African 609: Global Black Music Circuits

Ron Radano

3 credits

Why do African popular styles so often resemble Cuban rumba?   When did German pops orchestras start favoring Argentine tango?  (Answer:  by the 1910s).   What brought about the world-wide appeal of US jazz in the 1950s?  How does kwaito music of Johannesburg embody neoliberal capitalism? And who can explain why the Filipino popular singer, Charice Pempengco, sounds so much like Whitney Houston?

These are some of the many questions we’ll be exploring as part of our study of global black music circuits:  the means by which diverse and disparate styles and forms connect, fracture, and connect again.  Taking a broad, historical view, the course will give attention to the various patterns of circulation that traced across the globe during the 20th and 21st centuries.  In doing so, we’ll be getting more acquainted with some of the main, commercial genres of black music—samba, isicathamiya, swing, juju, funk, jungle, to name a few—that have developed as part of an international popular sound.  And along the way, we’ll be considering many of the larger social and cultural themes and forces in which global black music circuits have developed:  race and empire; the legacies of colonialism and anticolonialism; US ideologies of Afrocentricity; capitalism and the commodity-form; the power of media technologies, including phonography, which brought “popular music” into material, exchangeable, circulating form.

The seminar will seek to balance between critical readings of seminal studies (such as LeRoi Jones, [aka Amiri Baraka] Blues People); individual listening exercises (such as tracing the “biography” of a commercial recording); and group projects in which students will explore an important collection of recordings (for example, the anthologies, “Black Europe” and the UW archive of Paramount records), website (e.g., South African Music Archive Project), or territory of thought (e.g., controversies surrounding the colonial invention of African rhythm).  We’ll also work to couple the necessity of developing historical knowledge with the likely class interest in contemporary music. The seminar will be right for those who enjoy music (no formal training is required), reading challenging material, and discussing/writing about thorny, unruly ideas.  A final assignment taking the form of a 10-12-page paper will be required.