2 / Rhythm and Reappropriation in God's Bits of Wood and The Suns of Independence
Throughout time, music and rhythm have served as important strategies for subverting and reappropriating authority, particularly in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, during which time diverse musical genres—including jazz, punk, rap, and other forms of popular music—have played a role in challenging aesthetic and sociocultural conventions in locations around the world (see Berger and Carrol 2003; Born and Hesmondhalgh 2000; Mattern 1998; Pratt 1990; and Yankah 1997). Serving as points of connection or commonality among diverse peoples, rhythm and music can function as powerful devices that unite people in their struggles against political, economic, and hegemonic authorities. Theodor Adorno describes music as a “formative force” that creates “binding experiences,” even in its most abstract and fragmentary forms, and that encourages collectivity in that it “says We directly regardless of its intentions” (Adorno 1997, 167), while simultaneously promoting individualism. A creative, expressive form of pro-activity or pro-activeness, the power of music manifests itself in a multiplicity of ways, fostering a dynamic rhythmic force that connects and empowers individuals, affirms their autonomously constructed identities, and inspires them to question and to pro-actively resist repressive regimes and social agendas. Not exclusive to the domain of music, this power is also affirmed through transdisciplinary rhythmic phenomena as perceptible in linguistic, poetic, and biological forms (among others). As Henri Meschonnic maintains: “Comme la collectivité est rythmique, le rythme engendre la collectivité” (Meschonnic,1982, 649) (Just like collectivity is rhythmic, rhythm engenders collectivity).
In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, West African musicians have used their voices to speak out against economic exploitation, political corruption, and social injustices, spreading their messages to a global forum through live performances, music videos, and audio recordings. Ivoirian reggae artists Alpha Blondy and Tiken Jah Fakoly have emerged in recent years as prominent critics of European and American overinvolvement in African affairs. In doing so, they have become vocal advocates for African autonomy and Pan-African unity. Blondy has earned notoriety throughout the past decade with his 1998 song “Armée française” (French Army), in which he orders the French army to leave the independent African nations of Côte d'Ivoire, Senegal, Gabon, Djibouti, and Central African Republic, among others (Blondy 1998). As the song begins, Blondy commands : “Armée française, allez-vous-en! Allez-vous-en de chez nous. Nous ne voulons plus d'indépendance sous haute surveillance.” (French army, get out of here ! Get out of our home. We no longer want independence under high surveillance.) Later in the song, Blondy proclaims :
Nous sommes des États indépendants et souverains.
Votre présence militaire entame notre souveraineté,
Confisque notre intégrité, bafoue notre dignité,
Et ça, ça ne peux plus durer
[We are independent and sovereign States
Your military presence undermines our sovereignty,
Confiscates our integrity and scoffs at our dignity,
And this, this can no longer
last So get out of here!]
Although the song was recorded five years prior to violent exchanges between France and Côte d'Ivoire in 2004, the song quickly became an anthem for young Ivoirians who were frustrated with the French response to civil unrest in their country.
After a failed coup d'état attempt on September 19, 2002 (when rebel factions from northern Côte d'Ivoire attacked government and military installations in Abidjan, Bouaké, and Korhogo), France increased its troop levels in Côte d'Ivoire. As tensions mounted between the northern and southern regions of Côte d'Ivoire, France also worked to broker the Linas-Marcoussis Peace Accord in January 2003 through which officers from the rebel forces would be integrated into President Laurent Gbagbo's government, and foreign troops would be brought in to monitor the cease fire. Although Gbagbo and the leaders of the rebel faction accepted the terms of the accord, declaring the end of civil war in July 2003, their agreement eventually broke down, and violence began to mount once again between rival factions. The violence between groups escalated in the months leading up to November 2004, when Gbagbo ordered air strikes in rebel-controlled regions in northern Côte d'Ivoire. During one such air strike, nine French soldiers and an American aid worker were killed. Whether the strikes were accidental or intentional, the world may never know. Even so, despite Gbagbo's claims that the deaths were unintentional and his assurances that Côte d'Ivoire was not at war with France, French president Jacques Chirac ordered a retaliatory strike that destroyed most of the Ivoirian air force's fighter jets and helicopters. After the attacks on the Ivoirian air force, a wave of anti-French violence and vandalism erupted in Côte d'Ivoire during which French schools and businesses were burned and vandalized. As tensions mounted in the capital, anti-French protests in Abidjan were met with gunfire when French troops responded to days of protests and riots by firing on Ivoirian civilian protesters. According to one source, seven Ivoirians were killed by French gunfire, and nearly two hundred others were injured in the attacks (Leupp 2004).
Although the French government maintains that the French soldiers responded with gunfire as a means of protecting French citizens against Ivoirian civilian attacks, many citizens, artists, and advocates disagree with this assertion, including Blondy. In 2007, the artist resuscitated “Armée française” by making a controversial video for the song using graphic images from the November 2004 attack on Ivoirian civilians. Although critics have accused Blondy of trying to incite violence through the video, Blondy argues that the purpose of the video is to document the tragic events of November 2004 and to discourage European overinvolvement in African affairs. In Blondy's view, the problems he addressed in his 1998 song have not been sufficiently resolved or addressed. In defending his concept for the video, Blondy asserts, “J'ai écrit cette chanson en 1998, l'armée française en a ‘fait’ les images en 2004” (Poissonnier 2007). (I wrote this song in 1998, the French army “made” the images for it in 2004.)
Although Blondy's “Armée française” provides just one contemporary (and controversial) example (Senegalese singing sensation Youssou N'Dour, Beninoise afropop artist Angelique Kidjo, Malian wassoulou singer Oumou Sangaré, Rwandan R & B star Corneille, and Senegalese rapper Didier Awadi are among countless others), musicians in Africa have been using music for centuries to voice social concerns and to fight injustice and inequality. In their collection Women Writing Africa: West Africa and the Sahel, Esi Sutherland-Addy and Aminata Diaw provide transcriptions of traditional songs used by women to express unpopular or subversive viewpoints. As Sutherland-Addy and Diaw explain, rather than inciting or heightening conflicts or violence, the inflammatory lyrics of certain songs are designed as a means of encouraging communication, negotiation, and exchange among performers and audience members: “[F]irst and foremost, the performance of songs or tales by a good singer or storyteller opens avenues for discussion, for argument, for protest, for debate…Performance events in the traditional oral West African context favor responsiveness and force the deaf to hear” (Sutherland-Addy and Diaw 2005, 22–23). As Sutherland-Addy and Diaw affirm, such musical pieces are traditionally performed in a social forum where the social critiques, challenges, and commentaries they offer will be received and considered by allies and opponents alike. In this respect, the aim of music is not to impose a single will or a single way, but to open the ears, the eyes, and the mind to multiple perspectives and to stimulate thoughtful consideration and discussion.
In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, African writers have found inspiration in the provocative strategies employed for centuries by vocal and instrumental musicians in Africa.1 Although generations of African writers have taken up their pens to engage readers from a global audience in transgenerational and transcultural dialogues, Ousmane Sembene and Ahmadou Kourouma were among the first. Through the incorporation of prominent rhythmic and musical elements in their respective novels, Gods Bits of Wood and The Suns of Independence, Sembene and Kourouma create vibrantly sounding imaginative worlds that resonate from the space of the written page. Most visibly manifest in the ever-present rhythms of drums and drumming, but also evoked through multiple representations of song and dance in both ritual and quotidian settings, the pronounced presence of rhythmic, musical, and otherwise noisy phenomena plays a significant role in each novel, connoting aesthetic, linguistic, sociocultural, and political implications. Tied into strategies of resistance, reclamation, and reappropriation in the colonial and postcolonial eras, Sembene and Kourouma effectively include rhythmic and musical components in their respective texts, creating resonant transpoetic works that dually promote each writer's mission to be socially committed through writing. In what Jean Ouédraogo refers to as the quest to “witness, denounce and demythify” (Ouédraogo 2001, 772), Sembene and Kourouma exploit the power of rhythm and music in a multiplicity of ways that influence not only their texts’ characters and plotlines, but also have an impact on social relationships and contexts outside of the frame of the novel.
Published in 1960, Sembene's God's Bits of Wood presents a fictionalized account of a 1947 railroad workers’ strike that immobilized railway traffic between the cities of Bamako, Thiès, and Dakar. Filled with the texted sonorities of multiple representations of music and dance as well as the resonant rhythms of sounding quotidian phenomena, Sembene's portrayal of the struggles of striking workers and their families explores dimensions of resistance and reappropriation in a West Africa scarred by the political abuses, social injustices, and economic exploitation of the colonial era. While exposing the hardships endured by the striking workers and their families, Sembene insists on the importance of the rhythms of language, music, and movement throughout the novel, particularly as they relate to questions of authority, autonomy, and identity in colonial and postcolonial West Africa.
Kourouma examines similar themes in The Suns of Independence, a novel that reveals social problems in West Africa in the early postcolonial era. Politicized in content and in form, Kourouma's first novel drew its share of international controversy and acclaim even before printed copies were available to francophone readers. After repeated rejections from French publishing houses, due in part to their reluctance to endorse Kourouma's malinkisized brand of French, The Suns of Independence was first published in Canada by Les Presses de l'Université de Montréal in 1968. Later distributed by the French publishers Les Éditions du Seuil, The Suns of Independence, like God's Bits of Wood, quickly established itself as a pillar in the African literary canon. In telling the tragic story of Fama, a Malinké man of royal heritage who spends his days begging to earn his livelihood, and his wife, Salimata, a woman who struggles with infertility and memories of a botched excision, Kourouma examines complicated dimensions of identity and authority in postcolonial West Africa. Like Sembene, Kourouma masterfully weaves rhythmic and musical elements into his prose, celebrating the sonorities of everyday rhythmic and musical happenings as a means of exposing political inequalities, social problems, and linguistic conflicts.
In considering the multiple manifestations of rhythm and music in God's Bits of Wood and The Suns of Independence, we will first examine texted evocations of the rhythms of song, dance, music, and chores as well as those of the biological processes of respiration and circulation. In addition, we will discuss the significance of the decidedly resonant qualities of the texts in view of Sembene and Kourouma as socially committed writers. By establishing links between rhythmic and musical representations in the texts and the aesthetic, sociocultural, and linguistic localization strategies both writers employ, it becomes apparent how rhythm and music serve as effective subversive mechanisms, displacing the authority of the French language and culture in colonial and postcolonial West Africa, while designating autonomous spaces for innovation, invention, and reappropriation that impact identity questions and configurations on global and local levels.
Language and the Language of Music
For Sembene and for Kourouma, the decision to write in French is inescapably politically charged. Hailing from Senegal and Côte d'Ivoire respectively (both former French colonies in which French has remained the sole official language despite the presence of thriving nationally recognized languages), Sembene and Kourouma argue that the choice of language is inextricably connected to questions of identity, with implications in political, sociocultural, and aesthetic domains. Beyond the identificatory dimensions of language and, more specifically, the choice of language, French serves a practical communicative purpose for Sembene and Kourouma in that it allows them to reach global audiences with their writing. In spite of its utility for communicating with readers around the world, the French language is nonetheless problematic in postcolonial contexts. An emblematic presence that recalls the injustices of colonialism and the power of French authority during the colonial era and the persistence of French cultural encroachment and economic exploitation in the postcolonial era, the French language continues to impose a far-reaching authority in Senegal and Côte d'Ivoire.
As the official language of legal and political authority in the two countries, French, an imported and acquired language, reinforces the socioeconomic hierarchical systems in place in Senegal and Côte d'Ivoire, effectively marginalizing people who do not speak the language at all, as well as those who do not speak the language at a native or near-native level of proficiency. In Kourouma's native Côte d'Ivoire, French is the official language despite (and also because of) the presence of seventy-eight other living languages including Baolé, Sénoufo, Yacouba, and Dioula. For purposes of interlinguistic communication, Dioula, not French, is one of the preferred vehicular languages in many parts of Côte d'Ivoire, particularly for local business transactions. The linguistic situation is comparable in Mali (where Kourouma completed his studies), where there are around thirty local languages, thirteen of which are recognized as national languages (Bambara, Bobo, Bozu, Dogon, Peul, Soninké, Songoy, Sénoufo-Minianka, Tamasheq, Hasanya, Kasonkan, Madenkan, and Maninkan). Although Bambara is spoken as the primary vehicular language in Mali, French remains the official language. Similarly, in Sembene's native Senegal, French is the official language where thirty-five local languages coexist. Six (Wolof, Peul, Serer, Dioula, Malinké, and Soninké) are recognized as national languages. In Senegal, Wolof functions as the majority language as well as the primary vehicular language, particularly in the northern half of the country. Provided that different local vehicular languages are preferred in Côte d'Ivoire, Mali, and Senegal, on a practical level, French operates as an important regional vehicular language, connecting people in Francophone West African nations with each other and with members of the global Francophone community. The choice of French as the official language also prevents a single ethnic or linguistic group from claiming a disproportionate amount of political power and authority by designating their mother tongue as the sole official language. Even so, the percentage of French speakers in each country is relatively low. Recent estimates suggest that 40 percent of Ivoirians and 20 percent of Senegalese speak French as a second, third, or fourth language.2
Sembene has overtly criticized language policy and practices in Senegal and other West African nations, all the while acknowledging that the choice of language is a delicate one with no easy solutions, particularly on a national level. In an interview with Sada Niang, Sembene points out two examples to illustrate the pragmatic challenges to the French official language policy in Senegal. In the first example, Sembene discusses how different ethnic groups have been unable to agree upon a Senegalese language alternative to French in government proceedings. He describes one instance in particular when Wolof was proposed as the preferred language for Senegalese National Assembly meetings. The motion was rejected when members of minority language groups voiced their concerns that using the Wolof language would give an unfair advantage to the Wolof majority. Sembene explains his frustration with their decision, supporting the choice of Wolof as a pragmatic one since more people in Senegal speak Wolof than any other language: “Suprême contradiction: au sein de cette auguste assemblée, il siège des deputés qui ne parlent ni pular ni français bien que le discours officiel s'y déroule en français” (Niang 1993, 91). (Supreme contradiction: within this grand assembly are seated deputies that speak neither Pular nor French, even though the official proceedings are conducted in French.)
