In Listening for Africa: Freedom, Modernity, and the Logic of Black Music’s African Origins
(Duke University Press, 2017), David García reminds us that how culture is understood and interpreted not only reflects the political and social discourses of the day, but also shapes those discussions. Drawing on figures as diverse as academics like Melville Herskovitz, performers such as Duke Ellington, and those like dancer/anthropologist Katherine Dunham who filled multiple roles, García lays bare the ways that people in the Americas from the 1930s until the 1950s understood the African origins of black music and dance. He is particularly interested in how the discourse about African retentions in black diasporic culture intensified cultural, political, and social dichotomies: primal vs. civilized, science vs. magic, black vs. white, and most importantly, modernity vs. primitivity. García argues these concepts were defined in terms of each other through the discourse he analyzes, with the politically dominant groups reinforcing positive connotations with the ideas they identified with themselves. Proceeding in broadly chronological order, García begins with a critique of the intellectual foundations of the discipline that we now call ethnomusicology and explores how the approaches taken to African retentions in black music and dance by some of the field’s prominent figures were fundamentally influenced by scientific principles and Freudian psychology. Moving from academia to performance, García expands his argument by considering the rhetoric around black music and dance in the United States, the Caribbean, and Mexico as well as analyzing individual works and performances by Katherine Dunham, Asadata Dafora, Modupe Paris, Duke Ellington, and others. The book ends with a close reading of the cultural and political implications of the mambo, which was a transnational dance phenomenon in the early 1950s. Listening for Africa
provides a dense, theoretically rigorous accounting of how the forces that shaped the production and analysis of black music and dance in the mid twentieth century also reinforced political and cultural oppression.
David F. García
is an Associate Professor in Ethnomusicology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His research on black and Latin music in the United States has been published in MUSICultures, Journal of the Society for American Music
and other journals. His first monograph, Arsenio Rodríguez and the Transnational Flows of Latin Popular Music
received a Certificate of Merit from the Association for Recorded Sound Collections. He was awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship in 2014 and is also a Visiting Scholar at the Cristobal Díaz Ayala Collection of Cuban and Latin American Popular Music by the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.
Kristen M. Turner, Ph.D. is a lecturer at North Carolina State University in the music department. Her work centers on American musical culture at the turn of the twentieth century and has been published in several journals and essay collections.