers based on criteria of language, nationality, ethnicity, religion, and gender. These labels are particularly troublesome when interpreted as prescriptive rather than descriptive. An example of this tendency would be expecting African writers to write only about African problems and paradigms or for a Muslim woman writer to write only about the experiences and perspectives of Muslim women. Among francophone writers, Gaston-Paul Effa is particularly adamant in refuting the labels critics and readers use to categorize him and his work. Perceiving the space of the text as one of limitless possibility in which the writer and reader are free to “become,” Effa fears the limiting effects of labels on the text: “J'ai peur des étiquettes…La littérature c'est une terre sans murs” (Effa 2003). (I am afraid of labels…Literature is a land without walls.) In view of labels and the expectations they perpetuate, similar assumptions are applied in anticipating how people will perform and receive music, or how people will read and interpret literary texts. While the process of enculturation—through which people passively acquire local cultural information and behaviors as a result of being raised in a particular sociocultural setting—plays a role in shaping the metaphorical window through which one views the world, it does not establish static, culturally prescribed modes of thought, expression, or interpretation. In this respect, it is important to go beyond the mode of thinking that there is a specific African way, Antillean way, or French way of writing, performing, receiving, or interpreting texted and/ or musical information.
Roland Louvel expresses similar sentiments in his text Une Afrique sans objets: du vide nait le rythme (An Africa without Objects: Rhythm Born out of the Void), in which he explores the possibility of “a post-modern Africa” in moving from the twentieth to the twenty-first century. Refuting the presence of an “intellectual” or “moral authority” that dictates cultural absolutes, Louvel designates a conceptual space that he calls the “imaginary” in which subjects are free to negotiate independent ideas and opinions in considering cultures and cultural phenomena:
Quelle autorité intellectuelle ou morale pourrait encore nous indiquer, de nos jours, ce qu'est véritablement l'Afrique? Qui pourrait encore nous dicter ce que devrait être le bon comportement à son égard? Chaque imaginaire individuel peut désormais revendiquer le droit de s'en faire sa propre idée, de s'en bricoler une représentation à sa convenance. À chacun son Afrique. Ce qui n'empêche nullement que chaque vision particulière ne continue de se nourrir en puisant toujours très largement dans les lieux communs que nous tient en réserve notre commune doxa sur le compte de l'Afrique. (Louvel 1999, 171)
[What intellectual or moral authority could still tell us, in our day, what is truly Africa? Who could still dictate to us what should be the right attitude towards it? Each individual imaginary can henceforth claim the right to make one's own idea of it, to throw together a representation at one's liking. To each his Africa. Which doesn't at all prevent each particular vision from continuing to nourish itself by always drawing very broadly from the common places that we hold in reserve, our common doxa on account of Africa.]
In affirming “à chacun son Afrique,” Louvel recognizes the importance of constructing autonomous notions of place, both geographical and conceptual spaces that span nations, cultures, and continents. He nonetheless maintains the importance of collectively determined cultural ideals and information, suggesting that individuals can draw from an immense pool of stories and histories—a random collection of images, sensations, tastes, smells, and sounds—in forming their own ideas of what locations and cultures are and/or represent.
Louvel's observations remind me of something my students did during an eighteen-day interdisciplinary course in Ghana in 2007. Students in the course learned about Ghanaian history, literature, politics, culture, music, ecology, and current events in a variety of locations and social settings through classroom discussions, cultural activities, site visit excursions, and service learning. Only one of the students had been to Africa before (Kenya), and two of the students had never before traveled outside of the United States. Although the students adjusted to the environmental and sociocultural rhythms of the new location at varying speeds and in different ways, they often shared their perceptions of and reactions to day-today experiences and events with each other. One way they communicated their observations and impressions was through a game they invented during the four-hour bus ride from Cape Coast to Kumasi. Each student would begin a sentence with, “The thing about Africa is…” and complete the phrase with information from their personal experiences in Ghana. Although at first the game served as a way for students to acknowledge the challenges of adapting to life in a new cultural context and to make light of minor mishaps (including transportation delays, energy shortages, and problems resulting from miscommunication), the game later became a technique students used to try to encapsulate the whole of their experience in Ghana. In this respect, their answers became more profound. Rather than focusing on the cultural particularities of life in Ghana, students began to direct their gazes inward to themselves and to reflect on the personal changes they had undergone during the course of their journey. In doing so, began to reformulate their conceptions of identity, place, and relationality, in view of questions of what it means to be in the world.
This brings us back to rhythm. Rhythmic phenomena are ever-present in our lives, shaping our individual and collective experiences, both ordinary and extraordinary, as we move through space and time. Resonating in real and imaginary spaces, the rhythms of heartbeats, footsteps, drumbeats and dance steps overlap with the rhythms of languages, cultures, nature, and random everydayness. Through rhythm, we negotiate our understandings of ourselves, each other, and the world around us. Through rhythm, we (de/re)construct and (re)configure our identities and our positions in the world. As writers, Sembene, Kourouma, Sow Fall, Schwarz-Bart, Condé, and Chamoiseau incorporate rhythmic and musical phenomena in their novels in ways that implicate readers in complicated processes of identity negotiation that operate both inside and outside the frame of the text. As we begin to contemplate the intricate dimensions of local and global identities through texted representations of rhythm, music, and sounds in their works, let us read with open eyes and open minds, and also endeavor to open our ears, our hearts, and our bodies to the rhythms and musics resonating therein.