Even worse, according to Sembene, is the linguistic situation in Senegalese courtrooms and tribunals. As the official language in Senegal, French is the language of law and justice, so all court proceedings are conducted in French, even if all of the witnesses, lawyers, and officials understand a common language like Wolof. Sembene explains:
[L]orsque vous allez devant les tribunaux, les magistrates sont wolof et parlent wolof, les prévenus sont wolof et parlent wolof, mais les gens ne parlent que par des interprètes. Ce que le prévenu dit en wolof, le président, les juges, les assesseurs le comprennent parfaitement, mais malgré tout, il faut que ceci leur soit traduit en français. N'est-ce pas ridicule ça? (Niang 1993, 91)
[When you go before the tribunal, the magistrates are Wolof and speak Wolof, the accused are Wolof and speak Wolof, but the people only speak through interpreters. What the accused says in Wolof, the president, the judges, the associates understand it perfectly, but in spite of everything, it must be translated to them in French. Isn't that ridiculous?]
Sembene's criticism of language practices in legal and judicial sectors in Senegal and other Francophone nations only begins to scratch the surface of the problematic dimensions of language policy and practices in contemporary West Africa. There are also questions of linguistic barriers to educational institutions, economic opportunities, and social mobility, among others, which further complicate the discussion.
Often referred to as a voice of the voiceless, Sembene was born in the Casamance region of southern Senegal in 1923. Although he was expelled from school as a teenager for disciplinary problems, Sembene nurtured his love of reading, writing, cinema, and storytelling. After serving with the French army as a tirailleur, an African infantryman who helped to liberate the French army from the German occupation, Sembene returned to a Dakar ravaged by the political, economic, and social injustices of colonialism in 1946. Unable to find work in Senegal, Sembene returned to France, where he worked as a manual laborer on the docks of Marseille. After spending over a decade in France, Sembene returned to Senegal following the declaration of Senegalese independence in 1960. Sembene's novels and novellas—Le Docker noir (Black Docker) (1956), Ô pays, mon beau peuple! (Oh Country, My Beautiful People!) (1957), Les Bouts de bois de Dieu: Banty mam yall (God's Bits of Wood) (1960), L'Harmattan (1964), Le Mandat (The Money Order) (1966), Xala (1973), Le Dernier de l'empire (The Last of the Empire) (1981), and Guelwaar (1996)—and his collections of short stories—Voltaïque (1962) and Niwaam (1987)—evidence his continued political engagement and his commitment to exposing political, economic, and social injustices in colonial and postcolonial West Africa. In addition to a large body of written works, Sembene has also established himself as one of Africa's premier cinematographers, directing socially committed feature films including La Noire de…(Black Girl) (1966), Mandabi (The Money Order) (1986), Emitai (1971), Xala (1974), Ceddo (1976), Camp de Thiaroye (1988), Guelwaar (1993), Faat Kiné (2000), and Moolaadé (2004). His life and work have inspired writers, filmmakers, and activists around the world and continue to do so, even after his death at the age of eighty-four in 2007.
Another socially committed writer, Kourouma was born in northern Côte d'Ivoire near Bundiali in 1927. As a young man, he completed his studies in Bamako, and later served in the French army before pursuing studies in math in Paris and, later, in Lyon. Like Sembene, Kourouma returned to his country in 1960 following Ivoirian independence. Upon his return to Côte d'Ivoire, Kourouma was vocal in criticizing the politics of the changing country. An outspoken advocate for the Ivoirian people, Kourouma was identified as an opponent of Houphouët Boigny's regime, and spent five years in exile in Algeria from 1964 to 1969. During his time in exile, Kourouma wrote his first novel, The Suns of Independence, in which he grapples with questions of identity, autonomy, and authority in postcolonial West Africa. He later wrote Monnè, outrages et défis (Monnè, Outrages and Provocations) (1990), En attendant le vote des bêtes sauvages (Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote) (1998), and Allah n'est pas obligé (Allah is Not Obliged) (2000), all of which demonstrate his continued commitment to exposing West African social problems and exploring their implications on national and international levels. Over the course of his career, Kourouma also published a children's book, Yacouba, chasseur africain (Yacouba African Hunter) (1998), a theatrical piece, Le Diseur de vérité (The Teller of Truth) (1999), and coauthored a book of popular African proverbs, Le Grand livre des proverbes africains (The Great Book of African Proverbs) (2003) before his untimely death in December 2003. In 2004, a posthumous novel, Quand on refuse on dit non (When we refuse we say no), was released as a lasting testament to Kourouma's social activism through writing.
Although they choose to write their novels in French, Sembene and Kourouma are both hesitant to accept the label of Francophone writer, due in part to the political and sociocultural implications such linguistically prescribed labels convey. Sembene, who characterizes language as “a tool” he uses for communicative purposes (Aas-Rouxparis 2002, 577), also describes language as “a product of politics”:
La langue est un produit de politique. Ce sont les hommes au gouvernement qui décident de cette politique. À mon avis, toutes les langues recèlent de la richesse. Cela dépend de qui les emploie. Dans nos écoles, au Sénégal, nous enseignons toutes les langues européennes. Nous écrivons aussi dans les langues africaines, et nous avons même traduit la Bible et le Coran. Personnellement, je ne veux pas qu'on nous enferme dans la Francophonie. (577)
[Language is a product of politics. It is the men in government who decide on this politic. In my opinion, all languages possess wealth. It depends on who uses them. In our schools, in Senegal, we teach all of the European languages. We also write in African languages and we have even translated the Bible and the Coran. Personally, I do not want people to confine us to the Francophonie.]
Equally recognizing the power of language as a “tool” and the danger of language as a political “product,” Sembene dislikes the practice of applying the Francophone label to Senegalese writers who choose to write in French. Viewing the label as a limiting constraint, always inevitably aligned with the trappings of French culture and politics, Sembene favors the designation of alternative monikers that also recognize the depth, versatility, and vitality of African languages. Perhaps this is why Sembene so actively commits himself to introducing West African languages such as Wolof and Bambara to his public, both as a writer and as a filmmaker.
While, in a cinematic setting, Sembene's characters speak French, Wolof, and Bambara, sometimes in tandem with other languages such as Arabic, resonantly reflecting the realities of expression and communication in a polyglossic setting, in his novels he employs a combination of stylistic and lexical strategies to create a similar effect. For example, in God's Bits of Wood, Sembene often emphasizes a character's choice of language by directly inserting words from the Wolof and Bambara languages or by identifying the speaker's choice of language (e.g., “in French,” “in Wolof”). In other instances, when introducing lexical elements from local languages, Sembene visually calls attention to Wolof, Bambara, and Arabic terms by presenting them in italicized print or accompanying them with explicatory footnotes. In subsequent uses of these words and expressions, they often appear in the same nonitalicized typeface as the French text. In this way, Sembene simultaneously imposes the terms’ orthography and signification on the French language framework. Moreover, by incorporating elements from local lexicons into his French-language text, Sembene masterfully intercalates the rhythms of French, Wolof, and Bambara, creating polyphonic and polyrhythmic effects. By infusing the rhythms of the French language text with the rhythms of Wolof and Bambara language and orality, Sembene denies the conventions and rhythms of prescribed language practices, instead crafting a text that resonates with the overlapping rhythms of multiple voices speaking multiple languages.
Such linguistic and stylistic techniques are apparent throughout God's Bits of Wood. In one passage, on the eve of the workers’ strike that drives the plot of the novel, Sembene evokes the persistent beating of drums, manifest in the rhythm of the bara, a term Sembene defines in a footnote as a “Bambara dance” (BBD, 28). Offset in italicized print and defined in a footnote in its initial appearance, the word later resurfaces in two other passages. Camouflaged in the black-and-white body of the French text and devoid of explicit clarification, the reader is left to his or her own devices—those of guessing, inferring, or remembering—to determine the meaning of the Bambara term one hundred pages and, later, three hundred pages after its initial use. This is just one of the techniques Sembene uses to reorient or localize the French language, subtly transforming it to better reflect the rhythms of Senegalese and Malian linguistic and cultural realities and imaginaries.
In other examples, Sembene opts to emphasize a character's use of language through the designations “in French,” “in Wolof,” or “in Bambara.” Whether used to reveal the complexity of polyglossic interactions, to affirm the importance of one's choice of language, or to expose the socioeconomic and cultural inequalities among languages and the people who can and cannot speak them, such clarifications reveal the extent to which language and identity are inextricably interwoven. Sembene demonstrates this phenomenon in God's Bits of Wood through his portrayals of characters and their use of language in varying interpersonal situations and sociocultural contexts. At times, such situations are determined by a person's language competency or the lack thereof in a legally or socially prescribed linguistic interaction such as when Ramatoulaye is arrested and must communicate with the French-speaking authorities with the help of an interpreter, which only serves to complicate her situation (BBD, 123). At other times, linguistic circumstances and criteria are more a matter of choice, such as when N'Deye Touti, in an attempt to align herself with the language of power, privilege, and authority in the French colonial system, prefers to speak French whenever possible. An additional example of the significance of language choice takes place when Bakayoko, in an effort to unite diverse West African peoples in the struggle to resist colonial authorities in the critical moments preceding the end of the strike, delivers a decisive speech in Wolof, Bambara, Toucouleur, and French (336).
In another passage, Sembene simultaneously re-creates the multiple sonorities of the West African linguistic landscape while affirming the inherent connections between language and identity both locally and globally when Ad'jibid'ji, a young Bambara girl, speaks to her grandmother Niakoro about languages and idiomatic expressions. As Niakoro smokes her pipe, Ad'jibid'ji wonders about why different words and expressions are used in French, Bambara, and Wolof to characterize the experience of smoking a pipe. She also wonders why there are two expressions to describe the experience in Wolof and in French but only one in Bambara. In response to her grandmother's annoyance at being asked such a question, Ad'jibid'ji explains that she has had difficulties finding an answer to the question since her father is away and, although her mother speaks both Bambara and Foulah, she understands neither Wolof nor French. Although Niakoro is unable to provide her with an answer to her question, the moment is meaningful to the grandmother and granddaughter as Ad'jibid'ji affirms her Bambara identity while rationalizing that her competency in Wolof is limited since she is “a Bambara, not a Wolof” (162). Although just a young girl, Ad'jibid'ji is already beginning to understand the complicated relationships among different languages, contexts, and peoples in West African cultural contexts.
Effectively utilized, Sembene's masterful incorporation of a variety of linguistic localization strategies has implications on aesthetic, sociocultural, and political levels. By challenging the authority of French language and cultural practices, Sembene subtly subverts their power, opening a space in which new expressive modes are developed and autonomous identity constructs are conceived and negotiated. Avoiding the trappings of what Hédi Bouraoui calls “la binarité infernale” (Bouraoui 1995, 42) (the infernal binarity) of postcolonial discourse, Sembene creates a transcultural zone in the space of the text, one in which cultural particularities overlap and intermingle, allowing for communication, exchange, transformation, and synthesis. Rejecting the notion that cultures and cultural systems are impenetrable, homogenous entities, Sembene clearly establishes a relationship among France, Mali, and Senegal that refuses the sharp divisions imposed by binary distinctions. Favoring interaction and possibility, Sembene's ideas about culture and intercultural dynamics correspond with Bouraoui's vision of the relationships among Francophone countries and France:
Si parfois l'affrontement est nécessaire pour stimuler le processus créateur, il n'en reste pas moins que tout jeu d'opposition hiérarchique doit être résorbé par les progressives successions d'analyse et de synthèse. Dans ce sens, nous ne voulons pas suggérer un schéma rigide qui risque de figer l'apport francophone et ses mouvements, mais plutôt esquisser une sorte d'économie de complémentarité et non de polarité. Ceci permettra à chaque cycle informationnel de circuler librement et à chaque contenu culturel de croître naturellement. (Bouraoui 1995, 42)
[If sometimes confrontation is necessary to stimulate the creative process, the fact remains that every game of hierarchical opposition must be absorbed by progressive successions of analysis and synthesis. In this sense, we do not want to suggest a rigid schema that risks freezing the Francophone contribution and its movements, but rather sketch a kind of economy of complementarity and not of polarity. This will allow each informational cycle to freely circulate and each cultural component to grow naturally.]
In considering the works of Sembene as well as those of Kourouma, Bouraoui's assertions about Francophone identity negotiation and configuration are significant for a number of reasons. First and foremost, rather than viewing confrontation as a perpetuation of conflict and hostility, Bouraoui recognizes the confrontational process as an important catalyst that “stimulates the creative process,” encouraging “progressive successions of analysis and synthesis” that ultimately neutralize polarized or hierarchical relationships. Preferring the dynamics of complementarity to those of polarity, Bouraoui argues for a fluid, interactive model that is transcultural in nature and emphasizes mobility, exchange, and inevitable growth.
Much like Sembene, Kourouma succeeds in employing linguistic and stylistic devices as a means of creating a forum for negotiation and reappropriation in his novels. Nevertheless, Kourouma distinguishes himself from Sembene in his philosophy and his approach. Although Sembene and Kourouma are equally concerned with problems surrounding questions of Francophone identity, Kourouma, unlike Sembene, embraces the title of francophone writer, albeit with one stipulation. Maintaining the importance of always thinking in one's native language, even when communicating in French, Kourouma sees positive potential and possibilities in the contemporary Francophone world.
Écrire en français en continuant à penser dans sa langue maternelle ne construit pas seulement une case maternelle à l'écrivain dans la francophonie; il permet de réaliser une francophonie multiculturelle qui peut rassembler des peuples égaux qui considéreront en définitive le français comme un bien commun. (Kourouma 1997, 118)
[Writing in French while continuing to think in one's mother tongue does not only construct a maternal hut for the writer in the Francophonie, it allows the achievement of a multicultural Francophonie that can bring together equal people who will consider French like a common asset after all is said and done.]
For Kourouma, the process of expressing one's native-language thoughts in French allows francophone writers to appropriate their own distinct versions of the French language. Imbued with the rhythms and musicality of local languages, Kourouma's transposed renderings of French present Malinké cultural conventions and aesthetic sensibilities to a global francophone forum. Not only does this prospect allow different writers from disparate regions to convey cultural and aesthetic values on individual and collective levels, it also opens up a shared space for transcultural communication and exchange. Multicultural in nature, the francophone community Kourouma envisions brings together a multiplicity of peoples representing a diversity of perspectives. In this respect, as each francophone writer, thinker, and communicator constructs or dwells in his or her own maternal language hut in a francophone forum, the sociocultural, political, and aesthetic landscapes of the French language are gradually transforming, resonating with the sonorities of multiple languages and reflecting the mosaic identities representative of the members of the international francophone community. As Kourouma sees it, French is not the exclusive intellectual property of the French people. “A common asset” collectively owned by the members of the global francophone community, for Kourouma, the French language can ideally serve as a social-leveling mechanism, particularly when infused with the rhythms and lexicons of multiple languages. In this capacity, Kourouma's ideal of an internationally operative francophonized French contributes to the deconstruction of social hierarchies within and among nations, effectively unifying people from around the world with diverse histories, cultures, experiences, and perspectives.
Despite Kourouma's optimistic vision of a multicultural francophone community, he admits that the process of translating one's thoughts into another language is not without its problems, particularly in instances where one attempts to communicate oral forms of expression through writing.
Mon problème d'écrivain francophone est de transposer en français des paroles créées dans une langue orale négro-africaine, des oeuvres qui ont été préparées pour être produites, pour être dites oralement. Je me heurte à des difficultés. La langue française m'apparaît linéaire. Je m'y sens à l'étroit. Le lexique, la grammaticalisation, les nuances et même les procédés littéraires pour lesquels la fiction avait été préparée. La langue française est planifiée, agencée. Les personnages, les scènes cessent d'avoir le relief qu'ils avaient dans la parole africaine. Leurs interventions ne produisent plus les échos qui les suivaient dans la langue originelle. (Kourouma 1997, 116–17)
[My problem as a francophone writer is of transposing words created in an oral Black African language into French, works that have been prepared to be produced, to be said orally. I come up against difficulties. The French language seems linear to me. I feel cramped in it. The lexicon, the grammaticalization, the nuances, and even the literary techniques with which the fiction had been prepared. The French language is planned, constructed. The characters, the scenes cease to have the depth that they had in the African word. Their interventions no longer produce the echoes that followed them in the original language.]
Categorizing his native language, Malinké, as an oral language that lacks a prominent or prolonged history of writing, Kourouma explains that, for him, writing in French is not merely a question of translating one language into another. Rather, it involves trying to express the vibrant sonorities of an oral language within the silent frame of the written text. A complicated endeavor involving multiple linguistic processes and aesthetic considerations, what Kourouma refers to as transposing is not merely a synonym for translation. Rather, it involves the double task of translation and transcription. For Kourouma, the challenge is to convey his Malinké thoughts and feelings in written French without betraying the resonant qualities of the Malinké language. Admittedly, Kourouma acknowledges that the process of transposing, while promising in its capacity for communication and exchange, fails to convey the full sounding experience an oral language transmits. Among other things, the audible textures created through speech acts in the original language are no longer perceptible in transposed text.
Nevertheless, in spite of the problems of transposing, the double task of translating and transcribing, Kourouma succeeds in conveying a sense of the Malinké language and culture in The Suns of Independence. Through persistent evocations of oral and instrumental modes of expression, Kourouma imbues the French written text with resonant possibility. Beginning with the first sentence, Kourouma immediately draws the reader into the text through the incorporation of oral communicative techniques, a strategy that serves to offset the sense of unfamiliarity a non-Malinképhone may experience when reading the transposed text: “Il y avait une semaine qu'avait fini dans la capitale Koné Ibrahima, de race malinké, ou disons-le en malinké: il n'avait pas soutenu un petit rhume” (Soleils, 9). (It has been a week since Koné Ibrahima of Malinké race, had finished in the capital, or as we say in Malinké, he had not withstood a little cold.) Through the use of the second-person plural form “let's say” or “as we say,” Kourouma instantaneously initiates the reader into the audible domain of The Suns of Independence. In doing so, Kourouma effectively creates a sense of complicity with the readers in spite of their potential lack of familiarity with Malinké euphemisms. He does this not only by inviting them into the text through his use of the first-person plural form of the imperative mood, but also by informing them about Malinké linguistic and cultural particularities and revealing the problems of translation.
Throughout the novel, Kourouma consistently employs these and other strategies, including repetition and other storytelling techniques, to promote the oral qualities of the Malinké language in the French text. Kourouma equally incorporates these elements to welcome the reader into the transpoetic transcultural space of his novel and to engage the reader in the text on a more meaningful level. Establishing a basis for a constructive dialogue through which the reader responds to the author's oral prompts by working with the text to create meaning, Kourouma expects his readers to participate in the text, not just as readers, but also as spectators, as listeners, and even as speakers themselves.
At times, Kourouma admittedly puts the reader in the uncomfortable position of confronting his or her own uncertainties in view of those of the storyteller or writer. In discussing the importance of repetition in his novels, Kourouma explains that it is not simply a matter of infusing the French text with Malinké orality; rather, it is also question of trying to say something “unsayable”:
La répétition chez moi aussi a un autre sens. Cela signifie que je n'ai pas trouvé le mot exact saisissant le terme que je veux donner. Je montre pour que le lecteur se trouve un peu gêné là-dedans et se dise au fond qu'est-ce qu'il veut dire, qu'est-ce qu'il veut ressortir? Je lui dis: Voilà, je vous offre un peu tout ce que j'ai à dire là-dessus, mais je n'arrive pas, moi-même, à trouver le mot. (Ouédraogo 2001, 775)
[Repetition for me also has another meaning. It means that I have not found the exact word capturing the term that I want to provide. I show (this) so that the reader finds himself a bit embarrassed inside and says to himself down deep what does he want to say, what does he want to bring out? I tell him: That's it, I am offering you a little of all that I have to say about it, but I do not manage, myself, to find the word.]
Through repetition, Kourouma conveys a strong sense of Malinké orality, but more importantly, devises a means of implicating the reader in the quest to build meaning, to develop a sense of understanding in spite of the problems of translation and transposition. By holding the reader accountable for negotiating a sense of what he cannot express within the limits of language, Kourouma further demonstrates his spirit of social commitment through writing. Perhaps this is why Madeline Borgomano refers to him as the “‘guerrier’ griot,” (Borgomano 1998) (the griot “warrior”), and Jean Ouédraogo calls him “un griot de l'indicible” (Ouédraogo 2004) (a griot of the unsayable).
Characterized by Camara Laye as “maîtres de la parole” (masters of the spoken word) and as “speaking documents” (Laye 1978, 12), griots traditionally fulfill a variety of social roles in many West African societies. Referred to as gewel in Wolof and as jali in Malinké and Bambara, griots are not merely entertainers. Rather, they are prominent storytellers with generations of histories and legends, songs and poems, proverbs and folktales committed to memory. Through their art, they preserve local history and lore and promote important cultural traditions. Often utilizing musical instruments such as tam-tams and koras to accompany their performances, aside from serving as sociohistorical conservationists, griots also act as innovators and improvisers, incorporating their own unique rhythmic and musical stylings into each distinct performance. On a social level, griots also function as intermediaries, bringing together local groups and communities, but also connecting characters and peoples from different epochs and places with a living listening public.
Despite the significance of a griot's connection to West African traditions, cultures, and histories, as Laye maintains, a griot's target constituency is not exclusive to the African continent. In this respect, his or her influence is not limited to African audiences. Rather, the power of the griot has the capacity to bridge vast distances across space and time, connecting disparate peoples in a common condition—the human condition.
Il y a aussi, en définitive, que l'on oublie volontiers que les paroles que le griot prononce, nous voulons parler du griot traditionaliste, il ne faut pas être nécessairement africain pour les prononcer; ce n'est pas une question de continent…[L]e griot traditionaliste en vient là: à l'ineffable; à cette patiente et infinie recherche où tous les êtres—Blancs, Jaunes, Noirs, Rouges—sont de l'ineffable; à cette recherche qui fait regarder tous les peuples, dans leur union étroite entre le ciel et la terre…et nous lie, ici comme là, au même sort, au même destin; à ce qui est notre destin même, notre mystérieux destin: celui du voyageur qu'est chaque homme sur la terre. (Laye 1978, 22–23)
[There is also, after all is said and done, that people easily forget the words that the griot pronounces, we mean to speak of the traditionalist griot, it is not necessary to be African to pronounce them, it is not a question of continent…[T]he traditionalist griot comes from there: to the ineffable; to this patient and infinite search where all beings—Whites, Yellows, Blacks, Reds—are of the ineffable, to this search that makes all peoples look, in their tight union between the sky and the earth…and connects us, here like there, to the same fate, to the same destiny, to what is our destiny even, our mysterious destiny: that of the voyager that is every man on earth.
Like Kourouma and Sembene, Laye recognizes points of commonality among diverse cultures and peoples as well as the powerful potential of cross-cultural communication and exchange. Envisioning a new brand of humanism through which the world's citizens find themselves united in the shared experiences of humanity in spite of their differences, Laye suggests that oral traditions can play an important role in bringing disparate peoples together. In this respect, the griot's art, a combination of melody and message, has the power to resonate in each and every individual, connecting them in the quotidian struggles and celebrations of everyday life regardless of location, language, customs, or culture.
Equally prominent in the works of Sembene, the tradition of the griot plays an important role in God's Bits of Wood, serving as an essential component of Sembene's arsenal in displacing the authority of the French language and culture in Francophone West Africa. Simultaneously preserving local histories, stories, and legends, as well as promoting regional songs, instrumentation, and languages, griots serve as living links between past, present, and future generations of Africans. For many, Sembene is viewed as an innovative griot who reworks traditional forms to consider important sociocultural and political questions in prosaic and cinematic media. Referred to by Anthère Nzabatsinda as the “continuateur du griot,” the upholder of, or the heir to, the griot tradition (Nzabatsinda 1997, 871), Sembene infuses his novels with the vibrancy of local languages and the sonorities of African rhythms, music, and oral traditions. Intercalating the vocal stylings of the griot and the narrative techniques of the writer in the space of his texts, Sembene creates resonant written works that reflect local cultural traditions and aesthetic values, but that also negotiate spaces for possibility, appropriation, and innovation.
Although griot characters are not expressly evoked in Gods Bits of Wood, Sembene utilizes a variety of narrative strategies to convey the spirit of oral traditions in the novel. Integrating proverbs and popular expressions derived from local lexicons and cultural traditions, Sembene intertwines the roles of griot and narrator in recounting the story of the West African railroad workers’ strike. Incorporated throughout the entire text, oral proverbs and expressions prominently figure in Sembene's text in examples such as “Les fils de chiens!…[I]ls m'ont pilée comme du grain!” (BBD, 177) (Sons of dogs!…[T]hey crushed me like grain!), and “Il n'y avait en lui ni haine ni amertume pour personne, mais il se sentait perdu, plongé dans une hébétude qui était lui-même incompréhensible. Ainsi qu'on le dit de certains danseurs sacrés de l'Afrique Centrale, il ‘cachait sa face dans son âme’” (134). (There was neither hate nor bitterness for anyone, but he felt lost, plunged in a stupor that was incomprehensible in itself. As people say about certain sacred dancers in Central Africa, he “was hiding his face in his soul.”)
Similarly, Sembene repeatedly weaves devinettes (A French term for “riddle” that translates literally into English as “little guess”) into the space of the text. In one particularly salient example, the devinette “Qu'est-ce qui lave l'eau?” (What washes water?) appears twice in the text (162, 172). Just like Ad'jibid'ji's grandmother who initially presents the enigmatic riddle to the young girl, Sembene doesn't reveal the answer and explanation immediately, which gives readers adequate time to try to guess the answer along with the young Ad'jibid'ji. It isn't until page 368, two hundred pages after the riddle's initial evocation, that Ad'jibid'ji reveals the correct response to the readers: “C'est l'esprit, car l'eau est claire, mais l'esprit est plus limpide encore” (368) (It is the spirit, because water is clear, but the spirit is even more limpid). The inclusion of the devinette is significant in function and in form, allowing readers to experience an important component of local oral traditions while conveying a meaningful philosophical message about the nature of the human spirit.
At other times, Sembene seems to directly address the readers much like a storyteller would. Although transcribed storytelling techniques, used to promote a sense of dialogue between the storyteller and his audience, are more prominent in some of his other novels such as Guelwaar, Sembene achieves this effect in Gods Bits of Wood by posing questions to the readers within the narrative structure, drawing them into the story as spectators and listeners. Before considering the narrative techniques Sembene uses to promote a sense of the musicality of orality in God's Bits of Wood, it is useful to examine some of the more overt stylistic strategies he incorporates into many of his other texts. In Guelwaar, for example, Sembene constantly draws the reader into the story through repeated representations of the second-person plural pronoun vous, directly involving them in text as the story unfolds. The oral motif is further accentuated by the constant presence of a narrator who explicitly identifies himself as a conteur, a storyteller: “A mi-récit, je dois vous ramener en arrière, pour vous narrer ce qui s'était passé, bien avant le soleil de ce funeste jour. Conteur, je ne dois omettre personne et situer chacun à sa place, même minime dans cette fable” (Sembene 1996, 56). (At midstory, I must bring you back in time, to relate to you what has happened well before the sun of this fateful day. Storyteller, I must not omit anyone and situate everyone in their place, even minimal in this fable.) Interrupting the continuity of the story, the conteur-narrator in Guelwaar initiates a break in the action of the narration in order to contextualize events leading up to the untimely death of Pierre Henri Thioune and the subsequent mix-up of his body at the morgue. In pausing to situate his readers, easing somewhat the sense of disorientation conjured by the problematic corpse, Sembene employs lexical elements to doubly reinforce the figure of narrator as storyteller, first through the use of the second-person plural pronoun vous and then through his explicit evocation of the term conteur. In the process, Sembene effectively establishes a sense of complicity between the storyteller-narrator and his readers, implicating their shared involvement in the story as events unfold.