2. I would like to thank Armstrong Appiah for his Twi language help. In addition to enye shwee, Appiah suggested another related phrase that conveys a similar philosophy: Emma noha wo, which translates as “Don't worry,” or “Don't let it bother you.”
3. For a discussion of the importance of proverbs in African contexts and suggestions for how to incorporate proverbs in American contexts, see Jackson-Lowman 1997, 75–89.
4. Philip Briggs provides a great working definition for tro-tros in his travel guide to Ghana: “Pretty much any passenger vehicle that isn't a bus or a taxi.” He adds: “Trotros cover the length and breadth of Ghana's roads, ranging from comfortable and only slightly crowded minibuses to customized, covered trucks with densely packed seating” (Briggs 2004, 67).
5. Structuralist criticism in literature, largely shaped by Ferdinand de Saussure's linguistic theories, considers literary texts as being encoded with linguistic information. Semiotics, a process by which sign-systems made up of signifiers and signifieds are examined to assess meaning in literature, comprises an important component of structuralist criticism. Binary oppositions also play an important role in structuralist thought and often figure into structuralist literary analysis (see Saussure 2002; and Barthes 1970).
6. Jean-Pierre Martin has written about the importance of “listening to” twentiethcentury French writers: “La bibliothèque idéale de l'écrivain est aussi une sonothèque. Donc, écoutons-les écrire” (Martin 1998, 11). (The ideal writer's library is also a sound library. Thus, let's listen to them write.)
7.Boulez's use of the word entendre is interesting. While in this instance, it translates as “to mean,” in other contexts, the verb conveys the sense of “to hear” or “to understand.”
8. Bendré comes from the Mooré language, which is spoken in Burkina Faso, southeastern Mali, and northern regions of Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, and Benin. The Bendré tam-tam, referred to in French as the tambour calebasse (calabash drum), is a royal court instrument constructed from a large hollowed-out calabash covered with animal skin; it is traditionally used during official ceremonies.
9. In Bakhtin's Dialogic Imagination, he suggests that the novel is an ideal medium for the kinds of interactions that take place among different languages, literary genres, and aesthetic domains: “The stylistic uniqueness of the novel as a genre consists precisely in the combination of these subordinated, yet still relatively autonomous, unities (even at times comprised of different languages) into the higher unity of the work as a whole: the style of a novel is to be found in the combination of its styles; the language of the novel is the system of its language.”
10. Ghanaian drummer Antoinette Kudoto is a prime example of a woman who has earned local and international acclaim as a master drummer.
11. There is an important distinction between “Francophone” and “francophone.” Whereas capitalized “Francophone” implicates a political affiliation in which self-acknowledged French-speaking nations and cultures agree to participate in the Francophonie organization, lowercase “francophone' connotes a community of French speakers around the world, regardless of their nationality, political affiliation, or language proficiency. I incorporate both spellings throughout the text, specifically as a way of emphasizing the political dimensions of language policy that Francophone writers deal with every day, but also as a way of considering the ways in which francophone writers deconstruct political authority in addressing members of an informal global community of French language readers and speakers.
12. According to Ethnologue: Languages of the World, the Esuma and Tonjon languages are already classified as extinct in Côte d'Ivoire, while others are in danger of extinction (Gordon 2005).
13. Although this information is published in book form (see Leclerc 1992), the most up-to-date information is available on Leclerc's Web site, Aménagement linguistique dans le monde, at http://www.tlfq.ulaval.ca/axl.
14. In characterizing West African drumming traditions, J. H. Kwabena Nketia has designated three distinct categories or modes: speech mode (in which the drum acts as a speech surrogate); signal mode (in which drums are used to communicate information from one location to another); and dance mode (in which drums are used to lead the dance moves and vocal responses of performers and participant-spectators) (Nketia 1963).
15. As Michel Béroard suggests in characterizing Guadeloupean gwo ka rhythms, the rhythms convey emotions, but also communicate complicated dimensions of sociocultural and historical phenomena: “Les musiques n'goka [gwo ka] véhiculent l'espérance, les souffrances et les joies du peuple guadeloupéen. Dans la société antillaise, elles furent reléguées au rang de musiques folkloriques puis de 'bitin a vié nèg' (musique de sales nègres). Aujourd'hui, elles trouvent une place privilégiée dans l'âme et l'expression guadeloupéennes” (Béroard,1997, 12). (The gwo ka musics convey the hope, sufferings and joys of the Guadeloupean people. In Antillean society, they were relegated to the rank of “music of dirty black people.” Today, they find a privileged place in the Guadeloupean soul and expression.)