Although more explicitly conveyed in Guelwaar, Sembene also promotes the oral aesthetic of the griot in God's Bits of Wood. In one such example, the story's narrator inquires about local legends and beliefs about vultures in cade trees, posing rhetorical question to the reader much like a storyteller would to the listener: “Ces arbres et ces oiseaux qui, dans les vieilles légendes incarnaient l'esprit du mal, n'allaient-ils pas leur porter malheur?” (BBD, 299) (These trees and these birds who, in the old legends incarnated the spirit of evil, wouldn't they bring them misfortune?) Rather than overtly predicting unfortunate events, by presenting information in the form of a question, Sembene solicits the participation of his readers by asking them to verify his statements or to correct them by filling in inaccurate elements or missing details. By incorporating storytelling strategies in the frames of his novels, Sembene simultaneously promotes a musico-oral sensibility and demands readers to be engaged with the storyteller-narrator as events and outcomes are revealed.
Like Kourouma, Sembene also exploits the technique of repetition to convey a musico-oral aesthetic. Nevertheless, unlike Kourouma, who admittedly uses repetition as a way of engaging the reader in the task of finding meaning for untranslatable or “unsayable” thoughts and expressions, Sembene seemingly integrates repetition as a means of enhancing the musical or sonorous qualities of the text. This is not to say that Sembene neglects to involve the reader in meaning construction through the process of repetition. Rather, as explained in the following example, Sembene uses repetition to implicate the reader in recognizing and responding to local rhythmic forms and expressive patterns.
In God's Bits of Wood, for example, Sembene repeats variations of one specific expression: “Des jours passèrent et des nuits passèrent” (Days passed by and nights passed by). First evoked on page 63, Sembene utilizes the phrase as a means of succinctly summarizing the monotony of days upon days of waiting. Repeated to signal the start of a new paragraph near the bottom of the same page and, again, at the beginning of the following paragraph on the next page, Sembene places the sentence into the structure of the text much like a lyricist would incorporate a refrain into a song. With each evocation, Sembene augments the intensity of the situation, suggesting an ambiance of anticipation, frustration, and restlessness as striking workers and their families wait for signs of hopeful change. In a later representation, two pages after its initial appearance, Sembene employs the phrase once again, subtly altering it to reinforce the predominant climate of desperation and hopelessness in the Senegalese city of Thiès during the early days of the strike: “Les jours étaient tristes et les nuits étaient tristes” (65) (The days were sad and the nights were sad). Altered to convey a sense of suffering and despair, the final variation jars the reader with its rhythm and its message. Unlike the early representations, each offering the same ambiguous message with the same words and the same rhythmic structure, the later version explicitly incorporates lexical variants to convey a single emotion—sadness—which is presented in a modified rhythmic frame.
The repeated phrase resurfaces in two other passages in the text, reinforcing the relentlessly persistent sense of uneasiness and uncertainty that prevails day after day as the strike wears on. Later employed to frame portrayals of difficulties faced by striking workers in Bamako, in its two final appearances, the original phrase “Des jours passèrent et des nuits passèrent” is presented in an abbreviated form, “Des jours passèrent” (136, 169) (Days passed by). In both instances, the sentence stands alone in the chapter. Seemingly incomplete and devoid of the reiteration demonstrated in the earlier passage, the two final representations are nonetheless significant, partly because each time the sentence resurfaces, it acts as sort of echo, recalling the musicality of its initial evocations. More importantly, however, the abbreviated version of the phrase offers a variation on the original musical form. A texted representation of antiphony—also referred to as call-and-response—the fragmented phrase actually serves as a call to the reader to respond to the prompt “Des jours passèrent” with the missing rhythmic formula, “Des nuits passèrent.”
As Christopher Small explains in “Africans, Europeans and the Making of Music,” these formulaic choral responses generally are “invariant” and operate “under strict rhythmic rules” (Small 1999, 118). Although the respondent's role is typically predetermined, as Small notes, the caller's solos are “often improvised” (118). In this respect, in playing the role of leader or soloist, Sembene is permitted the freedom to improvise in between the pattern of calls and responses, which he demonstrates through a highly variable prosaic style, filled with innovative elements that reflect a transcultural transpoetic aesthetic. By subtly incorporating the rhythmic structures of antiphony into his text, Sembene enhances the resonant quality of God's Bits of Wood. Furthermore, Sembene helps break down the divisions that traditionally separate reader from writer by promoting the sense of collectivity fostered by oral traditions and antiphony. In inviting his readers to respond with the appropriate rhythmic formula, Sembene implicates them in helping to shape a vibrant, sonorous universe, all in the frame of the written page.
Presented in French, the aforementioned illustration of repetition and antiphony promotes a localized audio aesthetic, providing an alternative to French musical and aesthetic formats. Although these examples are devoid of explicit references to the Wolof or Bambara languages, they are nonetheless important in that they valorize Wolof and Bambara musico-cultural traditions in a French-language framework. For Sembene, this process of imposing musico-oral traditions and African linguistic elements on the Francophone novel is significant primarily in that it serves as a means of preserving local cultural and aesthetic values in spite of the socioeconomic and political dominance of the French language in Senegal and in Mali. Characterizing the prevalence and predominance of French in contemporary Francophone Africa as problematic, Sembene fears that the ubiquity and authority of the French language is suppressing locally conceived ideas and ideals as Africa moves into the twenty-first century:
Le problème, c'est que notre société, et là je parle de l'Afrique francophone, ne sécrète plus de nouvelles valeurs en conformité avec notre propre évolution interne. Nos références, en dehors du verbe ou des métaphores ou même des proverbes, ne viennent plus de nos langues. Nos références dans le sens de la maîtrise du réel, de la transformation de nos sociétés au plan de la réflexion, nous viennent principalement de l'Europe, ou de l'Occident. (Kassé and Ridehalgh 1995, 184)
[The problem, it is that our society, and there I want to talk about Francophone Africa, no longer fosters new values in conformity with our own internal evolution. Our references, outside of the verbs or the metaphors or even the proverbs, no longer come from our languages. Our references in the sense of the mastery of the real, of the transformation of our societies in the framework of reflection, come to us mainly from Europe or from the West.]
Unlike Kourouma, who sees French as a point of commonality in which individual speakers are free to appropriate and to construct their maternal language “huts,” and through which diverse peoples from different locations can exchange information, ideas, and attitudes, Sembene views French as a threat to African sociocultural landscapes. For Sembene, the dominance of French, encroaching on local values, belief systems, and perspectives, is shifting local points of reference away from Africa and toward Europe, the North, and the West.
Rhythm and Reappropriation in the Novel
Kourouma and Sembene have helped in shaping what Bouraoui refers to as a “new (Francophone) humanism” (Bouraoui 1995, 45) by creating modes of reappropriation that favor alternative models to binary opposition-based constructs. Favoring communication and exchange instead of competition and confrontation, Bouraoui's vision of humanism refuses homogeneous cultural absolutes and insists on transcultural heterogeneity. Rejecting rigid polarized constructs that leave little room for negotiation and divagation, Bouraoui prefers a star-shaped crossroads model for representing the relationships among different peoples and cultures. As Bouraoui explains, this transcultural intersection “permet la communication inter-active instaurant des jeux de différenciations capables de transformer la compétition en coopération” (45) (allows for interactive communication, establishing a game of differentiations capable of transforming competition into cooperation).
Like Édouard Glissant's Relation, Bouraoui's crossroads model emphasizes the mobility of cultures and cultural phenomena. For Glissant and Bouraoui, cultures, neither fixed nor clearly defined, are constantly moving, shifting. Nevertheless, while Glissant avoids giving his model a tangible manifestation, preferring abstract points in space and invisible traces of movement and interconnection, Bouraoui constructs a series of intersecting roads and paths, physically possible spaces that human feet and vehicles can encounter and traverse. Recalling the human factor in humanism, Bouraoui's crossroads model emphasizes the importance of human interaction in considering transcultural communication and exchange. By placing players on a common terrain, Bouraoui diminishes the importance of dominance hierarchies, allowing for increased sociocultural mobility and more equitable means of exchange among different cultures. Although his system cannot instantly remedy centuries of imperialism, conflict, and inequality, Bouraoui maintains the virtues of his model. Refusing current constructs that insist on opposition, Bouraoui's crossroads model favors alternative methods of resistance and reappropriation that disrupt the “le cercle vicieux” (45) (vicious circle) of violent power struggles that have troubled postcolonial Francophone communities.
Faced with the problematic dimensions of Francophone identities, in addition to resisting the political, economic, linguistic, and cultural legacies of colonialism, as socially committed novelists, Kourouma and Sembene struggle with the authority of “print colonialism.” A term coined by Christopher Miller and derived from Benedict Anderson's notion of “print capitalism” (Anderson 1991), “print colonialism” problematizes the propagation of French literacy during the colonial era, suggesting that it served as a means of strengthening the authority of the French language and culture in African colonies: “Francophone literacy arrived in colonial Africa like a Trojan Horse, bearing an ideology of collaboration and assimilation, a condition of ‘original sin’ which the Francophone literature of Africa has sought to overcome during the last seventy years” (Miller 1993, 64).
As Miller suggests, the arrival of French texts in colonial Africa was deceptively alluring since, at the time, Francophone literacy was inextricably connected to the French colonial authority. As such, in spite of the purported benefits of Francophone literacy, the subsequent implementation of French texts in West African political, legal, and educational institutions established French as the language of authority, relegating local languages to a second-class status. Inscribed into laws and public education, even in the postcolonial era, French remains a dominant force, not only in political and economic arenas, but in cultural and aesthetic domains as well. Thus, as Miller maintains, Francophone writers are engaged in a struggle to shift the balance of power, increasing the authority and autonomy of the peoples and nations of Francophone Africa.
In attempting to dismantle the (print) colonial authority, Kourouma and Sembene employ a variety of sounding techniques, creating texts that resonate with the vivid sonorities of African languages, music, and orality. While linguistic and oral localization strategies play an important role in both The Suns of Independence and God's Bits of Wood, such techniques have been adequately addressed by literary scholars (see Case 1987; Nzabatsinda 1996, 1997; Outtara 2000; and Toyo 1996). The role of music, however, particularly drummed and instrumental music, has yet to be fully explored. Manifest in representations of dynamic drumbeats and vibrant songs, as well as in descriptions and evocations of the rhythms of people dancing and working, the incorporation of resonant musical structures and rhythmic devices in the space of the text is not without consequence. Neither oral nor written, instrumental music challenges print colonial institutions without subscribing to the polarized relationship that separates writing from orality in contemporary criticism. Breaking free of the binary critical models problematized by Bouraoui and other scholars such as Homi Bhabha (see Bhabha 1994), instrumental music resists such classification. Whether standing alone or serving as a complement or accompaniment to vocal genres, instrumental music subtly subverts the authority of the printed word without directly opposing it.
In considering the multiple roles of rhythm and music in The Suns of Independence and God's Bits of Wood, particularly in view of questions of identity in contemporary Africa, it is important to examine the communicative capacities of rhythmic and musical phenomena. Prominently manifest in representations of songs and dances as well as in descriptions of the everyday rhythms that accompany work and chores, Kourouma and Sembene integrate intricate layers of sounds and silences into their novels as a means of transmitting information, expressing emotions, and signaling important events. Often conveyed through evocations of the rhythms of drumbeats, Kourouma and Sembene insist on the importance of drums not only as emblems of tradition, but also as important communicative devices. Used to preserve historical and cultural information within tribes or social groups, or to send specific messages across vast distances, drums have traditionally fulfilled a variety of communicative, expressive, and evocative functions for many African peoples.
As anthropologists Thomas Sebeok and Donna Umiker Sebeok have observed, drums and drum languages have been used to transmit information from one location to another in many parts of West Africa (Sebeok and Sebeok 1976). Although in many instances, the drum language imitates spoken language, providing encoded rhythmic and/or tonal versions of oral languages, in other instances, the language of the drums represents languages or literatures in themselves, as theorists including J. H. Kwabena Nketia (1963), Titinga Pacere (1991), and Georges Niangoran-Bouah (1981) maintain. In their respective texts, Pacere and Niangoran-Bouah both present musical transcriptions of poems, songs, and stories expressed through drum languages as well as their translations in languages including Baoulé, Abron, Mossé, and French. Capable of expressing a complex array of emotions, thoughts, and information, drum languages are independent of written and oral languages and can serve as languages in their own right, complete with their own literary traditions.
In his presentation of drum languages and drum literatures, Pacere goes so far as to distinguish what he calls instrumental literature from oral and written forms of literature. It is important to note that Pacere's terminology treats the three kinds of literature—oral literature, written literature, and instrumental literature—as distinct phenomena and avoids blending categories. Although the sonorities of instrumental music often accompany oral literature performances and comprise an important component of many oral literatures, Pacere's designation of instrumental literature is significant in that it considers the expressive and communicative capacities of nonvocal instrumental genres.
For the purposes of clarity, it is appropriate to separate what Pacere refers to as “oral literature,” literature transmitted through singing or speaking, from “oraliture,” oral literature presented in the frame of a written text. Characterized by the transmission of oral phenomena through writing, oraliture has been described by Susan Petrilli and Augusto Ponzio as such: “We prefer the term oraliture to orature when referring to the various genres of oral literature such as short stories, legends, proverbs, rhymes, songs that present oral storytelling to us once again, but this time in the form of writing where orality is translated into written genres either in the form of transcription or of more or less complex literary expression” (Petrilli and Ponzio 2001, 99–100).
Just as oral literature is distinct from oraliture, instrumental literature—literature performed on drums, musical instruments, and other percussive objects—should be distinguished from instrumentaliture—instrumental or performance literature presented in the frame of written literature. In following with Petrilli and Ponzio's assertion that “Oraliture evokes écriture” (100), I have designated the term “instrumentaliture,” which may also be referred to as “performance literature,” to represent the rich variety of sounding rhythmic, musical, instrumental, and noisy phenomena writers impose on and transpose in written texts. Although devoid of lyrical vocal stylings, instrumentaliture is similar to Petrilli and Ponzio's conception of oraliture in that it “presents ways of modeling the word—the expression of a sort of play of amusement, the pleasure of inventiveness, encounter, involvement and listening—no less than written literature” (Petrilli and Ponzio 2001, 100). In this respect, instrumentaliture evokes the emotion and expressiveness of nonvocal performance pieces, sound compositions, and musical arrangements and improvisations, creating additional sounding spaces for innovation, communication, and exchange with implications in aesthetic, linguistic, and sociocultural domains, among others, functioning inside and outside the frame of the written text.
In recognizing not only the communicative capacities of drums and other musical instruments, but their creative capacities as well, instrumental literature merits consideration as a genre in its own right, independent of written and spoken forms of expression. With respect to instrumental literary traditions in West Africa, drums play a central role, not merely as transmitters of information, but also as powerful expressive devices. In this light, the boundless potential of drums and drumming becomes all the more apparent. As Cameroonian poet and musician François Fampou explains, the skin of the drum acts as an interface between the drummer and a realm of endless possibility through which a skilled and imaginative percussionist can convey everything words can explain and more, even the unsayable:
Un percussioniste peut rechercher des artifices de frappe qui lui permettront d'exprimer tous les discours de la vie sur la membrane de son tambour. Le résultat est une gamme de couleurs intérmediares qui avoisinent parfois l'insolite. C'est justement dans ce registre que le griot déploie toute son imagination et tout son génie pour que la vibration de la peau incarnant le son devienne enfin parole. (Fampou 1996, 10)
[A percussionist can seek out striking devices that will allow him/her to express all of life's discourses on the membrane of his drum. The result is a scale of intermediary colors that sometimes approach the unusual. It is precisely in this register that the griot deploys all of his imagination and all of his genius so that the vibration of the skin incarnating the sound finally becomes word.]
For Fampou, the power of the drum lies in its variability and versatility. Much like a blank canvas awaiting an artist's colorful brushstrokes, the drum anticipates the deft movements of a drummer's fingers and hands. Combining technical precision and immeasurable creativity, an adept drummer expresses both music and message to his or her target audience. Operating as an intermediary of sorts, the drummer has the power to communicate and negotiate, bridging the divides that separate people, places, generations, and epochs. As Fampou suggests, when viewed through the lenses of vision and imagination, the vibrant sonorities of percussive music come to be seen as colors, images, and words. Communicating that which, at times, is unseeable or unsayable, the drum speaks in a language of its own. Although the perceived meanings and interpretations of different forms of drumspeak are highly variable and dependant on multiple factors including the psychological states, aesthetic preferences, cultural knowledge, and linguistic proficiency of individual listeners, it is important to keep in mind that drumspeak is a co-construction, much like the process of lecture-écriture described in chapter 1. Rather than working to determine the intentions of the composer or performer, listeners subjectively interpret and respond to drummed musical cues, interacting with the musical text with active ears, eyes, minds, and bodies to negotiate co-constructed moods and meanings.
In considering the roles instrumentaliture plays in the novels of Kourouma and Sembene, it is useful to reinforce the autonomy and authority of rhythmic and musical genres in connection with languages and written literary forms. Much like Pacere, who classifies instrumental literature as a genre in itself, one that is comparable to oral and written literary categories, Jacques Derrida considers the relevance of musical and rhythmic forms of expression, including them in his characterization of what he calls écriture (writing). In Le monolinguisme de l'autre (Monolonguism of the Other), Derrida affirms the importance of rhythmic and musical forms of expression in relation to language and questions of identity. Noting that languages are dynamic, changing systems, susceptible to all sorts of contaminations, appropriations, and mutations, Derrida recognizes the power of different languages and forms of language:
Bien sûr, pour le linguiste classique, chaque langue est un système dont l'unité se reconstitue toujours. Mais cette unité ne se compare à aucune autre. Elle est accessible à la greffe la plus radicale, aux déformations, aux transformations, à l'expropriation, à une certaine a-nomie, à l'anomalie, à la dérégulation. Si bien que le geste est toujours multiple—je l'appelle ici encore écriture, même s'il peut rester purement oral, vocal, musical, rythmique ou prosodique—qui tente d'affecter la monolangue, celle qu'on a sans l'avoir. Il rêve d'y laisser des marques qui rappellent cette toute autre langue, ce degré zéro-moins-un de la mémoire en somme. (Derrida 1996, 123–24)
[Certainly, for classic linguistics, each language is a system in which unity always reconstitutes itself. But this unity is not comparable to any other. It is accessible to the most radical graft, to deformations, to transformations, to expropriation, to a certain a-nomie, to anomaly, to deregulation. So well that the gesture is always multiple—I call it here again écriture, even if it can remain purely oral, vocal, musical, rhythmic, or prosodic—that attempts to affect the monolanguage, that which we have without having it. It dreams of leaving marks that recall this completely other language, all in all, this degree-zero-minus-one of memory.]
Although he selects the word écriture (writing) rather than “literature,” Derrida explains that writing is not limited to texts, but also includes oral, musical, and rhythmic categories among others. As Derrida observes, a writer's arsenal is not limited to written and oral language(s). Music and rhythm can also play powerful roles in transforming a dominant language, marking said language with their own “coups de griffe et de greffe” (scratches and grafts) through the process of écriture (124).
Critic Denise Egéa-Kuehne has already established a connection between Monolinguism of the Other and the work of Kourouma. In “La langue de l'Autre au croisement des cultures: Derrida et Le monolinguisme de l'autre” (“The Language of the Other at the Crossroad of Cultures: Derrida and Monolinguism of the Other”), she discusses the relationships that Kourouma and two other francophone writers (Suzanne Dracius and Barry Ancelet) maintain with the French language. Egéa-Kuehne suggests that, due to differences concerning sociocultural and individual criteria, each writer experiences the French language in a unique way. In describing Kourouma's situation, Egéa-Kuehne denies the element of choice, positing that for him, a Malinké, the French language represents “une imposition inévitable, voire une prison” (an inevitable imposition, or even a prison), whereas for Dracius, a Martinican, “c'est un choix libérateur” (it's a liberating choice), and for Ancelet, a Cajun, “c'est une appropriation nécessaire” (it's a necessary appropriation) (Egéa-Kuehne 2001, 198). Although Egéa-Kuehne's characterization of the French language as a prison seems to contradict Kourouma's more positive view of French as vehicular language through which diverse members of the Francophone community can exchange cultural and individual perspectives, her assertion that Kourouma and others “ne cherchent pas nécessairement à s'assimiler à la culture dominante” (198) (are not seeking to become assimilated in the dominant culture) corresponds with the writer's insistence on the technique of transposition, a combined process of translating Malinké language and transcribing Malinké orality into French. Furthermore, since her primary concern is with inequalities concerning language and language education practices and policies in Francophone zones, Egéa-Kuehne's word choice “prison” adequately reflects the imposition of French as the exclusive official language in Kourouma's native Côte d'Ivoire.
Focusing on written and spoken forms of language, Egéa-Kuehne explores important dimensions of Monolinguism of the Other in relation to the works of Kourouma, Dracius, and Ancelet. Not limited to the works of these three writers, one can see how her study could be expanded to include the works of Sembene, along with the works of other Francophone writers including Sow-Fall, Schwarz-Bart, Condé, and Chamoiseau. Having established a connection between Derrida's ideas about language and Kourouma's literary works, Egéa-Kuehne's article provides a basis for further exploration, not only in dealing with other writers, but also in contemplating how alternative modes of communication, namely nonvocal musical and rhythmic methods, can play a role in displacing French authority in Francophone locations, creating spaces for negotiation and appropriation that operate inside and outside the frames of the texts.
Instrumentaliture at Work
Within the frame of the text, instrumentaliture operates in a number of different ways, filling silent pages with resonant possibility. Whether explicitly evoked through texted references to musical instruments indicated by lexical signifiers including kora, guitar, and tam-tam, or implicitly suggested through descriptions of rhythmic or musical events and processes such as marching, dancing, and working, the sounds of instrumental music fill written pages with the vivid sonorities of day-to-day life. Separate from oraliture, a process through which elements from oral traditions are transposed on a written text, instrumentaliture, or instrumental performance literature, is a phenomenon in itself, one that is often overlooked in contemporary criticism. Similar to oraliture, instrumentaliture is a process through which audible nonvocal rhythmic and musical elements are transposed on or transcribed in a written text.
By incorporating both oraliture and instrumentaliture in The Suns of Independence and God's Bits of Wood, Sembene and Kourouma create texted worlds filled with the power of sound and sonority. Masterfully interwoven throughout their respective texts, rhythmic and musical elements serve as important stylistic devices, ones that accentuate local aesthetic values and sociocultural perspectives. Furthermore, since rhythm and music can serve as languages in their own right, by prominently featuring rhythmic and musical devices in their novels, Sembene and Kourouma augment and diversify their arsenal in displacing the authority of the French language in Francophone West Africa. Through an exploration of specific examples from the two novels, instrumentaliture reveals itself as an important component of transcultural transpoetics. Marking the text as a domain for communication, negotiation, and appropriation, texted rhythmic and musical phenomena establish in-between conceptual spaces that break free of hierarchical and binary classificatory modes of thinking, freeing subjects to question and reconfigure hegemonic identity constructs and to generate and adapt autonomous, independent identificatory models.
In view of instrumentaliture, drums and drumming serve as sonorous nuclei for representations of rhythm and music in God's Bits of Wood and The Suns of Independence. Important modes of communication, drums have been used for centuries in West Africa to transmit information from one location to another as well as to preserve local traditions and lore in musical formats. Both Sembene and Kourouma incorporate the power of drums and drum languages in their novels, filling the space of the text with the resonance of instrumentaliture. As such, drums and other devices used to produce percussive sonorities, including mortars and pestles and human hands and feet, are repeatedly evoked as a means of signaling significant events and transformations, and expressing or intensifying emotions. Through an examination of the functions and forms of diverse representations of drums and other rhythmic devices in the two novels, the importance of instrumentaliture becomes apparent.
In certain passages, Sembene and Kourouma present drums as effective communicative mechanisms through which complex messages can be disseminated from one community to another. More powerful and precise than the human voice across the span of vast distances, drums have the power to convey complex strains of information to faraway neighbors. The communicative signaling capacity of drums and other percussive devices is evoked in multiple passages in both God's Bits of Wood and The Suns of Independence. For example, Sembene invokes the rhythms of the bara to forewarn villagers of the start of the strike in Bamako (BBD, 28). Similarly, Kourouma portrays the rhythms of drumbeats to convey news of Fama's untimely death from village to village across the Horodougou region (Soleils, 196). Functioning as languages in themselves, the varied rhythms and tonalities of drum languages are only accessible to an initiated few, those who learn the intricacies of the language as it is passed on from generation to generation. When transposed in the space of a text, drum languages introduce yet another level of resistance in subverting the authority of dominant languages. Complementing lexical localization strategies, drum languages call for a renegotiation of identificatory terms by refusing existing linguo-political dominance hierarchies. Such hierarchies tend to place French and other languages of colonization above local forms of language and expression by relegating them to an otherizing “traditional” or “indigenous” status.
Sembene portrays the communicative capacity of drum languages in God's Bits of Wood, although he conveys this motif in a subtle manner. Rather than using drum languages to communicate information across vast geographical distances, Sembene, in recounting the events of a railway workers' strike, evokes drum languages in their capacity to relay important messages to assembled masses of people. As the strike escalates and the threat of physical violence looms, striking workers and their families perceive the ominous warnings transmitted through drumbeats. For those familiar with the complexities of drummed discourse, the drums transmit a foreboding message:
Sur la place du 1er Septembre, un autre groupement se préparait, face aux miliciens qui, faiblement éclairés par des falots, montaient la garde devant le commissariat. Momifiés dans leurs consignes, ils regardaient ce rassemblement d'ombres sans trop savoir quelle attitude ils devaient prendre, mais certains d'entre eux, entendant le tam-tam, comprenaient ce qui se préparait. (291)
[In the square of September 1st, another grouping got ready, facing militiamen who, weakly illuminated by lanterns, stood guard in front of the police station. Mummified by their orders, they looked at this assembly of shadows without really knowing what attitude they should adopt, but some of them, hearing the tam-tam, understood what was brewing.]
Although Sembene does not explicitly reveal to his readers the message communicated by the drumbeats in the darkness of night, his verb choice comprendre (to understand) treats the reception of drummed discourse much like the reception of spoken languages. In this capacity, the drummer uses the drum to speak to his or her listeners, much like a speaker uses the voice. As predicted by the nocturnal drumbeats, imminent changes are on the horizon, as people gather to respond to the drummers’ call to action and the militiamen stand in nervous anticipation.
Later in the passage, the women's march from Thiès to Dakar begins, signaling an important turning point in the novel. As the women march, they are fueled by the rhythms of drumbeats, marching into the darkness of night: “[P]récédé, suivi, accompagné par le battement des tam-tams, le cortège s'enfonça dans la nuit” (292). (Preceded, followed, accompanied by the beating of tam-tams, the procession disappeared into the night.) Although they are uncertain of what they will encounter on the road ahead, informed and fortified by the drum, the women know that the situation will bring about important changes for the workers and their families. In this example, Sembene's choice of words heightens the performative dimensions of the women's march. He goes so far as to set it up like a musical composition in four movements: a drummed introduction, followed by a chorus of footsteps, chanting and drumbeats, and ending with a drummed interlude leading up to the explosive finale. Combining music and motion, the women's mobile ensemble serves to strengthen the weary women throughout their journey while raising awareness about their struggles from community to community. The explosive finale rings out upon the women's arrival in Dakar, where they are confronted by chéchia and tirailleur soldiers.3 In this dramatic final movement, a chorus of gunshots erupts, leaving two dead including Penda, the leader of the women's group. In turn, the marchers respond with the only weapons to which they have access, sticks and rocks. The weaponry effectively creates layers of percussive sounds with a chaotic cadence that serves to direct the marchers’ frenzied voices and footsteps. Much like adept dancers and musicians who respond to one another with their sounds and gestures, the women warriors adapt to the frantic and variable rhythms of the violent conflict. Unwavering and relentless, the triumphant women press on toward victory, leaving behind two martyrs and a group of stupefied soldiers in their wake.
Sembene achieves a similar effect in his novel Guelwaar, as Pierre Henri Thioune, an outspoken Senegalese social activist prepares to give an important speech. Addressing an assembly of local politicians, activists, and dignitaries, Thioune's speech is introduced and accompanied by the sonorities of drummed rhythms and oral performances: “Cet après-midi-là, tous les chefs et notables des villages de la région étaient présents, ainsi que des représentants des organisations caritatives, des ambassadeurs. Un grand meeting avec tam-tam et folklore” (Guelwaar, 139). (That afternoon, all of the leaders and notables of the villages of the region were present, as well as representatives from charitable organizations, ambassadors. A great meeting with tam-tam and folklore.) In describing the setting for Thioune's speech, Sembene accords the tam-tam with a double functionality, emphasizing its importance on symbolic and operative levels. A common component of speeches and other official public events, the tam-tam, in accordance with local traditions, provides an air of resonant officiality. On a symbolic level, Sembene evokes the sonorities of tam-tams as a means of signaling important changes in the plot development. In this respect, the rumbling tam-tams accentuate Thioune's engagement in promoting sweeping changes in Senegalese society. Nevertheless, in this particular passage, the desire for social change is not the only thing the tam-tams predict. Presented as a flashback in exploring the mysteries surrounding Thioune's untimely death, the resonant drumbeats equally signal another significant, albeit unforeseeable, change—Thioune's impending murder.
In an earlier novel Ô pays, mon beau peuple! (Oh Country, My Beautiful People!),4 Sembene provides a more explicit example of drummed discourse, presenting the drum in its capacity to transmit the news of a recent death from one location to another. After the brutal murder of Oumar Faye, a young entrepreneur who vocally opposes the colonial political authority and foreign economic dominance in Senegal in the 1950s, the rhythms of tam-tams announce the news of his unfortunate death to members of the surrounding communities.
Le tam-tam résonnait. Le rythme de ses grondements devint de plus en plus saccadé, de plus en plus envoûtant. Sa voix traversait les savanes, bondissant par-delà le fleuve où elle était relayée par un déchaînement semblable, envoyant à tous les échos le message de deuil.
[L]a voix du tam-tam grondait toujours pour appeler les vivants et accompagner la mort. (Ô pays, 184)
[The tam-tam resonated. The rhythm of its rumblings became increasingly staccato, increasingly enchanting. Its voice passed through the savannahs, leapt here and there across the river where it was relayed by a similar outburst, sending the message of mourning to all of the echoes.
(T)he voice of the tam-tam still rumbled to call the living and accompany the dead.]
Calling mourners from far and wide to join Oumar Faye's family in grieving his loss, the echoes of tam-tams resonate throughout the countryside. Functioning in a communicative capacity, the drumbeats inform others of Faye's untimely death, and summon them to attend the initial funerary proceedings. In this passage, the somber drumbeats convey expressive and symbolic dimensions as well, resonantly accentuating the immense sadness of Faye's tragic murder and signaling his passage from life into death with vibrant rhythms and tones, both solemn and celebratory.
Similarly, in The Suns of Independence, Kourouma describes an instance where drums and drum languages are used to transmit important information from village to village, transmitting the news of an unexpected death to nearby villages. At the moment of the féticheur (a spiritual healer in animist traditions) Balla's death, the sounds of drums travel from one location to another, filling the air with the unfortunate news: “Alors le tam-tam frappa, frappa dans tout Togobala, et les rivières, les forêts et les montagnes, d'écho en écho roulèrent la nouvelle jusqu'à des villages où d'autres tam-tams battirent pour avertir d'autres villages plus lointains” (Soleils, 179). (Then the tam-tam struck, struck in all of Togobala, and the rivers, the forests and the mountains, from echo to echo rolled the news as far as villages where other tam-tams beat to inform other more faraway villages.) Conveying the motion of the transcultural and the resonance of the transpoetic, the sonorities of drumbeats keep distant neighbors in touch with one another in Kourouma's fictionalized Togobala region, allowing them to stay informed about significant events and occurrences. In characterizing the chain of information transmission, Kourouma emphasizes the verb frappa and the noun écho through the repetitions frappa, frappa and d'écho en écho. The stylistic process of repetition serves to reinforce the resonant qualities of the tam-tams as well as the repercussion required to communicate messages from neighboring communities to faraway villages. In this respect, as drummers receive and resend drummed messages, the news spreads from one location to the next. As initiated listeners interpret and react to the rhythmic information, drummers work to pass along news of the unfortunate turn of events, in this instance, alerting friends, family members, and concerned citizens about Balla's untimely death.
In the passage that immediately follows, Kourouma indicates a sense of comprehension in a manner that reinforces a local sense of collectivity and intelligibility: “Tout le Horodougou poussa un grand ‘Ah!’ de surprise” (179–80) (All of the Horodougou let out a great “Ah!” of surprise). Preferring traditional modes of communication to technologies imported by French colonizers, habitants of the Horodougou—the region home to Fama's native village—are all familiar with the language of the drum. Clear and concise, the drum's message leaves no room for confusion. As drumbeats resonate throughout the countryside, the thunderous echoes are instantly received and recognized by Horodougou locals. Relatively untainted by the North/West and Northern/Western influences, Kourouma's Horodougou embodies the ideals and traditions of precolonial West African societies, providing a sharp and perhaps idealized contrast to the city where Fama and Salimata reside. Although drums and drumming continue to play important roles in Kourouma's portrayal of city life, their functions tend to be ceremonial or festive in nature rather than communicative. In this capacity, it is doubtful that drum languages would produce a similar effect in the urban zones Kourouma describes.
In God's Bits of Wood and in Guelwaar, Sembene portrays rhythmic echo effects similar to those he presents in Ô pays, Mon beau peuple! and those Kourouma describes in The Suns of Independence using alternative percussive devices—namely mortars and pestles. Affirming the resonance and power of the rhythms generated by women working, Sembene explicitly portrays the sonorities of their daily efforts. While, in Guelwaar, Sembene relies on onomatopoeic strategies in characterizing “la cadence des ‘Kak! Kak! Kak! de la coque cassée [qui] rythmait le travail” (Guelwaar, 87) (the cadence of the ‘Kak! Kak! Kak! of the broken shell [that] gave rhythm to the work), in God's Bits of Wood he employs alternative rhythmico-musical strategies. In doing so, Sembene establishes connections between the intricate communiqués transmitted by drumbeats and the complex rhythmic exchanges created by the sounds of pestles clacking against mortars. In one passage, Sembene evokes what he refers to as le chant des pilons (the song of the pestles) in describing the sonorities produced by women crushing grain, providing a poignant illustration of this phenomenon:
Aux temps anciens, avant même que l'étoile du matin eût disparu dans les premières lueurs de l'aube, commençait le chant des pilons. De cour en cour, les pileuses se renvoyaient le bruit léger du martèlement incessant de leurs pilons et ces bruits semblaient cascader dans l'air bleuté comme le fait le chant des ruisseaux qui folâtrent entre les grosses racines, le long des murs des maisons ou au bord des chemins. Au coup sec d'un pilon heurtant le rebord du mortier répondait un autre coup. Ainsi se saluaient les travailleuses du matin en un dialogue qu'elles seules comprenaient. Ces échos répétés qui annonçaient la naissance du jour présageaient une heureuse journée. Ils avaient à la fois un sens et une fonction. (158)
[In ancient times, even before the star of morning disappeared in the first light of dawn, the song of the pestles began. From courtyard to courtyard, the pestlers echoed the light noise of the incessant hammering of their pestles to each other and these noises seemed to cascade in the bluish air like the song of the streams that frolic between big roots, along the walls of houses or along paths. At the dry rap of a pestle striking the rim of the mortar, another rap responded. In this way, the morning workers greeted each other in a dialogue that only they understood. These repeated echoes that announced the birth of the day predicted a happy day. They had a simultaneous meaning and a function.]
In characterizing the song of the pestles, Sembene insists on the communicative capacities of the clicks and clacks produced as the pestles strike the mortars again and again. Through the use of the verb répondre and the noun dialogue, Sembene reinforces the communicative qualities of the interwoven rhythms, explaining that, as they work, the pileuses (pestlers) greet one another and speak to each other in a rhythmic language only they understand. Although the uninitiated ears of the non-pileuses may fail to understand the meaning of the messages produced through the intricate patterns of clicks and clacks, the rhythms and gestures of the women working are not devoid of meaning. Although denied the precise significations of the song of the pestle's nuanced particularities, to the uninitiated ears of the rest of the community, the loquacious rhythms of pestles against mortars announce the start of a beautiful and bountiful day.
Harmonious in form and in function, the rhythmic song of the pestles exhibits both the communicative and expressive qualities of instrumental language. Performed each morning by the women of the village, the incessant chattering rhythms of pestles striking mortars signal a new and prosperous day. When silenced, the absence of such promising quotidian rhythms can communicate just as much as their presence. Reaffirming the notion that the mortar has a language of its own, Sembene describes the chilling effect of silent mornings devoid of the clickings and clackings of the song of the pestles as the workers and their families suffer the hardships of the strike: “Les moulins ont leur langage qu'ils soient à vent ou à eau; le mortier aussi a le sien…. Mais maintenant le mortier est silencieux et les arbres tristes n'annoncent plus que de sombres journées” (158). (The mills have their language, whether they are wind or water; the mortar also has its own…But now the mortar is silent and the sad trees no longer announce anything but dark days.)
This passage is significant in that Sembene affirms that the ways in which the rhythmic sonorities of men and women working operate much like drum languages do in West African cultural contexts. In characterizing the absence of the song of the pestles, Sembene also evokes the absence of the song of the mills, both of whose silences signal just as much as their sonorities would. With food in short supply due to a long and difficult workers’ strike, the song of the pestles no longer greets the villagers each morning. Silenced, the familiar audible signal of promise and good fortune now communicates through its absence, announcing the arrival of yet another day filled with hunger, frustration, and disappointment.
Rhythm and Transformation
Whether prominently present, filling receptive ears with vivid sonorities, or noticeably absent, leaving expectant listeners feeling empty, percussive rhythms fulfill a variety of ceremonial and symbolic capacities in The Suns of Independence and God's Bits of Wood, often acting as signals of change or transformation. These rhythms, repeatedly conveyed through the beating of tam-tams and other instruments, often serve as audible signposts, designating significant shifts in a novel's plot or in a character's development. In God's Bits of Wood, for example, Sembene repeatedly references the signaling power of tam-tams and culturally specific rhythmic patterns as a means of foreshadowing dramatic shifts in the story.
In God's Bits of Wood, Sembene uses one rhythm in particular, the bara, as a rhythmic frame for the workers’ strike, connecting its angst-ridden onset, its arduous progression, and its fortunate conclusion with the bara's omnipresent rhythms. Serving as the pulse of the strike, the constant drumbeats of the bara are audibly present during moments of turmoil, conflict, and confusion. At other times, the persistent rhythms go unrecognized, just as the automatic beating of the heart inside of one's own body sometimes does. Acting much like a collective heartbeat, slowing in moments of calm and quickening in moments of calamity, the baras' rhythms effectively fuel the intensity of the strike, inspiring the workers and their families to persevere in spite of the immense difficulties they endure.
In its initial evocation, on the eve of the workers’ strike, the sound of the tam-tam, transmitting the rhythms of the bara, interrupts the silence of night: “Soudain, très lointain, le bruit du tam-tam creva la nuit, c'était le rythme d'un bara” (28). (Suddenly, very far-off, the noise of the tam-tam burst the night, it was the rhythm of a bara.) As the familiar rhythms of the bara resonate on the eve of the strike, villagers wait in nervous anticipation. Much like a heart beating louder and faster in a heightened emotional state, the incessant rhythms of the bara ominously resonate, amplifying the sense of foreboding during the tense moments before the strike. Ubiquitous, the bara and its rhythms are inescapable. As the drumbeats persist, announcing inevitable conflict and change, villagers are filled with a sense of expectation tinged with worry. In response to the sounding cues of the bara, the workers and their families anxiously prepare for and wonder about the troubles the next day will bring:
Sur le seuil de chaque demeure, on écoutait craintivement le bara. La nuit s'était enfoncée tout autour de la cité soudanaise, mais le martèlement sonore semblait maintenant venir de partout à la fois; il tournait, tournait, et tournait aussi dans les têtes à qui le sommeil se refusait. (30–31)
[On the threshold of each residence, they timorously listened to the bara. The night had fallen all around the Sudanese town, but the resonant hammering now seemed to come from everywhere at once, it turned, turned, and turned also in the heads of those that sleep denied.]
Unable to sleep on the eve of the strike, the villagers recognize the incessant beating drums as an audible signal of change. Repeatedly resonant, the rhythms continue throughout the night, stirring the villagers from their sleep, preparing them for the conflict and uncertainty of the strike. As the drums ring out, rolling the rhythms of the bara throughout the region, the workers and their families understand that the decision to initiate the strike has been made. As the drums signal inevitable change, the inhabitants of the region realize the finality of the situation; there is no turning back.
As the railway workers’ strike wears on, the bara becomes an all-too-familiar reminder of the difficult and painful process of transformation. Day after day, hungry and weary women, fighting to feed their families in spite of food shortages and an unstable water supply, abandon themselves to the rhythms of the bara, managing to find momentary solace and escape in the music: “Elles déambulaient dans les rues, s'abandonnant gracieusement au rythme des baras que l'on entendait à chaque carrefour” (126). (They wandered about the streets, graciously abandoning themselves to the rhythm of the baras that they heard at every intersection.) Momentarily defying the suffering and sadness brought about by the strike, the women lose themselves in the power of the music that has become the rallying cry of the striking workers. As powerful as it is ever-present, the bara sustains the women and their families. Its rhythms, familiar like heartbeats, reassure and fortify the women despite their sinking spirits in the face of immense hardship. As the women allow their bodies to be transported by the powerful rhythms of the bara, they solidify their commitment to the strike and to each other. United by the cadence of a rhythmic anthem, the women and their families stand committed to the pursuit of social change.
An important rallying cadence, the rhythm of the bara is a constant presence in God's Bits of Wood and, as such, prominently resurfaces near the end of the text. Once again serving as a meaningful signal of change, its familiar drumbeats ultimately announce the end of the railway workers’ strike in Bamako. After months of hunger, hardship, and endless suffering, the bara rhythmically proclaims the success of the strike to the residents of Bamako and the surrounding areas. Like a pulse quickening with intense joy and excitement, the rhythms of the bara fill the workers and their families with a heightened sense of elation. In the town square, the families, united by a common cause and a familiar rhythm, share in an exuberant celebration resplendent with the sounds of music and dancing (368).
In God's Bits of Wood, the bara is not the only rhythm that inspires the striking workers and their families to continue with their struggle. Since Sembene limits the bara to his descriptions of striking families in Mali, he designates an alternative series of rhythms in framing the plight of striking families in Senegal. In this respect, Sembene constructs two parallel frames, bridging the distance between strike sites in Mali and Senegal with the power of music, but distinguishing them with different audible signals. Along with the repeated representations of the rhythms of tamtams, Sembene portrays the vivid sonorities of vocal music, the persistent rhythms of drumbeats, and the cacophonic sounds of countless marching footsteps on the path from Thiès to Dakar as a means of signaling plot shifts occurring in Senegal. Much like the familiar cadence of the bara, these audible cues act as signals of transformation, foreshadowing significant conflicts and changes in the plot of the novel.
Beginning in Thiès and ending in Dakar, the women's march, filled with the multiple resonances of footsteps, drumbeats, and singing, designates an important sonorous turning point in the storyline. The significance of the march is accentuated through the prominent incorporation of rhythmic and musical elements in Sembene's narration. From the onset, the march combines elements of harmony and cacophony, as the women join their voices in song while noisily clambering to assemble their ranks. Initiated by a call-and-response of hundreds of echoes, the women's march commences with a polyphonic, polyrhythmic mélange of voices and footsteps. “Nous partons, nous partons! cria Penda. Comme autant d'échos, des centaines de voix lui répondirent: ‘Nous partons, nous partons, partons, partons, partons, partons…‘” (292). (Off we go, off we go! shouted Penda. Like so many echoes, hundreds of voices responded: “Off we go, off we go, [let's] go, [let's] go, [let's] go, [let's] go…) In narrating the start of the women's march, Sembene effectively employs repetition to represent the echo effect produced by the marching women's voices. After Penda issues the call, “Nous partons, nous partons!” hundreds of women reply with an identical response “Nous partons, nous partons.” Then, to accentuate the echo effect produced by the marchers’ voices, Sembene drops the “nous,” repeating the final part of the phrase “partons, partons, partons, partons.”
As the women embark on the long and difficult journey on foot from Thiès to Dakar, the rhythms of drumbeats intermingle with the sonorities of singing voices and marching footsteps. Providing the pulse of the march, the rhythms of multiple drumbeats sustain the women in spite of thirst, hunger, pain, and fatigue. As with the drummed rhythms of the bara that announce the beginning of the strike in Bamako and support the families throughout their hardships and struggles, the footsteps, drumbeats, and songs of the women's march resonantly nurture the marchers and provide meaningful audible cues to readers and listeners. Like with the bara, in describing the women's march, Sembene prominently features the sonorities of rhythm and music as a means of signaling an important turning point in the novel, particularly as the strike is about to draw to a successful close.
Throughout the text, Sembene summons a multiplicity of female voices united in song and in strife, but, at other moments, a solitary voice resonates. It is the voice of Maïmouna, a blind woman and young mother of twins, singing her “Legend of Goumba N'Diaye.” The story of powerful woman who challenges her suitors to complete various feats of strength and endurance better than she, the “Legend of Goumba N'Diaye” is introduced at the beginning of the strike in Thiès. As violence breaks out around her in the marketplace with soldiers and civilians engaged in a lopsided battle, Maïmouna's plaintive voice breaks through the surrounding chaos. Amidst great turmoil, injury, and death, Maïmouna sings, covering over the dismal scene with her music: “Au milieu de cette foule soudain silencieuse, seule la voix de Maïmouna semblait vivante. Elle couvrait le bruit des souliers cloutés et le piétinement des pieds nus” (47). (In the middle of this suddenly silent crowd, only the voice of Maïmouna seemed alive. She covered the noises of the studded shoes and the trampling of bare feet.) As she continues, an ironic turn of events transpires when one of her twin infant sons is killed in the upheaval. At this moment, the voice of Maïmouna, a woman who usually sings “pour glorifier la vie” (48) (to glorify life) is silenced: “Maïmouna ne chantait plus” (49) (Maïmouna no longer sang).
Her song unfinished, Maïmouna's voice fades away into obscurity, as the sounds of struggle and strife take over. Unlike the bara, whose sonorities persistently resonate throughout the conflict, Maïmouna's song is silenced after the violent episode in the marketplace of Thiès, only to be heard again on the final page of the text. Throughout the strike, Maïmouna is immersed in a state of sadness and confusion, perpetuated by the long and difficult strike and the tragic loss of her infant son. Silenced by the traumatic events, she rarely speaks and never sings until the strike draws to a close. It is not until the citizens of Thiès initiate the return to normalcy in the aftermath of the strike that Maïmouna's voice rings out once again, singing the conclusion of the “Legend of Goumba N'Diaye.” As she sings, Maïmouna describes how Goumba succeeds in defeating her challengers after fighting for days on end. The final line of the song, which also serves as the final line of the novel, reveals the secret to Goumba's ultimate success as well as that of the striking workers: “Heureux est celui qui combat sans haine” (379) (Happy is s/he who fights without hate).
Used to signal the violent onset of the strike and, later, its dramatic conclusion, Maïmouna's song resonantly frames the events of the workers’ strike in Thiès. Since the text of her song is presented in italic print and offset by blank spaces from the blocks of narrative, Maïmouna's “Legend of Goumba N'Diaye” provides a visual frame as well. Functioning much like the rhythmic bara, her unaccompanied voice serves as a powerful sign of transformation. Nevertheless, unlike the bara, whose resonant drumbeats are easily recognized by striking workers and their families, filling their heads and hearts with anticipation and worry, the underlying meaning of Maïmouna's song goes unnoticed by the novel's characters. Devoid of musical notation or other audible indicators as transcribed in the space of the text, the power of her song rests its lyrics. Inextricably bound to the authority of language, Maïmouna's song is meaningful to the reader primarily because of its words, not because of its musicality, since generally, in the frame of the text, the lexical stylings of vocal music tend to supersede other aesthetic criteria. On the other hand, the bara, free from the trappings of language, necessitates an intuitive interpretive approach rather than a lexical or stylistic interpretive strategy. In this respect, the rhythms of the bara transmit a vast domain of possibility without words, one that operates both inside and outside the space of the text.
In The Suns of Independence, the rhythms of drumbeats are prominently incorporated into the text, also serving as important signals of transformation. Nevertheless, unlike Sembene, who utilizes resonant drumbeats as a means of foreshadowing considerable changes in the plotline, Kourouma elicits the sounds of drums in order to forecast significant shifts in character development. Typically included in traditional rites of passage, ceremonies that mark the social and physical transitions from one stage of life into another (e.g., life into death, childhood into adulthood), the cadences of tam-tams are resonantly present in festive social transformation rituals.
When presented in print, such potent drummed rhythms grant access to infinite realms of possibility. Communicating the unsayable with sounds and sensations, the percussive sonorities of drums reveal things that can only be perceived and experienced. This aspect is particularly important in considering the drum's role in traditional rites of passage in The Suns of Independence. Displaying the drum in its ritual capacity, Kourouma evokes the rhythms of drumbeats in describing the rite of excision,5 explicitly representing the instrument through the use of the word “tamtam” in his description of the procedure and surrounding festivities. In the scene Kourouma describes, rhythm and music comprise inextricable and meaningful components throughout the traditional yet controversial social ritual observed to symbolize a woman's purificatory passage from girlhood to adulthood in many Malinké communities. As the group of girls completes the ritual components of their social metamorphosis that precede and follow the secretive cutting ceremony, the drums are not merely heard, they are felt throughout the body by participants and spectators alike, much like a heartbeat. Intermittently beating like nervous or excited hearts, drumbeats are instrumental in heightening the anticipatory ambiance preceding official recognition of the rite's completion. Omnipresent, the intricate rhythms intensify the social transformation process, solidifying the ties that connect the new initiates to each other and with the local community at large.
An equally important component of the ensuing celebration, the drums’ rhythms heighten the festive exuberance of the occasion. Ensuring the successful completion of the rite of passage, the drummed rhythms applaud the success of the new initiates. Percussively proclaiming their accomplishment to everyone in earshot, the tam-tams publicly congratulate the initiates, signaling the success of their transformation from girlhood to womanhood. Socially significant in traditional ritual practices, the sounding of the tam-tam in celebration of the fait accompli is boldly optimistic, foreseeing good fortune for initiates and participants in the face of future obstacles and adversity.
Nevertheless, when absent, the silent tam-tams communicate as powerfully as their audible counterparts with respect to traditional social rites of passage. Devoid of the promise suggested by the drummed rhythms, in silent settings, failure and misfortune loom on the horizon. Whether attributable to the power of drums or the power of traditional beliefs, the rhythmic influence of tam-tams is undeniable in The Suns of Independence. For Salimata, the victim of a botched excision, the silence of the tam-tams speaks volumes. As she awakens in the field where the ritual excisions took place, she realizes, much to her horror, that the parade of new initiates has left without her:
Le cortège était parti! bien parti. C'est-à-dire que le retour des excisées avait été fêté sans Salimata. Ah! le retour, mais il faut le savoir, c'était la plus belle phase de l'excision. Les tam-tams, les chants, les joies et tout le village se ruant à la rencontre des filles excisées jouant les rondelles de calebasses. Salimata n'a pas vécu le retour triomphal au village dont elle avait tant rêvé. (Soleils, 37–38)
[The procession was gone! long gone. That is to say that the return of the excised girls had been celebrated without Salimata. Ah! the return, but one must know, it was the most beautiful phase of the excision. The tam-tams, the songs, the joys and all of the village rushing to meet the excised girls playing pieces of calabashes. Salimata had not lived the triumphant return to the village of which she had so often dreamed.]
Isolated from the other initiates, Salimata misses out on an important part of the social ritual marking her passage from childhood to adulthood—the ensuing collective celebration with the other initiates, members of her family, and the local community. Although she is later able to join the other girls in completing the healing and instructive portions of the ritual, for Salimata, the damage has already been done. Her rite of passage unsung, Salimata is relegated to a realm of foreboding and uncomfortable silences far from the jubilant applauding tam-tams that celebrate the successes of the other girls in the distance. Denied the rhythm, energy, and power of drumbeats, Salimata's social transition remains markedly incomplete.
For Salimata, the failed rite of passage commences a cycle of misfortune, marking the first of an unfortunate series of events. While recovering from the excision procedure in the hut of the village féticheur, or animist spiritual healer, Salimata is raped. The brutal attack mars her physically and psychologically, as she later encounters great difficulties in attaining intimacy with men and in conceiving a child. Salimata's initial problems, foreshadowed by the silence of the tam-tams during her unsuccessful social transition from girlhood to adulthood, are reinforced during a second important ritual, her first marriage. Once again, unheard tam-tams play an important role in forecasting Salimata's future unhappiness:
Salimata, transie de frayeurs, fut apportée un soir à son fiancé avec tam-tams et chants. La lune jaune regardait dans les nuages, les réjouissances des noces chauffaient et secouaient le village et la forêt; sa maman tremblait et pleurait, Salimata ne voyait et n'entendait rien, la peur seule l'occupait. (41)
[Salimata, paralyzed with fear, was brought one evening to her fiancé with tam-tams and songs. The yellow moon watched in the clouds, the wedding celebrations warmed and shook the village and the forest, her mother was trembling and crying, Salimata saw and heard nothing, only fear occupied her.]
As Salimata is led to her fiancé, she is so consumed with fear that she is numb to the sounds, sights, and sensations of the wedding ritual. Although the swirling sounds of tam-tams and vocal music accompany the procession, Salimata hears nothing and sees nothing, denying the purported power of the rhythms. As the resonant vibrations of tam-tams fall on her inattentive ears and unresponsive body, Salimata unwittingly refuses their rhythmic promises of good fortune. As a result, her first marriage to a cruel and unyielding man ends in tragedy, and her second marriage, equally unbearable, ends in a perilous escape. Impacting Salimata through silence rather than sound, the tam-tams serve as important rhythmic signals in The Suns of Independence, predicting significant downward shifts in her character development. Through her misfortune and refusal to acknowledge and experience the rhythms of ritual and celebration, Salimata unwittingly isolates herself from the local community. Whether intentionally or unwittingly, by defying the values of tradition and collectivity, Salimata ultimately divorces herself from her African past. This leaves her to face an uncertain and conflicted future in the post-independence era.
In Kourouma et le mythe: Une lecture de Les soleils des indépendances (Kourouma and the Myth: A Reading of The Suns of Independence), Pius Ngandu Nkashama describes a similar phenomenon in his discussion of Salimata's third husband, Fama. Focusing on the power of myth, rather than that of music, Ngandu Nkashama explains how Fama develops a “disarticulated conscience,” separating himself from the community at large through his denial of the authority of myths. Effectuating a “total rupture” with collectively recognized and celebrated myths, Fama is compelled to generate new myths. In doing so, “il se tourne vers son propre mythe, il devient a lui-même le héros rédempteur de son propre rêve” (Ngandu Nkashama 1985, 192–93) (he turns toward his own myth, he becomes the redeeming hero of his own dream), as a means of coping with the harsh realities of his existence.
Ngandu Nkashama's observations about the role of myth translate well in considering the roles of rhythm and music in The Suns of Independence. Just as Fama attempts to fill the void left by the absence of myth with his own visions, without the sustaining power of collective rhythms, Salimata draws strength from alternative sonorities, many of which she generates while clicking pestle against mortar. Using her pestle and mortar much like a dynamic percussive instrument as she works, Salimata achieves the expressive capacity of drummers playing tam-tams. Capable of representing a vast spectrum of emotions through the repeated resonant clicks, at times, Salimata communicates her frustration and anger “comme un tam-tam de malheur” (Soleils, 56) (like a tam-tam of misfortune). At other times, when expressing her joy and contentment, Salimata is described as having an “air de tam-tam” (184) (a tam-tam air). Although she is unable to reconcile herself with the music of her past (or more precisely, the lack thereof) in dealing with her botched excision and failed marriages, Salimata rediscovers the power and pleasure of rhythmic music, forging an alternative relationship with it. Much like Fama becomes myth through his refusal of it, Salimata comes to embody rhythm after turning away from it.
Often resplendent and joyful, the sonorities of multiple tam-tams are also incorporated into scenes of collective celebration in The Suns of Independence. In several prominent examples, the rhythms of drumbeats are audibly present during funerals (196), festivals in praise of hunters (123) and as Fama is released from prison (172). In one such example, Kourouma combines the rhythmic components of funerary rituals and prehunting festivities. As Kourouma recounts the events surrounding Fama's father's funeral proceedings, he demonstrates the importance of rhythmic phenomena, as villagers incorporate the multiple cadences of drumbeats, dance steps, and gunfire to simultaneously commemorate the noble life of a fallen hero and to honor the brave exploits of local hunters.
Un exemple: l'exploit triomphant lors des funérailles du père de Fama. Empressons-nous de le conter.
Donc le tam-tam tourbillonnait. Vint le tour de danse des chasseurs. Il y avait tous les chasseurs du Horodougou, des chasseurs de toute carapace, de toute corne, même des chasseurs ayant à leur actif sept tigres. Les fusillades ébranlaient les murs et le sol, la fumée donnait comme un incendie. On promettait tout: le tigre, le lion, l'éléphant, mais à terme…C'est à dire à l'harmattan prochain, à l'hivernage prochain. Balla sauta dans le cercle de danse, croisa un entrechat, alluma la poudre entassé dans le canon. Cette poudre était haute de quatre doigts joints. Et le boum! Balla demanda à toutes les femmes du village d'installer les canaris de sauce sur les foyers et disparut dans la brousse. (123–24)
[An example: the triumphant exploit during Fama's father's funeral proceedings. Let's gather around to tell it.
So the tam-tam swirled. Then came the dance of the hunters. There were all of the hunters from the Horodougou, hunters of every shell, of every horn, even hunters having seven tigers in their favor. Gunfire shook the walls and the ground, smoke issued like in a fire. They promised everything: tiger, lion, elephant, but in time…That is to say in the next harmattan or the next hivernage. Balla jumped in the dance circle, skipped across, lit the powder packed in the gun. This powder was four fingers high. And the boom! Balla asked all the women in the village to put sauce in the canari pots on the fire and disappeared into the brush.]
Presented in the frame of the novel, Kourouma introduces the dual rhythmically mediated funerary rites and hunting festivities much like a traditional storyteller would. Through his use of the first-person plural imperative form empressons-nous, Kourouma incorporates lyrical stylistic devices as a means of further implicating the reader in the narrative process. Moreover, as Kourouma makes the transition from a first-person to a third-person narrative perspective, he immediately evokes the figure of the tam-tam, which serves as a point of correspondence that not only connects the funerary ritual and the hunting celebration, but that also provides a rhythmic interface relating orality and writing. As the tam-tams ring out, the sonorities of lively dance steps and ceremonial gunshots follow suit, adding layers of rhythmic sonority to the collaborative percussive performance piece. The overlapping rhythms increase in volume and complexity, building up to a resonant zenith accentuated by the impressive boom of Balla's gunshot, heightening levels of anticipation and excitement as the men prepare their hunt in honor of Fama's deceased father.
In a later passage, Kourouma's rendering of Fama's liberation combines multiple layers of sonorous elements, much like his portrayal of the dance of the hunters. The festive sensorial ambiance of the events succeeding his release—a jubilant swirl of vibrant sights, sounds, and sensations—is particularly striking in that it sharply contrasts the dim and silent squalor of the prison cell where Fama existed for years in a state of constant hopelessness and desperation. On the day of his release, as the president delivers a speech commemorating the liberation of Fama and his fellow political prisoners, the entire region is abuzz with the sounds of celebratory drumbeats punctuated by joyful shouts and applause from members of the crowd:
Le président se fit présenter ensuite à tous les libérés. Il les embrassa l'un après l'autre et remit à chacun une épaisse liasse de billets de banque. Évidemment chaque embrassade était saluée par des cris, des applaudissements et des tam-tams. Puis le programme de la fête et de la réconciliation fut annoncée: ‘Ce sera dans la capitale que la fête battra son plein.’ (175)
[The president was then presented to all of the liberated. He hugged them one after another and gave each of them a thick bundle of banknotes. Of course each hug was greeted with shouts, applause and tam-tams. Then the plan for celebration and reconciliation was announced: “The celebration will beat its fill.”]
As the president congratulates Fama and his fellow detainees in a public display of generosity and affection, the tam-tam acclaims the fortunate event. Providing a sounding base for the applause and cheers of crowd members, the rhythms of tam-tams accentuate the public's excitement and elation during the president's speech. At the close of the event, the noisy tam-tams resonantly transport the celebration from the site of the public gathering, expanding the festivities to the public spaces of the city, as local citizens are invited to participate in a citywide celebration. In doing so, Kourouma insists on the resonant percussive dimensions of the festivities, connecting the sonorities of celebratory heartbeats, drumbeats, and dance steps.
Ordinary and Extraordinary Rhythms
In both The Suns of Independence and God's Bits of Wood, the rhythms of instrumental music play an important role in shaping the lives and destinies of each novel's characters. Serving much like heartbeats and serving as the pulses of the texts, these rhythms also indicate significant shifts in the plotlines, forecasting fortune and misfortune, celebration and suffering. Repeatedly interwoven into the frame of the text, the sounds of drumbeats resonate from a variety of sources and locations. Accompanying the music and noises of quotidian life and underlying the rhythms of working and walking, drums and other rhythmic devices fill the novels with intricate layers of vibrant polyphony.
In God's Bits of Wood, the power of rhythm is manifest not merely in its traditional, communicative, evocative, and ceremonial capacities, but also in its everydayness. In drawing parallels between the rhythms of drums and those of people working, dancing, singing, and walking, Sembene accords ordinary objects and activities with extraordinary capacities. In one passage, pestles, the domestic instruments and percussive devices used by women to transmit the daily “songs of the pestles” as they prepare their meals, are employed as weapons to fight against colonial authorities (251). Tam-tams are also taken up as arms against the oppressive regime, although, as weapons, they are employed in a nonviolent capacity. Near the close of the novel, Lahbib commands his striking cohorts to “allez cher-cher les tam-tams et chantez” (376) (go find the tam-tams and sing), as a means of resisting the soldiers stationed in the city. Effective in creating a peaceful yet defiant ambiance, the tam-tams are successful in “mettant les nerfs à dure épreuve” (377) (really putting the nerves to the test), without inciting further violence.
In attributing extraordinary potential to commonplace sonorities, Sembene also evokes the sounds of footsteps, portraying the epic women's march as an important rhythmic event leading to the resolution of the workers’ strike. Presenting the variable cacophonic cadences of countless marching footsteps and dissonant shouting and singing voices, Sembene describes the effect produced by the sounds of the unlikely parade as the women descend upon the city of Dakar:
Les ‘marcheuses’ arrivèrent par le faubourg de Hann et le pont qui est à l'entrée de la ville…On entendait le bruit de cette foule presque sur les quais lointains: piétinements des sandales, martèlement des talons, grelots des bicyclettes, grincements des essieux de charrettes, cris, appels, chants, plaintes des éclopés, bégaiements des mendiants, coups de sifflets des policiers, un dôme bruyant semblait couvrir la cité tout entière. (325–26)
[The “marcheuses” arrived by way of the Hann working-class area and the bridge that is at the entrance of the city…The noise of this crowd was heard almost on the faraway banks: shuffling of sandals, hammering of heels, bells on bicycles, creaking of axles on carts, shouts, calls, songs, moans of the walking wounded, stutters of beggars, police whistle peals, a noisy dome seemed to completely cover the entire city.]
In describing the sounds of the women's march, Sembene creates a whirlwind of vibrant sonorities that both surround and imbue on-site listeners, causing them to feel enclosed within a “noisy dome” that “seem[s] to completely cover the entire city.” Achieving the power and overall effect of persistent pulsing tam-tams, the noisy and variable cadence of the women's footsteps and chants serve not only to intensify the situation and signal imminent change, but to also implicate random passersby and bystanders in the process. Although the police respond by blowing their whistles antagonistically, adding yet another layer to the women's noisy arrival in Dakar, many of the residents of the Hann working-class area applaud the women, showing their resounding solidarity through shouts, handclaps, dances, and cheers.
Similarly, throughout The Suns of Independence, Kourouma evokes the multifaceted allegory of the tam-tam, likening everyday sounds and experiences to those generated by the captivating rhythms of drumming. Connecting their sounds and silences with sights, smells, and sensations, Kourouma presents drums in a way that goes beyond their capacities as musical instruments, communicative devices, and emblems of West African tradition. For Kourouma, the experience of tam-tams and their rhythms penetrates into all areas of life. Even in describing the cacophony of a bustling marketplace, Kourouma represents rhythm in a multisensorial dimension in a manner that approaches what Lefebvre describes as “la temporalité vécue” (Lefebvre 1992, 33) (lived temporality). Eliciting a vociferous spiral of sensorial imagery, Kourouma fills the entire body—the eyes, the ears and the nostrils—with the experience of the market:
Le marché! D'abord un vrombissement sourd qui pénétra dans tout le corps et le fit vibrer, le vent soufflant la puanteur. Puis une rangée de bougainvillées et le marché dans tous ses grouillements, vacarmes et mille éclats. Comme dans un tam-tam de fête, tout frétillait et tournoyait, le braillement des voitures qui viraient, les appels et les cris des marchands qui s'égosillaient et gesticulaient comme des frondeurs. Les acheteuses, les ménagères, les sollicitées partaient, revenaient, se courbaient, sourdes aux appels, placides. Les toits des hangars accro-chés les uns aux autres multipliaient, modelaient et gonflaient tout ce vacarme d'essaim d'abeilles, d'où cette impression d'être enfermé, d'être couvert comme un poussin sous une calebasse qu'on battrait. (Soleils, 54)
[The market! First a deaf roar that penetrated the entire body and made it quiver, the wind blowing the stench. Then a row of bougainvillea and the market in all of its swarmings, rackets, and thousand bursts. Like in a celebration tam-tam, everything wriggled and swirled around, the groaning of shifting cars, the calls and the cries of the merchants who yelled at the top of their lungs and gesticulated like troublemakers. Buyers, housewives, the solicited parties left, came back, bent down, deaf to the calls, placid. The roofs of the stalls hanging one on top of the other multiplied, shaped and blew up this whole beehive noise from which this impression of being enclosed, of being covered like a chick beneath a calabash that one would beat.]
In portraying the chaos of the marketplace, Kourouma draws upon the power of the tam-tam in two distinct manners, approaching the rhythmic vessel from both the outside and the inside. Comparing the sounds of the busy market to a “tam-tam de fête,” Kourouma creates a jubilantly festive ambiance filled with vibrant layers of sound and drummed rhythms. The percussive cadences surround market-goers, filling receptive ears and bodies with the energy of drumbeats to the extent that one feels inside of the drum, or in this instance, inside of a calabash that is being used like a drum. Kourouma repeatedly connects the tam-tam—a powerful expressive device—to the various emotional responses it elicits. While in the marketplace, he suggests a “tam-tam de fête,” in other passages, Kourouma presents an array of diverse situations and emotional responses. In one passage, he relates Salimata's admiration for her marabout (a wise and respected Muslim, often reputed to have magical powers) to “un tam-tam de joie” (69) (a tam-tam of joy), and, in another, he likens the names of forgotten villages to “des tam-tams de regrets” (100) (tam-tams of regrets).
In God's Bits of Wood and The Suns of Independence, Sembene and Kourouma masterfully incorporate the sonorities of rhythmic and musical phenomena into their respective texts. Through prominent texted representations of the rhythms of heartbeats, drumbeats, and dance steps, as well as the everyday sounds of singing, working, and music making, Sembene and Kourouma succeed in promoting local cultural conventions and aesthetic sensibilities while sounding off, as it were, as a means of creating alternative spaces for identity negotiation that lie beyond the confines of binary categorical constructs and Western hierarchical paradigms. As such, by transposing resonant rhythmic and musical elements within the frame of the francophone novel, Sembene and Kourouma create sounding texted spaces that inspire and ignite social activism and identity appropriation within and beyond the transpoetic transcultural space of the text. Resplendent with the freedom of multiple rhythms, musics, and possibilities, Sembene's and Kourouma's resonant texts have challenged, provoked, and motivated generations of thinkers, citizens, and activists, and will continue to do so for readers who enter the space of the text with perceptive eyes, receptive ears, listening hearts, and open minds.
1 For those interested in reading more about the five-year crisis situation in turnof-the-century Côte d'Ivoire, see Jacobleu's Au nom de ma patrie: Le peuple pris en otage (In My Country's Name: The People Held Hostage) and Tanella Boni's Matins de couvre-feu (Curfew Mornings).
2 Although this information is published in book form (see Leclerc 1992), the most up-to-date information is available on the Leclerc's Web site, Aménagement linguistique dans le monde, at http://www.tlfq.ulaval.ca/axl.
3 Chéchia and tirailleur are terms used to designate African soldiers who fought on the side of the French in military conflicts throughout French colonial history. In most cases, these soldiers and their families were not compensated with the same honor, recognition, salaries, and pensions as their French counterparts. Ousmane Sembene addresses the problematic legacy of these discrepancies and discriminations in many of his films and novels.
4 “Oh Country, My Beautiful People!” is a translation of the French title. The work has yet to be translated into English.
5 A controversial traditional practice, limited to certain ethnic groups, excision is a procedure through which part of or all of a girl's clitoris is removed. Like Kourouma, Sembene has criticized the procedure in his work, specifically in his 2004 film Moolaadé.